The Mission Statement of First Universalist church of Minneapolis is: “In the Universalist spirit of love and hope, we give, receive, and grow.”
This isn’t “grow” as in growing from a baby to an adult. It’s not “grow,” as in, “Come on, grow up!” where the subtext is, “Quit complaining!” It’s not “grow,” as in mergers and acquisitions.
There’s a deeper meaning to “grow” here. It points to the reality that it is possible to grow in our ability to live with compassion at the center of our lives, to listen deeply to one another, to practice forgiveness, and to be able to transform suffering into something of meaning.
But we can’t “grow” alone. We need a practicing faith community to help us grow.
There’s a story from James Luther Adams (one of the best know Unitarian Universalist thinkers of the 20th century) that gets at this perfectly. The time-frame of this story is the late 1940s when the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago was debating about whether to encourage African Americans to become members of their church.
In Adams’ words: “Some years ago I was a member of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. And another member of the board often complained about the minister’s preaching too many sermons on race relations. This board member often said that academics of course know little of the world of reality.
One evening at a meeting of the board he opened up again, with this same critique. So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about Jews and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage of questions opened up, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church, anyway?’
‘I’m not a minister…I don’t know,’ the man replied.
‘But you have ideas, you are a member here, a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’
The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored. “At about one o’clock in the morning, our friend on the Board,” says James Luther Adams, “became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our faith community.”
He said, ‘The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Then “Someone suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘Amazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’
This is a story about “grow.”
Initially, there’s a man saying, “I wish the church would be more realistic about things.”And we’ve been there, right? Someone is pushing and challenging us with new ideas, or has called us back to core values we profess, but aren’t living, and we say, “Come on, be realistic! We can’t do that…it won’t…it’ll never…”
That’s what’s happening here and I’m guessing it doesn't feel real comfortable for that man.
But that church and its values – that community - had created an environment where the spirit of love and hope worked on him until he could say, “The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.” (I would say, “grow them.”)
This was no easy thing to confess, I suspect.
Think about how hard it is to back down from a position you’ve taken.
If you can’t think of a time, try asking your partner, or a friend, or your kids – I’m pretty sure they could help you out!
But something miraculous happened. This man was willing to be changed – to grow – because of his faith and his community. "Growth" is about the dynamic dance of faith, values, and community. It’s about being willing to be changed by what we’ve received…and to give something different than we normally give...and it can be profoundly uncomfortable.
But that’s the purpose of our liberal faith communities. The church isn't in the “being realistic” business! The Universalist spirit of love and hope is not about being realistic - it is about a vision that will completely change the world if we embrace, live it, and let it work on our hearts.)
And that’s the whole darn point, I think: for this unrealistic liberal faith to get a hold of people like us, change us, and help us grow into Love’s people.