A while ago I posted on Facebook one of my all-time favorite Unitarian Universalist jokes: How many UUs does it take to change a lightbulb?
Here’s the answer: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
And then my Facebook friends chimed in, one after the other:
“What about halogen?”
“Let us not forget the LED”
“Don’t forget about the discussion group afterwards to process the experience of changing the lightbulb.”
“Will there be a support group gathering that week for the Candle Users? Which room will they get?”
“Keep it green. Lightening bugs in a mason jar.”
The more the joke grew, the louder I laughed. But the point is not ridicule, but genuine fondness for a religion that is so unique in this world. Spirituality for us in the 21st century is not so much a straight equation of specific beliefs as it is a quality of living that our personally-chosen sacred books and symbols lead us into. A quality of living that Marty sees in the life of Paul Newman, who said, “I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”
Maybe God or Jesus or Buddha or the Bible brings you into that—maybe they don’t. But Unitarian Universalism’s gift to people is putting first things first: casting a vision of the possibility for everyone of Life Abundant, which is sometimes the richness of joy, other times strength of hope in difficult times, and all times strength of commitment to leaving the world better than when you first found it.
This is the vision of spirituality I need, in this world that is so very beautiful and so very broken.
Spirituality is treading in the cream together, until it becomes butter!
Spirituality is being set free from all that binds, so we can love more.
To get to that more, we go to whatever source of inspiring light that’s available to us. Why limit things to just one source, when there are many ways to truth? Incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, tinted, halogen, LED, candles, and yes, even lightning bugs in a jar.
Oh boy, is the Annual Light Bulb Sunday Service a goodie.
We are a freedom-loving, light-of-truth-loving people. This is the constant through-line in our religious tradition that has seen so many changes over the course of millennia.
- 2000 years ago, our people honored Jesus but did not believe he was God; Jesus was seen as demonstrating the freedom of spirit one could have when one truly walked with God.
- 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that human-created church traditions were absolutely authoritative; they believed that the freedom way to the Truth was the Bible alone.
- 200 years ago, another great change led our people to step back from believing that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Truth; they starting believing that the freedom way to Truth could be found in all the religions of the world and not just one.
- 100 years ago, a word like “Humanism” emerged in our faith tradition, and we affirmed that vibrant spirituality was not necessarily dependent upon God-belief—that atheists and agnostics belonged at the table just as much as theists.
And now, in this 21st century now, we are saying that Eurocentric white male heterosexual cis-gender middle-class able-ist culture is not the only form of freedom through which to reach out and touch Truth. An essential part of the Truth can be known only through the perspectives of people of color. An essential part of the Truth can be known only through the perspectives of LGBTQ people, or people who are disabled, or people who are poor.
If we’re missing out on one of these perspectives, well, we’re missing out on a precious piece of the truth.
All of this—all of this–is why Unitarian Universalism makes us proud, even as we poke at it with fondness.
But now let’s shift gears. So far, I’ve been talking about the unique spiritual way of life that Unitarian Universalism represents. But now I want to say a little about my personal route into all of this.
By no means a straight way.
What led me to my first ever conversation with a Unitarian Universalist minister was a deeply felt need for spiritual roots to hold me close and wings to set me free. I was hungry for Spirit of Life luminescence. By then I had been out of the Church of Christ for seven years and had been teaching college philosophy for around three. Do you all know about the Church of Christ? The United Church of Christ is super liberal, but the Church of Christ is on the other end of the spectrum. As fundamentalist as you can imagine.
I was coming out of that.
I was also a new Dad, looking for a religious home for my young family that would be different from what I grew up with: more generous, more sane.
Thus the conversation with the minister. We met during the week in his office, and I was struck by how the light in the room was blue, since it came streaming in through blue window curtains. It was like we were under the ocean. I found myself pretending that his plants were swaying like seaweed.
I proceeded to tell him how I had struggled, for years, with the one-way exclusivism of the Church of Christ and how they insisted that the Bible was to be interpreted literalistically, so that, for example, musical instruments were banned from worship because, hey, there’s no mention of them in the New Testament.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a scene one Sunday after church. It happened the week after my Mom and Dad had returned home from my Baba’s funeral, who had died from horrible brain cancer. Pastor Manuel accompanied us to the local Baskin-Robbins for ice-cream. Imagine the scene. We’re sitting around licking ice cream cones, listening to Mom having a serious theological discussion with the Pastor. Mom asked, “Pastor Manuel, do you really believe that full-immersion baptism is absolutely essential for salvation?” The thing was, Baba was a Ukrainian Catholic and had only been baptized via sprinkling, as a child. So Mom was desperately worried. She hoped her Mom’s soul was all right. Was she all right?
Pastor Manuel said, “No.”
He said that. “No.”
Really? God is that much of a ritualistic stickler? The God of that most profound person named Jesus, who (as I have come to learn) happened to flout ritual and purity laws all the time and God never once seemed to mind?
I left the Church of Christ because of that one, compassionless word: no.
This was how the conversation was unfolding, there in the blue light of the Unitarian Universalist minister’s office. It went deep, it drifted, it meandered …. and then he said something I will never forget. He was talking about his own spirituality, and this is what I actually heard him say: that some days he believed in God but other days he was a devout atheist. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays: God; Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays: No God. Sundays alternated between the two in equal measure. He delivered this last line with a big grin. The shock must have been written all over my face, because he followed up with this little chestnut from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
All of this made me feel dizzy. It felt like I was meeting an alien from another planet. He was nothing like my Church of Christ pastor for whom fear was the master religious emotion. Of course my Church of Christ pastor would insist it was love; everyone wants to believe they’re on the side of love. But how can it be true love when the supposed source of that love is a perfectionist thug of a God who will send you to hell for eternity if you don’t perform a ritual correctly?
I walked out of that blue light office reflecting on my intense reaction to the conversation, and I realized three things.
First, I realized that my Church of Christ pastor lived in a universe full of hobgoblins, and his rigid unyielding anxious consistency was the way he protected himself.
Second, I realized that I was living in that universe too. Still. I just didn’t know that there could be any other way to be religious. I just didn’t know that there was a different kind of universe I could be living in.
Finally, I realized that the Unitarian Universalist minister lived in that completely different universe. Hobgoblins were clearly not in the picture for him. In fact, he acted like his religious journey was similar to Southwest Airlines with its culture of creativity and possibility. You might have heard about the Southwest Airlines flight attendant who, one day, right out of the blue, decided to rap the safety instructions that come at the beginning of every flight. Just right then and there, that’s what he decided. Rapping the instructions. Apparently it was a big hit with the passengers, and now he does it all the time. The point is that Southwest Airlines says that that’s cool, you can do that. It’s safe to be your own person, it’s safe to try out LED lights when all you’re used to is incandescent. It’s safe. It’s safe to make mistakes and learn from them and be better because of them. That’s what the Unitarian Universalist minister’s spiritual journey was like.
Safe enough even for inconsistencies like being a theist some days, an atheist other days. Can anyone relate?
Safe enough even for that.
Fast forward to last year. I am sitting by the bedside of one of my congregants. She’s in hospice. Fifteen years earlier she discovered she’d had cancer and she fought it, she survived … and then years later it had resurfaced.
This time she wouldn’t win.
We were talking about death, and what might come after. She didn’t know. I personally believe in life after death, but I will never let personal beliefs get in the way of being fully present to the precious souls I am serving, and being fully respectful of where they are coming from. What I said to her was that, whatever happens next, you can bet the bank on it being safe. Strictly speaking, no one can know with absolute certainly. But Unitarian Universalism saves us from that terrible Church of Christ universe and others like it, and ushers us into one that is more open and creative and humane.
Either there is nothing and no more pain, or there is goodness in some afterlife. She could bet the bank on it. She could trust it would be a new adventure.
That’s what I told her.
A little later I gave her a chalice necklace. She had been such a builder of the Atlanta congregation, in so many ways. She never felt guilty about asking people to be financially generous and to “give until it feels good” because that’s how she gave–until it felt good, as much as that took. More was always better, because that’s what it feels like to support something that supports you heart and soul.
I offered her a chalice pendant—like the ones UUCA gives to its 8th graders completing their Coming of Age year—and she looked at it with eyes that suddenly widened, and her instant answer was yes, yes, I want to wear it, I am coming of age in a different kind of way myself. She said that. Death is but a new adventure. She raised her head off her pillow with a slow, effortful movement, and I put it on her. The symbol of the faith that we both love so much.
It was still around her neck when she died.
After officiating at her memorial, rather than getting in my car and going home, I found a place outside to walk. I just needed to be outside. I just needed to be surrounded by the sun’s warm luminescence. I just kept walking, looking at the trees, looking at the sky, feeling for my life, feeling for the sacred that I knew I was immersed in always and everywhere. Above all, feeling grateful that my religion did not clutter up my sense of relationship to the sacred with ridiculous rules and oppressive fear.
It was just me and the Mystery, which I sensed in the sun and sky and trees around me. The Mystery becoming known in my life, and my job was to be open to what comes with all my mind and heart and spirit.
On the spot, I wrote this personal creed which I have since posted on my bathroom mirror and I am tempted to get it tattooed on me somewhere:
the Mystery unfolds.
The Mystery unfolds even now, as it brings you and me together, and we are at the forming edge of a new story, and I hope you will call me as your minister, I hope we will enter into covenantal relationship together, a relationship of mutual respect and creativity and joy.
Here we are: at the forming edge of new life, things being revealed, each moment a precious possibility. No kind of light source off limits: incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, tinted, halogen, LED, candles, and even lightning bugs in a jar: all good. No scarcity of light to illuminate what’s happening. No reason to be afraid.
Just stay open, stay courageous, stay curious.
Despair may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
This is the Unitarian Universalism I am so proud of, and love.
It has brought me right here, to Rocky River, to Cleveland.
How grateful, and filled with excitement, I am!