Reflection by Rev Diane Rollert, 10 June 2018
Sometimes when I explain Unitarian Universalism to people who’ve never heard of us before, they’ll ask, “But if you don’t follow a single scripture like the Bible or the Qur’an, and you don’t put God or Jesus at the centre of your faith, then what makes you different from a social club?”
I often answer that we leave room for each person to find their own path to the holy, and we’re still a religious community. Why? Because we’re focused on more than just the social. We come together in community to search for answers to the most essential questions: How do we live with meaning and purpose? How do we respond to the intimate and the ultimate in our lives?
You might say we’re seeking simplicity. We’re trying to figure out what’s truly essential. How do we make our mark in this life, when we will never know for sure if there is anything beyond this life? Reincarnation, heaven, hell, the great void of nothingness, the returning from dust to dust and ashes to ashes, or the rearrangement of energy into some new beginning. We can have theories about what happens when we die, but all we truly know is what exists here and now in this very moment. That’s the quest that unites us as something more than a people who gather for coffee and conversation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson may have once said:
“…to leave the world better than one found it,
whether by a good family, a garden patch, a cheery letter, or a redeemed social condition;
to have played with enthusiasm, laughed with exuberance, and sung with exaltation;
to go down to dust and dreams, knowing that the world is a wee bit better,
and that even a single life breathes easier because we have lived well, this is to have succeeded.”
Or to quote poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Say yes! That’s my prayer. That’s the answer that I hope that each one of us can find. Say yes! As we sang earlier, “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer ‘Yes’ to life.”
That person who wants to know if we are really just a social club will then ask me, “But are you Protestants? Do you do something on Sundays? Do you have sacraments? ”
In many cases, the questioner is someone who’s experienced a religion with very strong and clear rules. Birth, marriage and death each have their rituals that must be followed carefully. If not, there can be dire consequences. In the Christian tradition, these rituals are called sacraments. These are actions that cement the relationship of the individual to God or to Jesus or to both.
For Roman Catholics and many in the Eastern Orthodox traditions, sacraments include baptism, matrimony, anointing of the sick (what many of us probably think of as “last rites”), communion, confirmation, confession (called reconciliation) and ordination of priests. For Protestants, what counts as a sacrament varies. People who grew up here in the days when everything was divided between French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants, often don’t realize that, while there’s only one Roman Catholic Church, there are thousands of Protestant denominations, each with its own theology and traditions.
This is when I try to explain that, well, yes, Unitarianism does come out of the Protestant Reformation, but we have evolved into a place of theological openness that welcomes people who may consider themselves atheist, agnostic, spiritual seekers or believers. For us, the rites of passage of birth, marriage and death are not sacraments in the sense that we are sealing a covenant with God. They are an affirmation of the preciousness of life, of love and of our commitment to the wider community that embraces us. These are the milestones that we mark in the journey of saying “Yes” to life.
As a minister, I’m often celebrating rites of passage within the context of the congregation. What greater joy can there be than welcoming a child into the world through a child dedication or a naming ceremony? We touch the child with a simple, thornless white rose on their brow, their eyes, their lips, their heart, their hands and their feet, so that their thoughts, vision, speech, love, generosity and life’s journey may be dedicated to the care of the earth and its people.
Child dedications are something that I wish we did more often here. But we live in a time and place when new parents no longer worry that the older generations in their family will be mortified if something baptism-like isn’t performed for the newborn. The generation that cared about sacraments is dwindling. There simply aren’t that many requests anymore to provide a meaningful ritual at the beginning of a child’s life. It’s an important ritual we’re really losing (though, happily, I’ll be dedicating the sixth grandchild of two members next Saturday on the South Shore).
But I understand. New parents are so overwhelmed when the child is first born. By the time they think about a child dedication, they fear that it’s too late. So, let me reassure you that it is never too late! Children and youth can be dedicated at any age in the Unitarian tradition. It’s a way for the community to pledge its support to our children and youth as their lives unfold. Wouldn’t it be amazing to dedicate each and every person here, no matter what age, to promise our love and care as a community for life.
Then there’s marriage, civil union or ceremonies of commitment. Over the years, I’ve officiated at beautiful weddings where the two spouses were members of the congregation. Maybe they even met each other in the kitchen while working on the hospitality committee. Maybe they were children who grew up in this community. The wedding ceremony itself is something that is co-created by spouses and the minister or the lay chaplain. Instead of a set liturgy, we work together to define what really matters. In the process, we’re witnessing a commitment of love as it needs to be expressed in that moment in time.
But I’ll be honest. People don’t get married as often as they used to, and unlike the commitments we make to our children, marriages have never been guaranteed to last. We never know who will be together for the long run and who will go their separate ways. When a marriage or union doesn’t work, we don’t see it as a failure or as a breaking of a sacrament. We see it as love that took a different direction than what we expected, and we open our arms to those who need support. That, too, is another milestone.
Finally, there are the rituals that come at the end of life. You can call them memorials. You can call them funerals, burials or interments. We call these rituals the celebration of a life. These are among the most powerful experiences I have known as a minister. I meet with families who share their memories of a loved one they have lost. We cry and laugh together. We consider music, meditations, and the stories that will be told, usually here in this sanctuary. What will we lift up about this person’s life? No one’s life story is perfect.There can be pain that needs to be named gently. But there is always so much to remember and to learn from each person’s legacy. There is so much gratitude that needs to be expressed for every life that is lived.
There have been several times in my life when someone I dearly loved left very clear instructions before they died that they didn’t want a memorial service — as if they were going to be consciously present at the event. In some cases, family and friends respected the request. In other cases, the bereaved knew that they needed closure and they wisely ignored the instructions. Memorials are really for the living, and those of us who remain behind, we need a way to share our memories of our loved ones. I’ve never found raising a glass of wine at a party to be enough, and I’ve lamented the great void I’ve felt when nothing at all happens and dear friends are stranded far apart from each other, left to manage our grief alone. We need a communal ritual for our grief and for our gratitude. Sometimes I wish that, especially in our increasingly secular world, sacraments were still expected.
Child dedications, weddings, celebrations of life. These may not be sacraments for us in the usual definition of the word—but they are what cements us together as a faith community. They are the rituals that contribute to making us more than just a social club with admirable values.
Several years ago, a member of this congregation was diagnosed with a long-term, debilitating illness. He’d first found the Unitarian Church of Montreal when he came here for a friend’s memorial service. Jazz music was playing and he was hooked. Over the years, as he attended the celebrations of life for numerous members and friends, he lamented how sad it was that, too often, it’s only after someone dies that we hear their life story, or share our appreciation of who they were. So, for his 80th birthday, his wife planned a celebration of his life here in this sanctuary. He had the joy of witnessing the love we had for him. His family and friends got to tell the story of his life, and we got to hear his humorous comments in response. It was one glorious evening!
I tell the stranger who asks, “This is what makes us a religious tradition.” We don’t need a single dogma to hold us together. What we share is a constant calling each other back to what is most essential. We do all we can to say “Yes” to life’s many milestones.
I want to end by asking you to join me in reflecting on the most essential question. What will you do with your one wild and precious life?
A few years ago, artist and activist Cindy Chang decided to make an art project out of an abandoned building in her New Orleans neighbourhood. She covered the walls with big chalkboards that had rows of these words printed on theme: “Before I die I want to…” http://candychang.com/work/before-i-die-in-nola/
The blank lines were an open invitation to passersby to respond. Within hours of the installation, people in the neighbourhood took advantage of the chalk that the artist had left out. They responded with some of their deepest held dreams. It was an idea that spread to many places across the globe, from New Orleans to France, South Korea, China, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and beyond.
“Before I die I want to…”
What would be the one thing you would write on that chalk board?
Simplicity is about clearing away the clutter to find the essential. That’s why we make room for the rites of passage in our lives. It’s a simple “Yes” to what truly connects us as a community.
Download I Say Yes!