How Is It With Thy Soul?

As we start the year, how is it with thy soul?  In times of challenge, do you intentionally turn toward your UU faith? Of the core tenets of the UU faith, which speak most directly to you? Do you ever wish you could draw more from your faith? At this Zoom service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll reflect on the life sustaining values inherent in Unitarian Universalism.
Sermon, Rev. Sue Browning, January 9, 2022

How Is It With Thy Soul?

What a start to the year! Omicron. Snow. And more snow. The week included the one-year anniversary of the attack on our capital.

We come to this 2nd week of January with the Holidays behind us – for some the joy of gathering this year; for others the last minute changes. I’ve talked to teachers working in schools, and health care workers in the hospitals who are dealing with continual change and staffing shortages, and I hear from parents of the continual changes to school plans (or almost changes).

We enter 2022 week with these realities. Where is your heart this week? Asked another way, “How is it with thy soul?” When I ask that question, ‘How is it with thy soul?’ I watch (even on Zoom) people taken back. A pause.

Then the reflections shared tend to reveal something honest.

“My soul – well it’s ok this week, I guess.  I’m relieved that….” or

“I’m troubled by the news…I couldn’t sleep….” or

“I’m beyond excited I’ll be seeing grandchildren…” or

“I’m disappointed that plans were cancelled…”

Fill in the blanks. And then I wonder, particularly about those who have shared a concern, how they are coping?

Are these moments that tie you to your faith – to your UU faith? As you figure out the ‘next right step’ where do you turn?

When our oldest son was in high school he was a runner. He ran on the cross country team, and indoor and outdoor track teams as a long distance runner. Junior year his times notably improved. He felt the accomplishment and he felt a part of a team.

He worked hard and trained all that next summer. The fall of senior year started well – a few meets. Then one evening our high school senior came down to the living room before bed looking panicked…pain in his leg, he shared…maybe a stress fracture? All the training, the camaraderie – all at risk. By the next day we were sorting out options in an orthopedic office.

I sometimes have trouble explaining how we know what gives our life meaning. In our son’s example, it was clear. Meaning in his life was intertwined with running. It mattered to him in deep ways. You could see it in his eyes in the doctor’s office as they worked out alternate training and a plan to heal.

How did our son work this through? Medical intervention. The team trainers.

How did he deal with a bruised soul? His fear and frustration? Support of family and friends and likely extra time playing video games. I’d like to imagine that he turned to his lifelong UU faith for comfort, reassurance and wisdom. This was likely not the case. He was 17.

We here today are an intentional UU group that intentionally tries to make meaning in life together. I hope in times of challenge we turn to our faith to sort out what matters most to us; to sort out what needs to be gently left behind; to discern our next right step. Yet, here’s where it gets a little messy in UU land, or it can. Our faith tradition, as a general matter, has few easy spots where we can grasp onto handles to maybe lighten our burdens.

In some traditions (and for some UUs) the simple question: ‘God, what do you have to say here?’ serves such a role.

For God here, picture here a larger than anything that can be imagined source of energy and light…a center of good…the font of all that has been and all than would ever be…God the still small voice within….

Imagine a turn to faith that might include asking, ‘God, what reassurance to you have? Where might I need to stretch? Where might I need to be nudged back on a path?”

Simple questions which alter the struggle. Simple reminders that we don’t need to go through the struggle alone.

So elegant, and yet, as Unitarian Universalists there’s a twist. We do come together to make meaning on life’s journey, but we do not assume that one central question works for all; that there is not one source of all wisdom or source of strength.

So when I ask ‘Which tenets of Unitarian Universalist are most helpful to you – which are the most reassuring, or most provocative – especially in times of struggle?’ I get back blank stares. And rightfully so. There is no one question.

We have our UU sources and UU principles. Our principles in essence say: Remember all are valued, and we’re all interconnected. Those are the big ones. In the middle of the list of principles is a call for us to always be learning. This is the 4th UU principle. The 4th principle declares that we will affirm and promote the responsible search for truth and meaning.

Implicit is an assumption ‘responsible search’ is that you have done, and will continue to do, the work… the search.

Writing on the 4th  principle Rev. Paige Getty from the Columbia, Maryland congregation notes:

“As responsible religious seekers, we recognize that we are privileged to be free, to have resources to pursue life beyond mere survival, to continually search for truth and meaning, ….This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, and not believe that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. …As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights.”

It’s a long answer. Our faith presumes some homework has been done, and will continually be revised.

Periodically we do offer the thought provoking ‘Build Your Own Theology’ class. It’s a chance to reflect on how you find meaning in life, to consider what you find ethical and most valuable; a chance o name the guideposts for you – and to explore spiritual practices.

We poke at issues of meaning through sermons – mine, and many guests’. We invite a rich exploration of your worldview and encourage a synthesis of what you trust; a defining of faith.We do common reads. We have discussions. As Rev. Getty says, it’s a right and responsibility to do the search for truth and meaning.

In seminary I wrote a Credo paper. I still dust if off now and then. My statement of beliefs, values, and commitments does fit on one page.  It is a statement of what I understand and believe as a Unitarian Universalist, and more generally as a person of faith. It reminds me where to turn in times of challenge. Good reminders for me. And my statements, so far, are still on the pretty much on mark. (Happy to share with anyone interested.)

It’s faithful work to articulate just what we value and believe. Maybe we can resurrect the Build Your Own Theology program this spring. Our faith is powerful when grounded in the search.

Yet, sometimes we need a simpler way to access our faith. We need confidence we can turn to the heart of Unitarian Universalism in a basic way. Maybe not the same simple entry point for all of us. Actually for sure not the same way. Our souls need options.

In times of stress, the long UU answers are just not that helpful.

Maybe a question you could hold close might be something like:

Where is love calling me today?

Why am I doing this alone?

What will point me toward good?

What does my soul need most now?

Or even, God, what do you have to say?

Do any of these fit for you?

Are there times you want to lay down the burden and lighten the load? What might help you in these moments to feel less alone in the working out of challenges? What are the points on your UU compass that remind you to look beyond self? What helps you consider concerns from a wider, and hopefully more supportive, perspective?

As we cultivate ‘the simple,’ heart of our faith, having our synthesis in the form of a question might help.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in the early 20th century offered these words in a letter to a young man he was mentoring,

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Turning to a simple question rather than grasping for answers is a bit counter intuitive. We yearn for answers and certainty – for relief, or what we think might be relief that comes with a solution, yet often it’s the prayerful question we need more.

It’s from the questions, that we can search for authentic responses. In the search we remind ourselves that life doesn’t come with guarantees. It may lead us to more questions. To being ok with the uncertainty.

In her book, “After the Good News”, Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd invites us to work through an honest search. She sees our UU faith invites us to be ‘ok’ in the uncertainty. She cautions against a blind optimism and shares,

“Optimism is a preordained narrative. It is an assertion that the scales have already been tipped toward triumph…” She sees hope is different: “Like faith, hope is the exact opposite of certainty. It does not presume an outcome for good or ill. It lies in the waiting moment when the tug from both directions is not yet resolved and when a great many things are still possible. It moves in humble spaces that open when we allow ourselves to be uncertain and thus not fully self-contained. It is the possibility, not the inevitability of a better way.”

There is a thread as we search for meaning of being a part of a greater whole. In Ladd’s words, “to be uncertain and thus be not fully self-contained.”

I’ve reflected on our son coming down to tell us he thought he was injured. His first step was to not try and tackle this alone; to not tough it out. Likely there was relief in the first reaching out. Some surrender to the reality of what he’d need to deal with; some claiming of his agency to face the choices. Maybe it actually was a version of faith – a leaning into what he could trust.

Our 4th principle inviting us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning opens many doors. Our faith offers a path to leaning into mystery…to the questions. It’s good to have a simple version handy; to have one or two ‘go to’ questions in our back pocket. It’s good to use the questions as we check in with one another.

Maybe: How is it with thy soul? Where is love calling me today?

Simple questions that will take us a long way, when we remember to ask.

May It Be So.





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