The Longing for Belonging, part 1


“A Blessing Called Sanctuary”
by Jan Richardson

You hardly knew
how hungry you were
to be gathered in,
to receive the welcome
that invited you to enter
nothing of you
found foreign or strange,
nothing of your life
that you were asked
to leave behind
or to carry in silence
or in shame.
Tentative steps
became settling in,
leaning into the blessing
that enfolded you,
taking your place
in the circle
that stunned you
with its unimagined grace.
You began to breathe again,
to move without fear,
to speak with abandon
the words you carried
in your bones,
that echoed in your being.
You learned to sing.
But the deal with this blessing
is that it will not leave you alone,
will not let you linger
in safety,
in stasis.
The time will come
when this blessing
will ask you to leave,
not because it has tired of you
but because it desires for you
to become the sanctuary
that you have found—
to speak your word
into the world,
to tell what you have heard
with your own ears,
seen with your own eyes,
known in your own heart:
that you are beloved,
precious child of God,
beautiful to behold,
and you are welcome
and more than welcome

SERMON, part 1

Do you belong?

It’s been almost 40 years now since the TV sitcom Cheers first aired, with its theme song that said:
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

It was, perhaps, an unfortunate sign of the times, that by the 1980s the most plausible such place for such belonging was the neighborhood bar.

It feels good to be recognized and seen – for everyone to know your name. It feels good to be liked – to be around people who are glad you are there. It feels good, for many people, to have a mug of beer in hand. The show attracted viewers by rolling those good feels together into one.

But it doesn’t really much work that way. If you were inspired by the show to seek community in a neighborhood bar, you were probably disappointed. You may have had some enjoyable evenings, but in the end there wasn’t a lasting life satisfaction there. The pleasure of a shared libation at the end of a day of working together depends on being grounded in the working together -- and without that grounding soon becomes a simulacrum of itself.

The neopagan and ecofeminist writer Starhawk got a little closer when she expressed it this way:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done -- arms to hold us when we falter -- a circle of healing -- a circle of friends -- someplace where we can be free.”
Belonging means not just that everybody knows your name and they’re glad you came, but that there is meaningful work to do together. For our us-ness to be real, it must be us-ness in service to something larger than us-ness. To belong, we must belong not only to each other, but also to a shared purpose.

Or, rather, let me now back up and approach it this way. Let’s start with the fact, not the feeling. The fact of belonging is constant; the feeling of belonging may be variable. The fact is you do belong, no matter what. All God’s critters got a place in the choir.

You might feel you don’t fit it. People can feel that way sometimes. They can have the impression that this world doesn’t have a place for them. But everything that is was brought into being, and the causes of its existence establish that it needed to exist.

You are not separate. You never were. You never will be. So the issue is not whether you belong. You do. The issue is only whether you know it, whether you understand it and live like you understand it – because, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we disconnect – or rather, we fall into believing the lie that we are disconnected.

We might try to force ourselves to fit in, or try to dominate others to make them recognize our importance. We might deny our inherent interconnection, and thereby limit our own freedom. You belong to everyone and everything, and everyone and everything belong to you. As Max Ehrmann’s 1927 Desiderata says it:
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.”
That’s inalienable. Your belonging does not depend on everybody knowing your name. You belong even if no one knows your name. Your belonging does not depend on anybody being glad to have you around. You belong even if no one seems glad of it.

You can step into your belonging, or you can step out of it and live from the false belief that you might not belong. To choose to step into your belonging, to accept that you belong and that whatever is happening to you also belongs is to step into your capacity for joy, freedom, and love. Any moment that you meet with joy is a moment you have stepped into your belonging – the belonging that is always there.

Your belonging does not depend on finding, somewhere, the people to whom you can speak with passion without having the words catch in your throats. You belong even if such people never materialize, and knowing that you do will help you speak authentically to anyone. Your belonging does not depend on finding, somewhere, a circle of hands that open to receive you and eyes that light up as you enter. You belong without that, and knowing that you do, you begin to notice all the ways that circles of hands always have been opening to receive you.

Brene Brown once defined belonging this way:
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
When we don’t grasp our inherent belonging, we are apt to try to fit in. We accept the model of a circle with an inside and an outside, and we are trying to get, or stay on the inside. This is the exclusivity conception of belonging – to be “in” requires keeping others “out.”

I imagine the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6 were flooded with strong, wonderful feelings of belonging. They were with their people, doing work they thought of as important. It’s powerfully attractive, and we are all susceptible to the attractions that can produce mob behavior. We want the feeling and forget the fact. We want the feeling of belonging and forget the fact of belonging. So, as Brene Brown points out, fitting in is the opposite of belonging.
“Fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely — it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are — love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all. . . . When we fit in, we assess a situation and acclimate. When we belong, we bring ourselves to it and say this is who I am.”
We don’t shape-shift and “hustle for the worthiness we already possess.”

Hence, Brown concluded that true belonging – that is, the feeling of belonging when it comes not from fitting in but from awareness of the fact of our inalienable belonging – “only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Thus, “our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

I said that the pleasure of a shared libation at the end of day of working together depends on being grounded in the working together and without that grounding soon becomes a simulacrum of itself. Let us now add that this pleasure also depends on bringing to the day’s labor -- as well as to its relaxation -- our authenticity.


UU Minute #27

Fausto in Transylvania

Fausto Sozzini, also known by the Latin form, Faustus Socinus: at age 38, in Basel, he finished “On Jesus Christ the Savior,” which argued that Jesus saved us not by dying, but because his example shows us how to live. Sozzini’s previous works had argued that
  • reason is an authority equal to scripture, that
  • Jesus was divine by office rather than by nature, that
  • the soul was not immortal, and that
  • scriptures were historical texts.
Meanwhile, in Transylvania, where Ferenc David, Giorgio Biandrata, and King John Sigismund had established Unitarianism, the fledgling religious movement was encountering setbacks. King John had died [in 1571], Biandrata faced charges of immorality, and David had gone a little too far when he took the position that prayers need not be addressed to Jesus – for which he faced imprisonment for “innovation” if he wouldn’t recant.

Biandrata’s charges of immorality left him with no influence with his erstwhile friend and colleague, David, but Sozzini’s works had come to Biandrata’s attention, so he called on the young Italian to come to Transylvania to see if some sense could be talked into David.

Fausto Sozzini went to Transylvania, via Kracow, and spent four and a half months in 1578 and into 1579 under David’s roof trying to convince David of the compromise position of saying that no matter who the prayer is addressed to, it is received by Christ as mediator, for transmission to the father.

But David’s position’s hardened, and from his pulpit he began denouncing the worship of Jesus. David was arrested, incarcerated at the Fortress of Deva, where the old man miserably perished in less than three months.

Fausto Sozzini left before David’s trial began. He went to Poland, where, as the father of Unitarianism there, his life would have its greatest impact.

NEXT: Poland Before Fausto


UU Minute #26

Fausto Sozzini: Early Years

When Lelio Sozzini died in 1562 at the age of only 37, he left behind little more than a trunk of books and manuscripts – inherited by his nephew, Fausto Sozzini, age 22.

Young Fausto had begun early to reject orthodoxy. Three years before, at age 19, he’d been denounced by the Inquisition. He’d fled to Zurich, and it was there that he received his inheritance: his uncle Lelio’s papers.

Fausto Sozzini studied his uncle’s legacy with care. From those manuscripts he discovered an insistence that reason is an authority equal to scripture. Within months of encountering his dead uncle’s works, he wrote an essay, his first published work, in which he took the antitrinitarian position that Jesus was divine by office rather than by nature. Within a year, we know from a letter he wrote, he rejected the immortality of the soul.

Still, in 1563, Fausto returned to Italy, outwardly conforming to the church, and served as a secretary in the Florentine Court for 12 years. Though he later regarded these years as wasted, during this time he wrote, “On the Authority of the Holy Scriptures” – widely influential for viewing scriptures as historical texts.

Leaving Florence in 1575, Fausto Sozzini moved to Basel and devoted himself to close study of the Bible. In 1578, at age 38, he finished “On Jesus Christ the Savior,” in which attacked the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – the idea that the sufferings of Christ are accepted by the divine justice as a substitute for the punishment due for the sins of the world. Rather, argued Fausto Sozzini, Christ is our savior because his teaching and his example show us the way of salvation, not because his death paid off our debt of sin.

NEXT: Fausto in Transylvania


UU Minute #25

The Empire Strikes Back

Italy in the middle of the 16th-century: A new hope. Innovative thinking about Christian doctrine was going on in southern Italy and in the Republic of Venice. But then comes the second movie: "The Empire Strikes Back." And the Church of Rome did indeed strike back.

In 1542, the inquisition was deployed in Italy. It found lack of faith disturbing. In southern Italy, the Neo-Platonic Academy of Bernardo Ochino, and other similar groups almost immediately ceased to exist. Among the Italian religious reformers that fled the Italian inquisition, two are of particular note: Giorgio Biandrata and Lelio Sozzini.

Biandrata would go to Poland and, as we have seen, to Transylvania, sowing anti-trinitarianism and support for religious toleration.

The other Italian important to Unitarian history who fled Italy during this period was Lelio Sozzini. Born in 1525 in Siennna, trained as a lawyer, Lelio Sozzini moved to Venice at age 21. His great passion was to relate human law to the law of god. Toward this end he carefully studied scripture, which study produced a growing conviction that the church of Rome had gone over to the dark side – fundamentally conflicting with both scripture and reason. Then: Lelio discovered the writings of Miguel Serveto, whose 1531 book, On the Errors of the Trinity, was not suppressed as successfully as the church wished. It convinced Lelio Sozzini to become a Jedi Padawan – I mean, to abandon the law and give himself entirely to the study of religion.

In 1547, with the Italian Inquisition closing in on rebel bases (antitrinitarian congregations) in Venice, Lelio Sozzini fled to Switzerland, and then to England, where, in 1548, he met Obiwan, I mean, Ochino, who had earlier fled Italy.

When Lelio Sozzini died in 1562 at the age of only 37, he left behind little more than a trunk of books and manuscripts – fatefully inherited by his nephew, Fausto Sozzini.

NEXT: Fausto Sozzini: Early Years


UU Minute #24

Doctrinal Innovation in Venice

As noted last time, Church Reformation in Italy had a more Renaissance and intellectual flavor than in Luther’s Germany. In Naples, the Neo-Platonic Academy, including Bernardo Ochino, called into question church teachings on:
  • Christ’s vicarious atonement,
  • the virgin birth,
  • the divinity of Jesus,
  • the resurrection, and
  • the trinity.
Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, the Republic of Venice was a sophisticated mercantile center, with commercial ties throughout the known world. The renown of its merchants extended to Shakespeare’s England.

Venice was used to diversity of custom and belief, and its economy was served by a broad tolerance. Moreover, Venetians, like the Germans, had a highly developed resentment of Rome’s interference. Thus, anyone whose religious opinions made them anathema elsewhere in Europe, might find a haven in Venice.

Some sources suggest that when Miguel Serveto was arrested in Geneva, he was on his way not to Naples, as reported in UU Minute number 9, but to Venice – to which Geneva was on the route.

The German Reformation focused on corrupt practices. The Reformation in Southern Italy focused on reform of doctrine. In Venice these two merged into a radical, anti-trinitarian movement. Serveto’s books were being circulated and finding approval among Venetian reformers as early as 1539 – one year before Transylvania’s King John was born.

In 1550, a Council of Venice representing some 60 anti-Trinitarian congregations adopted a 10-point statement of faith declaring:
  1. Christ is human, not God; born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God.
  2. Mary and Joseph had other sons and daughters after Christ.
  3. Where Scripture speaks of angels it means humans appointed by God for a given purpose.
  4. There is no Devil other than human imprudence.
  5. The wicked do not rise at the last day, but only the elect.
  6. There is no hell but the grave.
  7. When the elect die, they sleep until the judgment day, when all shall be raised.
  8. The souls of the wicked perish with the body, as do all other animals.
  9. Human procreation has from God the power of producing flesh and spirit.
  10. The elect are justified by faith alone, not by an atonement from Christ’s death.
(Source: Primarily David Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, pp. 23-27.)

NEXT: The Empire Strikes Back


UU Minute #23

The Reformation in Italy

European Unitarianism emerged from the Protestant Reformation zeitgeist of the 16th century. This took various forms in different regions, and all the forms had influence on the burgeoning Unitarian movement. In Germany, where Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517, there was a pre-existing resistance to Catholic Church power. Medieval Germany – called the Holy Roman Empire, though it wasn’t Holy, wasn’t Roman, and wasn’t an Empire – resented the financial demands from the Roman church, resented foreign influence from the Pope -- and Holy Roman Empire kings had been pushing back for centuries before Martin Luther came along. Luther’s success lay in harnessing this resentment against Papal power and influence into sympathy for his religious vision.

In Italy, on the other hand, the impetus for reformation was different. There, the Renaissance – with its reclamation of classical Greek and Latin learning -- was a bigger factor. When Italian intellectuals who had been reading Plato and Aristotle took up questions of church doctrine, they tended to do so in the academic pattern to which they were accustomed: they gathered in discussion groups.

One such group, calling itself the Neo-Platonic Academy, flourished in Naples for six years between 1535 and 1541. The group included Bernardo Ochino, mentioned earlier because his works helped liberalize Poland’s Queen Bona, mother of Transylvania’s Queen Isabella.

This “NeoPlatonic Academy” called into question church teachings on such subjects as Christ’s vicarious atonement, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the trinity.

Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, centered around Venice, another version of the Reformation emerged.

NEXT: Doctrinal Innovation in Venice