by Senior Minister Rev. David A. Miller.
Apr. 23, 2017.
I’m not sure when I came to think of reflection as a vital religious concept, but at some point in my formation as a Unitarian Universalist I did. There are lots of different ways to reflect. We can think back about our early days of things like family and school. We can spend time reflecting on our careers or decisions we have made about them. As I said, there are all different ways to reflect in the world, so it has taken me a while to understand the the importance of reflection in our spiritual lives. But I think I have come up with some clarity.
Reflection is an important part of our own transformation. We as human beings are pretty good at acting from reason or emotion and then not doing much reflecting. We can form opinions and judgments pretty quickly and once we have done that, and once we have something in our heads, it is not always so easy for us to change our minds. Part of that sense of certainty comes from how we were raised or the framework or lens with which we see the world.
The lens through which we see the world is something I talk about in my Shift Happens workshop that some of you have taken. So, if you have, don’t give anything away in the next few minutes. We can’t help but be a product of the things we have experienced in our lives. To give one obvious and simple example, if one person was raised in downtown Baghdad and another was raised in Beverly Hills, it is quite possible that although there could be some shared experiences, it is likely the lens through which those two people see the world is vastly different. That isn’t just true for such an obvious example, it is true in many little and profound ways with each of us. If one was raised Catholic and one was raised Mormon, there could be both little and profound differences in the lens through which we see the world. If one was raised white and one was raised a person of color, there could be both little and profound differences in our lens. If one was raised in New York City and one was raised out in the country 50 miles from Laramie, WY, there could be both little and profound differences in our lens. If one was raised a White Sox fan and one was raised a Cubs fan, there could be both little and profound differences in the lens through which we see the world.
In my Shift Happens workshop I show this picture and I ask people to tell me the story about what it is. Remember, anyone who has attended workshop, please don’t give it away. Who would be willing to tell us what they think the story is behind this picture?
[Congregants share their interpretations.]
So, as you can see, we interpret things differently because we come from different frameworks and because we have had different influences and experiences in our lives. The question about this that is so important as it relates to what religion we are going to choose to practice is this: Once we know that there are different ways to view the story rather than just our own, will we be willing to reflect on our frameworks, our lens through which we see the world, and our course of action – our decisions – in order to personally transform? Because shifts happen all the time whether we want it to or not and at some point we have to make some decisions about our place in that shift.
Believe me, I get that some can truly struggle when change comes knocking at the door. Change is so very hard for many reasons and it is totally understandable that we find comfort in familiarity. We like the people we already know and the places we go. We often like the way it is more than the thought of the unknown way it might be. So once again, how does reflection fit in this process of transformation? The reflection I am speaking of is not necessarily reflecting on the past, although it could include that. It is not necessarily reflecting on what made you the way you are, although it could include that too. It is reflecting on what religion you are practicing and what religion you want to practice. As Native-American scholar and activist put it: “Religion is, in reality, living. Our religion is not what we profess, or what we say, or what we proclaim; our religion is what we do, what we desire, what we seek, what we dream about, what we fantasize, what we think – all these things – 24 hours a day. One’s religion, then, is one’s life, not merely the ideal life but the life as it is actually lived.”
The core at the calling of any religion and how those religions are practiced can be and often are very different, and that is certainly true with Unitarian Universalism. At the moment, we are going through a period of time when we are all looking at the same picture and in some cases telling very different stories about what the picture represents. In calling me to this pulpit, I have the enormous privilege and the understood responsibility to share with you on a pretty frequent basis, things to reflect on through my lens, about the meaning of this faith tradition. As I have said, I feel like Unitarian Universalism calls us into possibilities. I think it has always called us to question the orthodoxy of the time. I have always believed that it asks us to find the edges of our comfort and move out a little farther. I have always understood it to be in significant discussion and evolution about the meaning of god, the divine, the afterlife, the here and now and the way we are supposed to treat each ourselves and each other in this world.
Inherent worth and dignity. Justice equity and compassion. Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth. Free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process. The goal of world community, and respect for the interdependent web. I spend a lot of time thinking about the concepts in our UU Seven Principles. I spend a lot of time reflecting on what I think they mean, what others think they mean and what they mean for this congregation and the future of Unitarian Universalism. If we all reflect on the ideals and values in these statements then asked each of us to write an essay on what it looks in action, when it comes to concepts like worth and dignity, I wonder how similar or different those essays would be? How would we specifically define the concepts of world community or interdependence? For years there have been endless discussions on the meaning of just the word spiritual, so how do we expect that each one of us will have a shared understanding of all the other concepts that we hold as our defining principles.
This is one of the main reasons I think part of the vital practice of this faith tradition is reflecting on not just the dictionary definition of these words, or how they are written into our governing documents, but also the religious reflection of how each one of us bring our gifts and our wounds, our needs and our wants, our preferences and our fears to the lens through which we view not just the concepts of our faith, but the religion of the way we live in the world.
Last week I wrote a blog about the concepts of white supremacy and the use of the words at the UUA and here. We will be journeying through this more completely in the near future, but last week, here is what I said, “We as Unitarian Universalists are now going through a period of realignment in a variety of ways, ways that challenge our beloved understanding of congregational life and that in some ways challenge what we have come to know as the culture and practice of Unitarian Universalism. It isn’t just this one hiring event at the UUA, it has been an intentional, growing movement of people of color in our association as well as generational changes that are a part of a natural lifecycle of an organization like ours.
“This month we are talking about transformation, and sometimes transformation comes to things that we don’t want to see transform and can’t always control, and in many ways that is what we’re observing now. Change is a hard thing to control, especially if the change is meant to get us to reflect on our understanding of how concepts and words are used in ways that challenge our current understanding and comfort. We don’t have to like it, we don’t have to agree, and we can push back.”
Then, I posed some reflection questions. The reason I posed those question is because at some point in time, “Our religion is not what we profess, or what we say, or what we proclaim; our religion is what we do, what we desire, what we seek, what we dream about, what we fantasize, what we think – all these things – 24 hours a day. One’s religion, then, is one’s life, not merely the ideal life but the life as it is actually lived,” and I asked these question as an invitation to reflect on how we want to live. I asked:
- How am I reacting to the words or the concepts and why?
- What am I being asked to actually do in relation to the use of the words or concepts?
- How can I not make this about me and think about those whose pain is giving birth to the use of these concepts?
- What can we do to not blame those bringing forth this need for change?
- What should I do as an individual or what should we do as a community to deal with the issues at the core of the use of the words?
We all came today with a different lens through which to see the world. My lens is filled with an understanding of the need for us to move from a place of comfort as a faith tradition to being the transformational faith that is held in the history, principles and promise of this tradition, as I see it. We can all see things with both little and profound differences in our lenses. An example of this could be the various readings of the Jesus story that I referred to last week. Some observe him as an idol to be worshipped, some as the son of god and some see him as a Jewish revolutionary talking about kindness, being in right relationship, fighting oppression and being a glowing example of love.
In this world, as we are struggling so very much with shared definitions, let me give you one for transformation: “Change in form, appearance, nature or character.” Change is happening; shift is occurring. We are in a time of transformation. This is happening in small and maybe even revolutionary ways. It is totally understandable how this can be uncomfortable and a walk into the unknown. We have choices to make, and what I am suggesting is that we spend some time reflecting on our reactions, where they come from, what they mean and how they help us choose the type of religion we wish to live. Because religion is not prayer, it is not a church, it is not theistic, it is not atheistic, it has little to do with what most people call “religion.” It is our every act. All that we do, and are, is our religion.