Whom did you bring to church with you today?

Sermon at UUFE by John Turner

shadows city street

Our lives are filled with relationships. Some of them are strong. Some are weak. Some helpful to us. Some harmful. And, often, we are not fully aware of the impact some of these relationships have on us. Including this morning.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the same thing that happens to me from time to time. I’ll be sitting in church and discover that something I did not expect is now on my mind. Just sorta pops up out of nowhere. Of course, it’s not from NOWHERE. It’s been bubbling around in the back of your brain for some time. But for some reason, NOW is the time it decides to come to the surface.

Sometimes these are random thoughts. Probably not a good idea to go into more detail on those right now. Some are kinda weird. But some insightful. At least, I think so.

For this morning, I want to focus on the times where someone is the focus of these thoughts that bubble up from our subconscious.

As human beings, our lives are made up of a myriad of relationships. Now, I’ll tell you that, for whatever reason, relationships are more important to me than they are to many others. But I think the point is valid, nonetheless. We have so many different relationships in our lives – people, places, things, activities, jobs, and probably even more. As a hospital chaplain, I do a lot of grief work. Grief comes from the fact that we normally keep our relationships more or less balanced. We know the relative importance of our spouse’s birthdays and going to a baseball game with a friend. But sometimes one of the significant relationships in our lives becomes disrupted. Sometimes by death, but sometimes by things like someone moving away or, say, retiring, in the case of a job.

At that point, our delicate balance of relationships is now out of whack. What follows is a process of reevaluating all of the remaining relationships and figuring out how they all balance now. This causes quite a disruption in our thought process, made more mysterious by the fact that this (mostly) seems to take place in the background.

One thing that happens during this process is that certain, somewhat random, feelings will come up out of the deep from time to time. Often, it is not clear how these feelings relate to the process of sorting out the change in relationship that we are in the midst of, but (mostly) they do, in some way or another. Regardless, it is often of value to consider WHY these things pop up. 

While I’m on the subject of grief, I would like to point out that, once you have re-sorted all the relationships, it is not uncommon for the whole issue to pop up again a few years later. (1) Be prepared for this. (2) The second time is usually much easier than the first time.

And it may help to understand WHY this comes up again. The answer is that you resolved all the relationship things at one point in time. Some time has now gone by and you are now a different person and some of your relationships have changed. The solution you came to a few years ago may no longer be working so well. But, more often than not, what is needed now is a bit of a tweak. Or, sometimes, it’s kind of a “check in” to be sure that the resolution from a few years ago is still working. That is, some part of your brain asks, “Is this still working?” and another part of your brain checks and reports, “Yep. Still working.”

But what I have to say today is not aimed specifically at those of you who might be going through a grieving process. It’s just that, from time to time, some of these relationship issues can arise. It’s good to be aware of them and it can be of value to spend some time on them.

Let me give you an example. In the summers, the Quaker meeting meets in the old meetinghouse. The one built in 1684. Needless to say, there is no air conditioning. No electricity, actually. So we have the windows open. This lets all the smells of summer come wafting through. One rather hot morning, it was the smell of hot pine sap. Suddenly, I was filled with a vague dread. I spent a little time thinking on this and concluded that this reminded me of Boy Scout summer camp. I never really fit in with Boy Scouts and summer camp was not something I looked forward to and this smell had triggered a return of these feelings.

But now I had placed those feelings and how they related to my past and could move on.

So, let’s talk about whom you brought with you to church today.

There are going to be a lot of open questions here. This is meant to give you a chance to consider things for yourself. It’s not a quiz, but do give some thought to these things.

Let’s start with the person who walked in the door with you. (Unless you came in separate cars.) I should say that if you came by yourself, that’s OK. You may find something in this anyway.

What are your feelings towards your Significant Other this morning? And how is that coloring your approach to church?

Maybe you have a long history of church with her. Maybe being here reminds you of so many other Sunday mornings. Or maybe of Sunday mornings that were in a different place. Or were of a greater or lesser significance.

Maybe things were a bit tense this morning. Not so smooth getting out of the house. Still a bit up in the air. Not so settled.

For others of you, the term Significant Other may refer to someone who is no longer with us. Died perhaps. Or the relationship is over. Doesn’t mean they aren’t here with you. I hope that’s a good thing. But if it’s not a good thing, it’s still a thing. It is important to be aware of these feelings and how they affect how you see things this morning.

And then there are some of you for whom Significant Other doesn’t really mean Other. You are unto yourself. No need/ interest for another person in your life. That’s fine and I’ll have something for you (and everyone else) later on.

Another strong relationship in our lives is our birth family – parents and siblings. Now, my mother always referred to Unitarians as “church lite.” From her point of view, she was probably right. But, you know, from time to time, I feel very close to both my parents. Maybe even closer because of things that we didn’t agree on, like church. Or things they couldn’t understand, like my feelings for mathematics and statistics.

From time to time I find myself wondering, “What would mother think of me now?”

In working at the hospital, I have come to understand that many families are not like mine. Parents can be quite indifferent to their children. Some are hostile, abusive. Some are notably absent. I think about one of my patients who had 19 different foster families before she aged out of the foster system at 18. And then I appreciate the stability that my parents gave me. A stability that I hadn’t realized was so important until I saw the consequences of its absence.

On the other hand, maybe the person who is with you this morning is someone from history. Maybe you are thinking about Thomas Jefferson, who is often claimed by Unitarians. Certainly, many of his principles are a foundation of the UU Faith. At the same time, he was a very complex man. What about his relationship with slaves? Complicated. Plus, he was not at all easy to get along with. How would he fit in here, today? And what does it mean that your mind is on this history?

Or maybe you brought Ralph Waldo Emerson with you. Quite an interesting fellow. From our viewpoint, it is hard to imagine how great a shift they made towards “liberal Christianity.” But certainly, they were in tune with the times in thinking for yourself.

And, I sometimes wonder about those folk who oversaw the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in the 1960s. Granted, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference by that time. But, still, to be able to get past the idea of separate heritage was a pretty big accomplishment.

And then, a bit later, to come up with the Principles and Purposes. First, it took some guts to figure that we can write this down. I know that other denominations do this, but they generally begin by claiming divine guidance. The folk who wrote Principles and Purposes didn’t get to use that “out.”

And it has lasted all this time!

And then there are those who have died. I often think of Jim Bank. Another not at all simple personality. But Jim was the one who steered me towards being a chaplain, something I will always be thankful to him for. He certainly played a big part in this new building. He was so proud at the dedication. I find myself wondering if had an inkling that he would not be around very long to enjoy it. And did that matter? Was it enough to think he had left something for those who come behind?

And that brings us to a category I bet you hadn’t thought about – those from the future. In some part, did we bring with us those we haven’t even met yet? Those nameless faces that may or may not cross this threshold? I think a fair bit of what we do is for the benefit of those yet to come. Not just children born into our congregation, but others who might, one day, walk through the doors, in their quest for truth?

Or even those who never end up walking into our sanctuary. We feel what we are doing is important just to be here. It is important that there be a place that values equality. And thinking. And fairness. And integrity.

Are these the people you brought with you this morning?

And there is one last person to consider here. (For those of you without need of a Significant Other, this is what I promised you a while back.)

Did you bring you this morning?

Or, better, WHICH you did you bring this morning?

Even better, which of the “you’s” did you bring this morning?

All of us have many facets to our personality. We are parent and child. Husband and wife. Talker and listener.

We may (well, probably) have our “not so polite” side. Is that with us now? Hint: Yes. Better question is, in what way is that side with us now? Are we OK with that side of us? If not, what are we going to do about it?

We probably have an impatient side. “When is he going to get to the point?” How does that side fit in (or fail to fit in) with the rest of you this morning?

We have the side whose mind wanders. “When I get home, I have to trim those branches.” Is this side leading you completely astray? In which case, you didn’t notice me asking the question, I’d guess.

And then there is the US that is of years gone by. I think about when I first was introduced to UUism. How exciting it was! I remember that the thing that impressed me the most was that it was OK to laugh in church.

And that takes me back further. As a child, I went to Presbyterian church with my parents and Seventh Day Adventist on Saturdays with my grandmother. The Presbyterian church was generic Protestant. Not like the Southern Baptist that was common in Texas, but probably indistinguishable from any Methodist church around.

The Seventh Day Adventist was another story. The main adjective I would use for that is “scary.” They REALLY loved Revelations. “We are in the end times,” they would say, with some delight. Lots of very literal fire and brimstone. Trust me, no one EVER laughed in that church.

So you can see that UUism was a BIG shift from that. But my childhood churches ARE a part of my past. It certainly has to color much of what I see now. I will say that, as we travel and see a wider variety of religions, I have come to see better how the predominant religion has an effect on the entire society. And I expect that this is true of me, as well. My own religious background certainly colors how I see things today. Probably in ways that I am not aware of.

As we say in the hospital, It’s Complicated.

So you see, we bring a lot of people with us to church. These people are pretty much constantly with us. Don’t try to use the HOV lane based on that, though. Although if you do, I’ll come visit you after they take you to the psych ward.

At the outset, I said that it is good to be aware of all these folk with us. And I stand by that. But I think it is even more important to embrace all these folk. They are a big part of our lives. We wouldn’t be the same without them. Even the not so admirable ones of them

Embrace them and rejoice. Life would be awfully lonely without them.



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