Our Right to Faith & Believing in Angels By Megan Munroe & Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2021 January 28
by DoMC

Our Right to Faith

January 24, 2021

Megan Munroe

I’m a quiet person. This is partly because I’m actually just shy, but I also have a zeal for efficiency, and I simply don’t like to speak unless I have something substantial to say. I want to speak only that which I feel is sufficiently meaningful, significant, something only I can say, and I want to cut to the point. If you’re familiar with their religious services, it won’t come as a surprise to you that before the pandemic, I was supplementing my First U spiritual diet with weekly Quaker prayer meetings. These are not led by any minister, there is no preaching of sermons; instead all attendants sit on long wooden benches and pray silently, and if someone feels so overwhelmingly moved by the spirit to share a message, they’ll stand and speak. In the dozen or two prayer meetings I’ve attended, not once has anyone risen or delivered a message. We sat in silence, we prayed, most likely our thoughts occasionally wandered. Every so often someone would shift in their seat, the wooden planks creaked, perhaps one of us might sneak a quiet cough.

A full, silent hour passed, outwardly uneventful, and at the end we would gather in the center of the room, join hands for a brief shared prayer – also silent – and we dispersed. And though this may have appeared uneventful to an observer, I doubt any of us who shared that space would say that nothing happened. Even at my first meeting, I was astonished at how much happened. The first ten minutes or so were what you’d expect if you arrived in a large room to pray quietly with a group of strangers: it took some time to settle down, calm my thoughts, decide whether to wear my shawl or take off my shawl, put it on, take it off, maybe take a drink…gradually, I could find my groove, quiet the distractions, and focus on prayer. What was amazing, though, was that I could feel that shift across the entire room.

Every meeting I attended, there was a Moment, the kind that seems to develop both slowly and suddenly, like an avalanche, in which you could feel a palpable and fundamental change in the energy. If it were a hacker movie from the 90s, that would be the moment someone would shout “I’m in!” But it was a Quaker prayer meeting, and shouting was discouraged. The best way I can explain the experience and the presence in the space was that God had entered the room. Or, if it were a hacker movie from the 90s, God had entered the chat.

If it isn’t obvious already, I’m maybe not a traditional UU, if there is any such a thing as a traditional UU. By some definitions, I’m actually the most traditional UU, given that we were, traditionally, Christian. I didn’t grow up that way, but I am now. I joke with my friends, in an inversion of a cliché you’ve probably heard, that I’m not spiritual, I’m religious. For a number of you, I know this might be jarring, and I know it might seem like this won’t be relatable to you or your practice, but I ask that you hear me out. I’ll say up front that I’m not trying to convert anyone, to anything; instead I’d like to ask that you acknowledge the role that faith plays in your life already, the way God is already moving in your life, however you define that word, the longest three-letter word in our language.

Given that you’re attending this service, I have to guess that faith, spirituality, maybe even religion, is important to you, but from what I’ve seen as a member of this congregation myself, as a fairly active member, I’m guessing that you might be unsure how to talk about it. How to share it with others. From conversations with other First U friends over the last few years, especially with my peers, I know that a lot of us really struggle with how to talk about something that is truly, deeply important to us.

I’ve been to birthday parties for my congregational buddies, in noisy Brooklyn dive bars, in which the First U delegation gathered in a corner to talk, in hushed tones, about how meaningful our spiritual practices are, while the coworkers and “normal friends” did normal birthday party things. I’ve had many fellowship hour conversations with fellow 20 and 30somethings about the awkward moment that we have to reveal to someone we’re dating that we go to church, and how we have to scramble to immediately explain, don’t worry, I’m still normal. I’m cool.

And even when we are together, there’s been some reluctance among our more Religious congregants – I don’t think anyone would disagree when I say that UUism today has a reputation for being rather academic, intellectual, even stuffy. Those aren’t negative qualities – although stuffiness isn’t exactly ideal. But in our efforts to move away from a legacy of genuinely horrific abuses dealt by the powerful fist of conservative religion whether as an organized front or in individual acts by bigoted zealots; in our mission to divorce ourselves from the grip of unthinking ideology, many congregations have overcorrected. The UU church I first attended was like that: open and humanist to the point of having no clear shared beliefs beyond the values in our 7 principles (which is a good start!), and while it was nice to have a community of like-minded people who just wanted to do good, services rung a little hollow, and I was left feeling a little empty. God never entered the room.

But First U is different, and it’s (still) changing, and I want to encourage and nurture that change as much as I can. Almost two years ago now, myself and a few others met with Reverend Ana because we were interested in having a little more space for, well, Re-li-gion.

We wanted to acknowledge the supernatural, and furthermore, to invite it. We wanted to keep having those conversations about our faith, without having to add all those post-scripts: don’t worry, I’m not a bigot, I don’t even care if you believe in God at all, I’m cool, I’m normal, I just want to talk about some spooky but very important stuff. We decided to start a Bible study group, with Reverend Ana leading us through passages of the Hebrew Bible, and group members taking turns discussing the New Testament. If this already sounds crazy to you and crazy for First U, we also wanted to meet once a week (but we eventually settled on twice a month, which is still, kind of nuts).

I’ll admit, when we began I thought, well it’ll be nice for me and my friend Matt Robinson to have our very own meeting with Reverend Ana twice a month. Let’s see how long this lasts. To everyone’s surprise, we’re still going: through our first year, through the summer, and we decided, what the heck, let’s go right into another year. We’ve met twice a month for a year and a half straight, and our group has grown from about 6 to 10 to 12 to almost 15. We’re even beginning to plan for how we might split into two groups if we grow much bigger.

When I started at First U, I was still fairly new to religion at all. I could not have expected that I would gradually call myself a Christian, then embrace calling myself a Christian, then get baptized at 30 years old, or that I would establish and lead a thriving Bible study group. Today, I’m even planning for a future that includes divinity school and ministry myself.

And because First U has helped me to claim not only a spiritual practice, but to claim a Religion, and to claim and embody an Identity as a person of faith, I feel confident that I can help others do the same. And because we’re an ever-changing congregation, I know some of those others are probably right here at First U already, taking the initial steps of an incredibly worthy journey to show the world how different faith can look.

The far right does not own God; it is not up to the hateful and the greedy to define who or what God is. It is not up to them to dictate how to be a faithful, spiritual, or even, yes, a Religious person. For too long, so much of that vocabulary has had to bear an overwhelming burden of negative connotations (and yes, with good cause). But I believe it is our duty to take that vocabulary back, because there are so many friends we haven’t met yet; there are so many out there who are longing for that deeper connection with the divine, but the only road they know of to get there is far too dangerous, and is laden with traps of ignorance and hate and violence.

We do not have to reject science, we don’t even have to give it a lesser position in our lives. But in those moments that science cannot hold us, in those many, many moments that we reach the limits of our intellectual understanding, or when we simply ask that age-old question that we’ve already asked a hundred thousand times – Why are we here? Are we even here? What is going on? Where are we? What is this? – when we ask those baffling questions and grapple with our inexplicable lives, we have a right to faith. We have a right to prayer. We have a right to religion, and a right to religious texts. We have a right to God, to know God, and we have a right to explore for ourselves what God means.

More than that, beyond rights, I believe we have an obligation, especially in times like this –  but especially in any time and in any place – we have an obligation to show our faith, and to wear it proudly. We have an obligation to demonstrate how loving, just, progressive, inclusive and healing faith can be. How joyful a relationship with God can be. We have more than a right to bring God into our room – we have a right to a home within the Divine.

In Matthew 10:27, Jesus gives his apostles this powerful directive: “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the rooftops.”

Friends, I hope you don’t ever again find yourselves in the corner of a dive bar whispering about your faith – I hope you’ll proclaim it from a rooftop bar instead. I hope that, maybe not today or tomorrow, but gradually, over time, you might feel comfortable acknowledging the role that faith plays in your life, in your work, in your relationships, in your laboring for social justice and in your stewardship of the earth. I hope that though you may pray in silence, that when the moment comes, you will stand and deliver your message. I pray that however you define your faith, that you’ll feel comfortable and even proud to call it as such; to claim and to proclaim faith as your right, to claim and to proclaim your very divinity from the rooftops. And that what you’ve heard in the dark, what you’ve felt move in your heart, one day, you’ll say in the light.

Believing in Angels

Ana Levy-Lyons

January 24, 2021

Someone once asked me whether it would be okay for a Unitarian Universalist to believe in angels. Because, they said, it just seems like maybe that’s not a UU thing. This kind of question is always a little heartbreaking to me, but it’s a pretty common perception. To be a Unitarian Universalist, the story goes, you have to grow up and shut down the part of yourself that is non-rational. Religious beliefs, especially mystical or supernatural beliefs, border on the dreaded magical thinking, the ultimate UU heresy. And so some congregants report that once they left their childhood religion, that was it: they had no spiritual life.

Some religious communities have been really good at convincing people that they (the tradition) own spirituality in general, or worse yet, as Megan said, that they own God. And so when you leave the institution, you have to leave it all behind. But I’m here to say and Megan is here to say: it’s not true. The spiritual dimension of reality is much bigger than any one religion can hold. No one person, institution, or tradition owns it. When you leave a religion, you’re not denying that larger reality, you’re simply saying that at this time that particular religion is not the best technology for you to connect with it. For that matter, it’s the same thing when you come from an atheist or rationalist worldview and join a religious community. You’re not rejecting rationality, you’re just looking for a way to also connect with something deeper or more subtle and intuitive. There’s room for all of it. And all of it is real.

The founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, wrestled with this very issue in his formative years. He eventually became a proponent of radical ecumenism, drawing from many spiritual and scientific traditions. He came to believe that all the religions of the world and all the intellectual traditions were like organs in a body – the body needs them all to survive. But it was a long process for him to get there. He began life as an Orthodox Jew, and not only Orthodox but Hassidic, and not only Hasidic, but Lubavitcher Hassidic. Reb Zalman, as he is usually called, was a great inspiration to me personally, so I want to share with you a story of how he got from point A to point B, point A being a narrow certainty about what’s acceptable in one’s religious and philosophical beliefs and point B being, still deeply Jewish, but with an expansive, curious, spiritual adventurousness.

In 1955 Zalman started as a student in a graduate program at Boston University. Because of the timing of his commute, he was going to have to do his morning prayers on campus. The first morning he arrived and looked for a place to pray. He gravitated toward the chapel but when he got inside he found a large brass cross on the altar and a huge bible opened to the New Testament. As an Orthodox Jew he just couldn’t see himself praying in that space and so he wandered to other parts of the building and eventually found a corner in a stairwell that felt nicely neutral and that became his spot. One morning as he was finishing up his prayers, a tall Black man approached him and said, “wouldn’t you rather pray in the chapel?” Zalman didn’t know what to say, so he just said he was fine where he was and muttered something about Christian iconography. The man said, “why don’t you try the chapel again tomorrow. See if you find it more suitable.”

Intrigued, the next morning Zalman went to the chapel. The cross was gone. And the giant bible was opened to a different page – it was opened to Psalm 139, which proclaims that God is everywhere and there is nowhere where God isn’t. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in the Underworld, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.” Zalman prayed there with joy and he knew that the chapel would become his prayer spot from that day forward. He left the bible opened to a different psalm: Psalm 10, which is a psalm of gratitude.

To our new members today and to all our members and friends, I hope you can be with this community in the spirit of that exchange; to know that the life force that animates your mind and spirit is everywhere – it’s here at First U, it’s wherever you were before, it’s in the people you love, it’s in the skies and oceans. I hope that you will say to yourselves and one another that your spiritual life is legit – just as much as a born-again Christian’s or an observant Muslim’s. As Reb Zalman put it: “Your God is a real God.” We could extend that and say, “your angel is a real angel.” “Your experience of reality is real experience.” In other words, whether you call it God or not, you can trust that your deepest self, your own higher power in whatever form that may take for you, is genuine. It is welcome here.

Now does this mean that we should all feel free to take orders from strange voices in our heads? Let me be clear: No. This is the importance of the check and balance and accountability of being in a community of seekers together. We can help make sure that none of us goes off the deep end in believing or doing something harmful. But in my experience with this congregation at First U, that is the least of our concerns. If anything, we err on the side of being too cautious – we cling to the things that we think we already know. This is normal and it’s human nature to want to keep our world as simple and comprehensible as possible. But it can also cut us off from new learning and new growth.

Reb Zalman himself, even after his experience in the chapel, was still hesitant to expose himself to ideas that might take him too far afield from his orthodoxy. It took a second experience to really help him to turn the corner. To fully appreciate this part of the story you need to know two Hebrew words: the word ruach, which means “spirit” and the word kodesh, which means “holy.” A new semester was beginning and Zalman was considering taking a class on interfaith spiritual exploration. He was nervous about taking it and decided to go talk to the professor, someone named Howard Thurman. He made an appointment, walked into the professor’s office, and to his amazement, discovered that Howard Thurman was the man from the chapel.

Rev. Howard Thurman was an acclaimed theologian, author, minister, professor, and mystic. He was a mentor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the first Black dean of that chapel at Boston University. His writings are gorgeous and profoundly spiritual, no matter what tradition you’re from. Rev. Thurman listened carefully as the young Zalman shared his fears about the class, saying that he didn’t know if his “anchor chains were long enough” for this next step. After letting him talk, Rev. Thurman responded, “Don’t you trust the ruach ha-kodesh?” Don’t you trust the holy spirit?

That was it. It was an ah-ha moment for Zalman. He realized that he needed to trust and let go of control and allow himself to be guided by the ruach ha-kodesh, which seems to be guiding him toward this class, that chapel, and this man. He took the class and Howard Thurman became an important mentor for him for decades after that. This relationship changed the trajectory of Reb Zalman’s spiritual and religious life; it opened up all his work and teachings in a way that resonated far beyond Judaism to liberal religion in general.

Both Howard Thurman and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi have passed from this plane now. But I hope that they are looking down on us, so pleased that we are striving to be a space

for all people, regardless of where we started from – expansive and inclusive and affirming of each of our deepest truths. A place where we can each learn to trust our own ruach ha-kodesh – our own spirit and our own inner guidance. I imagine us proudly explaining to them that if you believe in angels here, that is very Unitarian Universalist. If you don’t believe in angels, that is very Unitarian Universalist. If you have come here to First U because you want to be with like-minded people, you have come to the right place. If you’ve come because you want to be with differently-minded people, you have come to the right place.

I imagine that we would tell them that we teach here the principles that they taught. Like Reb Zalman’s principle that “Your God is a real God.” And from Rev. Thurman, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have.”

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