Healing Your Religious Past
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 16, 2018
Think back to a belief you used to hold, maybe when you were a child, but that you no longer hold to be true. Call to mind, if you can, something you used to believe. Maybe it is about God or what it means to be human. Maybe it is about magic, or how sex or politics work, or the meaning of life or how you fit into it all. Call to mind a belief you used to hold, maybe when you were a child, but that you no longer hold to be true. (pause)
Got something in mind? Maybe? Okay. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.
There is a story we tell ourselves about Unitarian Universalism being a “chosen faith.” We say we are a discovered faith. We say that people find Unitarian Universalism and choose to join, typically after having grown up in a different tradition. There is a piece of this story that is deeply true about us and there are some ways that is it painfully inaccurate.
Just out of curiosity, by a show of hands here in the room this morning, how many of you were raised Unitarian Universalist? (Rough estimate from that morning: 10.) Which means everyone else either came to Unitarian Universalism from either a different religious background or no religious background, or you just don’t like voting – which is a different problem we can talk about next month.
A 1997 survey of Unitarian Universalists revealed that almost 10% were lifelong UUs. https://www.uua.org/data/demographics I am one of those 10% who grew up Unitarian Universalist. But for today, I want to sit with the old story for a few minutes, the one that is essentially true for the majority of Unitarian Universalists.
Over the years, I have noticed that Unitarian Universalism serves as a place of healing for people who have been wounded by the religion of their upbringing. And that is primarily who I have been thinking about as I prepared for this morning’s service.
“But Douglas,” you may be thinking, “I’m not one of those people. I have no hang ups about the religion of my childhood!” Okay, bear with me as I outline the basics of what we’re about this morning. There will be something for you as well; Something about what we keep and what we leave behind as we grow up religiously, as we mature spiritually.
Remember that belief you used to hold as a child or when you were younger? Take a moment and consider: What changed? What happened that you no longer hold that belief? Can you identify the circumstances in which you shifted from believing to not believing? (pause) Okay? Alright. Again, hold that thought – we’ll come back to it.
Back in August as I was setting up my preaching schedule and finding topics and themes, I was thinking about this sermon. It was at that time the report was issued about the massive Catholic cover up in Pennsylvania of child sexual abuse by more that 300 priests over a span of 70 years. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/us/catholic-church-sex-abuse-pennsylvania.html That, more than anything, is what sparked my thinking for this morning’s service.
I remember reading an essay posted online about it from an English Professor I know down at Penn State. She had grown up Catholic, but had left the Catholicism of her childhood. She and her wife had been members here for a few years before returning to Pennsylvania. She knew several of those priests in the report by name. She posted about it in an eloquent manner. https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1029784097869193216.html
She had not, herself, been abused by the priests. Instead she wrote about the grief she was feeling. Grief for the communities the priests destroyed along with the particular lives they shattered. This former-Catholic was working through how to hold onto the good she’d received over her childhood from these priests while in no way condoning or excusing or forgiving the abuse. In condemning the abusive priests and the systemic cover-up, she refused to throw out all the blessings she had received from her childhood among them. That is not an easy nuance to hold.
I was reading a book about relationships by David Richo, When the Past Is Present. I was struck by how applicable some of the content was for this conversation. In particular, Richo talked about the four places fear catches us, four ways in which we get stuck.
David Richo’s book is about romantic relationships. I am talking about our relationships with organized religion, or in particular, the religious and spiritual communities we have belonged to over our lives. But it is interesting to consider the overlap.
Richo talks about the “Four Hurdles” as places we get stuck, ways in which we stop growing and end up simply recycling old patterns and trouble. The four hurdles are found in our recurring experiences of:
Coming and Going
Giving and Receiving
Being Accepted and Being Rejected
Letting Go and Moving On
You can check out the book for how this plays out in romantic relationships, When the Past Is Present. But for today, consider your experiences in religious communities. I don’t want to walk through all four, let me just talk about one of the four through this lens.
Consider how “giving and receiving” can present as either a way into deeper connection or as a hurdle for your spiritual or religious growth. Perhaps this is about money – how was giving and receiving of money handled? Perhaps this is about the sharing of power and authority, or participation in the sacraments and other ministries. Who was in control of the giving and receiving? What was your part, were you expected to only give or only receive? Do those experiences positively or negatively shade how you experience giving and receiving in this community?
The other hurdles (or opportunities) might be at play for your experiences instead. “Coming and going,” “Being accepted and being rejected.” “Letting go and moving on.”
Over the years, I have bumped into a lot of people who say they don’t like organized religion. Some of these people are here in the room right now. It seems to me, many of the stories I hear are tangled up with these four hurdles. And remember, I am not saying we Unitarian Universalists get these things right when others get it wrong. What we have going for us is our express desire to be open and accepting of people.
We could spend a fair while parsing this out, but perhaps that is something you can do in conversation with others later on, on in a class on this topic, or call me and set a time to work through something if you wish.
Many people come to Unitarian Universalism with wounds from their past experiences of religion. And … many come with the grace-filled experiences as well, experiences that nourish them still today even as they disbelieve the doctrines and rituals that framed those experiences. The experiences we carry from our childhood, good or bad, are ours forever. What we do with those experiences as we grow helps shape our capacity to navigate the troubled waters of today.
And I am not intending to single out Catholicism. I brought up a former members response to that news story about Catholic priests, but really that was one example among many. People find their ways into Unitarian Universalism from Judaism, Lutheranism, Mormonism, Fundamentalist Christianity, Jehovah’s Witness and other strict, dogmatic traditions. There is no monopoly on this. Truthfully, Unitarian Universalism has done its share of harm to people over the years as well.
And here is the nuance that makes this all real rather than merely a complaint against the wounds of our past. All of these traditions and communities have also offer positive experiences to people – perhaps to you – that we carry to this day; experiences that nourish us, that we yearn to recreate, that we turn to when we are in need.
I asked you earlier to think of a belief you no longer hold. I also asked you to think about why is changed. Now, I wonder if you can call to mind a nourishing experience – maybe from that same time in your life or maybe from another time. Is there something positive and precious you carry forward from a religion that is no longer your religion? Can you think of such an experience?
When Ferd Haverly and I were planning and talking about this service earlier this week as Worship Associate and Worship Leader, Ferd brought a particular reading to share. I didn’t see quite how it fit with my topic. But then he shared with my why he brought this reading. Then it made sense to me and it fit. I’ve asked him to share the reading, and his reason with you all.
In a moment I will read a prayer of praise and desire by Leonard Cohen taken from his Book of Mercy. I asked Douglas if I could read these mysterious words because they, like much of Cohen’s work, capture a spiritual sensibility that I find profoundly moving. They make me feel less alone – part of a shared pilgrimage into the holy.
Douglas’s sermon topic has helped me consider and better understand the Catholic roots of my spiritual interest and longing.
The seven-year-old boy having God placed on his tongue. The meditative transport of the rosary. Floating down George Street, a foot above the ground, after having my soul cleansed by Confession. Dissolving into the wonder of a Gregorian chant. Kyrieileison.
Deep, powerful, myth-laden rituals that will always be a part of me and, perhaps, make me more open to be moved by the mystical musings of Leonard Cohen. Words that echo my ongoing remembrance of, and longing for Holy Communion.
You let me sing, You lifted me up you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teachers care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.
-Leonard Cohen – Book of Mercy
It’s complicated. I think what we want is a way to heal from the wounds we may have received from the religion we no longer claim, but also to be able to carry forward the blessings we received from the past as well. And it is not easy to both love and hate what we have left behind.
Often when we have left one religion and find ourselves in another, we are asked to make a full break with all that had been. In Unitarian Universalism, we strive, instead, for integration; to acknowledge the good and the bad, to endure what has been that we may retain what is still precious.
Here is the heart of it all. Are there experiences that were positive and precious that you carry forward from a religion that is no longer your religion? The work is not only in letting go and moving on from the negative elements. It is also in knowing what you carry forward, maybe in simply recognizing there are positive things you want to carry forward.
In the end, it is less about why you left behind and all about what you still want carry. Even if you are one of the handful who never left, you still do well to know and name the nourishing pieces you carry forward as we create our version of a religious community together.
In a world without end,
May it be so.