Some time ago I posted on Facebook one of my all-time favorite Unitarian Universalist jokes: How many UUs (that’s how we shorten our VERY LONG NAME) 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.
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 joke just kept on growing. But the point was not so much ridicule as it was genuine fondness for a religion that is so unique in this world. Spirituality for Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century is not so much a rigid discipline of required beliefs about Jesus, God, and the Bible as it is a creative quality of living that makes someone into a genuinely good human being. Jesus, God, and the Bible may do that for some but not necessarily for others. The issue is not so much what your personally-chosen sacred names and symbols and books happen to be but what your character is all about. Take the character of famous actor Paul Newman, who was a Unitarian Universalist. He once 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.”
That’s good, justice-hearted character. Maybe Jesus brings you into that—or maybe it’s the Buddha, or Lao Tzu, or someone or something else (like Ann Landers, or the Rev. Dr. Preston Bradley). But Unitarian Universalism’s distinct gift to people is putting first things first: casting a vision of the possibility for liberation for all, from whatever oppresses the body and oppresses the spirit. Liberation from oppressive social systems without, and liberation from oppressions within, will only release what is at the core of every human being, which is joy. Which is love.
This is the vision of spirituality I need, in this world that is so very beautiful and also so very broken. And maybe you need it too.
Spirituality is being set free from all that locks healing energy inside so it can’t get out.
Spirituality is about putting more kindness and empathy into our relationships and in the world.
To get to that more, we go to whatever source of inspiring light that’s available to us. Why limit things to just one wisdom source, when there are many ways to the light of truth? Incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, tinted, halogen, LED, candles, and yes, even lightning bugs in a jar.
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 equal to God. Yet he was regarded as remarkable. Jesus was seen as demonstrating the freedom of spirit one could have when one truly walked with God.
1500 years later, when Christianity emerged triumphant in the West, our direct spiritual ancestors declared that human-created church traditions were NOT central to faith; they believed that the freedom way to the Truth was in the Bible alone when one interpreted it through reason.
Over the next several hundred years, things changed even more. Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau stepped 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. And also modern science–science became an important spiritual source around this time too.
And then, in the early 1900s, 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 an essential part of the truth can be known only when we grapple with the realities of structural oppression, which manifests in so many forms: racism and poverty and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and on and on. The systems distort the humanity of everyone, whether they are directly targeted or whether their souls are poisoned from the so-called benefits of privilege. Oppression is a Bully with a dominant culture Big Voice, and the only way to restore our humanity and to repair solidarity one with another is by listening beyond that Big Bully Voice to the little voices at the margins. That’s what we do, if we truly thirst for healing and for freedom, if we truly want to expand the light sources available to us.
Because we are a freedom loving and light-of-truth loving people, our faith tradition over the years has evolved. And that’s one of the things UUs can be proud of. We stay open. We stay relevant. We grow. Yes, we laugh at ourselves, but we are also sincere about who we are, and we believe we have something special to offer the world.
We aim to offer a certain, precious Spirit.
Spirit of Life, come unto us.
Sing in our hearts all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold us close; wings set us free;
Spirit of Life, come to us, come to us.
But now let’s shift gears. A moment ago I was describing the unique spiritual way of life that Unitarian Universalism offers. But now I want to say a little about my own route into all of this. To add my personal story to the one that Scott shared a moment ago.
My route into UUism was 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 something different entirely. It is on the other end of the spectrum. It is as rigid and 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 my first-ever conversation with a Unitarian Universalist minister. We met during the week in his office, and I was immediately 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, one-truth, one-light exclusivism of the Church of Christ and its insistence that the Bible was to be interpreted literalistically. To do this is not rational, but that was an actual point of pride for Church of Christers. One thing it led to was the banning of musical instruments from worship. Music instruments don’t come up in the Christian scriptures, apparently, and therefore they are not allowed in worship. Even though I remember plenty of occasions when a worship service would feature a film clip, projected from a projector on a screen, and neither of those technologies are mentioned in the Christian scriptures either.
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 grandmother’s funeral, who had died from horrible brain cancer. (We are Ukrainian, so we called her “Baba.”) That Sunday after church, the Pastor 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, 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?
The Pastor said, “No.”
He really said that!
Now, having studied the Christian Bible rationally, I see that God is in no way a stickler for ritualism. That remarkable man who walked with God named Rabbi Jesus 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 what I was sharing with the Unitarian Universalist minister, as I was introducing myself to him, there in the flowy blue undersea light of his office. The conversation 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.”
I think he was trying to loosen me up a bit. But all it did was make me feel woozy. It felt like I was meeting an alien from another planet. He was nothing like my Church of Christ pastor for whom the master religious emotion was fear. Fear was at the beginning and at the end of his faith. Of course he would insist that his faith was all about 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 100% correctly?
I walked out of the Unitarian Universalist minister’s 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. It was a survival strategy.
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. I hesitate somewhat to bring up Southwest Airlines in light of its recent debacle and all the canceled flights and stranded passengers when the weather turned horrible this past Christmastime. But that doesn’t have to take away from us appreciating what is good about its culture. 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 just a few years ago. By that time I’d myself become a Unitarian Universalist minister and I had been in the work for 15 years. I was sitting by the bedside of one of my congregants from Atlanta. She was in hospice. Years earlier she had discovered that she had cancer and she had fought it, she survived … and then years later it resurfaced.
This time she wouldn’t win.
We were talking about death, and what might come after death. She didn’t know. I personally believe in life after death–in fact, I am a full-blown reincarnationist–but I do not impose my beliefs and I am committed to 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 certainty. 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 this. She could trust it would be a new adventure.
It would be safe.
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–not giving that’s easy or convenient, necessarily, but giving that feels truly significant and meaningful. Giving “until it feels good” to something that supports you heart and soul.
I offered her a chalice pendant—like the ones this church gives to its 8th graders completing their Coming of Age year (which is a little like confirmation in other religious contexts)—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. Aa symbol that comes from ancient Roman times, representing courage, sacrifice, and love.
That chalice pendant 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, and which vibrated within as well. 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 Unitarian Universalist 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, here at West Shore. 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, lightning bugs in a jar, and even the shimmering blue light of conversations like mine with the UU minister which both astound and inspire. It’s all good.
There is no scarcity of light. There is no reason, ultimately, 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.
If this is your first time hearing of it, may you come to know it and love it, too.