A couple months ago I posted on Facebook one of my favorite all-time 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 joke just grew and grew. And grew some more. Hilarious! But the point was not ridicule, but fondness for a religion that is so unique in this world, that teaches a way of spirituality different from anything else out there. We love it even as we are aware of how it can get excessive in its enthusiasm about “equally valid paths to luminescence.” We laugh, but we also cherish the fact that Unitarian Universalism is fundamentally about light, the light of wisdom and the light of truth. We laugh, but we also honor how Unitarian Universalism teaches that there is no scarcity of light, there is no one way to light, but the light is everywhere and takes so many different forms, each fascinating in its own way. We laugh, but we also celebrate how Unitarian Universalism says that there is a form of light that is uniquely our own, and how we don’t have to violate our individual sense of the light in order to be in community with others, and how it is simply unnecessary and tragic to get so stuck on any one form of light that we deny others exist or deny their validity.
This is why Unitarian Universalism makes us proud, even as we poke at it with fondness. It can take a joke. It’s not going to break apart into a million pieces.
Just gotta LOVE Unitarian Universalism. I mean, a couple months ago, we were lifting up one of the central affirmations of our congregational covenant, which is to welcome and celebrate diversity within these walls. One important part of this, we said, is recognizing and honoring the diversity of beliefs and spiritual paths among us.
Now listen to what was said from this pulpit—pointers meant to develop our spiritual living-in-community skills:
Prepare to dislike something. But that’s OK! What’s bitter to one person is sweet to another. If you don’t like something, see it as a sign that someone else probably likes it a whole lot! Make peace with your dislike as a part of loving UUCA’s overall diversity.
Prepare to translate. You hear someone talking about their fundamental source of hope in life and they keep on using words that you don’t prefer! But you are slow to take offense and quick to translate. You listen beneath the words for what can speak to you.
Frenchman Charles de Gaulle once fretted, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” But in the end, it all works out. All that variety of cheese makes France beautiful. And we are beautiful too.
That’s what was said from this pulpit. Remember? I couldn’t resist bringing in the Charles de Gaulle quote, because cheese is always good. But the point is, in what other church or temple or mosque or ashram or whatever would you hear something so honest and relevant to what spiritual life is actually like in community? Disagreements can be so strong that they force governments to shut down—this we know this all too well. But religious communities can go a different way. They can.
So much to be proud of. So much to feel good about. Just the other day I got into a conversation about the Bible, and before I knew it, the conversation was quickly turning into rejectionism. As in, the Bible contains contradictions, therefore it’s not straight from God like so many people say it is, therefore HAH! I don’t have to care. In this moment, I was so thankful for how Unitarian Universalism has brought me to a place where I can appreciate the Bible for what it is, no more and no less. Not the word of God but the many words of many human communities across time struggling with the biggest questions there are, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. I would just as soon say HAH! to all this as say HAH! to someone telling me about their struggle with cancer and what they have learned about forgiveness and grace through the whole ordeal.
Perhaps here again, we see that quintessential Unitarian Universalist skill at work: translation. Except in this case the focus is the Bible. Its stories unfold, its words pour over us, and you bet some of those words feel bad or wrong. But we are slow to take offense and quick to translate. We listen beneath the words for what can speak to us. And for what can’t speak to us, we let it go.
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 felt need for spiritual roots. By then I had been out of the fundamentalist Christian church for seven years and had been teaching college philosophy for around three. 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, which was stained blue by light streaming through the blue window curtains. It was like we were under the ocean. I found myself pretending that his plants were swaying like seaweed. I told him how I had struggled with the one-way exclusivism of the Church of Christ for years, how they used the Bible like it was a gun, how the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the church’s pastor told my mother that HER mother, because she had been baptized in the wrong way, would not be going to heaven. Her mother—my Baba—had just died from brain cancer. The whole family was wrecked. And now this.
There in the blue ocean of the Unitarian Universalist minister’s office, our conversation went on and on. 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—and while he was exaggerating somewhat, he wasn’t really joking. The shock must have been written all over my face, because he followed up with this 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 emotion. Of course he’d insist it was love; who wouldn’t? But how can it be true love when the object 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 the blue ocean 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 this: that the Unitarian Universalist minister lived in a completely different universe. Clearly, the hobgoblins were not in the picture for him. In fact, he acted like his religious journey was sort of like Southwest Airlines with its culture of creativity and possibility. For example, there’s 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 things out, 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. Safe enough even for that.
Ever since that meeting with the Unitarian Universalist minister in the blue ocean office, I have come to understand that becoming a Unitarian Universalist is nothing less than an exchange of universes. You go from one that’s full of fear to one that is full of freedom. At least that’s how it’s been for me. I know that in this complicated, big, hurtful, beautiful world, there is time enough for my soul to unfold at its own pace. There is room enough to explore ways of life and points of view that, in the end, may turn out to be unhelpful or false, but I know that from even such things I can learn so much that is good. God did not put me on this earth to be afraid. God put me on this earth to be alive. Me and you.
I want to say one more thing about Unitarian Universalism, this path of luminescence that I’m so proud of. It relates to a part of the joke from earlier, about how many UUs does it take to change a lightbulb: “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb.” You know, I gotta admit that there have been times over the past 20 years when I just wanted Unitarian Universalism to stop stepping back from making statements. I mean, for crying out loud, just take a definite stand on lightbulbs. Come ON! Is the problem simply that Unitarian Universalism is flaky? That the emperor has no clothes?
But I have come to realize that Unitarian Universalism refuses to make blanket statements about what does or does not exist out of the deepest respect for what it means to have religious beliefs. Does God exist? Is there such a thing as life after death? Does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice? Unitarian Universalism knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come to our own detailed answers, in our own good time, for them to be truly meaningful.
This was brought home to me vividly during my recent sabbatical, when I had the opportunity to worship in different churches around the area, checking them out, you know? In most of them, inevitably there would be a time in the service when the Apostle’s Creed was to be recited:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.
With all due respect for people who treasure this, for myself, I just couldn’t say any of the words beyond “I believe in God….” Every time it was like this. I’d try like crazy to translate, but the words would come all fast and furious and in the end I’d feel like I was in a sandstorm, words flying into my eyes and mouth until I simply could not breathe.
One of these times, I remember leaving the service at its end, and rather than getting in my car and going home I just kept walking, 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 all sorts of theological words and formulas. It was just me and the Mystery. The Mystery becoming known in my life, and my job 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.
There I am, and there we are, again and again: at the forming edge of life, things being revealed, each moment precious possibility. No scarcity of light to illuminate what’s happening. No ultimate reason to be afraid. Just stay open, stay courageous, stay curious.
This is exactly where I want to be, and Unitarian Universalism has put me there. How can I not be proud?