Monday, January 2, 2012

Yesterday was the beginning of a new near, an opportunity to take a pause from the rush of our work-a-day lives and catch our breath, a time to reflect on the successes and failures of the passing year. Not so that we obsess on our shortcomings more to allow us to take stock of those areas in our lives that would benefit from greater attention. Our home lives, our work lives, our congregation life, our inner life - all of these are areas to which we "should" be devoting time and attention. Each can potentially be made better through a focused concentration and forethought on what it is we want from them.

I don’t pretend to be a marriage counselor or a life coach. But, I hope that as a Unitarian Universalist I can take seriously the third Unitarian Universalist Principle of “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. So, that’s what this essay/homily is all about: the tenets of my liberal faith as embodied in our seven Principles. For those of you who, like me, are new to Unitarian Universalism, unfamilliar with the Seven Principles, or, also like me, are getting a little long in the tooth and somewhat forgetful you can find the Seven Principles on the UUA website at

As a UU minister with whom I am a Facebook friend said in a recent post, the Principles are not a covenant of faith nor could they really be called a theology in and of themselves. The Principles are instead a set of guidelines, ideals of right relation to ourselves, our congregation and the world around us. And as Rob Smith and Dipak Panchal, the co-chairs of the Standing on the Side of Love team at Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation (, wrote in an article in the congregation's December 2011 newsletter, these Principles, all of them, are rife with contradiction or rather with paradox.

To quote that article in part: “it is in these very paradoxes that true power for growth and forward movement lie”. They go on with the example of the First Principle, our affirmation and promotion of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, saying that through this Principle “we are simultaneously asked to believe two things: that we are called toward unconditional love for others and, that we are to have that same unconditional love for ourselves.”

This is a difficult challenge, to love others as you love yourself... It seems to me I’ve heard that phrase before somewhere...

Many of us are really good at sharing and showing our love for others. Our partners, our children and our friends know beyond knowing that we love them. We’re able to show the love of others to the stranger on the bus, the waiter at the restaurant and even to those with whom we disagree but we’re not so good at the loving ourselves part. Self love sounds just a little too much like self important or self centered.

We give others of our time and effort but we pay little heed to taking the time to meet our own needs. Time enough to read that book, time enough to get some exercise, time enough to take that class we’ve always wanted to take, time enough for self reflection and spiritual practice, time enough for a walk in the park, or a hike on the mountain, or a run alongside the canal. As my favorite author put it in in the title of his seminal work, “Time Enough For Love”. Self love.

Perhaps, like me, you often spend too much time idle and leave the little things to build, one sock on the floor becomes a pile of clothes at the bedside, one day without skimming the pool becomes a weekend without skimming and the pool becomes a close approximation of leaf stew...this too is a form of denial of self, as contradictory as that seems. We really do feel better about our world and about ourselves when the environment we inhabit is well tended, and not seeing to that need is just another way to deny your love to yourself, at least, I think, it is for me.

Our second UU Principle calling us to justice, equity and compassion in human relations again presents us with a paradox, does “in human relations” mean when in direct relationship person to person, or does in mean in all relations? Plus there’s the whole “how-well-do-i-know-that person-and-how-well-do-I-like-them” dilemma. I know that I find it much easier to engage with compassion toward those with whom I agree than those with whom I passionately disagree. I think there’s a little bit of human nature in that, sadly. An example that comes to mind is the tragedy that recently befell the Duggar family.

For those who don’t know them, the Duggars have a reality show called “18 Kids And Counting” that airs on TLC. The Duggars have a deeply held religious belief in the sanctity of children. As Michelle, the mother, puts it: “saying there are too many children is like saying there are too many flowers”. So strong is that belief that their family now numbers 19 children. To them every child born is a blessing from God and a testament to his Grace. Contraception, therefore, is blocking the will of God and something they will not use. Although I deeply disagree with them and there are a great many studies that show that the quickest way to eliminate poverty and suffering in the world is to give women control over their reproductive freedom, the Duggars hold childbirth and child rearing as a sacrament. So, imagine their grief when, in early December of 2011, Michelle miscarried their 20th child. Heart stricken and grieving the Duggars named their unborn daughter Jubilee Shalom Duggar and held a memorial service on December 14th.

In most cases the news reports were less than kind and online commentary from the public was brutal to say the least. Comments ranged from “having 19 children is criminal” to “what did they expect” to “this is God’s way of telling them to stop having children” and worse. Not all the comments were this heartless but most were.

I tell this story to emphasize that compassion for many people, I might even hazard most, depends both on proximity and on agreement. And that justice and equity are often built upon our own biases. That’s certainly been my struggle with this particular Principle in the past year and I imagine it will be my struggle in the coming year as well: understanding how my own biases and privilege as a white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class man influence what I consider justice and equity and finding compassion in my heart for everyone in the family of humankind both known to me and unknown.

Our third Principle: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth, is as challenging as the first two. Is acceptance in this sense related solely to someone's spirituality? And what defines spiritual growth? I think this is especially difficult for a faith without creed or even a coherent and communal theology.

An atheist friend and I had a conversation recently in which I told him that a place like VUU might be just the thing for him, that there were, in fact, many people in our congregation and in UU congregations around the country who identify as non-theist or even atheist. In the study our search committee did last September fifty-nine percent of our congregation listed Humanism as their spiritual identity. That’s fairly consistent with UU congregations around the country. So, an atheist would likely feel quite comfortable in our company.

But not this particular atheist. For him, rationality is his “religion” (note: those are my words, not his). Faith in a higher power, or in anything outside the realm of direct human experience and unprovable through empirical evidence is giving one’s self over to irrationality which, in his mind, is unacceptable. His question to me was “isn’t one of your Principle’s an acceptance of another person’s spiritual path and an encouragement to their spiritual growth?” Of course I answered yes. “Well then”, he said, “that counts me out.” Not only would he have had a hard time “accepting” someone's desire to forgo rationality in favor of magical thinking but he couldn’t imagine encouraging such a thing.

Another UU friend of mine had a different take on it in a recent Facebook post. She said: “As a UU I know what I believe and can tell folks in 2 or 3 sentences. I can also tell folks succinctly what our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors believed. But when people ask me what UUs believe today I invariably end up hemming and hawing and rambling out something semi-academic and utterly uninspiring.”

Reverend Peter Boulatta, a UU minister in Minnesota, might have said it better in a post on his blog ( “...many thoughtful UUs (talk) about our creedless religion, our covenanted communities in which one is free to search for truth and meaning. It’s likely that thoughtful UUs (explain) being gathered around basic principles and values rather than beliefs and doctrines. But what (people hear is): We don’t believe anything. We’re just making this stuff up as we go along to suit ourselves.”

Now while that might be true for many, it doesn’t have to be. The UUA and VUU have a great set of tools to help congregants come into a deeper understanding of their own spiritual truth. One of those is a class called “Building Your Own Theology”. But that class is just a start, and we have ongoing work to do as individuals, in covenant together, to grow our spiritual armor and refine our own truths. UUism isn’t a blanket to believe anything you want without examination. In my mind it’s a framework to help guide you along a never ending road of self discovery and moral development.

I wonder if we do too little encouraging and too much accepting...

The fourth UU Principle says we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Free and Responsible. We have a right to a community of peers that won’t tell us what the One Real Truth is, and we expect that. But, with that right comes a responsibility to own the truth to which we come, to own the defense of that truth, to constantly test it, distill it, filter and refine it to ensure that it is in fact a real truth and not a convenient hat rack on which we hang our preconceptions. And, with that right also comes another responsibility, to hold each other accountable for taking that journey and finding that truth. After all, right there in the the covenant of our congregation, printed in our order of service every week, we say that the quest for truth is oursacrament...our sacrament...our sign of inner grace...our thing of sacred character.

A religion, any real or meaningful religion, should give us a frame of reference that informs our lives in a positive way, that helps us be better people, more loving people, more grounded people, kinder, more compassionate people. We owe it to each other to hold ourselves up to the light of discernment and to challenge others to hold themselves up to that same light.

If the other Principles are rife with paradox, the fifth UU Principle is a Gordian knot. To go back to the newsletter article from the SSL@VUU co-chairs "“the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” ...includes both the importance of democracy and the right of conscience. The tension in that statement, between the value of individual thought and action and the value of group consensus, is similar to the tension between the value of talking and the value of listening. Both are important, but they stand in fundamental opposition. We cannot do both at the same time. Which should we do more?”

UUs believe, and rightly so, in the precept of congregational polity. Each congregation is a petri-dish of democracy in action but it’s a democracy where each person is encouraged to find their own personal truth. We are all acknowledged to have a right of conscience - we can abstain, absent, disagree, and in all other ways advocate our own position but at the end of the day we take a vote and majority rules. Even among our congregation's board and the UUA board in the end, we vote. And voting takes time... a LOT of time...

So, we’re called to take action in the world but constrained by the democratic process from moving quickly. We’re asked to come to agreement through polity but we come with our own truth. It’s a wonder that buildings stay standing and we somehow have services every Sunday!

Our sixth Principle leads us toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Well...we talked earlier about justice and its subjective nature. Here, in America, we call killing in the name of punishing killers "just". In Afghanistan they call caning a women who refused to marry her rapist just. In France they use a Napoleonic system of justice - guilty until proven Innocent.

I often wonder if my donations to Amnesty International or Amfar or the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee will ever do more than move us just a little farther toward a peaceful world. Still, I’m optimistic in my cynicism. As Dr. King said: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. And so, I’ll continue to do my small part, to learn about the world so that it becomes a little smaller, to use my privilege to make the opportunities for others a little bigger and I’ll continue to hope that, together, our efforts bend the arc a little farther.

The last of our UU Principles says that we "affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part". Affirm and Promote - I really worry that although we affirm this loudly, we promote it softly. I see the world we are creating when, every day, the food we eat and the goods we purchase are packaged for mass consumption and I worry about the coming-of-uppance humanity faces on the near and immediate horizon where sea levels and global temperatures rise while clean living spaces and arable land shrink. Are the small changes we make in our own lives: recycling, driving a hybrid, composting, reusing and re-purposing enough to change the tide? I’m not so sure. But I am sure there’s more that we can do.

So where is the paradox in this Principle? Where is the tension? Well, I’m still working on this one. Perhaps, I need to attend a few Green Sanctuary meetings...I’ll try to work that in to my schedule this year...

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles, or at least most of our Principles, are filled with paradox. But, such is everything in life. By facing that paradox we come away strengthened in our understanding and so the choices we make moving forward are better informed and hopefully better in affect.

I said at the outset that the New Year was a time of reflection and renewal. It’s a time where we examine the past and plan for the future. It’s a time when we pause and take stock, where we try, if only for a short time, to gain clarity. So, I leave you with a charge. Take time this month, perhaps even this week to think about your own truths, your own spiritual path, whatever that may be.

As you think about what you want from the coming year in your career, your relationships, your family life, think too about your growth in spirit. How will you grow your understanding and enrich your way of being in the world? And how will this new year be different for you on that spiritual sojourn? Perhaps, as I do, you can use the UU Principles as guideposts on the walk. And remember as you stumble along your path that even if you fall, you can always begin again. And you don't even have to wait for New Year's Day to do it!

I wish you light and love. Blessed Be.