I was a faithful member of the United Methodist Church from the age of 12 until I was 18 and in college. When I left, for good in my mind, at the age of 19, I told myself that I was a leaving behind a church that condemned me, a religion that left me malnourished, and a God who had forsaken me for eternity. In a period of less than two years, my spiritual journey led me along a path from doubting Christian, to anti-religious atheist, to inquisitive Unitarian Universalist. My dalliance with atheism was short-lived and half-hearted, and my embrace of Unitarian Universalism was initially borne of gratitude for discovering a way to be religious that allowed me to be rid of the Christianity that I’d left behind me. I have now been a Unitarian Universalist for 18 years – at 36 years old that’s half my life so far, following the 18 years I was a professing Christian, and threefold the years I belonged to the United Methodist Church with which I identified for so long. A lot about my theology and my religious outlook has changed in all that time, and I continue to reassess my beliefs as I age and have more life experience.
I remember a class called “The New UU” that I took at the first UU congregation I would join on my new path, which is now called the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair (NJ). In one of the early sessions, a gay former Catholic got into a heated debate with the minister leading the discussion about the role of ritual in Unitarian Universalism. This man was angry at even the merest suggestion that what would be his newfound faith should in any way resemble the one which had scarred him, which meant that there was absolutely no room for ritual of any sort, or even the word ritual itself. At the time, I thought he was being ridiculous; but in him I recognized the hurt that I, too, was feeling as a gay man ostracized by the faith of my upbringing. Who was I to judge him? Unfortunately, he did not find what he was looking for that evening, so he got up in a huff mid-class and he left. I sometimes wonder where his journey led him after that night. As for me, I decided that religion was still a worthwhile pursuit and I chose to remain.
My early years as a Unitarian Universalist were ones in which I was comfortable being dismissive of Christianity and also being around others who were equally or more dismissive. For a modern movement whose roots lie in two Christian denominations, it bewilders me how much we have come to embrace an overall disdain for our origins. Granted, I appreciated this tendency at first; but my years of study and open encounter with those UU’s who would still follow Jesus, not to mention my separation from the particularist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible that I’d fled, rendered me less hostile to the faith of my upbringing than I’d once been. Reading the works of Marcus Borg, whom I declared to be my favorite theologian upon his death just a year ago, was a great influence on my willingness to not disregard and discard all the good that I’d known within Christianity. In my experience, many Unitarian Universalists are open to the wisdom of ABC religion – Anything But Christianity.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I have come full circle and consider myself a Christian – I haven’t evolved that far, yet! – nor do I mean to imply that everyone can and should find that the Christian story is of ultimate value to their lives. I’m simply observing that, at some point, we became a faith that is comprised largely of people whose major impulse is to leave behind rather than to move toward. How do we overcome that?
In the eighteen years since I left Christianity behind me, I have attended Christian churches of various denominations only for weddings, funerals, and, after I met my husband and began observing Christmas again, Christmas Eve services. I once attended a Lutheran service on Palm Sunday because a nephew was being baptized. In almost every instance, I felt like an outsider. A welcomed and well-treated outsider, but an outsider nonetheless. Last year on Candlemas, a time of purification, preparation, initiation, and commitment, I decided that my spiritual life was spread too broadly and that I needed to choose the wells from which I would drink more deeply. On that day, I joined both the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, having decided to stop fighting my background, and the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, having long ago come to the conclusion that an observance of the natural cycles of the earth, and of life, held great value for me. I’ve spent the year between that Candlemas and this embracing the idea of claiming a narrower path than the one I’ve been taking all these years. I began moving closer to the rhythm of the Christian liturgical cycle during Advent, reflecting on quiet hope in the dark of the year. I continued observance of the rhythm of the pagan wheel of the year, participating once again in my church’s Winter Solstice ritual. In eighteen years, I refused communion at every Christian service I went to where it was offered (except once a year, at most, in my own UU congregation where I could partake in good conscience). On this last Christmas Eve, after ten Christmases in a row of letting my husband and in-laws go up for communion and waiting behind, I led our pew up to the front of the church and partook with them. Just this weekend, I attended the Imbolc ritual of the Baltimore Reclaiming Community, where I honored the lengthening of days, asked a blessing on holy candles, gazed into the ignis purgans, and made a pledge to “live fully now” in the coming year. Next week brings Ash Wednesday... There’s something about these rituals that I’ve been missing in Unitarian Universalism, notwithstanding the sometime belief that there is too much ritual, as espoused by the wounded man I’d met so many years before as a new UU.
Part of what we as Unitarian Universalists value in religious life is the “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”, and we promote the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”. I have come to a point in my life where that means I must dig more deeply and draw from the wells that I have chosen for myself. The words of what some view as the Unitarian Universalist’s most sacred hymn plead “roots hold me close, wings set me free”. For the year ahead, I intend to explore ways in which I might be held close by my Christian roots and set free by Pagan wings. I will continue to be nourished from other wells, as they offer me their resources; but I will tend to my own at this time, and I will pray that this anchoring and expanding might continue to be held within my chosen faith community. Spirit of Life, come to me…come to me.