In the sermon series, I’m offering on our current seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, we’re up to the third. In this one, “we covenant to affirm and promote Acceptance of One Another and Encouragement to Spiritual Growth in Our Congregations.”

The beautiful choir anthem we just heard expresses this principle well:

Seek your own way, accepting others,
Walk up the path, meet with your truth.
And aid another on your journey, giving love.
That we may uplift them
That we may uplift child, sister, brother, and stranger
with our vision.
In the spirit of truth.

The welcome we open our service with each week expresses our acceptance of one another—not just those already in our community, but any newcomers. We accept people into our community no matter what their religious background, their theological perspective, their gender identity or sexual orientation, or where they come from. We also welcome people regardless of their economic status, the color of their skin, the size of their body, their educational background.

Acceptance and Welcome

Our acceptance and welcome of all who share our values are at least aspirational, if not always realized as well as we’d like. Our denomination is currently engaged in a process of internal reflection to examine how we may fall short of these ideals, and how we might improve. A commission was established to research and recommend ideas for congregations and denominational boards and staff to make changes to be more accepting. The commission issued a report of their findings and suggestions called Widening the Circle of Concern. As a matter of fact, the chairs of our congregation’s teams are meeting after the service today to discuss how the teams can implement some of these suggestions.

I want to let everyone know that if you ever feel unwelcome or not accepted for who you are, let me know. This is not who we, as a congregation, want to be, but we are imperfect human beings and being in a community is difficult, though ultimately rewarding. Being in community that is, of necessity, mostly virtual is even more difficult. Some are uncomfortable with Zoom and even for those of us who are, it is amazing technology yet still not as satisfying as being together physically.

If you feel on the outs for any reason, know that it is not because there is anything wrong with you—or with anyone else. And let us know, so we can improve.

This 3rd principle is the only principle that specifically addresses congregations, the bedrock of our Unitarian Universalist faith. It speaks to how we relate to each other within our congregations, not only accepting each other, but encouraging each other in our spiritual journeys.

 We have a Covenantal Faith

As a covenantal faith, the ways we relate to each other are spelled out explicitly in covenants. As Mark just read, “A covenant is not a definition of a relationship; it is the framework for our relating. It claims: I will abide with you in this common endeavor, be present as best as I can in our becoming. This calls for a level of trust, courage and sacrifice that needs to be nurtured, renewed and affirmed on a regular basis.” And “what we do with and for one another is powerful and beyond our imagining.”

Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have a hierarchy, and it doesn’t have a creed. The glue that holds us together, that lifts up our highest aspirations, and that keeps us accountable to each other is covenant.

We have covenants at all levels of our ways of gathering in this faith. Within this congregation, we have covenants for the Board, the Covenant Groups, and Faith Development classes. We have a congregational covenant, and the Covenantal Relations team is suggesting a shortened version that reads like this:

As members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills, we covenant that:

We will support our Church community by being welcoming, kind and inclusive.

Remembering our mutual responsibilities, we will enter into any conflict in a positive way, speaking with people directly, without divisiveness, honoring boundaries, always assuming good intentions.

We will listen by being honest, open-minded, respectful and compassionate.

We covenant to live our shared UU faith by walking together in the spirit of love.

You can see this and the longer version that is still our official covenant on our website.

And all the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association are joined in covenantal relationship as well. This covenant includes the seven principles and six sources, and ends with this statement: Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The Time for All Ages showed in a physical way how a covenant can help us work together to reach our goals. As a congregation, we have the goal of living out our mission as best we can.

As a reminder, and for those who don’t know it, our congregational mission is:

By building a loving religious community that
nourishes the spirit, celebrates life, and
cherishes the connectedness of all things,
we will transform ourselves and our world.

As Laura Bogle, creator of the Time for all Ages says, “So we have guidelines and agreements about how we will be together, and how we will play together towards the fulfillment of that mission. Our congregational covenant, as well as other aspects of our organization, helps us play the game. Our covenant provides clear enough boundaries, transparently communicated so everyone knows, to get us moving together towards the same goal, flexible enough to allow for creativity along the way.”

How can we care for one another?

I just came across a lovely example of how a members of a community can take care of each other. It is an example of how we can learn from other species. The author is Randika Madhumal, who writes:

“My dad has bees. Today I went to his house and he showed me all of the honey he had gotten from the hives. He took the lid off of a 5-gallon bucket full of honey and on top of the honey there were 3 little bees, struggling. They were covered in sticky honey and drowning. I asked him if we could help them and he said he was sure they wouldn’t survive. Casualties of honey collection I suppose.

I asked him again if we could at least get them out and kill them quickly, after all he was the one who taught me to put a suffering animal (or bug) out of its misery. He finally conceded and scooped the bees out of the bucket. He put them in an empty yogurt container and put the plastic container outside.

Because he had disrupted the hive with the earlier honey collection, there were bees flying all over outside.

We put the 3 little bees in the container on a bench and left them to their fate. My dad called me out a little while later to show me what was happening. These three little bees were surrounded by all of their sisters (all of the bees are females) and they were cleaning the sticky nearly dead bees, helping them to get all of the honey off of their bodies. We came back a short time later and there was only one little bee left in the container. She was still being tended to by her sisters.

When it was time for me to leave we checked one last time and all three of the bees had been cleaned off enough to fly away and the container was empty.”

This is a beautiful model of what congregational life can be. We help each other when we are sick or injured or otherwise incapacitated, we share our joys and sorrows with each other, and we are there for each other in many ways.

This principle specifically speaks to encouraging each other’s spiritual growth, however. We are, after all, a religious body.

How do we encourage spiritual growth in others?

Hopefully, the Sunday services are conducive to it, giving new perspectives on the things that really matter in life. Ideally, we would be able to discuss the services afterward in coffee hour, though our coffee hour conversations have been limited to Zoom and much curtailed during this pandemic time.

Covenant groups are actually designed to promote this type of interaction. The topics are the monthly themes, and have or can have spiritual content. The structure of the sessions encourages everyone to share from experience and feelings, which promotes spiritual rather than intellectual engagement. I think they are one of the most important ministries this church offers. They start fresh each fall, but are always open to new members. Just let me know if you’re interested.

But we also have wonderful adult faith development classes, and fellowship groups, which also offer ways to connect with others in the community about things that matter. Ways to stretch our minds and hearts and encourage others as well. Things like the 4th Sunday forum, Philosophical and Spiritual Insights, UU Christian Perspectives, Jesus Discussion Group, and Sisters in Spirit. We have a library that offers opportunities for spiritual growth in its many high-quality, well-organized books.

What does spiritual growth look like?

In an online article called “The Four Stages of Spiritual Growth,” author Chip Richards suggests a four-stage process that expresses well the way I see spiritual growth. He attributes the model to author Michael Beckwith, who introduced it in the 1980’s as “a practical and empowering perspective on our journey from victim-hood to empowerment, connection and oneness with the greater forces of life.”

Stage One “To Me”

The stages start with one Beckwith called “To Me,” where we experience life as happening “to us.” As with each of the four stages, in order to move from one stage to the next, Beckwith tells us we must be willing to let go of something. In order to move from the ‘To Me’ stage of our development into stage two, what we must be willing to let go of… is blame. After reacting, resisting and blaming others (or life itself) for our circumstance, eventually we come to a place where we are ready to claim more of a sense of personal responsibility and become more of a generative force in our life. Through choice or necessity we make a shift and begin to experience ourselves taking matters of our life into our own hands.

Stage Two “By Me”

As we let go of the need to blame anyone (including ourselves!) for where we are, we open ourselves to shift into our next stage of development, the “By Me” stage. In this stage, “we may initially feel stretched or challenged by our circumstance, but this challenge is often what is needed for us to dig deeper and become a causative agent in our experience. This is the stage of the journey where we get to discover that we are far more capable than we realized. We are not victims of circumstance but rather creators of it.”

Stage Three – ‘Through Me”

Moving to the third stage, called “Through Me”, if you’ve worked hard at something, whether writing, music, sports, or art for instance, you may have had that experience of flow. It feels like you are no longer the agent, but rather the vehicle for something to flow through. Richards says, “ We may have been building skills and trying the same thing over and over for quite some time, when suddenly, we go from playing the music to feeling as though the music is actually playing through us. We go from being the surfer using our skills to surf the wave, to feeling the energy of the ocean guiding our flow upon it. From being the writer of the story, to feeling as though the creative essence of the story itself is expressing through our pen onto the page.”

And “When we enter ‘Through Me’ consciousness we go from a sense of personal significance grounded in our own achievements, to feeling a sense of humility about being part of something greater than ourselves. In order to move from the ‘By Me’ stage into stage three, what we must be willing to let go of is our need for control. As we let go of having to be the soul generator and controller of each outcome, we open ourselves up to discover a new sense of trust and connectedness to the bigger story/currents/song ready to flow through us.”

Final Stage – “As Me”

The final stage is called “As Me.” As we travel through the third stage of our development and experience a sense of the greater flow moving ‘Through Me’ consistently in life or endeavor, we begin to reach this fourth leaping-off point and the simple but profound realization that whatever is moving ‘Through Me’ is also inside of me. That this greater energetic force and I are actually made of the same source material. Like a ray of the sun or a wave in the ocean, I am actually an individualized expression of this greater force, which is now moving, breathing and acting in the world ‘As Me’.”

Richards says, “To move beyond the experience of life occurring ‘Through Me’ and into the ‘As Me’ stage of spiritual development, what we must be willing to let go of is our sense of separation. … We release our perception of the infinite nature of the universe as a causative energy that exists outside of us, and we open ourselves to experience this infinite nature in and ‘as’ our very being.”

We cycle through all four stages

My feeling is that we don’t move from one to the other in order necessarily, but rather go in and out of all four stages all the time. When stressed, it’s easy to blame others or ourselves for our circumstances, though we probably spend the most time in the second stage. I’ve experienced that state of flow, for instance sometimes when writing a sermon, but it doesn’t happen every time I write by any means. I’ve even had moments when I’ve tasted that beautiful state of being one with the universe, like being a drop of water in the ocean, but that is extremely rare.

One thing to note is that though such moments of stages three and four often seem to come unbidden—by grace, some might say—there is something we can do to promote our spiritual growth, and that is to let go of something. We can let go of blaming, we can let go of our need for control, we can let go of our sense of separation. Easier said than done, I know, but we have a covenanted community of seekers here to encourage us on our journey. A congregation of people willing to accept each other as we are, encouraging us in positive, non-judging ways to grow spiritually.

May we do that for each other. – Rev, Jane Thickstun