Welcome Home

21 Aug

Welcome Home, by the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church on August 14, 2011

Listen to this service.

Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you,” that would suffice.”
I am so thankful for today

to be here
to be in this church
to be back amongst my people
to be a Unitarian Universalist.

The experience of coming home
I remember the first time I attended a UU congregation. My spouse and I were looking for a place that would accept us for who we were, not try to to force us to believe a theology that no longer fit. This was before the internet was so popular, and I thought all churches started at 11:00, so we just showed up then. Little did we know the service had started at 10. Whoops!

But we came back a few weeks later. It was a summer service, the minister was on her vacation, and there was a time in the service for people to share their own perspectives, their own experiences on the topic. I don’t remember what the topic was, but John and I were both blown away – wow! A church that wants to know about OUR experiences! Like so many others who have had similar experiences, it felt like we had found our home.

Reflect back with me, for a moment, on the first time YOU entered a Unitarian Universalist church.

Perhaps it was today, in which case you are even now trying to figure out who we are and if we might be a good fit for where you are on your spiritual journey.

Perhaps it was last week, when I was on vacation and our wonderful director of Religious Education led the service.

Perhaps it was last month. Or last year. Maybe it was a decade ago, or two or three.

Or perhaps you have been a Unitarian Universalist your whole life. If this is the case, then try to imagine a time when you most felt like a Unitarian Universalist….that it was a core piece of who you are.

If home is where the heart is, or if home is where we are best understood, so many of us have found a home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

The nature of home
Home is an interesting metaphor to use in the case of a church, I think. Because most of us have complex relationships with our homes, and with those who may live there with us. We know that home is not always a peaceful place – heaven knows in my home there is a lot of yelling, loud noises, there is always something going on, people going in all sorts of directions, cats throwing up, dogs chewing beloved toys.

Home is not always a peaceful place.

Home is not always an easy place to be, either. When I am at home, I am nagged by the various demands of life: bills to pay, meals to make, mail to sort through, chores to do. Home can be a place of endless cleaning and filing and things that need to be done.

And for some of us, home may be a terrible metaphor. For some of us, home is or was a place of abuse, a place were we were not good enough, a place where we had to hide and protect our true selves.

Let me assure you that this is not at all the type of home I am talking about here. Here, I am talking about the idealized home that, though not perfect, is a place where not only can we be our true selves but where we can be accepted and loved for who we are. A place where we can let our hair down. A place where we can take off the masks that we must put on each day to get by in a world that is increasingly difficult and oppressive.

Yes, it may be busy at home. Or it may be terribly lonely. It may not be easy, and it may not be peaceful all the the time, but it is that place where, when we walk in, we can finally breathe.

What is the home we are coming to?
So what is the kind of home that you might find, or might have already found, in this church? Our faith tradition has been described as grounded, ecological, profoundly human, responsible, experiential, free, imaginative, relational, covenantal, curious, reasonable, hopeful.

I find it to be transformative – accepting of who I am, loving me in all my human imperfections, and helping me to find a way to live a whole, full life.

Our faith is lifesaving. Let me repeat that – it is life saving. Unitarian Universalism saves lives. Absolutely.

For those of us who are too different, too gay, too feminine, too masculine, too fat, too thin, too loud, too sick, too smart, too sensitive, too ANTYHING to fit into society’s tiny little tight, oppressive boxes, our faith gives us a place where we can be embraced and loved and know that we are not alone. This is life-saving, metaphorically sometimes, and often quite literally.

In her sermon at our general assembly this year, the Rev. Kaaren Anderson noticed that there has been a shift in recent years in the people who are coming through our doors, looking for our life-saving faith.

She says:

The majority of people newly in our pews are no longer asking, “Do I have to leave my brain outside your doors?” but “Do I have to leave my pain outside your doors?” I don’t hear them emphasizing their primary hunger as helping them explore spiritual depth or build their own theology. No, what we hear them saying is: “There is a world out there, ripping my life apart and I’m wondering if this place can offer me any help? I can’t deal with a materialist, consumerist, shallow, selfish, status obsessed, indifferent, violent, economically unstable culture, a world that threatens to disconnect me from everything I hold dear, everything that truly feeds me, everything that makes me feel whole—on my own. I can’t do it in isolation, I want to know will this place help me stay connected.”

We don’t need yet another place in our lives that tells us we are not good enough, that we are not loveable, that there is something inherently wrong with us. We need a place that tells us that we are loveable, and that we are loved. We need a place that we can feel safe to explore what it means to be human, and the many, many different expressions that may take. We need a place that teaches us how to put our values to work in the larger world, to help us live whole integrated lives.

As a home, this church also gives us a place where we can practice loving each other. It is good to be loved. And just as essential is the human need to offer love. Sure, it is easy to love the people who are similar to us, but it is a sacred spiritual practice to actively love those who may put us off, or who may seem to be so different from us.

This congregation gives us a place to practice loving each other in all our diverse expressions of humanity. When we can love each other, here, we will find that we can’t contain it and it will expand beyond our walls so that we cannot help but bless the world with that love – model to the world what it means to stand on the side of love.

Rev. Kaaren Anderson asks those of us who have been around a while to think about why we continue to come back, week after week, year after year. “Is it simply because someone gave you the room and the freedom to decide whether you’re a theist, agnostic, pagan, buddhist, christian?” she asks. “Or is it because your congregations, through sermons and in small groups, and social justice work helped illumine how your beliefs help connect to you your deepest self, with life’s gifts and with needs greater than your own? In this world of disconnection, isn’t the value of your congregation found ultimately in being the force that dedicates itself solely to fighting that disconnection?”

This is why so many of us find a spiritual and religious home here, because it can help reconnect us with our deepest selves, with the spirit of life and love, and with one another. This truly, is the meaning of religion – to relink us to each other.

How do we welcome new and old friends home?
This reconnecting is one the things that, for me, makes me think of home. My kids had a chance to spend about a week with my father in the Washington, DC area this summer. It was quite a treat for them, and for John and I.

When we went to pick them up, I couldn’t stop looking at them. I needed to restore their images in my eyes. I needed to touch them, to look at them, to listen to them. I needed to reconnect with them.

August, too, is a time of reconnecting at church. People go away on vacation, take time in the summer for lazy summer mornings, perhaps take a few Sundays off. And so we come back together eager to reconnect with one another and with this beloved community.

When we are new to a home, it is not so much a reconnection as it is finding our place. Do we fit here? Will we be welcomed?

For those of us who are already here, we have a responsibility to welcome newcomers who may be looking for the religious and spiritual home that we offer. We need to remember that we are all responsible for greeting the newcomers, for welcoming them. For saying hello.

When meeting someone new, before church or at coffee hour, rather than asking “Is this your first time here” (which can be uncomfortable if they have been coming for weeks but we just haven’t met them) we might say “I don’t think I’ve met you before.” Particularly as the church continues to grow, we will see more and more unfamiliar faces, and we might find we haven’t met people who have been coming here for months, even years!

Good morning! I don’t think I’ve met you before.

Those of us who have already found a home here need to remember, too, that a family changes whenever a new person is added. My mother-in-law had two sons and no daughters, so when I married John it was quite a change to the family (and in more ways that just the obvious ones!). So too does the church community change with every new person. We have an obligation, I believe, to be open and welcoming to those who need our saving faith. And to be open to letting their experiences change us as well!

Sunday mornings, in particular, it can be a challenge – we may be so absorbed in greeting and reconnecting with old friends, or perhaps we have some important church business that we feel we need to attend to. I invite each of you, challenge each of you perhaps, to introduce yourself to one person each week who you haven’t previously met. If you need a starter for a conversation, you might ask “What is it that brought you here this morning” – because even if they have been attending for decades, something compelled each of you to get up this morning and walk through those doors.

This is the kind of home that this church aspires to be. A home where, in the word of Kenneth Patton, we seek to understand the shyness behind arrogance, the fear behind pride, the tenderness behind clumsy strength, the anguish behind cruelty. In a world that tries to rip us apart, tries to shred us to pieces, we seek to be the kind of home that helps to reconnect us with our best selves and with the spirit of life and of love, that helps us to be whole.

For all of you, no matter how long you have been a UU, even if today is your first time, I say, welcome home. Welcome to this place where you are loved in all your complexity, in all your imperfections, in all your pain.

Welcome home.

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