UU World – Transitions

May 8th, 2022       presented by Rev. Fiona Heath

“As Unitarians, we are not required to embrace a list of beliefs (that is, a creed). For us, the essence of being a church is being a community –a unity of spirit among each of the members, and a unity of spirit between the people of the church and God. We don’t promise to believe, we promise to seek. We don’t value the church for providing answers; we value it for being a place where we can question together. Our deepest joy comes from supporting each other on the journey.”

The statement I just shared comes from the Unitarian Congregation of Pernambuco, in Recife, Brazil. While our version might not have the word God in it, the statement from Brazil sounds just like us – a community of questioners seeking spiritual meaning.

Today is the last of four services on international Unitarian Universalism – we began with the Rev. Brian Kiely speaking about his experiences as part of the International Council of Unitarian Universalists, then I explored the south Asian churches and their emphasis on community, singing and God, last month I lifted up contemporary Unitarians in Europe with their serpent wisdom and dove gentleness.

Today I will highlight the Unitarian church in Brazil and then reflect on the global Unitarian tradition.

Unitarianism was brought to Brazil in the 1890s by six families emigrating from the United States, including a minister. They kept UUism alive with informal teaching and services. In another twenty years more Unitarian families emigrated, making connections with one another, building a community. Finally, in 1933 the Unitarian Church of Brazil was formally founded by the Rev. Charles Phelps.

Since that time it has been a leader in liberal values in Brazil, the first to ordain women in the 1940s and then to ordain an openly gay man in the late sixties. They are outspoken supporters of human rights.

In Brazil they follow an Anglican liturgy, offering communion each service, while seeing the bible as a collection of wisdom tales, and social action as a way to live by the example of Jesus.

They see prayer as a “human adventure” – which is an image I really like but may just be a google translate issue!

I can see how their Unitarianism – brought by Americans – has been mixed with the Catholicism of Brazil to create a blend of traditional worship rites and liberal theology. Just like our services are a blend of protestant worship rites and liberal theology.

Unitarianism adapts to the culture of each country.

In reviewing all of our international faith companions I have to come realize that here in Canada with our humanist bent – we are an outlier in the global tradition.

While I like to say we are at the forefront of our ever-evolving tradition – it could also be argued that we are a small outlier UU community –compared to the thousands of UUs in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America who identify as progressive Christians.

In the United States where Unitarian Universalism is the largest, there is a mix of God focused congregations and humanist communities.

Our way of worship might be the future of all of Unitarianism and Universalism, or we may continue as a steady outlier within a broader Christian tradition.

Either way, we – like every UU community – are free to choose our path.

The pandemic has changed the religious landscape and we need to find our way through this new terrain.

I have been using the International Council of Unitarian Universalists as my primary resource for this series. I have not had the opportunity to engage internationally – the ICUU conference was going to be in Montreal in the fall of 2020 and that was to be my entry point. Another pandemic loss.

In turning to the ICUU website I discovered that the ICUU formally dissolved this spring – the farewell celebrations are this month.

The ICUU as well as the other global UU organization – the Partner Church Council which linked North American congregations with congregations elsewhere – have made the decision to shut down in order to allow a new international organization to arise.

Both the ICUU and the Partner Church recognize that much of the way they operated came out of a colonial mindset that made it hard to build healthy relationships across deep divides of wealth and status. These groups are intentionally letting go of an old way of being in order to begin anew.

There is a leadership team developing a plan for a way forward, based on a vision “for a broader, more inclusive and equitable partnership [which] will offer opportunities for participation of those whose voices have often been excluded or unheard and will address issues of power and money in healthy relationships.”

I see this is a form of living our eighth principle – deconstructing old structures to build new ones that are more inclusive. I take hope from the courage of the people involved in these beloved organizations who were able to let go of what they once were in order to let something new arise.

While we are in absolutely no danger of closing our doors, it is time to wonder about what Canadian UUism looks like in a post pandemic world – we aren’t there yet, but now is the time to ask questions.

And questions are something all UUs are very good at posing. “We don’t value the church for providing answers; we value it for being a place where we can question together. Our deepest joy comes from supporting each other on the journey.”

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International UU organizations are in the midst of a great transition, letting go to let something new arise. The organizations didn’t collapse, they weren’t run into the ground; the people discerned that their current path was not sustainable, it was time to release.

We do this all the time, we mortal beings who live in time. Parents letting children go to make their own lives, graduating from the school experience and beginning in a workplace, retiring from work into a new phase of being.

All these transitions aren’t about things falling apart but things ending as they should. It is the seasonal movement from flowering to fruiting to seeding.

Think of the milkweed pod – a once common sight in southern Ontario – (the only food for monarch butterflies here, so please cultivate them if you have a place to plant).

Milkweed pods are long pale green pods. When they open they release hundreds of seeds embedded in soft fluff that float off and catch on things. This is a good image for transitions that come naturally – to release the seeds and let them fall where they may.

It is not an easy way to transition – most of us like control too much to just let go and let the seeds fall. Sometimes we just keep the pod tight shut, refusing to change. Sometimes we can’t let the seeds go and instead plant them intentionally in a place of our choosing. If we water the seeds and tend them and give them plenty of light and compost, that can work just fine.

But sometimes the place we plant is not the right place for the seeds.

And sometimes we don’t know yet where to plant the seeds, or don’t have the water or the light or the soil, sometimes – sometimes – we just have to shake the pod and let the seeds go.

What in your life might be ready to be released? Are you able to let go without knowing the next steps?

There is a kind of terrifying liberation in being able to let go without a plan. The seeds of a milkweed do no good staying inside the walls of the pod.  They can only be free to become milkweed in the dispersal.

There is loss of course, when things that are precious to us change, like a child leaving home, or the end of a beloved job. Grief comes along, as does pain, anger, confusion.

Not knowing is hard in a society that prides itself on having answers. It’s easy to feel like a failure without a plan.

But the milkweed way is a different way to be in the world. It says just let go and see what happens. It says trust that what needs to happen next will happen when it’s time. Seeds will sprout when the conditions are right.

This is both a terrifying and liberating way to be – to trust that things can simply unfold.

This is not say that plans aren’t good things, for practical things like a dinner party or cancer treatment, I am all for good planning. But for life changes, for spiritual choices, we can move forward without the plan all being worked out.

There is a team developing the new international UU organization and they will create a plan but first they are taking the time for discernment, not rushing to begin.

The pandemic has accelerated the growing decline in all churches, not because people are seeking the spiritual any less, but because our format – the protestant style – doesn’t work so well any more.

Upcoming generations can find spiritual meaning in a tiktok video or a sunset, they find power in travel and conversation.  They can follow spiritual mentors on youtube or through a podcast.

And they don’t want to be confined to or identified by one religious tradition – they take from all to find what they need.

Many are also seeking community, which is something we are good at being – a spiritual community that offers a home for seekers.

What and where can we meet new generations – who want to have the deeper conversations about ethics and being – who want ritual and ceremony? What do we need to let go to get to that place?

These are the questions we need to be asking. And I don’t think we can just identify a strategy and make a plan and follow it and succeed. I have wanted to do this, I have been seeking answers, the right answers, the right way to shift, and I haven’t found anything I can bring to you.

It’s been exhausting and not a little disheartening – until I finally came to realize that trying to be “right” doesn’t work in a spiritual community in a time of transition.

It is not a helpful approach.

Seeing the international UU community taking a willing leap of faith into the future, not knowing what comes next, has been a blessing. That is the UU way of doing things after all – in community and in conversation.

As we head into that not so far distant post pandemic future we too will need to find the liberation of not knowing, the liberation of waiting and seeing, the liberation of asking instead of answering, of being, not being right, just being.

It will look like a lot of aimless talking and wondering and sharing meals and talking and wondering some more. It will look a lot like sending seeds out and following them to see where they land and which sprout.

If we can see this time to come as a liberation, not as a source of panic, then we will grow into the spiritual community that generations to come need.

One that welcomes them in all the fullness of their complex selves, that embraces the many facets of their lives, that supports them in their search.

“We don’t value the church for providing answers; we value it for being a place where we can question together. Our deepest joy comes from supporting each other on the journey.”

 

So Say We All

 

 

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