To Do Good is My Religion
by Rev. Jane Esbensen
Prairie UU Society
August 15, 2010

"The world is my country and my religion is to do good." -- Thomas Paine

There is a tumbledown, topsy turvy world out there beyond these doors, and we gather every Sunday in our UU churches, fellowship halls and societies to discuss the nature of things, to be reminded of our own best selves, and to be inspired enough to go out into the days ahead and do what we can to help set the world on the right path: the path of justice, the path of compassion, the path of common sense and of common good and of hopefulness.

Who am I, standing before you today? And who are you, sitting there listening? And what are we together? These are the questions for this particular Sunday, for us all, since this is the Sunday where you and I perhaps merge our lives for one year Ė so best to know the players!

So who am I?

I was raised in a family where we were told that the gift of being given life became then our responsibility to make the world a better place to live in. My brothers and sister and I were raised as people of the world, and we were encouraged to find our own path toward salvation, as it were, salvation being a way of life that we could live with, a way of life that meshed outwardly with who we were inwardly, where we were not to follow the crowd simply because the crowd was there, larger and more powerful than we were individually, but we were encouraged to believe in ourselves and we were encouraged to pay attention to our moral compass that lay within.

My mother was raised Jewish and my father was raised congregational, but neither of them liked the trappings of religion, nor of having to go to services just for the sake of being there. So we children we raised with the words that literature and poetry and philosophy leant, and we were specifically introduced to the thinkings of Emerson and Thoreau (although this more from my father than from my mother who felt that Thoreau was a very self-centered person who had the audacity to think that living in a hut where everything was provided to him, in order to write and think, was ridiculous and she had far more empathy and joined frustration with Mrs. Emerson who was the one providing those meals to the young Mr. Thoreau, while keeping her own home and family intact, with no time for herself or her own pursuits!) You can see that a strong feminist perspective cast an overlay upon anything I read and learned in my house, creating a necessary balance and a critical eye upon the world I inhabited and inhabit still!

We were also not told how to believe, or what church to go to, if indeed any, but were encouraged to go out and seek our own truth, to ask our own questions, to find that which resonated best with our own soul and spirit. And so I did that, did the searching to soothe the endless longing I had to be in the religious life.

I went to Pentacostal churches where they spoke in tongues and I thought it was really amazing and was intrigued by the speaker and by the translator. I wondered how it was all done and since I knew I was good at foreign languages, I was pretty sure that if I went to those churches frequently enough and really opened myself up to whatever it was that could give me either one of those gifts, that I, too, could speak in tongues. But it never happened. Not once. I continued to be my bland self, slogging along, speaking American English. How dull!

I also opened myself up to hearing the voice of God, since so many of friends knew God and told me that God spoke to them quite regularly. Again, I felt that if God was going to speak to anyone, I was surely a prime candidate because I was sensitive and willing and ready to hear Godís voice. But I never did hear it, although I am still open to the possibility, if it could ever really happen.

And I was open to having Jesus appear at the end of my bed, as he had appeared to so many people Iíd read about in books and magazines. And as scary as it might really be to have it happen, I lay myself open to the possibility, for my world was the one of these United States, where almost everyone went to church on Sunday and had these interesting experiences. I wanted those experiences, too. But never once did anything remotely otherwordly occur and so, looking around me, over time, I came to note that the one thing that DID surround me were people. Some good, some not so good, most just fine, ordinary people.

It was people who I saw throughout my days. Thatís who I saw and interacted with and created myself in the midst of, so thatís where Iíve hung my hat religiously, as a humanist rather than as a theist; because I hear the words of people when they speak, and I see people sitting on the edges of beds when there are those in need, and so thatís where my faith and hope and belief lies Ė with humanity. This is where I have landed Ė as myself and as a minister Ė as a humanist.

I do not know whether there is a God, or gods, but I do think that IF there is such a thing then surely that God or those gods would want humankind to be cut of the best cloth, to do the best work, to create the best world. And if there is no such thing as a God, or gods, then I still think that as humans we need to be the best we can be, for ourselves and for others, and to care for this world of ours, for it is the only world, the only life, we know that we have. This is where I land, but it does not mean that others need to land there. As a UU, I must have the freedom and the right to seek those truths which resonate with me Ė for there is not only one truth or one path toward salvation Ė but with this freedom to search for myself comes the imperative that I give this same freedom to others who may see another truth, or who may walk along another path: be it atheist, agnostic, humanist, pagan, Wiccan, Buddhist, Christian, theist, Muslim or Jew. For many this sounds nebulous; that we are a religion that is built of nothing when actually we are built of much.

There is actually a misperception among people outside of Uuism, and sometimes even within it, that we can believe in anything and that anything goes. This is simply not true, for if it were we would be like the Aesop Fable story of the Man, the Boy and the Donkey, which goes like this:

A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: "You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?"

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: "See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides."

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

Well, the Man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: "Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey with you and your hulking son?"

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

"That will teach you," said an old man who had followed them:

        "Please all, and you will please none."

I do not want my ministry, or even me as a person, to be a please all, please none entity. Nor do I want this of any UU congregation. So this means that we must be courageous in our quest for truth and learning, that we not come from a place of fear but that we come from a place of curiosity and openness. This religion demands that we each know ourselves and are respectful of others and that means being, to paraphrase Shakespeare, to thine own self, true.

As a Unitarian Universalist, being a seeker of truth and of knowledge, opening myself up to new experiences and new information and new thoughts, does not mean that I am open to anything and that anything goes. It means that I am not afraid of things I do not know, nor of words I do not use myself, but that I am willing to remain open to the possibilities of things, while I retain a core of myself that is true for me.

I am always looking for ways to be a better person and to help others become the best they can be, and to assist in helping the world become its best self. This means that I land on the possibilities of human to human, but I do not shy away from or shun the unseeable energies that lie around us, for there is much that I do not know. It is only in the state of being open and unafraid that we can truly listen to one another and hear each other and learn from each other, and in so doing to know and to better understand and to then create. These are the things we must be able to do if we are to come together and get things done in a world that is sorely in need of help.

And isnít that why we gather together on Sunday mornings? Arenít we all interested in being reminded of the best parts of ourselves, committing ourselves to being better today than we were yesterday, and becoming inspired to go out into the world as our best selves and see what we can do to make the world a better place to live in?

Yes it is. I believe this is why we gather together. And being in the midst of this gathering is where I know my best self has the best chance of coming into the light of day, here with all of you. And this is no small thing.

So now, tell me about you Ė briefly and succinctly, so that everyone has a chance to speak. In the future, if I am chosen to be your minister this year, there will be more for us to learn about each other more fully, but for today, I want to hear only two things: the religious tradition, if any, that you were raised in and what one good thing from that past life you continue to carry with you today, that you believe brings good into the world.