Acceptance and Encouragement
Acceptance and Encouragement
May 7, 2017
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
This was the beginning of the Christian church, the development of a community of people gathered to embrace and to share the teachings of Jesus.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
It was no small undertaking, no minor commitment to the work of spreading the Good News. The disciples gave up much of what they knew, much of what might be described as a normal life for people of that time. And it does sound vaguely socialistic, I realize. The congregation was a shared enterprise, but it was also a shared life. We do not think in those terms anymore, about church or about society. There is a lot in the Bible that we celebrate and there is a lot that we have quietly placed aside.
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
With these lessons in mind, I would also like to consider the Third Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
So far in my series on the Seven Principles, I have discussed the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the First Principle. Then there was the Second Principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Good stuff there, thought-provoking. Just the right element of idealism married to some worldly advice. Dignity and compassion – that’ll preach.
Now we must consider acceptance of one another. Okay…. And encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. Alright and….
Is this enough to go on? Acceptance and encouragement. You be you and I’ll be me. The Third Principle is, I must confess, at first glance the least instructive of these foundational statements of the denomination.
It sounds good to say accept one another, warm and fuzzy. And then there is encouragement. Not expectation. Not anticipation. Encouragement. And encouragement of what? Spiritual growth. Not the easiest measure for understanding. Now I am also someone who never understood when my kids played soccer and no one kept score. I am perhaps limited in my imagination. But if the purpose of the underlying game is to score points and you do not keep track, I am not sure why you are doing it. A soccer game when no one keeps score is called a soccer practice.
And practice is good, do not get me wrong. In fact practice is so good that we should do more of it. Not only in sports, but at work, in the kitchen, in life in general. It is good to practice, but we do not always have the opportunity to practice without there being some downfall involved, some form of criticism looming in the background. Practice too much at work and you might get all the time in the world to practice without work. This is why early training is so important. Internships when everyone knows you are only just starting. Entry level positions at which one begins to understand the basics before building onto more challenging assignments. Schooling to learn and to grow, not merely to cram and to test, to scrabble up to the next rung on the ladder of perpetual scrutiny. It does not work out that way all the time, but the idea is there, even when we are at the mercy of expedience.
Think of the disciples when they were starting out. What did they do? They devoted themselves to the teachings and to fellowship. Learning and practice. How is fellowship practice? Fellowship is a shared community, a shared understanding of life among people of common beliefs and with mutual expectations. You are living out the lessons you cherish in a gathering of people who hold in common those teachings, who also care deeply about living those values out in community and in the wider world. Some people like the apostles have been around for a while, so they are the ones teaching. The disciples, like any student, learn and then try the lessons out, first in community and then out in the world.
These early Christians built a community together, a growing community of people dedicated to the central lessons of their faith. Breaking bread, praying with one another. Embracing the awe and wonder that comes to a people who are together doing great things, wondrous acts as a people.
The reading from the Book of Acts describes the disciples’ behavior and their form of community. It has the shape and feel of a monastery. All things in common. Selling their possessions and goods, distributing to all, as any had need. It sounds like a monastery because monasteries were designed to follow these descriptions of the early community of Christians. It is not that every early Christian was a monk, but the monks were trying to get back to any earlier time, what they saw as a purer form of Christianity, one more in keeping with the lessons of Jesus because that form came into being within his living memory.
And yet over time this communal form of living stopped being expected. It stopped being observed. This type of community was still lifted up as a good example, but it was the exemplar rather than the yardstick – this is a great idea, but we cannot expect everyone to do that. In time, only a small group of dedicated people, monks and nuns, followed the example of the disciples, the lessons of the apostles, and even the teachings of Jesus.
Well that is all well and good for you churchy types. But the rest of us, we have to live in the real world, dog eat dog, a place not known for its signs and wonders. A place without terribly much awe.
And, if I might add another observation, they had to live in a world without much forgiveness. The disciples lived together in community, going to temple, praying and eating and sharing. They knew each other. This was not some giant world spanning church. It was a collection of people often worshipping together in their houses, living side by side. They knew each other well and knew the lessons they had been taught. That does not mean that they always followed them, let’s be honest, but it meant there was a community of people with shared expectations. It was expected that members of the community followed those lessons.
Which can be troubling if you are the troublemaker. If you are the rebel, if you are the one who resists those expectations. The early Church can be portrayed as a time of wonders, but I am also guessing it had some of the familiar characteristics of a small town. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Many people have an opinion. She is too loud, too arrogant, too whatever. He is not trying hard enough, falling short of this or that expectation. The strength of such communal living can be wonderful to behold or it can be a heavy burden to shoulder. Rigid in practice and unforgiving in temperament. Not everyone is cut out for that sort of life.
Unitarians grew out of Puritanism. The Puritans, as one can surmise from the name, were seeking purity in their religious lives and particularly purity in their form of community. They left the Anglican Church because it represented an unacceptable blending of Catholic and Protestant ideas and rituals. They developed separate communities, first in Europe and then in the American colonies. In this first form, Puritanism was by no means an exercise in religious tolerance but rather was an effort of purification. The new colonial forms of government wove together church and state, at least in New England. Your civic life was your church life, and vice versa. You could not escape church because church knew where you lived.
My description is negative, I realize, because I personally would find all that insufferable. But there was strength to the way of living. Whether the benefits balanced out the burdens is a long standing question. Some people would double down when efforts seemed to slack off, like during the Great Awakening of American religious exuberance that came in many waves during the 18th and 19th centuries. Why did it not take permanent root in any particular wave? Probably because exuberance can turn into zealotry, purity becoming puritanical.
It could also have been a generational divide. That is how my parents or grandparents liked to live, but not me, not my children. Which liberal mindset, in turn, eventually goes too far, veering people or society in a less disciplined or orderly direction. The pendulum swings back and forth , again and again.
Recall the Third Principle: We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. This language is open rather than specific. Acceptance suggests a lack of pre-judgement, a “come as you are” sentiment that keeps doors open. That is an important lesson learned from a long history of attempted purity.
Acceptance and then encouragement to spiritual growth. It is indeed “a come as you are” party but then, well, you might want to tidy up a bit. No pressure, but I am not sure that is the best spiritual look for you.
Is that fair? Is it fair to invite people in, to accept them for who they are but then encourage them to change? I love you exactly for who you are – and now get busy changing. Does that make any sense?
Like most matters, it is a question of degree. When I consider the phrase acceptance of one another, I imagine open arms and open minds. A place of welcome and hospitality. Come in, come in, sit down, sit down. Mi casa e su casa.
You are a cherished guest.
Over time though, guests transform into something else. I recall going to visit my then girlfriend’s parents, the home of my future in-laws. There was an invisible web of formalities to be observed. They used the good dishes, not the everyday stuff. I dressed to impress, at least as impressive as a college junior could muster. They were lovely and friendly, but we did not know each other. Hospitality can be wide open, but it has its implicit rules. It was years before I would open the refrigerator to get a soda, even when they said repeatedly please help yourself. Maybe I was weird.
Over time, as you grow into a relationship, the notion of being a guest shifts. You are a friend. You become a member of the family. There are different expectations depending on how one understands the relationship. A friend will help you move furniture, usually at the cost of pizza and beer. A member of the family will come early to set the table, to cook the food, to clean up on Christmas morning. A guest is welcomed without burdens or expectations. Friends and family shoulder those burdens together and often have shared expectations.
This is like the disciples and their shared lives. More than guests, probably even more than friends, this was a beloved community. And love takes work. Love looks and sounds a certain way. But it does not start off that way because love takes time. It takes ownership and commitment. Love requires that people grow together.
I think the Third Principle could be spelled out a little more, for clarity’s sake, but the message of acceptance and encouragement make sense if you understand that this is intended to be a relationship built over time. I am accepted for who I am. And then if I choose to stick around, I am encouraged to grow into the community. To be more than the guest when I am willing to take that step.
Both acceptance and encouragement are two fold matters, expected of the individual and the group. The group accepts the individual with his or her strengths and weakness, gifts and burdens. And the individual, in growing into the community, needs to accept the community, its members, and what the community holds dear. Acceptance is a good thing, but if it is the only thing, it will not be enough. It is all well and good to accept a person or a community for whom or what they are, but it is another matter entirely to accept them for what they do. Or what they don’t do.
I am talking about behavior and expectations. The disciples were learning the lessons of Jesus and then they were putting them into practice in their community and their lives. This is like the encouragement to spiritual growth set forth in the Third Principle. A religious community comes together around shared purposes and principles. Unitarians Universalists are well known for the diverse content of their spiritual lives, but the foundational principles are there, like the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
Over the past two Sundays I have mentioned other principles, like the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. Like the affirmation of justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships. The Third Principle is about acceptance and growth. You often see the message “All are Welcome” in invitations to Unitarian churches. It is a good message, but there is something implicitly missing. All are welcome in the door and all are welcome to join in the shared sense of community we have.
Now, what if someone comes in and flatly states, I do not believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. What if someone prefers to live in a society marked by injustice, rife with inequity, or lacking in compassion? To say all are welcome does not mean all behavior is welcome or that all opinions are equally accepted in a shared church community.
Unitarians are unusual in that our churches stand as independent communities in association linked by broad principles. For example, we here are a church in the Christian tradition, a type that is not typical in the wider denomination. As such, we look to the lessons of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible as the primary sources of our understanding of life, the world, and beyond. But as a congregation within the Unitarian Universalist Association, we are also charged with the principles of that association. I do not believe that these principles in any way conflict with that underlying Biblical tradition. In fact, I think those principles stand firmly on the foundation of that tradition, rooted in the Bible and marked by the words of Jesus. That might come as a surprise.
And yet there will be ideas and positions that might not make sense in that context, ones that have been historically Christian but do not comply with what is inherently Unitarian. Being a Unitarian bigot is nonsensical, even though it admittedly happens, even though some Christians have used and still use the Bible to support slavery or colonialism or other oppressive practices. Suggesting that women take a subordinate role in life had been a Christian tradition, but frankly it is a Unitarian heresy.
If you affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, you cannot un-affirm it or sidestep such an inherent quality. Acceptance of who one is requires at least that. And encouraging spiritual growth means that new and existing members of a community must in time accept that fundamental principle. When we see injustice, we must point it out. When inequity is staring us in the face, we need to say so. When compassion is in short supply, we have to underscore the need for it and to step into the breach to offer it.
The disciples learned together and lived together. Their community was marked by shared values and practices. Our community might not completely identify with that sense of community, sharing possessions and all that, in the same way that we do not completely identify with the wider community of the UUA. But an understanding of community is important and embracing the shared principles of a Christian community and the UUA are also important for us. I could spend hours trying to distinguish and then to reconcile the two traditions, which I will do eventually. Just not this morning.
I will leave it that we are called to accept one another for who we are and to encourage one another to be and to become our best selves. That is not about being perfect Puritans or perfect Unitarians. To borrow a phrase from history, it is about forming a more perfect union. More perfect, not perfect. Better and better, even as the target of perfection slips away no matter how hard we try. Acceptance of who we are and encouragement to open the doors to community and to open the way to new horizons. And just like the door should never be closed, the horizon will never be reached. There should always be room to grow. Just as there should always be room for someone new at the table.