A homily for Membership Sunday

Did you enjoy junior high school?  Seventh and eighth grade?  Just thinking about those years makes me shudder.  One of the worst things was how mean people were to each other.  Even so-called friends constantly competed to see who could come up with the worst insults, who could win in a war of words. Looking back, I think it was the strategy of the utterly powerless, our way of trying on power, because the adults never taught us healthier ways of being together, or of using our power.  And so each day we all slunk home miserably after having all of our flaws pointed out in great detail:  the crooked teeth, the knobby knees or the dimpled ones, the acne or the dry skin, the body odor, the voice that changes pitch at the worst moment–all the agonizing bodily problems of adolescence.  Some kids got support and nurturing at home, and came back to school able to handle the taunts.  But some, like me, didn’t.  My alcoholic father didn’t speak to me except contemptuously, and during the small amount of time that my mother was home, she criticized the way I had done the laundry or the cooking.  So, what kind of self-image do you think I had, with those kind of mirrors?

Human beings are obligatory social mammals. We need to be physically cared for by others, and we also need to interact in loving ways with them. As babies, we need to be held and talked to and smiled at. Several dreadful experiments in the past few hundred years have demonstrated that if you do not do this with babies, they die. We are obligatory social mammals. We have a deep, innate need to belong, to belong to a group that cares for us.

Part of what enables us to belong, or perhaps what makes it necessary for us to belong, is our mirror neurons. These are cells in our nervous systems, spread throughout our bodies, that activate when we see another person doing something, or expressing a feeling: they activate just as if it were our own bodies doing that thing, or feeling the feeling. These mirror neurons give us our capacity for empathy, to feel what others feel. This is useful from a survival standpoint in at least two ways. One is that empathy is the basis for mutual care and concern, for love. When we know we are loved, when others reflect our own light back to us, we thrive. When we thrive we contribute to the well-being of the group, the whole, and in turn that well-being contributes to our own well-being. It’s a positive feedback cycle.

Another way empathy is useful for survival is that it enables us to make predictions about how the others in our group are going to behave toward us. If we see that someone is directing anger our way, we might change our own behavior to try to lessen the anger. We might placate the person. Or, we might show a greater display of anger than the other person, to try to make them back down.

So our mirror neurons help us survive. And they also make us vulnerable. Again, if the people in our group are positive and loving mirrors, we thrive. But if not…if the culture around us is angry and hateful and superficial, and the people in our close family group are unkind and the people we work or go to school with are uncaring or mean…well, we end up where I was in junior high. Where many people are in this world: lonely, fearful, believing we are ugly inside and out, believing we are unworthy of love and kindness.

It is no wonder that so many people are isolated and unhappy today. And that this isolation and unhappiness is causing our larger social systems to break down, which worsens the isolation…a different positive feedback cycle.

But what if we could break the second feedback cycle and substitute the first one? What if we could form communities where people loved and accepted each other and mirrored each other’s best qualities, where they encouraged each other’s growth toward their best selves? What if we could help people raise families in which children are loved and valued from the very beginnings of their lives, by many generations in the group? What if the people in such a community experienced so much love and caring in their own group that they could not help but act together to bring more love and caring into the larger world?

I have a dear friend whose group of college housemates wanted to create just such an intentional community. They spent months formulating a vision. Finally they invited all their friends and their extended families for a huge celebratory dinner, where they unveiled their plan. They said that at first they had thought about buying an apartment building or a really big house where they would all live and raise their children together, but they had rejected this. Instead, they had decided to live scattered throughout the city, so each could be a leader in their own neighborhood, coming together for inspiration at a common house a few times a week. In this common house they would share meals. They would teach their children. They would meet to explore new ways of living, ways that were sustainable and creative and full of beauty and love. They would make music and art. They would share their deepest longings and their biggest questions, their spiritual journeys. And they would organize for the kind of social change that would make a life of abundance and beauty available to all beings, everywhere.

Well, after the young people had shared their vision, one of their grandmothers stood up to speak. She said, “What you have described here tonight is beautiful. It is just what this world most needs. And it already exists. It is called church.”1

I went to many churches as a young person, longing for this kind of deep community. But I could not and would not accept the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that people are born inherently wicked. I did not need more reinforcement of the idea that I was worthless. So I gave up on church and found solace in nature. By losing myself in communion with the hills and woods and water each day, I survived some truly terrible things. But like all of us, I am an obligatory social mammal. In order to do more than just survive—in order to thrive, to heal and flourish and make positive change in my world—I needed a human community. I needed a group of companions who would love me just as I was and inspire me to continually grow. I needed a community who would welcome my deepest spiritual longings and questions. After trying church after church, I finally walked into a church that was Unitarian Universalist.

That church embodied our UU theology about what it means to be human. The members there reflected my own worth and dignity to me and I reflected theirs to them. They loved and accepted me not despite my flaws, but because of who I was in my wholeness: a complicated, imperfect person with both gifts and problems, doing her best to muddle through. As I began to live into my own worth and dignity, I began to heal. I began to grow and to transform into a new person. I began bringing other hurting people into the congregation. I began participating in social activism. I began to contribute my own gifts to the congregation, which itself was then transformed. Something that had been very good became even better.

Then–oh, then–came my first congregational fight. It was a biggie. People shouted at each other. They accused each other of all sorts of nefarious dealings and motives.  It was so painful.  But then the congregation called for help from the district, and the conflict became a learning opportunity. After it was all through, we realized that our relationship had deepened. We now knew much more about each other. We had more confidence in our relationships because we had been through something difficult together. We knew how committed we were to working things through. We began to truly cherish one another.

But while the conflict was going on, some people left. Some felt profoundly disillusioned. They didn’t think UU’s should fight, that we were somehow different or better than the rest of the world. Or they thought that church shouldn’t have any unpleasantness. Or, they left because the conflict reminded them of conflicts in their families, and they just couldn’t deal with the pain.

Well, I would never dismiss the pain of another person. I respected those people’s need to leave. But as far as thinking church should never have unpleasantness, or that UU’s are different from everyone else….to be disillusioned means you had illusions in the first place. Congregations are made up of people, and I have never yet met a person who is perfect. Imperfection is the very nature of human life and so it is the very nature of congregational life.

Of course when we first fall in love, with a person or a faith community, we do have illusions. We project our ideal of what we think the person or congregation should be onto what is. And so that first fight, that first disillusionment, is all the more important. It is necessary, because it allows us to get behind our dreams of perfection, to what is real. And it is only when we are real together that our shared life has any meaning. It’s only then that genuine growth and transformation can take place. It’s only then that we truly embody our theology.

And that theology, our theology, says that each of us—each of you—is worthy. Whether you are 3 or 13 or 93, and whatever your self-image, you are worthy. And so is everyone else. And we are all connected in a vast interdependent web of life, so that everything we think and say and do in this life matters. It all matters.

So this is why what we do in church is so important, and why membership is so meaningful. We are forming an intentional community that embodies the revolutionary idea that human beings can live together in love; and not only that, that we can live together with the whole community of life, in love. We might disagree sometimes, we might fight, but when we are truly committed to the health of the whole, we can work it through and be transformed by the process. We can live together in love.

May it ever be so.

Blessed be.

1Rebecca Parker in Buehrens, John and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century. Boston, Beacon Press. 2011.