The Religions That Still Haunt Us
Steven Epperson, intern minister at South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Holladay, delivered this sermon May 21, 2000.
"Home is the place we have to leave in order to grow up." — Michael Ignatieff

"A man's foes will be they of his own household." Matt 10:36

"Every spirit makes its house, but afterwards the house confines the spirit." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Providence has a rough, wild, incalculable road to its end." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"God builds a temple on the ruins of churches and religions." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most Unitarian Universalists — 85 percent of us, in fact — are "come outers," that is, former members of other faith traditions. For one reason or another, we are both reworking and leaving behind us loyalties and membership, identities, and family in order to create and participate in an alternative religious community. A community that speaks more directly, more affirmatively to our individual spiritual, cultural and intellectual needs. Some of us, many perhaps, bring angry and unresolved feelings and experiences. Others cherish fond memories of their former religious homes. Some of us walk in that door burdened with guilt. Others step lightly in carrying only their curiosity. Some of us have moved gradually and with relative ease from one religious identity to another.

For many of us, the experience of spiritual and cultural migration has been traumatic; it has meant painful estrangement from family, colleagues and from the beliefs and ideals which we once held incredibly dear, of ultimate importance. Today, I hope that we can take a little time to reflect on the many paths that have brought us to this place. And I hope we can leave this hour together with an appreciation for the positive religious gifts we inherited as we stepped into this world. I hope that we can be strengthened with a firmer resolve that yes, indeed, there are compelling and life affirming reasons for our being here, that religious growth out of old and harmful customs and beliefs is both necessary and good for the sake of lives lived more fully. And I really hope that we can see each other more clearly. That we will value the soul work and the sincerity of those who come here, and that we will recommit ourselves to stand by each other as we doubt, question, and push; as we grieve and rejoice in the mystery that is our life.

I honor your courage, the hard work of recreating yourselves as free moral and spiritual beings. I recognize and feel the pain many of you still experience. Many of you have been told that there is only one vessel, one community, one path to peace and salvation in this world and in the next; one saving definition of the faith, one and only one way to god.

What happened to you when you stepped off that path? When the definitions of the faith no longer described who you are and what you aspire to become? How do we recreate our own questions and answers, our own customs and rituals of birth, of home, of coming of age, of relationships, and maturity from the rubble of fallen idols, churches, and cultures? There are those in this sanctuary who right now are eating the bitter fruit of rejection and even persecution by family, colleagues, and neighbors. Your children are being ostracized by schoolmates, not allowed to play in their games in the schoolyard and in the neighborhood, taunted and baited for no longer attending the right church. You also know the anxious expressions, the tentativeness with which people look at you and talk to you. You know the unusual, the novel feeling of being avoided, condemned, pitied and talked about. Many of us have stepped through the looking glass and, at once, everything is both the same and utterly new and strange, and even frightening. We may even miss the certainties, the familiar rhythms, and the customs and rituals of the religions of our youth and adulthood. That is the original meaning of the word: a haunt, to be haunted. It is a habit, a custom, a habitual practice, an abode or place frequented. To haunt meant to have a home, or even to be provided with a home.

Think of the "homes" into which we were born, the home of family, neighbors and fellow worshippers. Think of the places where our spirits once dwelt with trust and with the easy and reassuring familiarity of custom and practice. I know this feeling well. Not just the anger of what hurt and disappointed me, but also the deep sense that I once belonged comfortably in a place, a haunt; that I was and am haunted still.

When I was in my early teenage years, I caught a glimpse of what religion could be, what it could do. And that vision has haunted me ever since. It happened when I was working out on the west side of the valley on an LDS Church welfare farm. A patch of fertile agricultural land set aside for growing and cultivating food for those in serious material need. Three generations worked side by side, eyeing potatoes in a barn, hoeing rows of beets and corn as the sun set in a blaze of color behind the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. We had, my neighbors, men, women and children, for one blessed evening, set aside all insignia of rank and privilege.

You couldn't tell who was the homemaker, the banker, the mechanic. Every hand was needed, every labor and exertion valued from both the old and the young. People sang, told stories, sweated, laboring not for one's own wealth or advantage, but for the sake of others. People we didn't even know, but whom we sensed intuitively to be brothers and sisters.

For one of the rare moments in my life, I felt this deep harmony, a kind of sustaining song between myself and others, between the generations, and between humans and the earth. I catch fragments of that music still, like last week when we shared coffee, conversation and weed pulling out back together. But the music and the harmonious parts that it sustains, the "music" I heard in the fields below the Oquirrhs as a young man, was eventually crowded out and then shattered for me by a dissonant theme, a withering, overbearing blast trumpeted from above.

The words and score of this counter theme were self-righteous, paternalistic, exclusive, and coercive. It was not the music I heard in the fields. And I was told it was the only tune I could sing.

But I could not live within the bars, the measures, the time and key signatures of that counter hymn. It was not my song.

I have come slowly, hesitantly to believe that here, in this place, I can yet again hear and make that sustaining, life affirming music. And what I value now about it is its extraordinary variety and open endedness. It is multi-hued, complex, and spacious. It welcomes improvisation and variation. It can be somber and raucous, humble and proud. And this music can be written, played, and sung by every member of the band.

When I look back on it now, this search for a music for which my soul yearns and to which it thrills, whose composition and performance I can share with others, the words providence and providential come to mind.

In western theologies, those terms expressed the conviction that our lives were known and our deepest needs sustained by a divine and transcendent power. It was believed that that creative and sustaining power worked in and through the natural order to endow, bless, and maintain our existence in this world. It is the conviction expressed in parable, that not even the falling of a sparrow is forgotten. It is the belief, in mystical traditions, that human love which sends each of us out on a path toward the future and the infinite will be reciprocated, it will be met and greeted on the path by the source of all love and being.

Providence is the reasonable, the wild hope that there is an underlying and inexhaustible song of songs; it is the conviction that our inner ear does not deceive us.

The religions of our past still haunt us, because at one time or another, those who lived before us also heard a fragment of the melody of providence that works blessedly and internally in all things. And to the best of their ability, they tried to faithfully re-express what they heard by creating a particular ritual, or an affirmation of belief, a gesture, or parable, ...or a silence.

A candle is lit on sabbath evening. Parents lay their hands in blessing on a child's head. A mandala is sketched in the dirt. A flaw is stitched purposefully into a quilt top. Bread is broken. A hymn sung.

But then something goes wrong, terribly wrong. We lose the thread of that inexhaustible song, and our nerve. And then the candle is not enough. We have to have to have studio lights and amplification. The hands of mere men or women cannot bless. And then men in suits muscle in, presuming that only they can preside. Take out that misshapen stitch!

The cloth of "the way" to heaven or enlightenment is without error. They have no right to eat. Only saints can partake of the bread of heaven. Your hymn singing is atrocious, what we need is a choir! An anthem and a brass section!

All of us have seen this sorry process at work. It's what Max Weber called the "routinization of charisma." But we have heard even if only for a moment, the life creating and sustaining music of providence in our lives. What do we do when it fades away or is drowned out by an unrelenting anthem of routine, dogma, and exclusion? Ralph Waldo Emerson, dissident Unitarian and Transcendentalist, said, "Every spirit makes its house, but afterward the house confines the spirit." What do we do when a home becomes a prison?

The words I read in the meditation by Michael Ignatieff come back to me now: "Home is the place we have to learn to leave in order to grow up."

I believe that providence, that song of songs, has led you out of a home where you were forbidden to grow up. It has sustained your path.

It has brought you to through those doors. You are here because you want to live the rest of your lives as adult men and women. And it may just be possible that you can do it here.

This association affirms by covenant that "we are grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and enables our faith," understanding and vision. We claim that "the living tradition we share draws from many sources." If that is really true of us, then we welcome whatever you bring here that you still cherish from your previous religious home. We know that you have left it, or that you are straying from it, for a reason. If that past clings to you like a blood-sucking ghost, we will stand by you and help you with our own hands to pry it off and help you heal. If there is dead wood to cut away, then let us help you sharpen your axe. If you need to curse and to cry, we better be ready and willing to stand by you.

If you are like me, there are ghosts and angels who have accompanied me here. And I want you to know, this is your church, not theirs; we govern ourselves; we strive to treat each other like adult men and women; and we work to raise our young people to be compassionate, mature and ethical human beings.

That means, for the sake of our living tradition, if it is truly alive, that you can still light sabbath candles; you can howl at the moon; you can sit in mindful silence contemplating a paradox; you can place your hands on a child's head and speak words of comfort, peace and blessing to her with authority. You can still say the Lord's Prayer. You can still feel the elation of using your mind to solve a really tough equation or piece together a story from the past. You can be angry as hell at religion and peer bitterly into the abyss. You can sing Christmas carols. You can revere Mother Earth. And who is there here who says that you can't?

It has been said that, "God builds a temple in the heart on the ruins of churches and religions." The rubble is all around us; plenty of material for rebuilding. And that song? That song of songs? It sings, still, for you and me, for all of us.