Make Friends with the Spirit of Life
I would not have used the language “Spirit of Life” in the fall of 1977. As a 20 year-old reasonable atheist, I rejected anything touchy feely that smelled like spirituality. I followed the path of self-reliance I’d learned in my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Newark, Delaware. I could take care of myself, thank you, and didn’t need any supernatural assistance. I didn’t need or want some personal God meddling in my life and directing me. I had the surety common in 20 year-olds. I had all the answers I needed about religion and ultimate concerns.
Yet, I had taken a train ride across the country without a fixed destination based on an inner sense that it was time to leave home and “find myself.” I decided to stop my travels and look for a job in Palo Alto, California. Since I had been a summer hire for Hewlett Packard in Avondale, Pennsylvania, I thought I might be able to get a job with them. Palo Alto was their world headquarters, so I applied with them and other companies looking for an electronic technician position.
I stayed at a residential hotel next to the railroad tracks with some unusual, less fortunate folks. I didn’t know anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area. Remember, 1977 was long before GPS, email, home computers, cell phones and social media.
When my first Sunday came around, I took the bus to the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. I immediately felt at home with the friendly people I met. Those of you who’ve gone to our yearly General Assembly that gathers UUs from around the country may have had this experience of easy familiarity with other UUs. During the service, I recognized the hymns that were sung. They had a lovely choir. The minister gave a message that resonated with me. They had a bookstore with the kind of books, especially the latest Beacon Press books, I expected to see for sale in a UU congregation.
And then there was the smiling face of Peggy Polk at the outdoor welcome table. She expressed an immediate interest in me and took me under her wing. We went out to lunch with a few others, and one of them drove me back to my hotel. Eventually, I rented a room from her as I saved money for finishing my engineering degree at UC Berkeley. The rent on my one bedroom apartment had been raised from $200 to $240! A 20% increase in one year! I shudder to think what it would cost now!
Happily though, on the other side of the country, I found my people. I plugged into the Spirit of Life, the beating heart of the religious community of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.
This early experience of religious community in Unitarian Universalist congregations has happened for me in the other UU congregations in which I’ve participated. The Oakland Unitarian Church just south of Berkeley was another congregation I felt a powerful sense of connection, especially to the young dynamic minister, the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs. This time I sang in the choir and got involved in chairing the Finance Committee. My internship at the Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York was an even deeper and wider sense of community. And the congregations I’ve served in Port Charlotte, Florida and here in Albany continued that expansion of my sense of religious community. Serving as a minister opened an even bigger web of religious community with professional colleagues of ministers, religious educators and music directors.
This wide web of religious community in which I’ve had the privilege of participating has allowed me to witness and grow familiar with the Spirit of Life among us. The relationships among congregants are a little different than friendships or romantic partnerships. There is a sense of connection and shared values but there may also be significant differences. There may be significant cultural, economic, professional, racial, class, and other differences that might have interfered with even meeting. Yet the shared commitment to a common religious tradition can overcome those barriers. There is a kind of elixir, an alchemical agent, present when people meet and connect in religious community. The Spirit of Life can transform what might be a more casual friendship into one that is infused with something deeper that serving a common transcendent purpose together can activate.
I wish I could promise this Spirit of Life will consistently appear in every relationship of every individual in our congregation. I can’t. But I hope those who’ve been here many years will testify to the quality and the power of relationships formed through religious community. Unitarian Universalism does not exist to serve our self-interests, though at times it does. Our purposes and principles and core values are much greater than any one of us. I am very clear I serve the Spirit of Life moving in this congregation embodied in its membership. We try to name it with lofty phrases, visions and missions but it is much greater than that. It is the self-aware presence that animates our being. And it is nourished by religious community, just as religious community can bring us to life.
The Spirit of Life is here among us at Albany UU. It can be shy and quiet at times, and at others loud, insistent and penetrating. May this be a place for you to befriend it and, in turn, may it bring you to life.