This I Believe

Introduction

Our Unitarian Universalist fourth principle calls for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Join us this Sunday for one of our most popular service topics – This I Believe – when some of our members will be sharing their personal spiritual beliefs and the journey that led them there.

Speakers

Stephen Day

As a non-credal religion, Unitarian Universalism joins only a handful of world religions that challenge their members to seek truth and spirituality in the world around us. Contrary to what many outsiders believe, this doesn’t mean that “anything goes” for UUs. In the place of a formal statement of beliefs for us all to believe, Unitarian Universalism offers Seven Principles that serve as a sort of ethical guiderail to keep us from wandering into the weeds as we follow our individual paths to spirituality.

Our service today celebrates our Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In his book The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Rev. Paige Getty writes:

As responsible religious seekers, we recognize that we are privileged to be free, to have resources to pursue life beyond mere survival, to continually search for truth and meaning, to exist beyond bonds of dogma and oppression, and to wrestle freely with truth and meaning as they evolve.

This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. And those mysteries may speak to us through our own intuition and experience – but also through tradition, community, conflict, nature, and relationships.

As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights.”

It has been a tradition in our church, as well as many other UU churches around the world, to occasionally invite members of the congregation to share with us their faith journeys – the questions they’ve struggled with and the personal answers they’ve found. This is not an easy assignment. For many of us, the day-to-day realities keep us focused on the mundane aspects of our lives. Being asked to write a This I Believe statement can be a jarring request to rise up from our comfortable, ordinary existence and wrestle with the big and scary questions of who we are, where we are going, and why we are here – and I would like to thank Mary Harlos, Elizabeth Howells, and Dotty Carringi for their bravery in agreeing to do just that and to share their stories with us.

As beneficiaries of their hard work, our job this morning is to listen to their words as openly as we can. The act of listening – not just hearing, but actually listening – can be hard for many of us. This morning I challenge you to relax and open your mind so you can listen fully. It is through that deep listening that we can gain a deeper understanding of each of our presenters, and perhaps find the sliver of an answer to a question that we have about ourselves.

And so without any further ado, our first This I Believe statement comes from Mary Harlos.

Mary Harlos

Last week, Reverend Leland said that many of us have been drawn to Unitarian Universalism because we wanted a place to be religious but not to be told what to think. That sums up what I believe, so now I’m done. Thank you for listening!

Ha ha, no. Just kidding.

I will start with the spiritual background of my childhood.

I was brought up Roman Catholic, Italian Catholic. I have four Italian grandparents, so has you can imagine, being Catholic was a big part of my life growing up. I went to mass every week and religious holiday until I graduated from high school, and took church teachings very seriously throughout my childhood. I remember being horrified at the idea that many of my classmates would just go through the motions for a sacrament like confirmation, for example, to please their parents. I was way too serious a kid to do things like that. I even bought a bible with my own money and read it often as a school girl.

Legacies of my Catholic childhood:

  • Guilt – you can never be good enough.
  • Selflessness as an ideal to aim for in a way that would not now be considered psychologically healthy (the saints as role models). We loved the stories of the martyrs as kids – that has got to be damaging!
  • Original sin – the idea that you are born full of sin and are therefore “bad”.
  • Fear of authority. My one year in Catholic kindergarten was terrifying! It was kind of a backward school where kids were spanked every day.
  • The feeling that sex is sinful – that one is drummed into you and hard to let go of.
  • Good things – prayer, contemplation, self-examination, and an intellectual theological tradition.
  • And also, because I grew up during Vatican II – ecumenicalism, liberal theology, the idea that women should have more of a role in the church, the idea that priests could potentially be allowed to marry, all of which are the beginnings of the eventual realization that Catholics could have opinions different from the official church view, and that people with those opinions could bring about change. The first seeds of dissent.

More seeds of dissent were sown in high school, some by my father. He had minored in Theology at a Jesuit university, and he was a fount of seditious information. I remember, for example, asking him about the church’s view on contraception once, and him explaining that there were different types of papal decrees, and that the one about contraception was a kind that you didn’t have to believe – I guess because it wasn’t dogma, or a central tenet of the faith, I don’t know. I remember being skeptical, because no one else seemed to view it that way, but I was happy to feel like there was an out. He wasn’t so keen on papal infallibility either.

Another significant experience in high school is that I got a job in the church rectory office on Saturdays. That job provided a window into church everyday business and the priests’ lives that I could not have gotten any other way. Priests are only people, and of course fallible. But in the Catholic church, we put them on a pedestal and consider them to be holy men. It was eye opening for a teenager and was probably the beginning of the end of my relationships with the Catholic church to see that the priests in my church were fairly self-absorbed and just not very nice people. There were good parts, like some very cool nuns who did social justice work who were often in and out of the office, the visiting Spanish and Vietnamese priests, and a young priest who was a canon lawyer. Overall though, I came out of that experience with some disillusionment about the church. Once I left for college, I never went again.

I did want spirituality in my life, an dI remember casting about for where to find it. But I was never motivated enough to seriously pursue finding another spiritual home. I had a few flirtations with Unitarian Universalism, and while I was always intrigued, I never joined a church. I was married in Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. My parents, who had always been rather liberal Catholics, had been going there with friends. After we moved to Albuquerque, NM, we visited a UU church there, but it didn’t really click for me. We also visited a Catholic church because my husband had never been to a mass, and he was very disappointed that there wasn’t a lot of incense and chanting and all that. I had to explain that they don’t do that every Sunday anymore.

After my first daughter was born and we moved to the Chicago area, we visited another Chicagoland UU church and I actually went to a few activities and such there. But after we sat through a sermon where a minister castigated the congregation for not wearing fair trade clothing, we did not go back.

We ended up deciding to stick with Christianity of the Protestant sort to give the children something solid to rebel against later. I was drawn to the traditional Protestant sects because I liked the intellectual and theological traditions behind them. We joined a Presbyterian church where we liked the minister very much. He was smart, articulate, well-read, and spiritual. I dived back into Christianity at this point in my life. My father had recently died, and I felt comfort there. I sang in the choir and went to the women’s bible study. The kids went to the Sunday School. I loved the community and the opportunities to join others for the food bank collections and other charitable work. I liked the people very much.

But here was the problem: I felt out of sync with the beliefs there. For quiet a while I was able to ignore it, but then it got harder. I was still that person who couldn’t ignore or pretend to be like everyone else when my beliefs differed. There were a few people there who didn’t believe in evolution, which I found dismaying. I remember a discussion about how there must be some fatal flaw in carbon dating that foold scientists into thinking the earth was older than it said in the bible. And then there was the evangelism, which made me uncomfortable. I have never believed there is only one true faith, or that people who aren’t Christians are doomed to go to hell, whatever you think hell is. My daughters were told in Sunday School to go out and tell their friends about Jesus so their friends could be saved. They didn’t want to do it, and I did not make them.

My girls in fact were key catalysts to the downward slide away from our family being practicing Christians. They would tell me that they though Christianity was discriminatory. That was the word they used. One’s best friend was an Atheist, and another’s best friend was Jewish. To them, the idea that these friends couldn’t go to heaven was just plain wrong. I agreed with them! The older they got, the less they clicked at that church, and then the minister we liked retired, and it seemed that the church was going in a more conservative direction, so we left. I still miss the people there.

In late 2018, I got divorced and moved to Elgin. I remembered how much I enjoyed the community of church and opportunities to learn and to participate in good works and I knew I wanted to find a church. I also knew that I didn’t want anyone telling me what to think. So I looked online for UU churches and who knew? There was one in Elgin. I visited and felt a connection right away. I loved the service and the people. I like the focus on connection, integrity, and transcendence. I didn’t know much about the principles when I came here, but when I read them I felt an instant affinity. Because when I review my life and experiences, there is one thing I definitely do believe in, and that’s love. It seems to me that love is the force behind all the UU principles. Our relationships with others are what life is all about. That is what I believe.

Beth Howells

When I was little, I used to believe in God. Not any god, but the Christian (or more specifically speaking, Lutheran) God. I hadn’t really retained much from Sunday school or from my preschool that was held at our old Lutheran church, except that God was everywhere, and he had a kid named Jesus who did some pretty cool stuff. Jesus died, but then he came back, although I assumed he must’ve died again for real at some point, because I’d never met him at church.

One of the things I remember is that I was taught that God was inside of me and everyone and everything around me. I thought that this was a very strange place for God to hang out, and that he must have some sort of cozy studio apartment setup in my heart since he spends so much time there. I imagined that every time I prayed, he’d pick up a little red telephone in his cozy heart apartment and listen to my prayers. I mean, how else would he hear them?

That fun idea of mine didn’t last very long. My family moved when I was around five to accommodate for the arrival of my little sister, and naturally we moved churches too. We spent a long time looking for somewhere to settle down, and although I believe we found UUCE pretty early on, my mother wasn’t spiritually satisfied here, and for a few years we bounced between this church and a Unity church in Crystal Lake.

Attending two different churches at once, especially a Unitarian Universalist church and a Christian church, gave me some sort of religious whiplash. One Sunday I’d learn about all the many beliefs people practiced and how I could take my time learning about whichever ones interested me at my own pace. The next Sunday I’d learn about all the many beliefs people practiced and how I could take my time learning about whichever ones interested me at my own pace. The next Sunday I’d be told all about God and his glorious light as if it were a fact. To a kid it felt like I was being told what to think. As a defense mechanism (or an ADHD symptom, if you prefer), I completely ignored every religious thing ever said to me in Sunday school. To this day I honestly have no idea what they believed there. I could as my mother, but I doubt that it’s anything particularly worthwhile for this sermon.

Shortly before middle school the Unity church moved buildings to a location even further away than where it had been before. My mother decided it was just too long of a drive to even attempt attending anymore. I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist ever since. Now I’m sure my mother didn’t choose this church just because it was convenient, I’m sure she made friends here, and grew to love the community, and she believed in the seven principles. I’m sure of that now. Back then I didn’t have the perspective all I heard was my mom complaining about how the Unity church was too far away, and that meant I got to hang out in the barn every Sunday from now on. I thought that was a pretty sweet deal.

Since coming here I’ve gone to Marwood and CON and graduated from my Religious Exploration/Education. I’ve also spent a couple of years working in the childcare room of Ravyn. I love this church, but in terms of my search for truth and meaning I’ve come up a bit short.

It’s always been easy to dismiss the beliefs I’m not a fan of. I don’t believe in a god anymore. For sure I don’t believe in God in the Christian sense, but I’m still on the fence about whether I believe in one at all. I very much dislike the idea of fate. I don’t know how I could personally function if I believed that all of my actions were either predestined or led to some sort of fated end. And I know that I don’t believe in an afterlife. To most that might sound depressing, but I think it would be nice to take a break from existence. I mean, existing has its perks, don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy it here where I am alive and can pet cats and drink coffee, but I’ve always found the idea of simply disappearing after death to be comforting. I’ll never get anymore splinters, or even have to think about splinters either.

I could go on like this for a while, about the pros and cons to existing, about my stubborn hate of fate, and my theories on god (or rather lack thereof), but I’m not sure I can tell you what I do believe in.

I’ve thought about this for quite a while and in my experience at least, there are two kinds of belief. The first kind of belief comes from experience. A great example would be ghosts. I saw a ghost when I was a kid, and regardless of however many times my brother laughs at me and calls me a gullible idiot, I still believe in ghosts. I believe in tarot because every time that I’ve had a problem and I’ve spread out my tarot deck, I’ve always found answers among my cards. I don’t have many beliefs like this. I know some people have experienced spiritual events that have impacted their faith, and some people even base their entire faith around them. Either this is something you start out believing very young and never stop, like superstitions, or it’s picked up somewhere along your life, like my whole ghost thing.

The other type of belief needs effort to cultivate. I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. I tried out a very loose style of paganism for a few years but I never really felt like I believed in it. I read books on the subject, I did my best to meditate, and I tried out simple rituals from the books I’d picked out, but nothing ever clicked. Everything I read said that magic was really just intentions directed in the right way, but I think my intentions were only ever half-formed. I couldn’t put my entire heart into it. I doubted everything I did, and maybe that was my downfall. Sometimes I think that’s just how I am.

My family raised me skeptical. When I was a kid, I believed in all sorts of fun and silly things, like dragons, and monsters, and heart apartments. I still have my battered copy of Dragonology, although it might be missing a few interactive pieces from my rough, scientific love. When my mother told me that dragons were just the legends that ancient peoples invented upon discovering dinosaur bones, I got so mad that I stopped believing in dinosaurs for a little while.

All of this is just to say that right now I don’t have any strong religious beliefs, and although I have looked and explored, sometimes believing takes more effort than I have in me. During tough times, most people will rely on their religious beliefs to help carry them through adversity. In this period of my life, the pressure to find and define my spirituality is more than I can handle. I don’t mind drifting through life without the perspective to see the bigger picture. I’ve spent a lot of my life doing that anyways. Instead I’ll hang onto my little daily beliefs and superstitions to help me through the day.

I’ll keep wishing on eyelashes, stars, and 11:11. I’ll keep blowing kisses to ambulances and firetrucks as a blessing that they reach their destination safely. And I’ll keep living one day at a time until I’m somewhere that feels safe enough to start searching again.

Dotty Carringi

Good morning. I’m Dotty Carringi and I’m honored to be asked to share my spiritual journey with you. You may call this, however, my non-spiritual journey. I will speak about my heritage, how I found UUCE, and my continued search for meaning.

Childhood Influence

My Dad, an immigrant from Latvia, considered himself an atheist. He told us “never trust a cop, a psychiatrist or a priest.” “Religion is like Rubber,” he said; “you can stretch it this way and that way and make it mean anything you like.” He had strong values – loyalty, a sense of fairness, and a strong work ethic.

My mother’s parents were Jewish immigrants. They did not practice the Jewish religion but passed down values of their culture, like resilience in hard times, encouraging the arts and education, and limitless fresh challah bread and chicken soup. Grama was unflappable. I don’t think “crisis” was in her vocabulary.

Mom didn’t like “do-gooders” and I think she meant people who flaunted their charitable deeds or were hypocrites. Dad was a union activist in the 1930’s, and in the 1980’s they both actively promoted universal health care before it was a thing.

Our family of five (I was the youngest of three sisters) never went to a church, but still kept Sunday as “special.” We divided the Sunday SunTimes among us (I took the Comics) and were told to wear Sunday clothes. Dad liked to have a live Christmas tree with ornaments and lights but without angels, wise men, or mangers.

I was outed as a non-believer in second grade. The teacher asked everyone in the class to stand in front of a sign that described their religion: Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, etc. I was the only one left sitting, so the teacher said, “Oh, just stand over there.” Very embarassing.

Search for a Church

After I was married, divorced, and then a single mom, I looked for some structure for my son, Ron, and for myself. So, living in E. Lansing Michigan, I dabbled with the liberal United Church of Christ, viewing the sermons like a college lecture while ignoring the words that were cringe-worthy to me like “faith” “prayer” and “sin.”

After moving back to the Chicago suburbs and Ron was in college, I continued my search. Then I remembered when I was a teenager I attended the Unitarian Universalist Unity Temple in Oak Park, which didn’t seem “churchy” at all. So, I looked up UU churches and found the UU Church of Elgin. When I walked into the old farmhouse church on Randall Road, a former member greeted me, Jim Porter, who I worked with at Square D Company in Palatine. Then Lydia Larabee and Ron Williams introduced themselves, Dan Brosier gave the sermon, Margot Cusimano conducted the handbells; it was just the friendliest and most welcoming place. There were no crosses or other religious icons to set off my triggers; I had found a home and felt that the Unitarian Universalist church was the only one I could ever be a part of.

Spirituality

But what am I? Agnostic? Atheist? I guess you could call me a Functional Atheist, defined as: “Living without reference to religious teachings concerning god; possibly belonging to a church; a ‘closeted’ or unrealized atheist.” That seems to fit. But am I spiritual?

Once a boss, who was also a friend, asked me, “Do you pray?” When I said no, she asked with shock, “You don’t pray?” My answer was still no. When I was a child I would pray each night not to dream about tornadoes – that was after being spooked by the Wizard of Oz. And last month I prayed again, this time that our country would choose the right leader.

I did experience a spiritual, even supernatural event the day my sister Bonny suddenly died. I was crying, sitting on her bed, when I clearly heard her say, “Don’t be sad, Little Sister. It’s okay.” I shook my head and dismissed this, because it had no place in my theology – it wasn’t rational.

There are other times, when I’ve experienced a spiritual connection to the universe or greater power, usually involving the wonder of nature or creation of art. For example, often when I’m painting in my studio I completely lose track of time – being in The Zone, they call it. That’s spiritual, to me.

Conclusion

Being a part of this church, especially in the time of COVID, is something I value. I’m grateful to know a beloved community of similar-minded people, including the ones who have moved away and the ones who have passed on. This church is where Steve and Donna Askins introduced me to Mike, my dear husband and companion, where we were married, and where we remain committed supporters.

I’ll end with a joke from Herb Silverman, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt”:

A Jewish atheist hears that the best school in town happens to be Catholic, so he enrolls his son. Things are going well until one day the boy comes home and says, “I just learned all about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The boy’s father is barely able to control his rage. He grabs his son by the shoulders and says, “Joey, this is very important, so listen carefully. There is only one God – and we don’t believe in Him!”

So far, nothing has convinced me to form a belief in god, one way or the other. I’ve been living more than 70 years without believing, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never reach out to a higher power.

They say “there are no atheists in foxholes.” But is that true? We’ll see.

Closing

Thank you again to Mary, Beth, and Dotty for sharing their stories with us this morning. Our “This I Believe” service is a perennial favorite that wouldn’t be possible without people like them bravely stepping forward and sharing their beliefs. If you would like to be considered for a future This I Believe service, please let the Worship Team know so we can continue this tradition in the years to come.

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