by the Rev. Susan M. Smith
In one of those Unitarian Universalist joke books I’m quoted as saying, “I live in a town with only one Unitarian Universalist church. Everyone I’ve ever hated has come here and forced me to reflect on their inherent worth and dignity.” It’s all too true. All Souls here in Shreveport, LA was where I found Unitarian Universalism about 30 years ago. When I sing in the choir on Sunday, I’m standing where Robert and I were married, where I was ordained, and where I performed the wedding of our eldest daughter. Before I went off to seminary, I started my training here as youth leader and newsletter editor and church administrator. For all that I visit dozens of congregations and other Unitarian Universalist gatherings each year, it is in the church where I am a member, attend services and make my annual pledge that the heavy lifting in my spiritual life gets done.
Our Unitarian Univeralist faith is not something that you can think your way through. It’s not something private to your own soul and your own heart. Rather it is about how people who differ about the nature of reality itself come together to form the just and loving community. It is practiced day to day by living in idealistic covenants, screwing up royally and getting ourselves back in right relations. Rinse and repeat. World without end.
In my work with leaders I often find that those who are giving the most of their time and treasure in service to Unitarian Universalism have become disconnected from day to day congregational participation. The president who does not have time for retreat or small group ministry, the search committee member who stops attending worship, the district board member who is seldom seen at that home congregation are all familiar figures to me.
“To keep a lamp burning,” Mother Teresa said, “we have to keep putting oil in it.” So that is the first reason that I encourage everyone to maintain their congregational ties. Lest we do our work begrudgingly, we must be feeding that chalice that burns in our hearts. Yes, I know that many a Sunday morning dawns when it seems like the “oil” is to be found in sleeping in and skipping services, and I like to sleep more than most people. But there is nothing like gathering on Sunday morning with differently-minded people who I appreciate anyway. Nowhere else will they be singing “Go now in peace…” or declaring together “Love is the doctrine…” or enjoying the beauty of this particular holy ground or the warmth of this community.
According to something called “The Oscillation Theory” of religious life which was developed by Bruce Reed of the Grubb Institute, the wellbeing of society itself is dependent on most of us gathering together in our respective houses of worship on a regular basis. It keeps us sane in a profound way. The theory says that we go about our weeks in an intra-dependent state. We are self-sustaining, interacting with others, expending injury and fulfilling our responsibilities in life. Along the way we come up against a world that stresses us, presents values that are quite different than ours and pummels us with doubts, micro-aggressions and criticisms.
During worship, we have the opportunity to enter an extra-dependent state of rest and renewal. We literally lay our burdens down if we are willing. Our deeply held values are honored and our souls are reconstructed and strengthened. We are repaired and sent back into our lives with confidence and new energy. The oscillation between standing on our own two feet and resting in the care of our community and our higher power is necessary for mental health and societal health.
The second reason that I encourage everyone to find their “church home” and stick to it no matter what happens or who shows up is that it is easy to love people in theory and harder to do it in practice. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities provide us with innumerable opportunities to hold our tongues, to support our elected leaders, to give generously, to forgive and actually forget, to sing someone else’s favorite hymn and to consider the greater good. That is the heavy lifting of our faith, to be with people as they really are and to reflect on their inherent worth and dignity anyway.