An Elevator Speech

A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Blacksburg, Virginia), July 16, 2006, by the Rev. Bill Gupton, Minister at the Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail — or rather the office at the church I serve in Ohio received an e-mail — from a gentleman inquiring about Unitarian Universalism, and asking some rather specific questions about what kinds of religious services we offered.

This is not at all uncommon — in any given week, we probably get half a dozen inquiries from people who are curious about our religion — all of which, I’d venture to say, when you boil it right down, amount to some version of the following:

How does your church compare to a Christian church? I’ve heard, or I’m aware, that there’s something different about you, but I’m not sure what it is. Please explain.”

Now if we lived in certain other parts of the world, the questions we’d receive might be about how our religion relates to Islam, or how it relates to Buddhism, or Hinduism. But here in America, what folks really want to know about us is this:

Where do you fit in, vis-à-vis Christianity?

Though it is a question we might find frustrating, we are constrained to acknowledge the fact that these are the terms on which religion is discussed, in our culture. These are the cards we have been dealt.

So when someone asks me questions about my church, I can be fairly confident that they’re doing so based on a few basic assumptions about what religion is. For most of our family, friends, and co-workers — for most of the people we meet on the street — religion is about the Bible, and Jesus, and a God that both punishes and redeems.

The e-mailer I mentioned a moment ago was no exception. He was interested in knowing whether one had to be a member of our church in order to have one’s baby baptized there. He wanted to know what version of the Bible we used. He wanted to know if we believed in adult baptism.

Such questions may seem, at best, strange to most of us who come together in a Unitarian Universalist context each Sunday — but we have to remember that they are perfectly reasonable and sensible questions, to most of the people we know and come in contact with.

And so, I replied to the e-mail as kindly and factually as I knew how, trying my best to explain that no, in fact, we really don’t do baptisms of any kind, because that particular religious ceremony is based on the theological presupposition that human beings are somehow “fallen,” and innately sinful — that therefore, from birth, we are somehow in need of having our damaged relationship with God ritually repaired.

To his question about the Bible, I explained that we consider all versions and translations of the Bible — and indeed all other religious texts and scriptures (not to mention all secular writings) — to be less-than-perfect, human efforts to understand this life and its meaning — and as such, we weigh their relative merits based on how they resonate in our individual hearts and minds.

That’s what I told him, or something like that. But even as I was doing so, I was painfully aware of the places where I was sliding into the age-old UU trap of explaining our faith defensively and in negative terms.

For all of us, whether we have professional training at responding to such questions or not, it is far too easy to let ourselves slide down that slippery slope into declaring what Unitarian Universalists don’t believe, rather than what we do. At times we seem to enjoy playing the role of the misunderstood stepchild, the minority religion — or as they used to say in another, perhaps more innocent, era, we sometimes seem to relish being the “dissenting religion.”

This leads us to respond to the inevitable questions about our Unitarian Universalist faith in negative terms.

Since there are certain basic assumptions about spirituality in our culture — that religion is about the Bible, and Jesus, and a God that both punishes and redeems — we often find ourselves dismissing the whole thing, and stating with pride (or at least, feigned pride) that our religion definitely isn’t about any of those things.

But if you look at it another way, I submit, we do have answers to those basic questions — and positive answers at that. It all boils down, respectively, to scripture, and Christology, and theology — and there are Unitarian Universalist ways to respond positively to each of these areas of thought.

Regarding scripture, as I told the e-mailer last month, our scriptures are as broad as is the human imagination. Regarding Christology, though it did not come up in that particular conversation, we hold that Jesus was one of the world’s great religious teachers — but mortal, and a man. Regarding theology, some of us believe in a more traditional God, others in a more natural, innate divine force; still others believe in nothing like that at all — but the key point here is that we are moved by a multiplicity of images of God, all of which are part of our Unitarian Universalist tradition.

Furthermore, we can claim a proud and vital history rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A couple of centuries ago, our religious ancestors had plenty of heated debates about the authority of the Bible, and about the divinity of Jesus, and about the nature of God. But times have changed, we are fond of saying, and so has Unitarian Universalism. In fact, that’s another of the many things that sets us apart — we are a religion that changes.

Think of that: A religion that changes. To some, the very idea is an oxymoron.

Yet here we are. Unitarian Universalism, an ever-changing religion. As our hymnal proclaims, we are a Living Tradition — an evolving faith, changing with each passing generation, as humanity gains more and more scientific knowledge and awareness of the universe, and as more and more new and different people come into our congregations.

And we can change precisely because we have never been willing to adopt — I would say, because we have been wise enough, never to adopt — an inflexible, unchanging creed as our one and only, timeless statement of belief. We have never accepted the notion that, if there is such a thing as absolute, eternal Truth with a capital “T,” that it has already been fully revealed, sometime in the past, to some special segment of humanity.

This openness on which we pride ourselves is, of course, a double-edged sword. For the curse of a creedless religion — or, to put it more positively, and use the title of the wonderful, introductory book about Unitarian Universalism we often give to our new members at my church, “the challenge of a liberal faith” is that we will always be answering the questions of those who do not understand a religion such as ours. Yet it is our responsibility — the responsibility of each of us — as carriers of the torch of religious freedom, to affirm the ongoing (and ever-changing) nature of human religious belief.

We understand, though it is hard to explain to others, that no one belief statement can capture what we are as a faith community. We are a people who are comfortable with the gray areas — many of us actually relish the gray areas! — yet we are also a people who live in a day, and a time, when — especially when it comes to religion — most people prefer things to be very black-and-white.

Which is why those family members and friends, co-workers and e-mailers, are, quite honestly, surprised, when we stumble and bumble our way through an attempt to answer what seems, to them, to be a simple and straightforward question: “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?”

We have even created a clever name for this conundrum — the “Elevator Speech.” Imagine you’re on an elevator, and a stranger asks you where you go to church. You say “the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Blacksburg” — and by then, you’re probably already at the top floor!

But seriously, the challenge of the so-called elevator speech is to explain what your congregation stands for, what your religion is all about — in just a few brief sentences. Before you and the stranger get off the hypothetical elevator.

This task is no problem for someone from a creedal religion. A Christian, or a Muslim, or even a Buddhist, could answer in a heartbeat — because the answer is always the same, regardless of who is doing the answering. But things are not so easy, as we know, for a Unitarian Universalist.

And so, over the course of my life as a UU — now a full two-dozen years — I’ve employed a variety of elevator speeches, none of which, I must admit, I ever found the least bit compelling. More often than not, in fact, I have preferred to take the approach of speaking from the heart, in the moment, and counting on Grace to deliver me safely from that elevator — or, as in the case of Forrest Church, hoping against hope that the dinner hostess will interrupt and change the subject!

But my experience with the e-mailer recently inspired me to work on a new elevator speech — and now I’d like to try it on for size, today, with you. Here it is:

Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive religion which teaches us that we’re all connected, we’re all in this thing called Life together — and so we’d better start learning how to love one another.

Two floors on the elevator, at most. Would probably work even in the shortest of buildings. And nary a word about the Bible, Jesus, or God — the absence of which, of course, would undoubtedly spark further questions.

But that one sentence, to me at least, sums up everything one need ever know about what we believe.

Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive religion which teaches us that we’re all connected, we’re all in this thing called Life together — and so we’d better start learning how to love one another.

Perhaps it is because I have had, in the last four years, the privilege of serving as minister of a decidedly Universalist church — or perhaps it is because the culture in which we live today seems so divided, and so much of what purports to be religion is predicated on exclusion, on the idea that “you’re either with us or you’re against us” … whatever the reason, I have become convinced that the single most important characteristic of Unitarian Universalism is its inclusive nature.

Thus, the first phrase of my elevator speech is

Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive religion.”

Our very name itself is inclusive — the combination of two historic religious traditions. And by pointing out, in positive language, that we are an inclusive faith, we note also an important difference between Unitarian Universalism and the dominant religions of our time — because, sadly, to be an inclusive religion in the early 21st century is not the norm. Yet I would add, it is clearly the approach taught by Jesus, should someone want to pursue that line of thinking.

In fact, it was this Universalist theological stance — the faith-filled conviction that no one was beyond the loving embrace of the Creator, that none would be excluded from the Kingdom of God — that defined the ministry of Jesus — and the early version of Universalism first practiced in America two centuries ago.

The second part of my elevator speech states that

UUism “teaches us we’re all connected, we’re all in this thing called Life together.”

From the original concept of the unity of God, to the more modern understanding that all life on this planet, and indeed all matter in the universe, is interconnected, and, in fact, interdependent — this is what the Unitarian side of our family tree teaches us. We not only affirm a radical inclusiveness that, when we are at our best, knows no bounds — we also affirm a radical connection with one another. Thus, we are reminded that we do not, and cannot, exist in isolation. As Ralph Helverson says in one of my favorite readings in our hymnal,

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient and self-sustaining.”

The final portion of my elevator speech builds on the idea of interconnection and interdependence, taking them to their logical conclusion: We’d darn well better start learning how to love one another. If we can’t figure how to love our neighbor as ourselves — and soon — the human race and, in fact, all life on this beautiful and fragile planet, is in serious trouble.

I am reminded of the words of Chief Seattle, words upon which our Seventh UU Principle is based, words that are also included in our hymnal:

This we know. All things are connected, like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

And so…

Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive religion which teaches us that we’re all connected, we’re all in this thing called Life together — and so we’d better start learning how to love one another.

This is my elevator speech. Certainly, it would not be appropriate in all settings: It doesn’t answer the questions about baptisms and Bibles. It makes no claims about Jesus — though it alludes to the Golden Rule — and it makes no claims about God, though it implies the inclusiveness that Universalism has historically attributed to the Creator.

It certainly won’t satisfy those who want black-and-white, definitive, creedal statements. But I think it’s a fair summation of what Unitarian Universalism is, in our day and time — and, more to the point, what we stand for. I think it’s a fair summation of what we hope to teach our children, and how we, ourselves, seek to live.

May we each have the courage to speak our truth, to live our values, and to share our faith — with a world that desperately needs them.

Namaste, and Amen!

Copyright 2006, Bill Gupton; Commercial Duplication Prohibited without permission of the author.
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