I once heard a quote attributed to Susan Smith, congregational consultant for the southern region, that to be a Unitarian Universalist is an impossible thing. Our principles ask us to be incredible people, to everyone, all the time. This is not a task many, if any of us, will ever achieve. The message here is that it is the work of becoming Unitarian Universalists, in the striving to embody our principles in all we do, that work of becoming is what makes us who we are as UUs. It is in that deep engagement with our own faith identity and showing up to live our values that we become, each day, a little more who we say we are.
The work of becoming is messy work and becoming a Beloved community is no different. We forge our communities often around the idea of shared principles and having the good sense to recognize the hard work of becoming, we covenant together about how to be with one another along the journey.
A covenant is a deeply sacred promise.
In the bible, a covenant refers to the agreement and promises made between God and his followers. People make a covenant when they marry. These two examples exemplify the weight of what kind of promise we are talking about. This is not something you enter into lightly.
Ours is a covenantal faith. We don’t have a creed that tells us how we must believe or behave. Instead we forge our promises together about behavior and how to support one another in our individual search for truth and meaning.
I spend a fair bit of time looking at UU church websites and reading their covenants. I have rarely found a covenant with the word love written into it. Now maybe that’s because the word love feels too broad and we Unitarian Universalists like our facts and definitions and it is truly important to be clear in what promises we make one another.
But of course, we do love. We love our churches; that’s why we participate in congregational life. Despite struggle and pain that all congregations experience, we show up again and again. We are called by love. Our principles each calls us to acts of love, yet again the word itself makes no appearance. It takes a little reading between the lines I suppose.
We have our Standing on the Side of Love campaign. This national UU message of love in the face of injustice is now a common practice in our congregations with members donning yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts and carrying the banners when engaged in acts of social witness.
So there is an absence of the word love from most covenants and from our principles but the overt call to love in our social justice work. The work we do OUTSIDE our congregations. It makes me wonder about Standing on the Side of Love IN our congregations.
We do a pretty good job of taking that stance for issues such as immigration or marriage equality. We do a good job standing on the side love for individuals seen in some of our work with poverty, homelessness, and so forth. Do we do a good job within our own community? Do we stand on the side of love with our staff, our committees, our board leadership?
I’ve been a UU 13 years and much of that time served as a lay leader, during which I served briefly on my board. The saying among board at that time was that being a board member was like putting yourself in front of a firing squad or allowing people to throw stones at you. It felt true too. Though in the interest of complete honesty, I have to also say there were plenty of times I was the one throwing stones. Bringing our best selves is hard work. I think it’s harder when we don’t talk about love.
A friend in the ministry once told me that being a UU means being better than you are and being in UU ministry means often being better than you want to be. I have found this to be true, especially now that I serve a congregation as a professional religious educator. It is being better than I want to be some days. Some days I want to throw stones! I want to be right! I am right; I just want people to know it!
Then I remember the things I try to share with my congregation, especially the children and youth – bring your best self, stand on the side of love, and remember everyone here wants what is best for the congregation. These are my mantras in difficult times to try and call myself back from egoism and remember I do this work because I love it. I love Unitarian Universalism. I love the children, youth, and families I serve. I love my church.
So we ask of one another to bring our best selves. The very concept of “best self” is the work of becoming. On the individual level we are becoming more our best selves every time we engage the practice of compassion, forgiveness, loving acts of kindness, patience, authenticity. It’s messy work.
How do you deal with the mess of becoming, especially in a community as large and diverse as ours? How do we come back from stone throwing and heartache?
Marianne Williamson, author of Return to Love, tells us “In the absence of love, we begin slowly but surely to fall apart.” The times I’ve seen chaos take over a congregation has always been when we have forgotten love as our primary value in how we treat one another. Luckily we can be called, as one of our hymns reminds us, to begin again in love.
Love is a practice, not just a feeling, and like meditation we can sometimes fall out of the practice. The acts of love will always speak louder than the word, yet I do long to see that word written plainly and boldly in all of our covenants. Words are powerful. I want the reminder that to do what I believe we are here to do; heal the world, bind up the broken, and raise a generation with UU values, we have to love one another.
As a religious community, love and forgiveness must be at the heart of all we do, not just outside the congregation but within. The work before us to engage our hearts in what it means to be Unitarian Universalists. The work of getting the heart into a holy place is both personal and communal. The beauty of a faith community such as ours is the freedom to do the work before you, that which is personal to you, to follow your own path in a search for truth and meaning, to decide for you what it is that helps you bring forth your best self. But it is a community, so we support one another on our journeys, we work to build the loving relationships, we learn to set aside our need to be right because the needs of the community, like the needs of a marriage, become of the utmost importance in our minds and hearts.
We are in the work of becoming. It takes love, it’s challenging, it gets messy, and it requires forgiveness. If we lift up love and forgiveness as primary values of how we interact with one another our churches will become more powerful and healing than we can ever dare to imagine.
(Much of this was delivered in a sermon to UUCJ in Jacksonville, FL Jan. 26, 2014)