Thursday, February 27, 2014

Deeds Not Creeds

At various leadership trainings I have attended over the years, I am asked to create an elevator speech.  Meaning if you met someone on an elevator and they asked you to describe Unitarian Universalism how would you describe it in the time it took the elevator to reach their destination.  Now depending on the elevator, it might be quicker or longer. If you take our elevator here, you might have time for a short homily!!  Whenever I need to bring out my 30 second elevator speech on Unitarian Universalism, I always usually start with we are a non creedal religion. Meaning you don’t need to believe one specific thing to be a member here.  Then I go on to include something like our opening that we are a welcoming community that encourages an open ended search for meaning in life and a commitment to asking our values to shape our actions.  We are a pluralistic religion that draws wisdom from many sources. If you were wondering where that came from, now you know. I encourage you to think about your elevator speech.  How would you describe Unitarian Universalism in 30 seconds?  But of course it is never really that simple.  Being non creedal and encouraging an open ended search does not mean we can believe anything we want and do anything we want.
It means we act based on what we have agreed to as part of this specific community. Since we are a non creedal religion, we are bound by our covenants, covenants that we all make with each other as members of this Congregation.  Some are explicit like our covenant of right relationship, our bylaws, our policies, our contracts, and most importantly our mission and vision.  We also have a tradition of how things have been done in the past. Some believe tradition equals an implicit covenant. However as every new person joins in membership they become part of that tradition, and part of the making of a new tradition and that creates new implicit covenants that includes their open ended search for meaning. 
If we are to truly be welcoming, it means allowing the diversity.  I believe we are interdependent with others and if so, we cannot find wholeness by ourselves. We need others to covenant with to be whole. And that is why I when I participate in a new member class I always talk about the expectations of membership and what some of the commitments I expect of members. Those commitments include
A Commitment to regular attendance at worship services,
A Commitment to serve the congregation, to give back of yourselves to the Congregation wherever your skills or passion to learn may be.
A Commitment to develop your religious life, through one of our varied programs of Adult RE, Connection Circles, or Spiritual practices
A Commitment  of fair share pledging.  Which you will hear more about when we get to the annual pledge drive in a few weeks
And lastly a Commitment to be in right relations with other members, which is the most important of all of these
All are called commitments, because I want new people to know what is expected of them, what it means to be a member.  It is actually very easy to become a member here, but the meaning of membership is much deeper.  
I am ok if people don’t want to make that commitment.  And I understand that different people have different life circumstances that prevent them from being fully committed in all those ways.  But I have found over my long life as a Unitarian Universalist and as well in my previous religious experiences, that through these commitments, people find meaning in their experience in the Congregation and the Congregations they belong to are more effective and life giving because of such commitments.  Now there are many people who consciously chose not to be members. Again, I want to let you know that is ok. 
In the last census there were some 600,000 people who self identified as Unitarian Universalists.  Yet there are only 153,000 actual members in Unitarian Universalist Congregation.   Even if you are not a member, you can participate in almost every activity in the Congregation.  It is my sincere hope, member or not, that these programs give meaning to your life.  
But by becoming a member there is a difference.  William James said, “if it doesn’t make any difference to join, then its meaningless. You find the meaning of something by determining what difference it makes”  By becoming a member, you are saying I cast my lot with these people, for better for worse, sort of like a marriage, you say these are my people, these are the people I covenant with, these are the people I want to create a covenant with, these are the people who together with me, will try to create a community based on OUR values, By becoming a member you are saying to yourself, and to the world, this is my religion. By becoming a member you are naming yourself a Unitarian Universalist not just in thought, but in action. By your deed.  In naming of something and particularly naming something publicly, it becomes a very powerful force.   That is what a covenant is.  The naming of our values.
Just as in the Book of Genesis God had humans name everything they saw. I think that story speaks to an important human experience. To name something is to recognize it, is to understand it, is to be in relationship with it for better or worse.  And by being a member, you are saying you want to covenant with others and be in relationship with this Congregation.  For those who are not yet members, and are interested in hearing more, we are having a UU101 class on Saturday March 15th, or feel free to make an appointment with me.
James Luther Adams, whose picture is on the cover of the order of service wrote extensively on covenanting. Adams was a Unitarian Minister, and professor at Harvard, Andover Newtown Seminary and at our Unitarian Seminary Meadville Lombard in Chicago.  He was actually studying in Germany in 1935 and 1936 as the Nazi’s consolidated their power and he quickly left, seeing first hand the use of power to crush dissent.  This of course had a lasting impact on him and I believe led to his ideas of the use of religious community as force for moral power in the community.  Adams wrote extensively on covenantal liberal religious communities and their need to shape the values of society.  He spoke of humans as a species are a covenantal people. 
Going back to the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham making covenants with God, Moses and the Hebrews making Covenants with God.  Jesus making a new covenant with his followers.  And it was Adams in his paper “the five smooth stones of Liberalism” stated that “revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured, nothing is complete” and thus we will always be making new covenants. Throughout the scriptures as well there is an ongoing story of broken covenant. From Abraham to Moses, to King David and on and on. The famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote humans are promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures.  
There will be times we will miss the mark, but when we do, we must be in right relationship with each other to be able to become a promise-renewing community. We need to engage in conversation. And we need to be able to become more self aware and we need to be able to forgive. 
I saw Michelle Alexander the author of the book we studied last year “The New Jim Crow” on Real Time with Bill Maher this week. She was talking about NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Gaffe in listing all the late night talk show hosts and in doing so,  leaving off the list the one African American talk show host Arsenio Hall.  As Arsenio said, “they even listed Carson Daly” indicating they weren’t just listing the most popular ones.   Williams after being made aware of the exclusion, stepped back realized what he had done, and publicly apologized, and Arsenio graciously accepted the apology.  Alexander was making the point that we all have unconscious biases and stereotypes, and misunderstandings happen all the time. We have a long history of experiences together that creates these.   The key is that when they happen, when we are made aware of them, we should not get defensive, but we should acknowledge our bias, be open to learning from this new awareness, and apologize, and on the other side, when the apology is sincere, be willing to accept it, forgive and move forward.  
This is why covenant is so important. Why we point to it. We do not point to one symbol, one specific creed and say follow this, act this way, believe this way.  No, we point to our covenant of how we are to be together in community. We believe in deeds, not just deeds out in the streets, but deeds here in our Congregation.  Our covenants are  what holds us together, Our covenants are what allows us to be inclusive, not exclusive, Our covenants are what brings us wholeness and add meaning to our lives. Without covenants we are all just individuals separate from each other. It is our covenants that bring us together into community.
And as we live out our covenants, and improve as a community we find what works and doesn’t work and we improve our covenants with one another and by so doing we grow as human beings from the experience.  Adams in talking about our prophetic covenant says “The meaning of life is found in the processes and responsibilities of groups and institutions.”   Although it is true one individual can have an impact, it is the power of the institution, the collective of shared values, organized in a way to impact the community that shapes the community and the wider society.  Adams sees it as an imperative of the liberal religious organization to be responsible for the moral character for society.
If we abandon the public space, if we abandon the moral high ground, if we abandon our seat at the table to impart our values within society then the only religious voices that will be heard will be the steady drumbeat of those who spew hate, greed, discrimination, violence and oppression.  Ours is a covenant of love, ours is a covenant of compassion, ours is a covenant of justice, a covenant to each other, with each other, a covenant for others who are powerless and oppressed, and as well a covenant with our earth that sustains us with the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat.  We have the power to impart our values, and we must take the responsibility to do so. If we do not, we have abandoned our humanity. 
Adams stresses that the covenant must not be based merely on adherence to law but should be based on trust and affection. I think this is true whether individually, congregationally, or societally.  Don’t tell me what you don’t like. Don’t tell me what you hate.  Tell me instead about what produces love, what gives meaning to people’s lives, yours but not just your life. What is your vision for a better, more loving, more compassionate, more just community for others as well, and tell me how you think we can get there. Lastly Adams says that covenants “were produced by a prophetic criticism and carried within it a continuing need for the freedom of critical dissent” 
As we change as a community, as a society, as more people hear the values we espouse, with each new person who hears our call, we will be changed by their inclusion.  This is the nature of inclusion. We can have two reactions to this. We will be forced as individuals, as a community as a world to choose between inclusion and exclusion.   Adams said something that I thought was very profound in reflecting on his experience with the Nazi’s.
He said
“Nazism is rooted in elements of nature, namely in ones own blood and soil and territory regardless of the law or universal standards and to suppress every kind of free criticism. Nazim is oriented to nature. The prophetic covenant is oriented to history – to the demands of history and the achievement of meaning in history through social responsibility.”
I have to admit that was a hard thing to read.  On the one hand I feel we need to get our own house in order, whether that is our home, our Congregation, our city, our country, but on the other hand, everything we do impacts the entire world.  We either like the old westerns circle our wagons and shoot anything that tries to get through, or, or we look at where we have been, and we look at where we want to go, and we open ourselves to new ideas, new ways of being, and new ways of living within a global society.  As Bob Dylan said, “we can get busy living or get busy dyeing” As I say we can get busy creating, committing to a certain way of organizing our lives or we can get busy sleeping and accept whatever comes our way. So I encourage you to get busy living, get busy engaging and get busy creating.  Perhaps you can start creating  your elevator speech.  But really, you can only create an elevator speech if you have a depth of what this religion means to you.
So I invite you to engage into deeper conversations about covenanting, I invite you to engage in what it means to be a member, to be a member of this Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, I invite you to engage and volunteer to serve the Congregation that has brought meaning and community to your life and the life of your family. I invite you to engage, not to separate, not to segregate, not to disassociate, but to engage, for through engagement we will find wholeness.   And through wholeness we will build the world we dream about.   May it be so.



Saturday, February 15, 2014

Empowered

I remember the first time I felt empowered.  When I was a young child our whole family would gather every Sunday at my grandparents apartment in The Bronx for a breakfast of Bagels, cream cheese, and lox.  One Sunday, I decided to pick up the knife and started to cut a bagel myself, and my mother with a look of shock in her eyes,  trying to protect her sweet, innocent child said something to the effect, “let me cut the bagel, if you cut it that way, you will cut off your finger and bleed to death”.  I remember the steely look I had in my eye and resolve I had in my heart and I responded, “I am going to cut the bagel and if I cut my finger then I will bleed to death.”  That was just the kind of kid I was.
My mother stood upright, I remember it even today, it was almost with a look of pride in her eyes, and she said ok then cut the bagel.  I have to tell you, I have never been more careful in cutting a bagel then I was that day.     The point being, at a young age, I found the power within to stand up for myself, and my parents, though recognizing the risks to me,  empowered me to do so even in that small way.   It was an act of trust on their part. They showed trust in me, that I would be responsible in my actions.   Empowerment means trusting others to make decisions for themselves, to succeed and fail based on those decisions, to fall and rise again for themselves, to forgive those failures and to cheer the successes. 
And as my parents did for me, we have to create an environment that allows others to feel empowered. Often empowerment has to be allowed to happen.  It means allowing others to have power.  In the previous example it was my parents who had the power, and clearly they could have stopped me from cutting the bagel, but didn’t.  It is this mindset that impacts my vision of Congregational life.   By empowering teams of people to fulfill our vision and mission, we allow them to make decisions for their own self determination for what their hoped for outcomes are for their team’s programs, and to then we all use our power to support them in their efforts. 
It is not an easy thing to do, to not impose our will,  our ideas, our values, especially when we have that ability to do so.  We need those with power to guide, nurture and support others in their quest for empowerment, but ultimately people must learn to empower themselves. We can use others as models, as a blueprint for success as the Strategic Planning Team did when it looked at other successful Congregations and how they grew, but it is up to us to make that true for us as a Congregation. It is up to us to provide the environment that allows others to find their own way, to try, and maybe even fail, as long as the result of that failure is to learn and to use that knowledge to succeed in the future.  
This is true for us as individuals, it is true for the teams in our Congregation, it is true for our Congregations looking back on our long history and it is true for our Association as well.  
Back in the 1960s, the Unitarian Universalist Association had a series of events that is now called the Black Empowerment Controversy.  It is a really interesting history to look back on and learn from, although it was quite jarring at the time it happened.  As we look around, and as we look at our association, we are by and large racially White in our membership.  And although probably never breaking single digits as a % of overall membership, there was a time when we had more people of color in our association. 
Unitarian Universalists have throughout our history been allies to people of color, leaders in the abolition of slavery in the 1800s, allies in the civil rights movements in the 1960s.  As I think I have previously said, we had more UU ministers heed the call from Martin Luther King to march in Selma than any other religion. But an interesting thing happened when African Americans in our Association tried to become more empowered within our Association. Now this is a long and complex story, and I only have time to give you the highlights,  After racial rioting in 1967 throughout America,  African Americans within the Association formed a group called the Black Affairs Council known as BAC.   
In pursuit of African American self determination in the Association, they demanded $250,000 a year for four years from the Association.  This amount represented 12% of the UUA Budget.  So you can imagine as with any radical change, there was significant debate.  There were debates about whether identity groups should even be allowed to have meetings alone to determine their needs or should every meeting be open to everyone.  There was a debate on the issue of plurality via self determination as proposed by BAC or an integrationist approach as proposed by a competing group called BAWA or Black and White Action which was led jointly by both African Americans and Whites.  
At one point proponents of BAC actually commandeered the microphones at General Assembly and thereafter approximately ½ of the participants in General Assembly walked out in protest in support of BAC. I have seen videos, it was wild. In the end, General Assembly voted to fund BAC $250,000 a year and BAWA was given nothing. During the first year there were allegations of misappropriation of funds and members within the UUA called for an audit. Of course it was pointed out they had never audited any other group that had been given money. Of course its not a bad idea to audit how money is spent, but one has to wonder what the impetus of this new policy was. After the first year there was a severe budget shortfall within the UUA and the UUA proposed spreading out the payment of  money to BAC over a 5 year vs. 4 year time period. BAC objected to this,  and eventually with many other African Americans left the Association.   Now it was much more complex than this, but this is the 30,000 ft overview.
So what are the lessons have we as an association learned from these events, and what can we as a Congregation learn from these events. So I think the first thing I  learned is that it is always important to learn the facts before we make judgments.  It is clear that often our emotions lead us to only hear a portion of the story, from just one perspective. It is like the zen story of the six blind men touching different parts of the elephant and each coming up with a different conclusion about what the nature of the elephant.  As well we have to accept that sometimes an issue like this, it is just never clear.  But we need to look at facts and not just make broad generalizations about a situation based on supposition. We tend to wash large  groups of people with a broad stroke and forget just how complex issues are.  In this instance BAC had a radical reputation.  Now only previously hearing the hyperbole, it was interesting studying the event in detail to get a more well rounded vision of the group.  To some degree they were radical such as with the taking over of the microphones,  the walkout at GA and their non negotiable demands.  But in reading BAC documents I also found some well thought out philosophies, planning, and some very interesting and creative projects that were developed with the monies they eventually did receive. 
I also found that although their core group, were people of color, as a whole they worked within a larger group that included White people throughout the process, so I think this image purported image of their being separatists was a little overstated.   Words can be used to define people in ways that can be damaging.  Let us be mindful in all things, but especially mindful in our words. 
How we speak to each other, with respect and compassion, sets a tone for how we live together, how we act together, and most importantly, how welcoming we are to people who are new to our community who overhear our conversations.
I think these events show the need for engagement and compromise. In these events, the lack of communication from the UUA,  and BAC’s uncompromising position led to a polarization and led to us as an Association not dealing with the issue of Race for a long time.  But I believe this is true on a much smaller scale as well.   Whether its what movie to go out to on a weekend, which I can tell you in my family is a very deeply negotiated process with multiple voting ballots and veto powers. Because of that I have compromised and ended up seeing many movies that I might not have chosen for myself that ended up being very meaningful.  Or whether it is the question of how we as a Congregation can grow in depth and size, which led to a year long conversation with the entire Congregation that continues with  2 town hall meetings today.  Or maybe it the question of how to become more aware of how issues of race affect all of us, as we have done in our Adult Religious Education program which led to the creation of our Social Justice Program MIRED, Mass Incarceration Racial Equity and Drugs which is having its next meeting this Tuesday at 6:30 if you would like to be a part of what we are doing as a Congregation on these issues.  
Engagement and Communications are critical to the success of any relationship. From a theological position, I think these events showed a clear division between plurality and assimilation. The individuals involved in BAWA had a different philosophical perspective on dealing with racism than those in BAC.  The question raised was do we allow there to be different visions of religious thought to coincide peacefully with each other, or must there be some general consensus.  I see these events in the 1960s leading us as an Association to realize our need to be open to new ways of being in community with each other. 
I think we as an association learned from this experience when in the 1970s women asked for more power in our association and throughout the years when our gay and lesbian brothers and sister  looked for ways to be more self-determining in our Congregational life.   We learned from our past mistakes and opened our hearts and minds and learned how to allow those without power to have power. We learned how to share power, and in a very real theological view, we learned that by sharing power, there is more than enough power for all. We learned we are more powerful when we learn to share power with others. Together we are more powerful than we can ever be alone.  
And that is why it is so important to build a strong liberal religious community, so more people can be learn to be empowered. So more people can understand what it means to stand on the side of love as thousands of our members gathered with over a hundred thousand others this past weekend on a Moral March in Raleigh North Carolina.   A moral march to restore voting rights where that state among many other states are trying to disempower people. We stand together to allow empowerment.
  Another lesson I learned is that we need to have visionary leadership.  The book of  Proverbs Verse 29.18 states “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.”  We have a vision in this Congregation, You as a Congregation created this vision and we are constantly defining it as we have with the Growth Task Force and the Strategic Plan.  I can preach it, but ultimately you will define it with your actions.  Our actions will determine whether we implement this strategic plan to “create a vibrant, welcoming, diverse church family which embraces individual searches for meaning 
and devotes itself to community good.”
  All of us together can make this real. One last lesson I want to share with you that we learned from these experiences was our need as an Association to learn about and refine our governance. 
The uncertainty as to what actions the association could take and how decisions were made led to much of the confusion and misunderstanding of these events. I think that is just as important on a Congregational level. Over three years ago this Congregation changed its bylaws fairly significantly in its vision to move from a family style Congregation to a program style Congregation through the use of Policy Based Governance.   The goal of this was to empower the programs of the Congregation to carry out the mission and vision that you as a Congregation agreed upon.  That means decisions are made at the team level, not the individual level.  Together working together we are stronger than we can ever be alone as an individual. 

So I ask you to think about how you can you be empowered in your Congregational life. Or as  importantly how can you help others feel empowered in their Congregational lives.  By empowering others we are sharing our power, allowing others to develop their own power, we are trusting others to use that power wisely, and we are letting go of our need to control every decision that could possibly affect us and our community. I know its not easy, but its important.  It is natural to worry,  but we cannot let worry prevent us from moving forward.   In my life, I have found the one common factor that leads individuals and organizations to fulfilling their vision and mission is the willingness to take the necessary risk, at the opportune time.  Now not every risk leads to success, but there can never be success without some element of risk, and as well without some element of sacrifice. We want to be prudent, we don’t want to cut off our finger and bleed to death, but we still need to cut the bagel if we want to add the cream cheese and lox.  I don’t slice the bagels anymore.  I now trust others at the bagel store to do that for me. And so I ask of you,  to trust your teams who are working to fulfill this Congregation’s vision and mission. And more importantly I ask you to be engaged in the life of the Congregation so that you too may feel the power of and life giving force of empowerment.  May it be so.  

Friday, February 07, 2014

Inspiration

I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year. This weekend is the start of the Chinese New Year, which is based on a lunar calendar. This is the Year of the Horse. Although depending on the year you were born there are different elements Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood associated with the Horse, each having a different meaning.   I want you to know that when I set this date on my calendar last summer with this sermon topic, I did not realize it was a special holiday of another Culture. Either my unconscious mind was at work or sometimes though the Universe just unfolds with such synchronicity.
This year I have been exploring with you the Sources of our living tradition. Today I will explore our 3rd Source which is . “Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;”   Last month I spoke about our fourth source “Jewish and Christian Teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” I think it is interesting to note that we break out Jewish and Christian Teachings from other world religions.  Judaism and Christianity of course are of course world religions.
It makes me wonder what they thought about other Jewish and Christian Teachings, other than those calling us to respond to God’s love?   Do we only value World Religions if they inspire us? Of course this just goes to show the amount of word crafting that goes into creating documents like these.  What it says to me is that we as an Association wanted to recognize that the roots of our religion did come from the Jewish and Christian Traditions, but as the lyrics to our hymn “spirit of life” says, Roots hold me close, wings set me free. And we freed ourselves from the bonds of a single scripture, and opened our hearts and minds to the different religious ideas.
I often say to prospective members that we find wisdom where we find it. We don’t limit ourselves.  And although there are many religions encompassed within this,  There is a long tradition particularly within Unitarianism and particularly the Transcendentalists of the study and influence of Eastern Religions.  Thoreau in Walden spoke of the Transcendentalists' debt to Indian religions directly:
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmological philosophy of the Bhagavat Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in their temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with their crust and water-jug. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.[1””

The Transcendentalists saw the Oneness of the Universe within all things.  They looked beyond what the current culture within their society was, to try to understand what other cultures’ religious values were and tried to adapt those to their lives here. Particularly in America, with our founding principle of the concept of the separation of Church and State, they saw themselves fulfilling the legacy that their Unitarian forebearers started who broke from the Trinistarians.  The Transcendentalists saw themselves as part of something larger than just the particularity of their religious ancestry.  
It is said that Ralph Waldo Emerson was often seen walking around with a translation of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita in his hand and he wrote often about its influence on him.  In the 1800s Emerson wrote about the non-duality of life vs. the western religious vision of the duality of good and evil. From his essay Nature
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me;” 

Now this was Emerson translation of the Hindu sacred texts, the concept of no-self,  applied to his world in New England.  Its important to understand other cultures. And it is also important to understand the context of other cultures. We as a religion clearly appropriate other religion’s wisdom.  The question we must ask is when does appropriation become misappropriation. Its hard to see this when we look at it from our own cultural perspective.  It is why I tend to speak from only specific religious cultural backgrounds that I feel I can speak to from a genuine perspective. 
Sometimes we as a culture just make up religions or associate things that we create with other religions.  Sometimes this is a way to help us on our journey, sometimes it is  way to open up our culture to another culture and sometimes it is just due to a lack of knowledge.  That is why it is important to understand the context of our sources. I once opened a Chinese fortune cookie and received the fortune that said “Inspiration within is waiting for you. It is time to go deep”  I have saved that fortune all these years along with other fortunes I have received over the years. (maybe share other fortunes) This statement moved me. It moved me no matter what its origin was for the message was received at a time when I needed it and when I was ready to hear it.  However it is important to understand that receiving information in a Chinese fortune cookie is not the same the understanding wisdom from another culture or another religion.  First as anyone who has seen the movie Iron Man 3 knows fortune cookies were invented in the United States.  There have been law suits about this fact actually.  The other contested view is that they were created in Japan.  Nothing about China.
 They just showed up in our Chinese Restaurants here in America in the early 1900s. 
So I point this out because it is important how we use information from other religions and culture. It is important to understand the context within which it is written, to the same degree we do with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. We learned this when a few weeks ago, we had a professor from Augustana visit with us to share about the Sufi Muslim Poet Rumi.  Most of the poetry that we normally associate with Rumi are not translations of his actual work, but the writings of a Westerner who was trying to create the essence of what Rumi was writing about so it would understandable to the American mind.  So although not a technical accurate translation, without this writing attributed to Rumi, we in the west might not have ever known about him or cared about Sufism.  Now if you want to read and study with others a more accurate translation of Rumi’s other writings, there are still two weeks left in our adult RE class that is meeting Wednesday Nights. Fascinating, challenging, enlightening. 
This again is why we come together. To expand our concept of religious ideas.  To move not only our minds but our hearts as well. And by moving our hearts and minds we change who we are and how we live in the world.  It is not enough to just learn, but to put our learning into action. It is not enough to be moved, we must be moved to action. It is not an either or. It is a both and.  What we say as Unitarian Universalists is that inspiration, the things that move us can come from many religious sources and we should keep our minds open for you never know where wisdom will come from. 
One of my first introductions to World religions when I was young actually was through Comic Books.  One of the first sermons I preached when I arrived in the Quad Cities I believed I talked about this. One of the memorable quazi religious characters was known as the “ancient one”  from the Dr. Strange comics. He was the sorcerer supreme and a mystic.  When his physical body died, he became “one with the universe” sort of like Emersons transparent eyeball,  and could be seen in the trees and grass and the clouds.  This was my first introduction to the inter-dependence of all things in life. As I got older I read a great book by Thict Nhat Hanh called inter-being, that basically speaks to this very principle but without pictures. We find our wisdom where we find it in a multitude of forms. And of course I was deeply enthralled with Yoda and the Jedi from the Star Wars trilogy.  Yoda encapsulated various aspects of eastern religious thought regarding mindfulness and the zen concept of emptying the mind, as well Yoda encouraging his pupil to face and integrate his shadow self in order to find wholeness. 
Interesting enough there is now a formal Jedi Religion with Doctines and statements of belief.  It is interesting how life sometimes imitates art.  In a census in England, at one point in time almost 400,000 people  self identified their religion as Jedi.   This phenomenon is world wide. They even have a web site!!  On it is says “The Jedi Church believes that there is one all powerful force that binds all things in the universe together. The Jedi religion is something innate inside everyone of us, the Jedi Church believes that our sense of morality is innate. So quiet your mind and listen to the force within you!”   I am not sure that is what the Unitarian Universalists had in mind when they were talking about World Religions.   But we find our wisdom where we find it. I was raised to ask questions. I was always a naturally curious youth and young adult trying to find answers to life’s questions, not realizing that the questions were in and of themselves part of the answer. Yet I had no real training when I was young as to how to even search for this. Today we have beliefnet and of course many other avenues via the web.  Having more information available makes it easier to explore but also harder to delve deeply into something.  
One of my first direct experience with other religions (other than meeting Hare Krishnas at the airport) was triggered when I was a young adult and went to my doctor complaining of stomach pains. My doctor, at that time was a family doctor who had known me for years, and gave me the advice that I should take a day off of work, go to the beach and learn how to meditate.  This changed everything for me. I did go to the beach, that is not what not changed everything. What started the change was my search to learn how to meditate. That led me to buy a book, entitled “Learning How to meditate” which led me to start to learn about Buddhism, which led me to learn and study about Taoism, and then learn a bit about Hinduism.   My experiences and depth of knowledge particularly about Buddhism accelerated when I joined a sangha (which is a Sanskrit word meaning community) at my Unitarian Congregation and started attending retreats with Buddhist teachers over 20 years ago.  We now have a sangha here that meets every Tuesday Night at 5:30 that I invite you attend. All are welcome. Prior to the Sangha, I have to say I had previously always taken pride in being a very self taught individual.  But by surrounding myself with others who were also on a search for meaning, showed me that me that there were other ways to learn, and that in fact I could learn from others, in fact I learned by sharing ideas with and from others, and I learned that sharing wisdom deepened my experience and my wisdom.  Being in relationship with others, allows us to be more comfortable within ourselves and with our own beliefs, because we can be genuinely ourselves without fear of having our beliefs denied, condemned or judged.
Diversity in the particularity can be strengthened as long as we believe in the Unity of the whole. That is why I believe religious exploration is meant to be done within a community. That within community we can explore together,  study together, learn together, challenge together and become enlightened together.  The dali lama would often tell people who came from other religions to speak to him, that they should go back to their own religion and study it more deeply.  Our religion is the study of religious truths and religious meaning and we do not limit ourselves to any doctrine or any belief.
I believe in the saying that there is one mountain and many paths to the top.  In our Congregation we create an environment where those paths are open for all to walk on, for young and old alike . These paths are paths that have a long tradition with Unitarian Universalism. We have been at the forefront of blazing new trails.  Let us continue to blaze new trails to inspire us to new heights as we climb that mountain. Let us continue to blaze new trails so it will be easier for those who follow us to continue the journey, just as the Transcendentists who blazed a new trail using world religions, just as some current and former congregants blazed a trail from downtown to this wonderful building, just as we blaze a trail from one generation to the next, let us continue to blaze new trails that inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life. May it be so.