"Only by....conversion can we be possessed by a love that will not let us go."
- James Luther Adams, in "Root Ideas of Human Freedom"
Unitarian Universalist ministers do this a lot. We encourage our people to discover the wisdom of our more traditional Christian neighbors even as they/we may be confused or even put off by the language and symbols used. Some words and ideas have an easy translation - as I tell my congregation - wherever it says "Jesus Christ" just insert the words "the spirit of mutual love." (I learned this trick from Alice Blair Wesley btw, who does it with ease in her Minns Lectures - in that case, helping us translating from ourselves in the 17th century to ourselves in the 21st.) And still, some others do require us to do our own work....i.e. my Small Group Ministry Steering Council is currently working on - what does success mean for us if it is not "bringing people to Jesus Christ"? Determining what is mere words and what is actual content turns out to actually be one of the most interesting parts of the learning.
I have long believed that testimonies are a powerful way to help people name and claim their experience of our good news - to name and claim our story. Each time I solicit these stories, I do so by describing a little of what I mean - although often when I say - "can you share your testimony" - most of those who I am asking know exactly what I mean, perhaps because I usually ask those who I know have one pretty ready to be shared. Maybe they have even shared it with me in the recent past. But Joanna's prodding made me think that it's worth considering our "how to" for Unitarian Universalist testimony. And so, here is my best shot at thinking through both our language, and our meaning when it comes to testimony, and necessarily, conversion....
How to Write Your Unitarian Universalist Testimony
You have a story. It is the story of who you were, who you are, and who you are becoming. And it is the story of what difference and why this religious community has impacted each of these parts of yourself - were, are, and yet to be. It is the story of when you moved from understanding this church as a place you go, to your place. It is the journey of calling yourself a Unitarian Universalist, and having some sense of what that means. It is the story of asking and then discovering new answers when you needed something new. It is the story of struggle and doubt and disappointment. It is the story of commitment and transformation and the good news that truth continues to unfold. It is the affirmation that everything is still possible.
We are often shy about our stories. We are unsure what words to use, what words will justify and explain our feelings of belonging, and hope, and commitment. We feel too much in-process - conversion isn't a one-time thing for us afterall, it's lifelong. We wouldn't want to claim we've got an answer when we've just opened the door into an entirely new world. And, we are unsure how to explain, rationalize or concretize - which is unfamiliar territory for us. And so, we say nothing. And in saying nothing, we lose, and those around us lose. Because only by naming our story and where ever we find ourselves in it right now can we fully claim our story. Only by sharing our story can we grow our story.
I offer these steps as a way to help us overcome these obstacles. They apply for both long and short, written and spoken testimonies. My hope is that they will help you share with authenticity and clarity what our liberal faith and our good news has done and continues to do in your life.
1. Your story is your own, and it matters. We can get stuck on whether or not what we have experienced "counts." We hear the words, "conversion" and "transformation," or even "salvation," and we wonder if what we have felt is enough. As my 8 year old likes to sing every chance she gets, "let it go." Whatever your experience, it matters. Whatever words you have, they count.
2. Your story is not only your own, and that matters too. Rebecca Parker says, "We inherit covenant before we create covenant." Part of claiming your story is claiming yourself as a part of our living tradition. Who are those voices from our tradition who call to you, who make you say "these are my people"? Since it's a living tradition, maybe those voices are from contemporary Unitarian Universalist; or, maybe they are from the 16th century. in any case, seek out those voices, those testimonies that have come before. What words, postures, values, and passions speak to you, sound deeply familiar, like they are the promises your life is intended to fulfill?
3. Consider your positive faith journey. Christine Robinson described our "wintry spirits" in her Berry Street lecture a few years ago. It was her way of saying - our religious journeys are often via negativa. We say what we haven't experienced, what we don't know, who we aren't. Here is a chance to articulate what we are. What brought you to Unitarian Universalism? (Or if you grew up as Unitarian Universalist, what kept you considering if this could be not just your parents' faith, but your own?) And what got you to stay? When did you go from calling this the place you go to calling it your faith? Is there a moment that stands out for you along the way? What does it matter that you now call yourself a Unitarian Universalist? What difference has it made?
4. Use a 3 Point Outline. It worked in freshman English, and it works for your first shot at UU testimony. What brought you? What keeps you? What's next?
- What brought you? Think back to what you were seeking before you came to our community, or before you came in more fully into the community? What was going on with you? Maybe you couldn't have named it then, but how do you understand it now? What was the underlying need? (Some examples: loneliness, fear, shame, illness, addiction, emptiness, confusion, doubt...) Had you tried to fill these needs in other ways before coming to or coming in closer to our faith community? How? And how did that go?
- What keeps you? Tell about the moment or moments where you realized you were "all in," when you realized our faith mattered to you and to the world in ways you had not previously considered. What changed - in you, or in your sense of our community and our faith? Take time to identify your personal process. What or who had an impact on your process?
- What's next? We don't imagine that conversion is a one time event. We - and revelation - continue to unfold. What question are you puzzling out right now? What has captured your imagination? What feels promising to you in our faith, in your life, in your life as it connects to our faith? How is the "Living Tradition" alive in you?
5. Important Tips to Remember
- Speak personally and specifically. Use the 1st person. Tell us what has, is and will happen in your life. Trust that it will translate to the "we." Each of us holds a piece of the truth.
- Stick to the positive experience with Unitarian Universalism, and refrain from focusing on any negative experiences or understandings of other religious traditions.
- Care tenderly for those who experience the holy and the sacred differently than you do - even if you (or they) would not name these things as holy or sacred. Be courageous in your naming of what has mattered to you, and why - and yet take care not to inadvertently shame another's experience in the process. (See Christine Robinson's Berry Street for examples.
6. Stay away from Unitarian Universalist abbreviations and claims of our unique liberal stance
We are (in)famous for our alphabet soup. These shortcuts can alienate listeners and readers and keep them from fully identifying with your story. Say the full phrase in all cases, and if possible, explain what it is you are talking about. Even "UUA" is not immediately apparent. "YRUU" even less so.
Even more problematic is our tendency to claim that we are the "only" faith that...[insert claim of uniqueness here]. We think this is sharing our good news, but actually it just comes off as arrogant and ignorant of today's religious landscape. Other religious communities can claim theological diversity. Other religious communities are welcoming to GLBTQ folks. Other religious communities are engaged in social justice. Other religious communities welcome and integrate the insights of science. Before we can truly share our testimony, we need to be aware of both our particularity and our commonality with other faith communities.
With all this said, most important is that we start practicing, and that we allow each other's stories to grow and evolve as our faith evolves. What I said in my first testimony 15 years ago is surely not what I would say today. We need to let ourselves and each other make big claims, and then - again, as my daughter would say - "let it [and ourselves] go" and grow, as truth continues to unfold.