The Things That Bring Me Here

Lay-led Sermon by Dan Murphy, 12 February 1995

Two weeks ago, when Steve spoke on the topic of Taking Leave of One's ..... Religion, a number of insights and recollections came to mind, and I thought how much I would welcome an opportunity to share these thoughts with others in the congregation and to hear their experiences and reflections on finding a spiritual and community identity. In other words, why we choose to be part of this church.

Apparently, some part of our shared subconscious was at work, since, althought he had left that paragraph out of the original sermon, Steve intended to facilitate just such an opportunity in the form of this service today.

The timing is felicitous for other reasons as well. As a new member, I gave quite a bit of thought to the question of joining this congregation before finally making the decision to do so. And if that weren't enough, our membership committee thoughtfully provided further stimulus at one of the new member orientation meetings a few weeks ago when they invited all in attendance to write their own personal answer to the question, "why did I come to this Unitarian Universalist congregation?"

This question, by the way, was to be considered in light of some reflection and review we each did on our "spiritual history", and I recommend that as something we might all think about -- what is the history of my spiritual life, and what brings me to this present place.

Indeed, what is spirituality? And what is its relationship to religion? For me, they are two quite different things, but I have only come to appreciate the distinction, and the importance of spirituality in particular, in recent years.

You see, when I was a freshman in college, I did indeed take leave of my religion. That phrase describes my experience quite precisely. In a moment of awakening similar to others I have heard described here, I came to the conclusion that I had been accepting as important fact a number of things which were, to put it charitably, mythology. And I have not always put it charitably when I have described it in the years since then.

The negative terms in which I sometimes put it reflected considerable anger -- a sense that I had been tricked or possibly even betrayed by the religion of my youth into viewing God as some kind of super parent, whimsically handing out favors or curses. A parent who might do what you asked, if you asked with sufficient faith, but then again might not. This religion had also suckered me into seeing as sinful some things which are actually beautiful, perhaps even spiritual, and very much part of the gift of our humanity.

After this transition, I pretty much considered "religion" a dirty word. It also didn't help that in the technically and scientifically oriented environment of college and my professional life, "religion" was often used as a perjorative for some opinion on a technical matter which could not be justified or quantified with scientific or engineering rigor. If you preferred one text editor or operating system over another, we'd say, "oh, it's just religion."

Curiously, when I took leave of my religion back then, I don't recall that it felt especially like a crisis of identity. If it had, perhaps I would have wrestled with it longer, or, like Steve's friend Roger, tried to find some way of reconciling or balancing my identity on the one hand with things that I profoundly disagreed with on the other. For me, it would not have been easy.

In fact, there are two aspects to Steve's description of Roger and his relationship to his religion that I found particularly fascinating and thought-provoking. One is this question of identity, and the other is the question of identifying with an organization or institution with which one has major differences of philosophy.

As may be evident from how I took leave of my earlier religion, I cannot imagine myself continuing in the way that Roger seems to, disagreeing with fundamental tenents of my religion even as that religion continues to insist that its pronouncements on these issues are infallable. I guess this is one of those personality traits on which people may differ, and in fact, this example gives me a bit more insight into how it is possible that, as we often hear, a large percentage of American Catholics disagree with the Church's view on birth control and other significant issues and yet continue to consider themself good Catholics.

After my leave-taking in college, I remained assertively unaffiliated with any religion or religious organization for over 30 years -- up until a few months ago, as a matter of fact. Being non-affiliated and non-religious was actually an important part of my identity although I usually didn't think of it as such. This came up a few years ago when we moved to this area and my wife, who is Jewish by birth and self identification, joined the nearby reform temple. It was automatically a family membership, and all family members were considered Jewish by default. This inclusiveness is greatly to their credit, but I was immediately uncomfortable with the idea. It was hard to explain why, since I feel very much a part of my wife's Jewish family and I don't have any strong philosophical or political disagreements with reform Judaism. It was simply a matter of identity. I was not comfortable with the assumption of a different identity, whatever it might be, than what I felt was true for me in my own mind.

Now I'm here and a member of this congregation -- a change I'm still getting used to after these 30 years of non-affiliation. What brought me to make such a change, not only of habit but also of identity?

Clearly, one fundamental reason I have chosen to come here is that I have found a religious institution with which I don't have basic disagreements as to theology or the role of the church in society. And more positively, I have found a philosophy and views with which I strongly resonate. As I said when I asked for membership, my decision was made after reading the "100 Questions" booklet which I received in the mail last year. I want to thank Steve and others who initiated and supported the publication of that booklet and to acknowledge the significant role it played in my decision.

As others have said, I now feel like I've been a UU for 30 years but just didn't know it. And more than that, now that I've found others who are travelling the same road as I am and sharing many of the same truths, possibilities for learning and growth are opened up that could not have existed before. Up to now, I've had a sense of mostly figuring this out on my own. Now there are other who've travelled the same road, perhaps longer than I have, and from whom I can learn.

In addition, I am pleased to be identified as a Unitarian Universalist and to be able to support this particular religious presence in the community. After my first contacts with the church, I felt it to be one of a number of community organizations worthy of my support. This continues to be an important factor for me, enhanced now by my sense of being part of it.

I believe this community presence is an important role. It saddens me that there is so much fear and ignorance in our society, some of it perpetuated in the name of religion. I know that UUs are not evangelical about our religion, but the presence of the church and its members in a community shows that religion is not incompatible with tolerance and understanding, and serves as an important counterbalance against those who would define goodness, morality, or patriotism only by dogmatic and exclusionary strictures.

And finally, it feels good to be here. For those like me who may be reasonably characterized as mostly left-brained folks, it can be an ongoing challenge to just let something feel good if it feels good and not analyze to death why it feels good. I'll probably never be able to avoid the temptation to analyze, but I do understand that spirituality for me is an emotional experience. Even though I took leave of the theology of my youth, I still feel an emotional and spiritual resonance with the services I attended. Just as then, to be present in this space, to hear the music and the language, and to repeat oft-spoken words and phrases does somehow restore the soul.

So these are the things that bring me here -- the desire to support and be part of an enlightened religious and spiritual presence in the community; the desire to connect and share with other like-minded people in a spirit of common ground and purpose; and the desire to nurture and support my own spiritual being and relationship with life.

As Steve said two weeks ago, the path of religious freedom is not necessarily the easy one. One gives up the supposed security of having sure answers to all of life's questions, and one is offered many more possibility and choices. Still, there are things that we find to be true and which claim our assent and guide our actions. For me, one such truth is that being at choice is the essence of being human. Hence, I am here not because I have to be or because my parents were, or because I fear some kind of eternal punishment if I'm not. I'm here because I choose this community and this identity. I choose to affirm the truths that we now hold and our ongoing search for even greater truth.