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The church and the unicorn

One of them is a mythical creature worth believing in.
By Meg Barnhouse

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I saw a unicorn coming at me on I-85. That’s what it looked like at first glance, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sensible person. I know there aren’t such things in the world, but there it was, this enormous gray ridged horn coming fast toward me southbound, and it was angled forward and up, as if pointing to the Blue Ridge Mountains and, after that, the sky. As it blew by me I saw that it was a church steeple on a flatbed truck, being shipped to its new church building.

A sight like that sticks with a person. I started thinking about the church group that was getting that steeple. I wondered how much it cost, and I thought about all the things it symbolized. Most basically, the steeple symbolizes the church pointing to God. We all know that God is not literally “up there;” a lot of us Unitarian Universalists think of God as everywhere, and that’s just the beginning of all of our various thoughts on the nature of the One.

I asked myself what would be a better symbol of pointing to God. What direction(s) would it point? It might look like one of those Moravian stars with almost as many points as a chrysanthemum.

I wondered why those people wanted to build one more church when there are already so many. Sometimes the reason is a growing population of people who need you, and no church of your kind is near them, so you build one. Sometimes the reason is a split in an existing church, and one unhappy, hurt, and angry group is making a new church where they can become the community they want to be. “All it takes,“ someone once told me, “is a grievance and a coffee pot.”

I thought about how much hope it takes to build a church. “This time,” they might be thinking, “this time we will get it right. We will be good people and we will really point folks toward God and there won’t be politics or infighting or cliques and we won’t ever disappoint each other, and we won’t do things in a slap-dash manner, and this, finally, will be the church we have all been dreaming about. We won’t fight about silly things like carpet or moving the piano or the banners. We’ll be kind and respectful of one another, challenging one another lovingly, cleaning up our own hearts before we start trying to clean up other people’s hearts, and it will be like it’s supposed to be.”

I thought about how, from my perspective, a church like the one they may be hoping for is as mythic and elusive a creature as the unicorn.

Churches cause lots of joy, but they also cause pain as they strive to improve people, as they strive to instruct people on what are the right and wrong ways of being a person in this world. Some say: Don’t ever drink, but you may wear jewelry and makeup. Some say: Absolutely no vanity or fancy dress, but you may drink beer, as it’s one of God’s gifts.

Some churches talk lots about hell and some don’t mention it, even though it’s there, underneath everything. People try to be kind but often, when we feel passionately about something, it is hard to keep in mind that the other people are more important than correctness of behavior or purity of doctrine. A conviction that the God you claim is loving will punish folks with eternal hellfire can make some people feel an urgency that comes across as meanness.

Some churches are kind but ineffectual, some are kind and powerful and they do lots of good and they function in marvelous ways.

Churches are like families. Present are the relatives who drive you nuts, and the misunderstandings that hurt, and the destructive behavior that families have. At church you also get the warmth, growth, shared history, support and love you can find in a family. Joy and pain, just like in any family. People act like people no matter where we are. We all know what to do, though. We know we are supposed to be kind and loving and not jump down each other’s throats for not getting the right kind of free-trade coffee or greeting visitors too enthusiastically. I heard a poem on the radio the other day, part of which was a prayer: “Ye Gods…make the bad people good—and the good people nice.”

Honey, we’re trying.

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