Be Thou My Vision
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 26, 2014
The hymn, Be Thou My Vision is full of theistic imagery and Elizabethan ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s. While it doesn’t capture the exact form of my theology I still find in it something powerful and moving. My vision for the future, for the people we can become and the person I strive to be is caught up in something transcendent, something larger than myself. It draws me into a perspective that is both humbling and empowering. It is that sense that who I am and who I yet maybe is held and nurtured and encouraged by something more than my own ego. As a religious community I see a part of our task is to be a channel or a focal point for that experience for people. Our work is to hold, nurture, and encourage the best within each of us and in all the world.
When I was a child I attended the Unitarian Universalist church. I remember the big hallways and the huge sanctuary space where the adults gathered. I remember the crowds of adults with their coffee mugs and name tags standing around and talking to each other on Sundays. I remember the Sunday school classes where my friends and I learned about different religions and about ethics and the stories of our UU history. I remember feeling small, but then I felt small everywhere in a way that I am sure is quite normal; but there was something else because though small I also remember being noticed. I remember feeling like this building was open to me; it wasn’t just a place I would visit as a guest, it was a placed I belonged and it belonged to me.
I am a minister now, serving a Unitarian Universalist congregation and I see the children running around here, coming to Sunday school classes, listening to the stories I tell them in the sanctuary, enjoying the craft parties and the dance parties, paying attention during the Faith in Action Sundays where we talk about ethics and people. I imagine they are feeling some of the things I felt. I imagine they will remember some of the things I remember about belonging to a religious community.
Fifty years from now, in the UU Binghamton congregation of 2064, I hope the congregation is still alive and noisy with children. I hear about other congregations, Unitarian Universalists as well as other traditions, in which there are few or no children. Our congregation today has a full range of elders and children, parents and people in their middle-years. The various stages of life are here and honored. My vision for our congregation into the future is one that holds this vitality and joy – not just for the children but perhaps especially for the children.
As a teenager I remember spending time with my friends at church. We built bonds across the cliques created at school. The musicians and the jocks, the princesses and the nerds, the losers and the class presidents sat in the circle together on Sunday morning in my youth group. It wasn’t always smooth sailing but it was real. I remember times when I was able to practice leading, when other teenagers looked to me for what to do next – something I did not experience at school. I remember taking part in a peace vigil and in a stewardship dinner and in musicals for the church. As a teenager I was a valuable contributor even though I had no income and therefore no financial contribution to offer. I remember being held by that community through the tough times.
Over the years as the minister of this congregation I have seen many of the youth grow up and move through our youth group. I know the youth who were brought here by their friends and kept coming without their parents because they found the community so important. I know the youth who have been hurt by life and found support here. I know the youth who excelled in school and I know the youth who have not. I know the youth who have come out as gay or transgender, those who have questioned and wrestled with their sexuality. I know the ones who have had trouble with drugs and the ones who considered suicide and the ones who have spent time on the psych unit. I know the youth who have been leaders and the ones who will be and I think I know most of the quiet ones. Our youth today are some of our strongest assets of creativity and energy and authority. I know I am blessed by every youth in this community who has been part of my life.
This congregation loves to see young people contributing music or other talent in the worship service or pitching in at a faith-in-action event or offering reflections from the pulpit. Our Coming of Age services and our Youth services are consistently among our most highly attended services because this congregation values the youth among us. This community is not focused on youth, we are not a youth-empowerment institution; yet our youth are highly valued.
Fifty years from now, I envision a community in which our youth continue to build bonds across the divisions and are entrusted with leadership opportunities and a voice around matters of importance.
Of course, the ministry of this congregation does not reach only to the children and youth. I have seen many examples over the years, indeed just over the past few months in which this congregation has been a life-giving force in the lives of people. We change lives. In many ways the strongest asset we have is as a community of acceptance.
I hesitate to share the personal stories I have witnessed and participated in because they are not my stories but I must tell you they nurture me. The stories of welcome and acceptance and support are each unique but paint a larger picture of what the ministry and mission of this congregation is at this time. I know people in our congregation who wrestle with deep grief and the ones still suffering the consequences of abuse. I know people here proud of their prison time in the name of justice and those ashamed of their prison time. I know those of you who are impassioned to save the planet and those of you who want to build bridges across racial and cultural chasms. Our work is to hold, nurture, and encourage the best within each of us and in all the world.
Our mission and ministry is to heal and to hold and to challenge when necessary. I’m thinking about the person who said “I really needed that sermon” whether the topic was forgiveness or world peace. Something touched him, something shifted for her. I’m remembering the young adult who met with me to share something she was struggling with and said “I just needed someone to know that this is a thing in my life, someone who won’t judge me or think I am terrible.” I’m remembering the elder who asked for a hug in the receiving line after the service; he wasn’t one of the usual ‘huggers’ in the line but something important happened for him that morning.
I am reminded of the visitor from a few years back who came only two or three Sundays and then came out as transgender to several people from the congregation – we had been a community of acceptance and support during the questioning and testing time for him. When he told us he is really she, the response was “welcome.”
I am reminded of the widower whose introduction to this community was his wife’s funeral, ‘would we please open our doors and perform this ceremony.’ And he found not only a welcome and a life-affirming ritual but also a weekly connection as he joined the congregation and made new friends.
I am reminded of the activist trying to balance the urge to save the world and to savor it. And the parent trying to keep all the balls in the air and still find ways to make an impact for justice. This community means so much to so many.
I am reminded of those who find ways to share their gifts, ways to serve and ways to play here in this community. I am reminded of those who debate the words for our liturgical covenant or the way we do Joys and Sorrows, or who point out errors in the order of service or the spelling of someone’s name in a document – because we know that the words and the rituals and way we do these things matters on this deep level of acceptance and meaning.
Fifty years from now, I imagine a congregation still connecting people in new ways, reaching out and healing the broken places in our lives and in our communities.
The Long Range Plan we vote on next week calls for some infrastructure improvement – let us do the good we need to do and let us do it more wisely. Let us build on member connections, helping people find those life-giving ways into the community and into the call of the spirit. Let us get clear about the use of our physical space and what we need. Let us build on the call to serve with strong leadership training and support.
There are also elements in the Long Range Plan around outreach into the community – outreach to promote the life-giving message of our faith and outreach through justice ministries in which the whole congregation can engage. And more, the Plan calls for the development of a financial strategy so we can express our values more effectively. Let us get real about the money.
Our congregation is at a crossroads. Do you see the road diverging ahead of us in this yellow wood? We stand at a moment in time in which we must move forward with decisions about our mission and vision as a religious community and the allocation of resources that will shape who we are and where we are headed for decades to come.
It is a crossroads of our own construction. Where we have been and the ministry we have had in the past has been good and life-changing for many people. With our vote for the Long Range Plan next week and our Super Goal Sunday pick-up pledge campaign today, we are in a moment when our actions will set the tone and the scope of how we move forward through the next several years or even decades for this congregation.
Let us remember to give thanks for the vitality and the challenges we have before us – if our congregation were irrelevant or meaningless we would not have financial troubles or conflicts because no one would care. No one would have clean up because we would never make a mess. If this community were insignificant we would not have to figure out who will make coffee next week or how to change the light bulb the regular ladder can’t reach. If this place were irrelevant we wouldn’t have disagreements or need grace and forbearance and covenants.
But this congregation is relevant. I see the evidence every week, sometimes daily. Our mission and our ministries matter. But that is not what is at question. The question is what we will do with the challenges and the direction of our mission and ministry.
In a world without end
May it be so