This is the second talk I’ve given at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro. I gave this talk in June 2013. It still makes me tear up.
My first memories of music were of my mother singing. As a teenager I didn’t like hearing her sing and I was embarrassed, like all teenagers. But as an adult, I appreciate these memories more. The songs from my childhood reverberate in my head constantly. Sometimes they’re like an ear worm that you can’t get rid of but other times they’re comforting. I grew up without a television or radio so the music from church was our sole source of entertainment.
Part of the purpose of the music was to reinforce our identity as Christians and our purpose in the world which was to save others from their sins. Today I’m going to share with you a few songs I grew up with. For some of you this trip down memory lane will expose you to songs you’ve never heard before. For others, this will be a reminder from your childhood. I ask you to stick with me through the service and not run out screaming!
Play clip: I am a Christian. “I am a C / I am a C-H / I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N / And I will L-I-V-E E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y”
Isn’t that amazing! This song breaks down who you are: A Christian. Why you’re a Christian: you have Jesus in your heart. And how long you will live: eternally. It pretty much answers all the basic life questions in one song. An entire master’s thesis could be written on what I call these identity songs.
I shared this song not to denigrate Christians but to give you some background into my faith upbringing. These types of identity songs affected my thinking and my identity. I was absolutely convinced of who I was and how I was supposed to live my life.
I have one final song to share at this time, this one I’m going to sing to you, but only the chorus:
Untold millions are outside the fold
Untold millions will never be told
Who will tell them of Jesus’ love
And the heavenly mansion awaiting above
Wow, right? Here it is in very basic terms about what your job is on this earth. No doubt about it. We were to go save souls.
The church I grew up in was independent Baptist and it required active participation. We were at the church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening, and Saturday morning. Our lives revolved around the church. The church told us who we were: we were Christians and why we exist: to save others. We had absolute answers about everything from the creation of the world, gender roles, relationships, and rules for behavior. While the rules could be comforting at times, it could also be confusing. As a child, I couldn’t understand why some people in the world would be doomed to hell if no one told them about Jesus and saved their souls (yes, we actually did soul winning on Saturday mornings). That seemed unfair to me, what kind of a God would do that? But as a kid I didn’t dwell on that too much because not going to church wasn’t an option. My parents were certainly not the kind that gave choices. You did what you were told, end of story. We were clearly into the obedience and authoritarian mindset.
After my parent’s divorce my mother left that church. They were not supportive of her taking a stand against my abusive father and some of the men of the church actually watched our house during my parent’s separation period to make sure she wasn’t seeing other men. It was kind of scary! They were very strict about their gender roles and they felt like they had absolute authority.
As a teenager I started going to a Methodist church on my own and served as the president of the youth group. At my first undergraduate college I became active in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and served as the president of that chapter my sophomore year. In addition, when I visited my relatives in Oklahoma I attended their churches. Yep, the church bug was strongly planted.
When I arrived at Wesleyan College, my second undergraduate college, the advisor for InterVarsity was excited I was there since I had served in a leadership role previously. What neither of us could know at the time was that my life was about to change radically. During the fall of my junior year I realized that I have an attraction to women. It was a scary and gut wrenching time. I went through at least a year of soul searching and Bible study trying to figure out what the Bible says about homosexuality. I had been told my whole life that it was wrong to be gay. It took me a while but I finally came to understand that the Bible does not condemn gay, lesbian and bisexual people (at the time transgender wasn’t in my awareness) and that it would be okay if I decided to pursue relationships with women.
I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but I decided that I couldn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t in order to please others. When I realized I was gay, instead of allowing myself to be rejected by InterVarsity, I just backed away and chose to end my involvement with them. It seemed like the easiest thing to do at the time. I knew I would be rejected by the comments I heard others making; I didn’t feel the need to confirm it for myself.
Making this decision had ramifications for my relationship with my family and my Christian faith. I eventually came out to one of my aunts. She wanted to send me her materials on homosexuality but I declined. I told her I had already been down the path of self-hatred and didn’t need to go back. When my grandmother found out, we talked over the phone and she not only said every cliché about gay and lesbian people you’ve ever heard at me, she told me that I wasn’t welcome for the family holidays. Basically: don’t come. She even put that in a Christmas card. Can you imagine?
But the biggest impact on my life was in my Christian faith. When I realized I was a lesbian I did a lot of research on what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. When I realized that the Bible didn’t say what I had been led to believe, I gave myself permission to explore the rest of the Bible. Basically, what does the rest of the Bible say? I came to realize that, for me, taking the Bible literally didn’t make sense anymore. I decided that while being part of a church was still important to me, I needed to expand my definition of what church meant.
Through a rather meandering course, I eventually came to Greensboro and this church. I can honestly say that UUCG saved my life. I had attended a Unitarian Universalist church while I lived in Columbia, Missouri, where I got my master’s degree, but that church didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me so I moved on and attended a Unity church instead. But when I moved here I actively sought out a Unitarian Universalist church. I needed people who worked for social justice in the world, who knew there was a war going on.
I went to a store on State Street called Eclectic by Nature, it’s a store that carries things like crystals, tarot cards and incense. I was sure that if anyone would know about a local Unitarian Universalist church, it was them. So I went in and asked if there was an active local UU church. The person I spoke to said, Yes – and that there was going to be a women’s gypsy tea that Saturday. So, not knowing anyone, I attended. Everyone was really nice to me and included me in the dancing. I was received warmly. One of the women there said to me “Come to church tomorrow and I will introduce you to people.” So I did. And I’m still here today!
When I came to this church in 2005, I had recently gone through a pretty major break up, I was in a temporary job, and I was in a temporary living situation. I felt really lost. I had no clue what I was going to do with my life now that I was in Greensboro. I decided to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and see what happened next; coming to UUCG was part of that journey for me.
I was welcomed to this church by people who actively live the first principle. The members of this church welcomed and accepted me exactly as I was. In addition, you saw in me what I couldn’t see myself. You saw my potential and kept pushing me to do and be more.
Relatively early after I started attending UUCG I was asked if I would like to be one of the teachers in the 3rd-5th grade Religious Education, or RE, class. I had absolutely no background in teaching nor did I know anything about UU history or beliefs. But, since no one thought that would be an impediment I jumped right in. The main requirement for being an RE teacher is a willingness to learn. So I did. I learned a lot about Unitarian Universalist history and heroes. Sometimes these heroes did huge amazing things for our faith and for civil rights but many times these were ordinary people like you and me who see what needs to be done and does it. My experience as an RE teacher makes me a passionate Unitarian Universalist because I know we stand on the shoulders of millions who came before us to make our faith possible.
But there was one thing missing from my life: music. At some point early on, probably in 2005 or 06, a friend overheard me saying to another friend, that I really liked the song the service just ended with. She came right up to me and asked if I was musically inclined. I said yes. She said she was coming off the music team and she had promised them she would find her replacement. She asked me if I would consider being on the music team. So I went to a meeting, (again having no idea what I was doing, the churches I grew up in did not have teams committees). I was told that the meeting was scheduled at that particular time because the next thing for the evening was choir: so, what part did I sing? It was quite an interesting way to begin my career in choir, to be sure.
I remember I attended my first choir retreat just a few weeks later. On the way to the retreat I asked someone what kind of music the choir sang. I was told “everything.” I thought, “what does that mean?” One has to have standards! One person told me she was an atheist. I was astounded. Before coming to this church I had never met people who outwardly identified as atheist. What an interesting place! What kind of church music would an atheist sing? Why would she be involved in a church? She said “I sing in the choir because the music is beautiful.” And so it is.
Due to my involvement in choir I have been introduced to amazing music from around the world. I have sung music in other languages, from other faith traditions, other cultures, and along the way I’ve become a better sight reader and hopefully a better singer. The song that we opened with today, Freedom is Coming, is not a song I learned as a child due to the fact that my environment and culture was largely Caucasian. It would have never occurred to them to sing music outside of their cultural comfort zone. I am proud to worship at a church that thinks big and works to learn of others’ cultural backgrounds.
I’m going to share a story of when I was on the music team and the Expressions service was on Sunday night. One Sunday I decided not to go to the Sunday morning service but to go to the Sunday evening service instead. When I arrived for the Expressions service, I was greeted with “How are you” instead of what I was expecting “Where were you?” It was an amazing experience to know that people care how I am.
But I have to tell you that attending this church hasn’t always been easy. Due to my upbringing, having a faith identity was very important. In the world I grew up in, it was IMPERATIVE that you know what you believe and why.
So at times, I struggled with the not knowing. When we would sing the song “mystery,” that we sang earlier in today’s service, or talked about such blasphemy as “cherishing your doubts” as we did in the responsive reading, I would squirm. I wanted absolutes. I wanted answers. I hated ambiguity! And so, I turned to what we Unitarian Universalists hold to be true, our seven principles. The seven principles helped me to figure out what was important to Unitarian Universalists. Our ideals and values are held in the principles.
I have come to believe that the teachings of my childhood very much resonate with these principles. We were taught to respect others. To be kind. To learn. And that most of all we are not on this planet for ourselves but for the service of others.
The song the choir sang earlier from Micah 6:8 is one that comforts me in hard times and guides me when I feel like I’ve lost my way. It breaks down how we should live in three basic steps: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your god. It’s that simple. I believe that those teachings are repeated in the seven principles.
How these teachings carry into my life now as a Unitarian Universalist is that I believe I am held to our seven principles, and our church’s covenant, at all times. There is nowhere that I am that I am not a Unitarian Universalist. It applies in all of my interactions with everyone I come into contact with. There is never a time or place where I am not a Unitarian Universalist.
The most important lesson I learned from my childhood faith that applies to my Unitarian Universalist faith is that we must know who we are and what we believe. We do not come here on Sunday mornings because we have nothing better to do with our time. We are here for a reason. I want you to spend some time this week thinking about why you come to UUCG. There is something here that draws you back week after week, for months and years. What is it? How do you live out your faith on a daily basis? Think on this.
Many of us are refugees from other faith traditions. We have spent a lot of time trying to define ourselves by what we are not instead of what we are. And we are something: Unitarian Universalists.
The second big lesson from my childhood is that we cannot be afraid to tell others of this amazing faith we have found. I am absolutely serious when I say that UUCG saved my soul. In the years I’ve been attending here I’ve been through some hard times. And every time I’ve been lifted up and cared for by members here who continue to see my potential and make sure I don’t forget.
I believe we have a responsibility to “out” ourselves as Unitarian Universalists to others. Who are we to keep this amazing faith to ourselves? If I had access to a life saving, life changing medicine wouldn’t it be selfish of me to not tell others? That’s what I feel we are doing when we refuse to evangelize. Yes, I said evangelize. There is a world of hurting people out there. We must tell them there is a faith, a community of people who will love them exactly the way they are. And yes, I said love. I believe we are here to love. To quote from an affirmation we read “Love is the doctrine of this church.”
I am so very grateful for this church and for each of you. Please know that living the principles saves lives, sometimes literally. Know who you are. And don’t be afraid to tell others.