Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
“Our Mission: Caring Fellowship”
Rev. Rod Debs
March 28, 2010
Story for All Ages “A Box of Crayons” by Randy Hammer (Everyone a Butterfly, 2004)
Why do adults tell you stories? Why do we send you to school?… Adults want you to be happy in your life, and stories teach you lessons that we adults think will help you be happy. There are a lot of things we think you need to learn to be happy, so that’s why we send you to school too.
This morning I have a Story in a Bag. There are lessons we can learn from thinking about… crayons. Here is a big container of all kinds of crayons—short and long, all colors. And here’s a new box of crayons.
I remember my first box of 48 new crayons. They were all lined up in perfect rows. They smelled so good. All different colors. None are short or broken yet. You can read their names on the wrapping, names like….
I would like you to pick out one of your favorite colors. What if all the crayons in this box were that color, your favorite color?… Even if … isn’t your favorite color, aren’t you glad that all the different colors are in the box?!
It’s the same with people. Do you have some favorite friends? What if everybody was exactly the same as your best friend. 48 people who look just the same as your best friend, who act exactly the same, and all of them have the same name. You couldn’t tell them apart. Like having all red crayons, 48 red crayons. It might be fun for a while, but after a while it would feel pretty weird, wouldn’t it? We like having different kinds of people in our world.
What if we just sat this box of new crayons on the table and just looked at them. They are beautiful, aren’t they? All the different colors. But that’s not what crayons are for, is it? Crayons are for coloring pictures. The variety of colors are important for us to color beautiful pictures. Even the crayons you don’t choose very often— it’s important that they’re there when you need them. It doesn’t matter if they are new and pretty crayons or if they are short and broken, it takes lots of colors working together to make a beautiful picture.
What we can learn from crayons is this: There are billions of different people in the world. It takes different kinds of people working together to create happy community and a happy world. All of us need to learn to appreciate our differences and to work together to create that beautiful picture.
Message Why do we come here? What are we doing together? For three Sunday messages I have been asking this question. In 2005, the Board’s appointed Discovery Team led us through group discussions to come up with drafts of a Mission Statement: Who are we? Why are we here? The draft, posted in the back received a lot of revisions, and after the Board also tweaked the wording, the Fellowship voted at a Congregational Meeting to adopt this Mission Statement:
“The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast (our name) is a religious community (the general type of organization) united by UU Principles (what distinguishes us) and committed to service, spiritual growth and caring fellowship.”
This is what we hashed out as a group to declare why we are here, what we’re doing here: together we’re committed to Service, Spiritual Growth and Caring Fellowship. This morning my focus is on Caring Fellowship. What does it feel like?
Starhawk described it this way: “Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” (in “Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, 1996)
Community is a place where we belong in the game, where we are recognized, recognized for who we are. From our childhood when we spent our days lost in a school full of kids our own age, through high school and advanced education, from the time we entered the work force or military to be another anonymous body to carry out orders, production orders, mission objectives, customer wishes, to consumer society where we are basically the invisible holder of a wallet or credit card and little more, we are lost in the masses. We are not recognized. We are not a person with stories, experiences, hopes and dreams, feelings and aspirations.
Where can we go to speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats fearing that others will be outraged and ostracize us? Where will hands open to receive us, eyes light up as we enter? Where will voices celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power? Where will we be somebody to somebody? This is our common human need to be recognized, to be embraced in Caring Fellowship.
Clubs offer limited fellowship based upon limited common interests. At the garden club, it’s understood that you will focus on plants and gardens. You understand and accept that the rest of your life is best largely left at the door and others do the same. You become recognized as a Master Gardener, the one who is interested in local wild flowers, or local vegetable varieties, or heritage plants. Please don’t go on and on about your politics or health issues or family weirdness or, heaven help us, your religious sentiments, please, no! It’s safer just to keep it to the wonders of plants and soil, blossoms and leaves. It is a garden club, after all, and we hope everyone with that interest will feel welcome!
Another club is the YMCA where some of us exercise, where in Niceville there are two UUs on the Advisory Board, where recently a mother and daughter got into an inappropriate language exchange about their cell phone. A staff member took the heat when she intervened. Clubs are not the place to work out family conflict. At the YMCA you will be recognized and recognize others for the kind of work-out you do. That’s great, but that is all the Y is able to address. Limited, focused Fellowship. Leave your baggage at the door.
There are also political clubs. Tea-party gatherings are in the news as well as new, coffee clubs for respectful conversation. Clubs have parameters of interest, often unspoken, but if you breach the boundaries of the common interest, you will be spoken to in no uncertain terms. The welcome and recognition is limited, conditional, focused, as it should be in a club. But Unitarian Universalist communities are more than clubs.
What distinguishes Unitarian Universalism in providing Caring Fellowship is that we covenant to affirm each individual’s “inherent worth and dignity” in all our diversity of backgrounds and personhood. We don’t ask you to leave some part of yourself at the door when you come among us. We are not just tolerant but “grateful” as our covenant declares: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and to expand our vision.” It is not easy for us to engage the endless variety of humanity that enters our doors. Each of us stretches and challenges one another to spiritual growth. Though it is not easy, we promise to each new member, “We are willing to be changed by your presence among us.”
What distinguishes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is also that we covenant to honor “the right of conscience” and the diverse perspectives on all aspects of life that everyone here represents. We promise our “mutual trust and support” without requiring that you leave your baggage at the door. Now, this is only a promise, a covenant aspiration, and sometimes one another’s mental health challenges or behavioral quirks or passionate political perspectives stretch us and bring out less than “mutual trust and support.” That’s when the Congregational Ministry Committee elders (currently Tiny, Fred, Lois, Brenda and myself) quietly check in with everyone and call us all back to our better selves. Our covenant affirms rather than rejects our humanity and calls us to behaviors that really display the promised “mutual trust and support.”
I really must praise civic groups and political action groups. They not only provide social opportunities (Caring Fellowship), but they also organize Service to the community. Given the broad range of political perspectives we promise to welcome—and really do try to welcome among us, there are those who are nervous when we speak about Service, our Social Justice work. They fear the potential for political controversy that comes with the agenda of service to our community and to humankind.
We are not a civic group with a specific focus for community service like the Kiwanis or Ruritan. We are not a political action group with a specific political agenda, left or right. We work hard to affirm and promote “the right of conscience” rather than to use this space to serve any exclusive political orientation. Our Covenant does commit us to affirm and promote “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” Only those who would exclude others from the benefits of community, exclude themselves from fellowship among us. Political controversy need not divide our Caring Fellowship, but rather, provide us opportunities for Spiritual Growth, learning to live our commitment to “mutual trust and support.” Learning, in the words of Francis David, that “We need not think alike to love alike.”
Edwin Markham articulated our UU covenant that welcomes diversity:
“He drew a circle that shut me out— / Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win; / We drew a circle that took him in.”
It is this very commitment not to exclude anyone from Caring Fellowship as clubs must with their limited focus, and not to exclude anyone from Service as civic and political groups do by their nature—it is our commitment to draw a circle that takes in one more, and another, and another, without exclusion that leads to Spiritual Growth in our congregations.
Our commitment not to be exclusive in our Caring Fellowship nor in our Service to the community, create challenges that lead to Spiritual Growth. In my social activities as a UU, I find myself building relationships with people I would have had no contact with in my private world. In my Service activities with this Fellowship, I find myself forging bonds of “mutual trust and support” with folks who have different political perspectives than I have ever had. Being an active Unitarian Universalist, actively involved in Service and Caring Fellowship here, is leading me to ongoing Spiritual Growth.
Our American culture, it seems to me, has adopted the ideology of competitive individualism as if every chess piece should strive against all others to be self-reliant, independent of other pieces, independent of the board and of the rules of the game. We Americans have found ourselves lost in the game of consumerism, capitalism, enslaving ourselves to maximize financial accumulation and then squandering our life energies on addictive consumption and insufficiency. We are relationship starved.
Mitumi Saotome writes: “If you were all alone in the universe with no one to talk to, no one with which to share the beauty of the stars, to laugh with, to touch, what would be your purpose in life? It is other life, it is love, which gives your life meaning. This is harmony. We must discover the joy of each other, the joy of challenge, the joy of growth.”
We need community, but not just community of limited clubbish acceptance, nor even community of narrow service projects or political ends. We need a community of expansive welcome and expansive service to community. And we need the spiritual growth that such broad welcome provides.
Unitarian Universalist covenant focus on relationships is not unique. Community is fundamental to the four great religious traditions, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Triple Gem of Buddhism is the Buddha, the Dharma (Law), and the Sangha (the religious community of monks, nuns). The history of Judaism is the history of God’s saving acts for The People and never for the sake of individuals alone. In Christianity, “the body of Christ,” the koinonia (church) which shared “the common table” of power, wealth and knowledge, is to be distinguished from hierarchical institutions called by that name, the church. Only in individualistic Western Christianity, has private salvation to heavenly bliss displaced God’s redemption of the Church. Finally, Islam offers the most powerful concept of community, the umma which is the focus of charity and social justice (in contrast to Christianity’s current focus on theology rather than social practice).
What are we doing here? Why are we here? The Latin term religare means to bind together. Religare community, religious community is a network of relationships, bonds of connection we make with one another’s lives. We are bound together by Service and Caring Fellowship that shakes us up and stretches us in that ongoing process of Spiritual Growth. We become connected, bound to one another rather than lost or pitted against others by fear or isolation.
Religare community is not about beliefs because beliefs divide us into believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned. It is our good fortune to be in a covenant community that strives to build healthy relationships of respect with all beings, a lifelong journey of discovery.
At the close of this service as we extinguish the chalice flame (symbol of our religious community) and as we return to the warmth of informal and small group relationships, Molleen Matsumura reminds us why we are here, what we are doing together:
“Love is like a campfire: It may be sparked quickly, and at first the kindling throws out a lot of heat, but it burns out quickly. For long lasting, steady warmth (with delightful bursts of intense heat from time to time), you must carefully tend the fire.”
We are here to forge bonds of healthy relationships carefully tending the fire of Service, the light of Spiritual Growth, and the warmth of Caring Fellowship.