Transformation of Self and World

Transformation. That’s our theme of the month for April at Community Unitarian Church: Transformation.

These themes that we explore, in our worship and in our Journey Groups, all interrelate. Transformation is ultimately what we are always about. As I said last week and expect to say again: I don’t think people choose to enter congregational life to stay the same. We’re here to transform. Not to deny who we are, but to become who we are, to realize our most authentic selves. Every theme we explore is in service to our transformation. This month we take a look at transformation itself.

The actress Nia Peeples put it well. She said:
“Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is constant transformation.”
Perfection is constant transformation.

The idea of perfection with which we are constantly bombarded -- the consumerist model that presents perfection as just one more product or service purchase away – actually makes us less satisfied. The “work, buy, work more, buy more” cycle pulls us away from our true nature and our unique gifts. The consumerist model presents perfection to us as a destination at which to arrive. Alternatively, suggests Nia, perfection is actually “something we move through one moment at time, allowing us to discover it again and again.”

It’s not somewhere else, it’s always right here. It’s not in some special experience you need to buy a ticket for. It’s right there in every ordinary moment. Perfection is constant transformation. And transformation is what we are here for.

Look at our mission. We need to keep coming back to our mission – keep coming back to what we’re here for. We’re here to:
nurture each other in our spiritual journeys; foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
Prior to the mission there’s the fact that we are a religious congregation, and we’re to do what religious organizations generally are for. We’re here as a congregation:
  • To have collective worship and celebration.
  • To provide a certain kind of education to our children, to our youth, and to adults.
  • To care for each other.
  • And to engage collectively with the world on behalf of peace, justice, and basic needs for all.
We’re here to do those four things. And everything else we do – maintain a building and grounds, and a website and a newsletter, establish and follow bylaws and policies, hire a staff and call a minister, elect a board – all of that is what we do only because that’s what allows us out our reason for being, it’s what enables us to have
  • Worship & celebration
  • Education
  • Relations of caring for each other
  • And collective action for peace, justice, and basic needs.
With our mission statement, we then go one step further. With our mission, we say that what we’re here for, the reason we have worship, education, relations of care, and action in the world, is: to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys, foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. Nurture, foster, serve. That’s what we’re here for.

And to go still one more step further, to sum it all up in a single word: transform. The reason that we nurture spiritual development, that we foster compassion and understanding, that we engage in service is to transform. The third part of our mission explicitly says so – “engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.” But of course nurturing spirituality and fostering compassion and understanding is also in order transform ourselves and our world.

There are other ways than congregational life to nurture your spirituality. There are books and videos and spiritual counselors and yoga and meditation classes. You can journal on your own and you can study the great wisdom literature of the world’s traditions on your own or in various classes – and I hope that you do. Congregational life allows a crucial further channel for the learning and the practice that nurtures that development.

There are also other ways than congregational life to engage in the work of peace, justice, and basic needs for all. You can engage in volunteer service and political action through a variety of organizations that have nothing to do with this congregation. And I hope that you do.

But only in a faith congregation are those two things brought together. In congregational life, nurturing your spirit and helping heal our world come together. You can be active down at the soup kitchen, active in organizations advocating for peace or justice or the environment, and you won’t hear much there about nurturing your spiritual development. You go to classes and counselors that focus on your spiritual development, and you won’t hear anything about working for justice, social action. The unique power of congregational life is this integration. It’s why I’m here. So that the work we do for spiritual development doesn’t stop at the door, but carries over into service and justice work outside. So that the work we do for service and justice outside can be deliberately, intentionally, and explicitly be brought back to spiritual development.

The best slogan that our denominational headquarters has ever come up with for advertising Unitarian Universalism was seven words: "Nurture your spirit, help heal our world." Yes. I think that’s as good as it gets in expressing what Unitarian Universalism is all about in seven words or less. Nurture your spirit, help heal our world. Great. And whenever I get more than seven words, I want to point out that what congregational life allows is that those aren’t two things, but one thing.

We nurture our spirit BY helping to heal our world. And we help heal our world BY nurturing our spirit.

As long as nurturing spirit and healing world are two separate things, you can go off and do them through various noncongregational channels. To live them as one thing, we need to do it as a congregation.

Engaging in service is an essential part of our spiritual development. Activism does not inherently do that. The pitfall of activism is that it’s so easy to get angry – angry at the people who we see as perpetuating the injustice and the violence. The energy of anger has a legitimate place, I believe, but if anger is all there is, then despair and burn-out will follow.

Direct service to the needy also does not inherently facilitate spiritual development. It can be condescending. I can hand out blankets to the homeless on a freezing night thinking all the while of how superior I am – my own charity a further proof of my superiority.

Together, as a faith community, if we’re realizing what our congregational organization makes possible, we gently help each other cultivate humility. We help each other shift our activism from fighting against evil to working for love, remembering that "a positive future cannot emerge from the mind of anger and despair.” Through our work on our spiritual development we can let go of attachment to outcome, understanding that to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our successes and failures. There is always a larger wisdom at work than our own opinions, and, as Gandhi said, "the victory is in the doing," not the results.

The reason for transforming our world is that it transforms us. It connects us with a wider world, it grows our hearts. Expanding our circle of care and concern, embodying that in our service and our activism, increases our own peace and joy. Moreover, the work will teach us things. For example, getting outside our bubble, teaming up with other congregations, predominantly Hispanic, or African American or Moslem or lower income puts us in touch with those we might not otherwise ever have a conversation with. Being a part of Westchester United, sharing the work, standing shoulder to shoulder for justice on the issues that we do agree on, empowers us and them. This is about personal transformation. Our ability to create social transformation is linked with our willingness to go through personal transformation in the process. We cannot expect the world to change if we‘re not willing to. The reason for transforming our world is that it transforms us.

And the reason for transforming ourselves is that it transforms our world. The more peaceful and loving we are, the more our lives inherently contribute to a peaceful and loving world, and the more ready we are to offer our time and resources to help heal our world. We have always been a people who said we must live our faith.

Through the centuries, the ideas and the work of Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists has influenced US culture and politics. As the morning dawned on Sun Apr 12, it found Community Unitarian Church ready – as ready it would ever be likely to get – to begin forming Social Justice Teams. Any effective social justice team will address their issue in five ways.
  1. Service: Direct assistance to those in need.
  2. Education: Classes and collective study of the complexities of a social issue. We have to know what we're taking about.
  3. Organizing: Forming coalitions with other UU congregations, with other faith institutions, and with secular organizations is crucial both for our own learning and transformation and for maximizing our effectiveness in the world.
  4. Advocacy: Lobbying, letter-writing, and anything else that brings our voice to our elected officials, or to others who change and make policy. We cannot advocate for or against a particular candidate or party – but we can and must advocate for policies that are more just, better promote peace, and better meet basic needs.
  5. Witness: Using the media; publicizing the issue and our efforts. Press coverage when we can get it. Occasional advertising. Getting out the word is a part of the justice work.
Based on the conversations at our February 8 Congregational Conversation, and the "dot voting" we did on March 15, our Social Justice Planning Committee has discerned that we are interested in possibly as many as nine social justice teams. The advantage of more teams over only one or two is that it will allow more of us to choose a team on an issue we already have passion for. The world needs your passion. It will allow more of us the opportunity for the tranformative work of leadership in one of these teams.

Each team will need a leadership core of five -- and ready supporters of possibly many more. Doing the math, that means that forming all nine teams will require 45 leaders.

The ultimate vision is that every member will be active on one of our social justice teams. Every member. And as many visitors and friends as feel ready and able. That's the vision. In the end, as always, it is your conscience and the reality of your life situation as you judge it, that must determine what you can do. It's up to you -- we are Unitarian Universalists; it could not be otherwise. And when we adopted our mission 15 months ago with a 96 percent approval, we were saying that engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world was one of the things we are here for -- all of us.

To realize that mission takes all of us. As Lauralyn Bellamy urges in words in our hymnal, "If here you have found love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world." The time for that is...now.

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