Sermon "Coming Full Circle" Rev. Victoria Weinstein
It is in the telling of our stories that we become more real to one another. Without my story, I may be just a stereotype, or a cliché, to another. Telling our stories makes them more precious to us; we begin to see ourselves in the scheme of things - people of our place and time.
I will begin my story in the sanctuary of another Unitarian church; the one where I was dedicated, or christened, as a child in the early 1970's. It was the Westport, Connecticut congregation and I was about four and a half, and my brother Chip a babe-in-arms. My older sister was almost six years old.
Do you remember being four-and-a-half in church or temple? You are very small, like a little stick person, all head and limbs and wearing some itchy starched outfit, perhaps. But you have awareness, you've been walking and talking for some time and you might be in kindergarten, you might have some friends and you are beginning to have some sense of yourself as a person. After all, you are four-and-a -HALF, not just four anymore. And you might, as I did, have a new baby brother or sister and feel an enormous sense of being an elder now, having some smaller being to be tender with and be an example to.
The congregation was loving and attentive, I remember that. And my mother and father were standing at the front of the church with me, serious, holding the baby and telling the minister the names they had chosen for us: Karen Minette Weinstein. Victoria Anne Weinstein. John Charles Weinstein. Our middle names all came from our grandparents. The minister put his hands on our heads and blessed us one at a time. He was a tall man who I thought resembled God: deep voiced, bearded and graying-haired, wearing a long dress and a fancy scarf all the way down to his knees. No one ever told me that this is how God looked. My parents didn't believe in this kind of God and no one at church talked about a God that might be like that. I must have gotten the idea from storybooks or my grandmother.
The minister spoke some very important words about love and being a family, and being a family with the entire congregation. He prayed that we would honor our names. He was so respectful that I was caught up in his attention and mostly forgot about the rest of the congregation.
At one point, the minister knelt down to meet me eye-to-eye. And he did something very special that I have never forgotten. He gave me a rose and told me my life was like that rose, full of beauty and uniqueness and ready to bloom into something glorious. He told me that being a sister was a very serious responsibility and that I should take care of my brother forever, and be a good sister to my sister, too. This was the same kind of thing I had been hearing at home, in similarly grave tones from my mother and father, so I understood even at that early age that this man and my parents cared about many of the same things.
I also understood, from the powerful silence in the sanctuary, that all the people gathered there cared about love and respect, too. They cared that I become my own person and bloom like a flower. This made a big impression on me. The Catholic theologian Thomas Merton said that "Every moment and every event of every person's life plants something in their soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that comes to rest imperceptibly in the human mind and will."
So it is perhaps this early-planted "germ of spiritual vitality" that brought me back to Unitarian Universalist congregations again and again throughout the next twenty-odd years - brought me back to our sanctuaries when I thought I was done with this cranky, hyper-individualistic, confoundingly pluralistic movement. Perhaps I came back because I am a dedicated daughter of our faith. I was named within our halls.
One of the aspects of Unitarian Universalism that I most cherish is the chosenness of it. It's true that I am one of the rare "birthright UUs" for whom this religious path was originally chosen by my parents. But it is the faith tradition I also later rejected, traveled away from, and eventually returned to - the faith of my roots and my wings.
The church of my childhood, according to my memory, was a place of political activism and intellectual development. Most Sundays were fun but nevertheless, my brother and sister and I often resisted piling into the station wagon to attend church - no one in our family believed in God, we argued, so why did we bother with church? We bothered, I now understand, because the church provided a source of comradeship and affinity for my parents, it provided a place where we children would be encouraged to use our minds to discern our own truths in accordance with the wisdom of tradition, and it gave us an opportunity to share our lives with others who shared most of our values and concerns.
But there was another issue that made our religious affiliation complex. In our small town of New Canaan, Connecticut, my family and I were identified by others as Jews, which was not a compliment. We experienced ant-Semitism in many forms for many years.
It did not matter that we attended the Unitarian church. With a name like "Weinstein," most people assumed my siblings and I were Jewish. And we were, in terms of heritage, but not religiously. I have only been in a synagogue once in my life, for Erik Mallon's bar mitzvah! We always celebrated Christmas. But because of the easy-going attitudes and the less-than passionate religious education program at our UU church, I never considered Unitarian Universalism a religion. When friends asked what religion I was, I replied "nothing."
This is why, to this day, I become incredibly frustrated by those who would make a casual thing of our faith heritage: this religion of the free-thinking men and women who reject creeds and the easy comfort and conformity they might offer, the faith of the life-longer seeker after truth.
At a party a few years ago I stood in a circle of people including one other UU from Maine. The conversation turned to religion. "What is Unitarian Universalism?" someone asked. My companion replied in that famous lock-jaw tone for which New England prep school boys are so famous: "Well it's not so much a religion, rillly, as a kind of experiment." I was immediately flushed and started in on him. "Rillly? People have died martyrs for that experiment, pal…!" My sister had to yank me away by the scruff of the neck. She hasn't taken me to a party since.
But in my youth, I did not have this understanding of, and enthusiam for our religious tradition. It had not been taught to me. And eventually there were many other things to do on Sunday mornings - playing at friend's houses, ballgames, play rehearsals, bike rides. By the time I was about eleven, my siblings and I wore my parents down begging to be excused from church, and we pretty much stopped attending services.
(Our Unitarian Universalist communities are struggling with how to articulate the importance of our liberal religious presence in the world so that our young people will feel that their involvement is essential to us.
I will be talking in more depth next weekend about how our denomination "loses" young people between the ages of 18 and 35, which is why we have special outreach to Young Adults of that age range. It's a time of seeking, of establishing our own place in the world, of deciding who we will be independently of our family of origin. I was one of those lost young adults for a period of time - a time during which I moved eleven times in ten years.)
There was also another important factor in my absence from our churches. I had been raised by two spiritual atheists, and was always taught that God was just another name for the strength that lies within me. When my father died very suddenly when I was 17 years old, I needed more than that. I needed to know the source of that strength because I badly needed to draw from it. I realized in those years that our tradition had taught me nothing about the possible meaning of suffering. We were good at being aware of the suffering and oppression of others, but I had never heard anyone in our churches talk about our own personal suffering. My grief over my father's death transformed me it broke me open, and I began to question the assumption that I should be able to manage all my problems purely from the strength of my own intellect. With this new painfully-earned insight, I went off to college.
Remember the Harmonic Convergence? The New Agers were very much in ascendancy at this time, which I think was 1986. And I was right there with them. Crystal healing, Native American ritual, study with my first pack of Tarot cards, psychic readings and past-life trance workshops, and new friendships with the first Wiccans and Pagans I was ever to know. I won't laugh at those days, because although they were perhaps tainted by what my friends call "bliss-ninnies," they were also full of revelation, and they brought me a tremendous respect for non-western cultures and religions that I retain to this day. Most important, my introduction to New Age philosophies made me aware that my image of God was totally stuck in the Old Testament mentality, and that was an enormous part of why I had rejected that concept and that word. I began to read and study voraciously of the goddess cultures and about archetypes of the feminine divine. This was healing and enlightening, and empowering. Those were my Witchy years.
I used to go to religious services and rebelliously sing "She" for "he" in all the hymns and readings, or in patriotic songs ("America, America, God shed Her grace on thee!") Nowadays I just use He or She interchangeably, but without the spirit of rebellion. I don't usually think of God as Mother Goddess or Father. The God of my understanding is beyond gender, but it no longer bothers me that we use gendered language to express our sense of the Divine. Language is limited and I peacefully accept that now. It took some years, but I accept it.
Still in my college years and still not feeling interested in Unitarian Universalism, I visited a rabbi to see about becoming a Jew. In one very hurtful interview I had been told by one rabbi that I wasn't a Jew because my mother wasn't Jewish. But then I made the acquaintance of a very loving religious leader named Dov Klein, a Hassidic rabbi (the most orthodox of all Jewish sects) who welcomed me into his home for Torah study and for Sabbath observances even though I did everything wrong. I was like an episode of "I Love Lucy" every time I walked through the door. I held the prayer book upside down and backwards. I scraped the meat and dairy into the same sink when trying to help with the dishes after the sabbath meal, a disastrous mistake for a Kosher kitchen. Dov would say, "The point is, you were trying to help. That's all that matters to God."
Dov also told me that if I was a Jew, that was between God and me. I will always love and thank him for this generous statement, which set me free to discover that I am not, in fact, a Jew in the religious sense. I am not called to that path.
I don't remember when I became touched by the Jesus story, probably as a very young child, but it was a Wiccan friend who encouraged me to study Christian religion. She said my attitude toward Christians and Christianity was obnoxious and ignorant, and loaned me a book called For Christ's Sake that she suggested I read (the book, incidentally, was published by our own Beacon Press). The book changed my life, as it introduced me to liberal Christianity, whose ideas captivated me. I had always liked Jesus a lot, just couldn't stand the institution of the Church and its teachings that so denied Jesus's original spirit and ministry, not to mention his Jewishness!
Years later I learned that the Unitarians and the Universalists had been at the forefront of liberal Christian theology for centuries, and that Unitarian and Universalist "heretical" ideas about the nature of Christ and God were our major contribution to the western history of ideas. Peeling back these layers of our history, I began to fall in love with Unitarianism and Universalism. I fell in love with its promise of the freedom of a life-long search for truth and meaning to all its adherents. I fell in love with its vision of a unifying wisdom underlying, and shining through, all world religions. I fell in love with its understanding of the close sibling relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the faith of both my family lines. I fell in love with its openness about the ultimately unnameable nature of the divine, and I fell in love with its inherently humanistic foundation that leaves responsibility for the world's destiny in human hands. I fell in love with our congregational polity, which honors the individual but insists on the equal value of community, and which employs the democratic process as a spiritual discipline.
I started to attend our churches again and to get involved with committees and social justice and religious education. I sang in the choir.
I was teaching high school English by then and happy doing it. I worked in the summers as a musical theatre actress and was happy doing that. It was highly upsetting then, to feel called to the ministry during years that I fully intended to settle down as a teacher, get married, live in Minnesota and continue doing what I had been doing. But a call is a call, and if you deny it you will be miserable. This was more evidence that I was not entirely alone at the control panel of my life. In 1993 I dragged myself, totally unwilling, to a seminar on Thoreau and the Transcendentalists at Oregon State University. I went on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The stipend was ridiculously generous, I was confused and upset and needed something to do, and I thought the topic was so boring there was a good chance I'd actually be chosen.
The laugh was again on me. During that seminar I was transformed by the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, all Massachusetts Unitarian Transcendentalists. They rose up out of the past with the full force of their illustrious convictions and grabbed me finally, and for all time, for loyalty and leadership in the Unitarian religion. As it turned out, our professor had earned his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School, and suggested that I should apply for an M.Div there. Getting to HDS is a long story, but I started my program in 1993, simply ecstatic to be there.
The circle is almost closed.
In my second year of Div School, I won the Ted Jones Scholarship - a grant awarded by a local congregation to promising candidates in ministry. The president of the congregation called to ask if I would come and accept the award during a Sunday worship in a few weeks. Of course I would! Gladly. The president said, "I'm sorry that our minister will be out of town that weekend, but do give him a call because he'd like to congratulate you personally."
I said I would be happy to do so, and asked for the minister's name and phone number? The Reverend Ed Lane. Okay, I said, I'll give him a call.
But before I phoned the minister, I called my mom to tell her the good news. "Mom, do we know an Ed Lane? I feel like it's a familiar name but I can't place it."
"Honey, of course you remember Reverend Lane. He was our minister in Westport. He's the minister who dedicated you."
"All things renew, germinate and spring."
When I reunited with the Reverend Ed Lane a few weeks later, he was as kind and tall and deep-voiced and bearded and Biblical-looking as ever. We laughed and hugged and realized we had come full circle together: as I was preparing for ordination, he was preparing to retire at the same time. At my ordination on June of 1997, The Reverend Ed Lane placed his hands on my head in blessing, prompting many tears when he said, "I seem to be Victoria's minister of choice for the laying on of hands - the last time I did it was when I christened her."
That is the closing of that part of my circle, but not the end of my story. Now you are a part of my story and I of yours. Our path may be a long or a short one, and it will seem to go in one direction. But we will know that we are in fact constantly circling back to our original selves, and circling back to the truths we have known since we were children, when someone or something first touched our souls and welcomed us to this project called life.
I will close with the words of a poem that Reverend Lane gave me at our reunion meeting. It is by T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets,
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning …
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
Benediction by Black Elk, Oglala Sioux
Everything the 'power of the world' does in done in circles.
The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball,
and so are the stars.
The wind, in its greatest power whirls.
Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.
The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.
Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come
back again to where they were.
Life is a circle from childhood to childhood.
And so it is in everything where power moves.