Our Spiritual Home
By Reverend Rebecca Bryan
What does it mean to be a church? Some would say a church is a body of people who adhere to certain creeds or confessions of faith such as the Nicene Creed or the Five Pillars of Islam. Unitarian Universalists have seven principles, which we covenant to uphold and work for in the world. They are not, however, creed or doctrine.
Others would say church is a place where you study the teachings of whomever it is your religion follows as its authority. With the theological eclecticism and pluralism of our faith, there is no one authority. We draw wisdom from many sources.
Some have accused Unitarian Universalists, as a denomination, of being social clubs, interested only in the care and wellbeing of their members. Others have accused us of being civic organizations, focused exclusively on working for social justice, without regard for religion, faith, or even spirituality. We know we are neither a social club nor a civic organization.
What then is a church? What is our purpose historically and during this pandemic?
I believe our purpose is steady, historically and now. Our purpose is immutable, even though how we achieve our purpose must be responsive, flexible, and adaptive to the times.
In my opinion, the purpose of a church, and our church, is to connect people to God, or whatever they call that which sustains them, and to connect them with others who hold similar values and are on the same quest.
Where else but in church do you get to listen to organ music, set aside time to think about the big questions in life, make meaning of life, draw comfort, and offer solace to others? Where do you get to form life-long relationships with people of all ages, who become your comrades on this journey of life? Where, if not in church, are you reminded that we are human beings, not human doings, that there are spiritual elements to us and all of creation as real as the mind, body, and politics. Where but in church do you get reminded to remember the spiritual, the beautiful, and the ephemeral? One could argue that we can do all those things alone, and for most of them, we can, to some degree. But we cannot be in relationship or spiritual community by ourselves. For that, we need one another. We have to come together, in person and online.
You may or may not agree with all I just outlined. We come to church for different reasons and stay for different reasons, and those reasons change over the course of our lifetimes. You may come to meet people and stay because you’ve grown to love them and cannot imagine your life without them. You may have come to be sure your children have some connection to religion and continued coming because you realize you need that same religious connection. You may have no idea why you come, and you may still be wondering why you come. My experience, however, is that for as many reasons as people come to church, spiritual issues eventually come to the forefront.
Coming to church and being part of a church community will change us. We change when we belong to more than ourselves alone. This change may happen dramatically, or it may happen over time, but it does happen. By belonging here, we live in a larger world. How could it be otherwise? We are challenged by what we are asked to consider and to do. We learn to give to each other and participate in making the world a better place. And we learn to do this as guided by our spiritual and religious values. For example, as Unitarian Universalists, we are called to act in ways that support the worth and dignity of all people and of the Earth. We can no longer act as though we exist as independent people, disconnected from the world around us. We can no longer believe that how we live makes no difference.
This pandemic is hard. We are living in a time of great loss, fear, and uncertainty. What is true for the world and for us as individuals is true for the church. The First Religious Society is doing well. We have our online streaming services, our summer worship planned, and our important summer programming in place. We are blessed with so many people who want to help and are helping through the Parish Friends, Pastoral Care Associates, and personal relationships. We are extremely fortunate that none of our members have died of COVID-19, though relatives and friends of our members have. We have a budget that will get us through the next year, allowing us to honor our commitments to our staff and keep them employed, while we all benefit from their many gifts and skills. There is much to be grateful for.
And, these are difficult times. We don’t know when or how we will begin gathering again in person. We mourn what had been, those days we took for granted being with one another. I cry when I remember the warm embraces that we gave one another. How teased I was when I first arrived here because of my love of hugs! How I miss the casual banter and sharing that happened before the start of worship or meetings, the buzz of the Lower Meeting House and Parish Hall at any and all times of the day. Oh, how I miss you all.
The last eleven weeks have been shocking. Yet, we have shifted out of the initial crisis and are now adjusting to what we know will be a long recovery or return to a “new normal.” Church expert Carey Nieuwhof writes that the “innovation” that happened in the first few months of lockdown wasn’t innovation but was “adaptation.” FRS member Jim Supple said to the staff team last week, “What we thought was an interruption is actually now a disruption.” As painful as it is to admit, we won’t be getting back to “normal” any time soon. I think I’ll offer a healing service or service of lament just to help us process that reality. Let me know if you’re interested.
We will adapt to this interruption and to the new reality. We will do it because we are in this together. We belong to one another. I am honored to be your minister and to be doing this with you. Yet, I need every one of you. I need to understand where you are and what you are grappling with and need. I need you to help us adapt and offer your ideas and gifts in all the ways they exist. We have important questions to ask ourselves and important decisions to make. We will make the best decisions together.
Here are a few of the things I heard from you about the role of our church during this time. “The role of a church is to keep people safe. The church should be cognizant of everyone’s physical and mental health. We need to support one another, realizing that we are in different places in terms of everything from daily stressors to physical issues and levels of comfort with technology.” I heard that we need to be optimistic, but realistic, clear in our communications, and flexible. One person said that we need to be a “calming, listening safe place for everybody.” Yes, to all of that.
I will add that we need to be partners in the community, finding opportunities to help and respond to the challenges and injustices brought about by the pandemic and those that existed before the pandemic, including the environmental crisis. We need to do all that while being faithful to our central purpose as I understand it, which is to connect people to each other and to the transcendence that sustains them, call that God, the river of life, or compassion. Every day I ask myself whether this – whatever it is we are doing or considering – will help people find or sustain those connections? I sure hope so.
I love you all.
Questions to ponder, discuss and hold…
What is the role of church during this pandemic? Specifically, what is the role of our church during this pandemic?
How can the FRS be a good partner in the larger community during this time?
How is the experience of COVID-19 challenging?