My awareness of and respect for the breadth of religious beliefs and worship practices has resulted from an enlightening and ongoing journey.
As a child in church I used to sit with the Peppermint Lady while my mother sang in the choir. I would see varied expressions of religious beliefs. Some people danced, some shouted then swooned, some cried, some sat stoically, and others experienced convulsive episodes. I sat there taking it all in. As a young child it was spectacle and somewhat humorous to me. With age and experience I realized that those spectacles were not intended as a humorous occurrence for my consumption, but rather they were expressions of religious faith and belief.
The morning that I attempted to wake my grandfather for breakfast and realized that he had died while we sleep was the day that I became a candidate for baptism. Prior to that morning, I was hesitant to embrace Christianity and the rather extroverted forms of forms of expression that I witnessed on Sunday mornings. However, on this morning I simply stood up and quietly–notice that I said “quietly”—walked down to the pulpit when Pastor Mosby called forth parishioners for baptism. That morning I did not feel like an alien, although the scientist in me cannot articulate why. Perhaps it was one of those divine experiences that I was blessed to have. In retrospect, baptism was a rite of passage into my budding manhood.
As I got older, I began to wonder what was “wrong” with me because I was still pretty silent during church services. The call and response patterns that were commonplace among many people in the congregation were an appreciated dynamic during worship services, although I did not feel comfortable as a participant. My belief in God remained strong, although the faith in this form of religious expression was not as vibrant. To borrow from the cliché, I felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. This feeling stuck with me into adolescence and although I prayed on a nightly basis, I no longer attended worship services on Sunday mornings.
When I returned home from graduate school I enjoyed a spiritual revival. My feelings about being a foreigner in the sanctuary were finally addressed during a rehearsal with the Men’s Chorus. Following a particularly lackluster run-through of a song, our Director of Music told us that “[we] have to sing from our souls because you cannot predict what your voice lifted in praise will mean to others. He said, “Yes, there are some who will make it very clear what impact your voice is having on them as a sister from the nurse’s board tends to them. However, there is also the brother who sits there quietly and you have to study him to see that his toe is tapping inside of that shoe. The lights may be turned down in the rest of his temple, but that toe is working overtime.” At that point I realized that I was one of those toe-tapping brothers and that’s how I expressed myself—although I like to throw in a little head nod and shoulder action from time to time. What I learned that evening is that heartfelt expression of your faith is not only your constitutional right, but it is a spiritual imperative. We all have different beliefs and express them in countless ways and if these things resonate with your soul, then they are authentic. More importantly, I learned that it is devastating to suppress or stifle your religious beliefs because of outside influences.
Despite this new revelation, I wrestled with lingering questions about and my growing dis-ease with Christianity. The label of Christian did not fit me and, once again, my involvement with my childhood church became intermittent and I eventually decided to search for a new church home.
I decided to visit UUCLB during the latter stages of the Prop 8 campaign. Seeing the large “No on Prop 8” banner out in front of the church sent a shiver down my spine. I suspected that this place could be a spiritual home for me because there may be a willingness to engage in dialogue about challenging social issues and potential embracing of a more comprehensive worldview without overreliance on religious dogma and tradition. Of course, I was compelled to attend the next service.
On the next Sunday morning I put on a suit and arrived at the early service with my New International Version Bible in tow. That morning, I came to many realizations, but three really stayed with me. I arrived at the first realization pretty quickly…I was rather overdressed for the occasion. I was the only guy at the service in a suit; in fact the guy sitting next to me seemed stopped by church in the midst of his morning jog complete with a sweat-soaked shirt and Onion shorts that weren’t covering much. This was a marked departure from the unspoken, church dress code that I grew up with; however, it was very consistent with the “come as you are” mantra espoused at my former church home. Second, the music was very different. The juxtaposition of the singing style and musical selections was interesting. The UUCLB choirs sings in a traditional choral style, yet the music performed spans multiple genres beyond sacred music. The singing style of the Baptist choir I grew up with is a combination of soul, blues, and jazz; however, the songs rarely go beyond the gospel realm. Curious insight aside, adjusting to the spiritual expression through music at UUCLB was quite a transition. There are few things like a Baptist choir in full splendor, so I had to make an adjustment.
The third realization took a while, but was no less salient…scriptural references were replaced by inspirational readings and meditation took the place of formal prayer. These differences were accessible to me, but required adjustments on my part. This worship environment was very different than what I experienced during my childhood. One interesting adjustment was the toting of my NIV Bible. I brought it the following Sunday and there was no mention of scripture during the service, so I decided to leave it at home for the third visit. Of course, that is service when Reverend Lovett quotes a scripture and I’m without my Bible. I haven’t brought my Bible to another service here; however, I do take notes during services and work to connect the messages presented here to a Biblical source.
Although I enjoyed my first several services at UUCLB, I took a hiatus from attending services. I struggled to identify with the religious practices in this church because it was so different from my Christian heritage. I realized that I had to develop an understanding of the core values of Unitarian Universalism before I could make the conscious decision to accept and embrace them. PAUSE My conversation with Reverend Lovett during an orientation session (one time she provided me with Bible scriptures that pertained to her most recent sermons when we ran into one another in the parking lot at Memorial Medical Center) got me started on a path to understanding Unitarian Universalism. In addition, the dialogue and exercises that Matthew and Maureen facilitated at the membership class presented me with an opportunity to develop a better understanding of religious pluralism. I realized that religion in its multiple forms is a set of beliefs and rituals intended to inspire us. Religion is intended to inspire us to be our best selves, to live our best life, and to help other people to become their best self. PAUSE
Within the religious faiths to which I’ve been exposed, the terminology or vocabulary for these basic ideas may vary, but the meanings are the same.
I consider something to be a spiritual truth when I get that feeling that my entire body—or a significant part of it—is tingling or a shiver. It kind of makes you go, “Ooh.” I have experienced this feeling while listening to a choir sing, listening to a particularly stirring sermon, and when answering one of the tough questions that a child has presented to me. When that feeling comes over me, my mind is quiet and open and I recognize it as a connection to the divine. I had this feeling when I came to the realization of the intersections of religious belief systems and when I decided to return to UUCLB.
As an introverted person it should not surprise anyone that my expressions of faith are a largely introspective thing. I spend a good amount of my time inside my head, observing and analyzing. My thirst for knowledge and desire to recognize the varied synergies in this world are at the core of my spirituality. UUs are hardly monolithic and there are many spaces in which we intersect and many spaces at which we diverge. For us to grow as a spiritual community we must be willing to come out of our proverbial closets and perhaps try on a few unfamiliar items in the closets of our spiritual family members. Some of the items may not fit us, but they fit and serve a real purpose for others. That is where our growth and progress along our spiritual paths lies. Today I will close with a metaphor. As a former chemistry prodigy of sorts, I view many things around me through a reactive lens. I liken this church to a chemical reaction. Each of us is an element born out of our unique characteristics. We each join together with other elements to form chemicals (e.g., committees) and substances (e.g., small group ministries). In a chemical reaction these chemicals and substance interact with each other based on a set of laws and rules. Nothing brought to the reaction is lost and results of this reaction can be explosive, toxic, benign, or magnificently beneficial. However, the reaction cannot happen unless each element comes to the table and its unique contribution is given and experienced by the other elements. I believe this to be the essence of our third principle and at the foundation of our spiritual community that we cannot overlook. Be mindful that each of us has beliefs and forms of expression that may not resonate with everyone, but the inherent value of each of us demands that those beliefs and expression be exchanged freely.