A Place for All of Us

(I delivered this sermon for Hanukkah at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 9th 2012.)

This sermon began with a telling of Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: a Christmas Story.

Latkes are potato pancakes served at Hanukkah, and Lemony Snicket is an alleged children’s author.  For the first time in literary history, these two elements are combined in one book.  A particularly irate latke is the star of The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming, but many other holiday icons appear and even speak: flashing colored lights, cane-shaped candy, a pine tree.  Santa Claus is briefly discussed as well.  The ending is happy, at least for some.  People who are interested in any or all of these things will find this book so enjoyable it will feel as though Hanukkah were being celebrated for several years, rather than eight nights.

I’m pretty sure that most of us have felt misunderstood at some time or other in our lives.  Probably many of us have, somewhere along the way, wondered if there’s a place in the world for us, where we can be welcomed.  And quite a few of us, I’m prepared to bet, have gone through times of uncertainty about why we’re here or who we are or who we want to be that called any confidence we previously held into question.  I’ve certainly gone through those times when I felt misunderstood and uncertain about my place in the world.

Usually it’s pretty easy to look back at those times and figure out why I might have felt that way.  Maybe it was when I was about to have surgery, or when I was getting ready for an interview.  Maybe it was when I was putting together a budget when there didn’t seem to be quite enough money, or when I was going to meet someone to give them bad news.  I would hope everything would work out okay, of course, because what else could I do?  That didn’t stop me from being anxious or even afraid, but there I was anyway, anticipating what I was about to do because it was something I had to do.  In spite of any uncertainty I had about my place in the world, about who I was or what I was doing, I had to take what a leap of faith to move forward.

For example, about twenty-one years ago, which I am amazed to realize was nearly half my lifetime ago, I was in the process of applying to graduate schools in the United States.  I had gone to London to take the required standardized tests, I had completed the appropriate application forms, I had written my essays, and I had requested various letters of recommendation.  Over the next few months I received decision letters from the schools, and then I made my own decision about where I was going to go.

It was my last year as an undergraduate, so I was otherwise busy finishing up my studies and then taking exams, but there came a time when what I was about to do hit me.  I was making a commitment to begin a new set of studies, this time living much further away from home, from my parents than before.  And it wasn’t just far away from home!  I was going to be in a different country, where they had their own traditions and customs and strange ways of speaking!

I was pretty well committed at that point, though I don’t think anyone but me would have given me grief if I’d decided to back out and stay in the United Kingdom instead of moving to the United States.  I knew a little about where I was going to be, less about the people I was going to be around, and nothing about what my life would look like as a result of this transition.  But I also knew that this was something I was going to do, so I spent those last couple of months in England getting ready, preparing myself for a leap of faith across the Atlantic.

Arriving in New Jersey, I quickly discovered the truth of playwright George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”  Thankfully most of the differences in vocabulary were pretty inconsequential, though there was the time when, turning to another physics student as we worked through some problem sets, I asked him if he had a rubber.  Fortunately he had some familiarity with British English, and he calmly told me that I should probably ask for an eraser from now on.

But no sooner had I settled into life in the United States, than I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life next.  Since high school I’d had a simply answer: I was going to become a scientist and do research somewhere.  Well, that’s a pretty fuzzy plan.  Finishing graduate school was a more clear goal, but trying to find a place where I could continue to do the research I’d been doing turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated.

I ended up moving from New Jersey to California, another three time zones away from my family in England, another leap of faith that also took me from theoretical physics to applied laser science and biomedical imaging.  As it turned out I enjoyed the work and I liked my co-workers, though I’ll save for another time the story of how I ended up working for the physics professor who was the inspiration for the character of Beavis in Mike Judge’s cartoon, Beavis and Butt-head.  In any case, it seemed like some of the fuzziness in my life-plan was starting to resolve itself, but it was in San Diego that some of that plan started to change.  And a big part of that was being introduced to Unitarian Universalism.

Now from my early teenage years on, I had gone through school with a lack of interest in religion, and in fact with an active distaste for what I thought religion was.  It was in California, however, that I heard about this religion where my scientific view of the world, my environmental concerns and my love of choir music were all equally welcome.  After a decade and a half of spiritual homelessness, I found a place where it felt like I fit, a place where I didn’t always feel misunderstood when it came to what I believed.  I felt at home in this faith, discovering a beloved community that embraces us for who we already are, holding in creative tension all that unites us with all the ways in which we are different from one another, encouraging me on a spiritual journey for truth and meaning that is uniquely mine but where I am not alone.

A number of years later, and back on the East coast, another piece of life’s jigsaw puzzle fell into place.  Until then, whenever I had gone on a date and had said that I was a Unitarian Universalist,  the response ranged from “What’s that?” to a blank stare to concern that I was a Moonie.  So it was a breath of fresh air when I met someone who had heard of Unitarian Universalism!

As it turned out, Allison’s grandfather lived in a nursing home in Philadelphia called the UU House, so her whole family had not only heard of Unitarian Universalism, but had a good opinion of UUs, too.  They warmly welcomed me to the big family Passover seder, a couple of dozen people seated at every table in the house put end to end, and I felt right at home.

Thinking about it now, I’ve spent much of the last two decades, since coming to the the United States, figuring out who I am.  And that’s not to say that I’m done figuring it out, but my faith and my family are two pretty major pieces of that, pieces that were not part of my life, at least not remotely in their current form, when I arrived in New Jersey twenty years ago.  Not all of us — in fact, I’d venture that very few of us — are as lucky as the latke in Lemony Snicket’s story that we know so well what we are.  The latke was born knowing what it was, what it represented, what it needed in order to be understood, but none of us are so fortunate.  And not knowing who we are, what we want to be, we need to engage in individual work to figure that out.

Now even if we should be so lucky that we know who and what we are with the same amount of conviction that the latke had, that still doesn’t mean we have a place where we can be who and what we are.  Whether it’s a matter of finding that place or creating it because it doesn’t yet exist, that’s something that calls for collective work to figure out.

I hereby make the claim, then, that Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where both the individual work and the collective work may not only take place, but are actively encouraged.  It is part of the vision of this congregation, for instance, that “We offer a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.”  We do this when we strive to be a beloved community that embraces us for who we already are, when we remember to hold in creative tension all that unites us with all the ways in which we are different from one another, when we find ways to encourage one another on the spiritual journeys for truth and meaning that are uniquely ours but where none of us are alone.

For when we lift up the eternal verity put into words by Waldemar Argow, that “we are children of one great love, united in our one eternal family”, we remind one another that somewhere in the world there is a place for all of us, that everyone and everything should be welcomed somewhere.  And when we think of the promise written into song by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsch, the injunction to “wait and see what a world there can be, if we share, if we care”, we remind ourselves that this work of making a place for all of us, of welcoming one another, is something that we are called into together.  Whatever our struggles, big or small, private or public, whether it’s something that seems as momentous as the Maccabean Revolt or a frustration that just makes us want to scream, may we hold fast to the hope we can give one another, the faith we find in one another, in all the days of our living.

So may it be.

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