he Blessed Refractions of Faith
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 13, 2005
Sometimes, I can imagine how difficult it must be for people on the outside looking in at our somewhat (sometimes) peculiar religious movement. Some of them might even be confused, even appalled, at what they see. “How,” they might ask, “can you have a church that is based upon the idea that there is no single agreed-upon truth (except, maybe, that there is no single agreed-upon truth)? How can you have a religion without dogma, and a church without a creed? How can you have a church where each individual seeks his or her own truth and live in accord with it? How can you have a religion where some say they believe in God—and others do not; where some are Christians, and others are not, where people affirm a wide variety of religious and theological perspectives?”
It must seem very strange indeed, sometimes, to those on the outside looking in, especially to those who are committed members of more conventional religious faiths. To those who are accustomed to having their religions speak in a single, unified voice, we must seem like a sort of religious Tower of Babel. We are each on our own religious journeys, our own spiritual roadway. But how do we avoid pileups along the spiritual highway, if everyone is going in a somewhat different direction? Or, how can we call ourselves a church if we are each on a different path?
In ways so much deeper than we even realize, we are one. There is a profound unity, a sublime interconnectedness, at the very ground of our being. The same sun shines over us; we share one Earth together; there is one Spirit of Life that connects us all. We are one.
But we are each unique and individual, as well. In the entire universe, there is not another manifestation of creation like each of us. We are each a particular lens, a particular prism, through which the light of creation shines; we stand at a particular angle in relation to the universe; we catch its light according to our own experience and history; then as that light flows through us, it manifests itself in a particular way for each of us. The refractions of faith which we cast forth are never quite the same for any of us, depending upon the angle of our standing.
In the Lord’s garden, there are many different flowers. Shouldn’t we flowers learn to cherish one another? That is, very simply, why this church is here, still, after these twenty-six decades plus a couple of years: to honor the blessed refractions of faith, and to cherish the choicest buddings of the Spirit, wherever they might arise.
What are some of these buds—some of these flowers—which this church bestows?
The first flower we bring is our connection with the past.
“There is no living present with a dead past,” the great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes reminds us. Without a sense that we have come from somewhere—that we are part of a great tradition, and own a proud history, then we might cling to the hubris and arrogance that we have nothing to learn, and that we in this generation have done it all ourselves.
In a church, we know that this just isn’t true. The souls and spirits of the dearly departed (perhaps long departed) still crowd this room as we worship this day; they still fill our hearts and memories as we contemplate what they have meant to us, and to this church.
As part of a church, now extending back 261 years, we know that we drink from wells we did not dig ourselves; we are warmed yet at fires we did not build.
The first flower of faith is a sense of blessing and thanksgiving for the gifts of the past.
The second blessing which our church bestows—the second flower of faith—is our connection with the future.
It is said that, deep down inside, we all want to be immortal, that we want to live forever. While on some days, I know, such thoughts seem the farthest thing from our minds, it is also true, I know, that we all want our lives to go on, somehow, when we are gone. We yearn for some sense that our legacy won’t end with the three score and ten (probably a little more) that most of us will spend here on this Earth.
We want a sense that the good we have done will live after us, and not merely be interred with our bones. We want some sense that our good works will abide, and that our names will be remembered.
We can share that sense of continuity be being part of a living, growing church. As we watch the children of our church family gathered together on Sunday mornings—as we imbibe their energy as they run off to their classes—as we celebrate a new birth in our household of faith, or share in a dedication ceremony with a young family—as we watch as our children, right before our eyes, grow as quickly as radishes in June—then we know that the good works we do, here at least, will continue and remain. We know that the hours we have spent in doing the work of the church has been worth the cost, for together, down through the ages, we have created something that will abide long after we are gone.
The second refraction of faith is a sense of blessing and hope for the promise of the future.
The third blessing our church bestows—the third flower we bring—is the time we share together, right now, in the present.
We are a church that cherishes both memory and hope. But we live neither in the past, nor in the future. To live anywhere but in the present moment is really not to live at all.
The past may have been wonderful; its memory can empower us. But it’s gone, and we need to let it go.
Thoughts of the future may gladden our hearts and cast wide smiles upon our faces. We know that we need to plan for the future, and we understand that the actions we take in our own day will have important effects in the lives of those who will come after us. But to live for the future alone is to turn our backs upon the many glories that life bestows upon us, right now.
We can’t be so intent upon living in the past that we rob the present of its beauty and its meaning. We can’t be so intent upon building for the future that we run roughshod over those with whom we share this life today. As Dana Greeley once said:
The third blessing of faith is being able to be together, right now, in the present moment.
The fourth refraction of faith—the fourth gift the church holds—is the chance it gives us to get out of our own little boxes, and join the wider world of all humanity.
It is easy in this fast-paced, hermetically-sealed society of ours to deal only with our immediate families, a few co-workers (perhaps), and a small, carefully chosen circle of others who are “just like us”. It’s easy to get trapped in our demographic boxes, relating to—being with—interacting among—people solely of our own persuasions, our lifestyle, our socio-economic level, our nationality, our age group. and so on…
Churches in general—and this church in particular—won’t let us do that. Even when we might like everyone in our church to be “just like us”, we know it isn’t possible (and really shouldn’t be).
So, instead, we just dedicate ourselves to enjoying the journey with the whole teeming, living mass of humanity that we have assembled here in this little church.
Being in a church casts the circles of our lives wider and wider. It moves us beyond our little lives of home and work (pleasant as they may be), and toward a wider life of greater empathy and compassion for all humankind.
So, in church, we celebrate getting out of the box, and being part of a circle as wide as the human race itself.
The fifth blessing our church brings is its connection with the community.
Probably the best thing about this town in which most of us live is that it is a real community, and not just another place to live. It’s so much more than just another gray and faceless “bedroom community”.
This is largely because of countless “little things”—the countless contributions, large and small, that so many organizations, groups, and businesses have made toward strengthening the civic fiber of our community over the years.
Our church is an important part of that civic fiber:
For more than two and one half centuries, the First Parish Church has held its doors wide open, right here in the very center of Stoughton Square. To be part of this church is to be connected, in deep and important ways, to the history of this town. Supporting this church means strengthening the civic fiber of our town, and helping to keep it a real community, with spirit and energy and personality of its own.
The fifth blessed refraction of faith is being part of a church which is such an important part of its larger community.
The sixth blessing our church bestows is being part of a movement larger than we are.
We are so proud (and protective) in this church of our congregational polity. We are proud to declare that this church is democratic, self-governing, and autonomous. No one “out there” tells us what to do. We govern ourselves. We make our own decisions.
But let us not forget, too, that even in our independence we are interdependent with other congregations; that we are part of a movement of well over 1000 democratic, self-governing, autonomous congregations like us, from who we should be willing to learn, and to whom we ought to be willing to offer support.
We don’t need to go through life alone—as individuals, or as a church. We are part of a larger movement—a shared heritage which claims as forefathers and foremothers so great a cloud of witnesses: the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Ballou, Channing, Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton (to name but a few). This connects us to something bigger than we are—to a great brotherhood and sisterhood of people of goodwill and compassion.
Our sixth blessing this church bestows is its connection to the greater Unitarian Universalist movement.
The seventh blessing—the seventh flower our church brings—is the opportunity it gives us to live according to our highest ideals.
A church can be a precious, fragile biosphere of human relationships. We can, if we are daring and honest, open and gentle, model new ways of being together, which inspire those who see us, and give us hope for this human race of ours. Our relationship to one another within this church should be based on our deepest values and our truest principles. Being part of a church family calls upon each of us to be the best men and women we are capable of being; to live out, here and now, those values we profess.
We might not always succeed at this. Each of us also brings our own particular weaknesses, conflicts, and limitations to the family’s table. But even in our failures, we can learn lessons on how better to cherish and care for one another.
The seventh gift our church gives is the opportunity we have here to live according to our highest ideals.
The eighth blessing our church bestows is the opportunity we have here to stretch our minds.
When you come to church here, you don’t have to check your common sense or your gift of reason upon entering the building.
In this church, you will never be talked down to. In this church, we will err on the side of people’s intelligence, and our abilities to learn new things and struggle with deeper ideas. Our times in this church can remind us of the countless profound, prophetic, powerful voices which world civilization has produced. This church allows us to shop freely in a free market of ideas. It gives us the chance to stretch our minds, even when it might seem easier just to live on the easy, pre-digested thoughts that others have cine up with.
There is no religious fast food served in this church. It asks us each to stretch our minds and cultivate our intellects.
The ninth blessing our church bestows is the opportunity it gives us to stretch our spirits.
We do not live in our heads alone. We have learned over the years that vital, living religion cannot speak only to the mind; it must foster the spirit, and engage the heart, as well.
A church is, first of all perhaps, a place to grow a soul.
It is the place we come to remember, amidst the business and busy-ness of our days, that we are, in our essence, spiritual beings.
A church is a place where we come to explore our spirituality. We come here to hear the music beneath the music; to sense the rhythm that beats at the heart of life; to taste the joy at the heart of pain, and the pain at the heart of joy. A church is where we can each bow down in humility before the great and transcending Mystery of God, of Life.
Being part of a church gives us the chance to take care of our spirits.
Ultimately, I believe, the greatest gift of the church is the gift of love.
When our Universalist forebears chose as the focus of their faith the deep and true realization that “God is Love” they were declaring that it is through the love of human beings that God becomes incarnate in this world of ours.
“Love, like a carefully loaded ship, crosses the gulf between the generations,” St. Exupery once wrote.
This church is an ark built with love; it is a vessel for the journey of our spirits.
For us, too, faith is a rainbow: where the sun still shines amidst the storms of life… where the illimitable light of the Sun shines forth, reflected and refracted in a wide array of blessed shades and colors… where the particular contributions of each of us are manifested and magnified in the glorious arc of all creation… in a living, powerful symbol of the blessedness, hope, peace, and love… there, at the very heart of life.
May we continue to cherish the blessed manifestations of the Spirit which each one of us truly is.