I like our mission statement. It’s probably not all that unique from other UU congregations, and summarizes principles that to us are largely self-evident (or, being UU’s each of us can agree to at least SOME of them). I think the interesting part about our mission is the set of VERBS we use, and how they are associated with each principle.
Like any Unitarian I can only speak from my own experience, but I’d like to share how these statements speak to me, how they can serve as meaningful reminders that inspire us towards our best selves. A good mission statement should have room for interpretation and association to everyone who endeavors to live in relationship to it. So I hope to encourage others to think about how these actions work for them, and in so doing expand our mutual commitment and creative evolution together through our mission. So let’s get started!
“It is well known, and will be acknowledged by every candid person, that the human heart is capable of becoming soft, or hard; kind, or unkind; merciful or unmerciful, by education and habit.” – Hosea Ballou
This is an unusual idea, if you really think about it – is “practice” how we usually think of love? Isn’t love usually thought of as some inspired, spontaneous energy and feeling that comes from within? How would it be ‘practiced’? We practice the piano, or yoga, or sports. Practice usually implies some pre-set idea of the thing we’re trying to do, outcomes to achieve, and improving upon it intentionally. How does that work with something like love, which is essentially a form of ongoing energy? That idea of ‘practicing holding energy’ gives insight into how one practices love, and why doing so is so important.
In my experience love has two fundamental aspects: that of association, and of affection. Buddhists use one term, “compassion”, to summarize those joint aspects. So to practice love in that context means to practice associating, identifying with others, and/or with things you have affinity for (causes, other things in the universe, etc.). It means to do so with a sense of positive affiliation – with an openness, a non-judgmental awareness, a respect and deep appreciation for the thing-as-it-is, not as you would have it be. Practicing love builds those muscles in our consciousness that generate that state of consciousness, leading to compassionate action. This keeps us open to others, and open to new and deeper possibilities of connection and understanding, which can encourage further appreciation and affiliation.
So here’s where practicing love is actually simple: it’s DOING that thing! One practices love by practicing – being consistently intentional about – LOVING! The hard part of practicing, of course, is that open, compassionate, non-judgmental love isn’t always easy to sustain. This can be due to one’s own tendency to judge to protect, to frankly control people and events, or because the object or person being loved isn’t being or doing things you can immediately relate to. How can you love people or actions that just aren’t working for you?
There are whole books and practices about this, but for purposes of our mission statement this observation can help point out the larger context of practicing love unconditionally: because it’s how we develop into “the best people we can be”: how we can progressively, consistently move towards unconditioned, open, inherently affectionate consciousness. To practice love is to become loving, to become open, to become compassionate. Anger, hate, fear just ain’t going to get us there. So we must practice BEING love. It is no accident that all the world’s great spiritual traditions share this principle – practicing love is having a fundamentally open, permeable, positive and creative relationship with the universe. It can be done in any context, of course, but in the context of a faith community it forms the first principle of how we will strive to be and to engage with each other. Practice makes perfect!
One day the Buddha held up a flower in front of an audience of 1,250 monks and nuns. He did not say anything for quite a long time. The audience was perfectly silent. Everyone seemed to be thinking hard, trying to see the meaning behind the Buddha’s gesture.
Then, suddenly, the Buddha smiled. He smiled because someone in the audience smiled at him and at the flower. The name of that monk was Mahakashyapa. He was the only person who smiled, and the Buddha smiled back and said, “I have a treasure of insight, and I have transmitted it to Mahakashyapa.” – the Flower Sutra
The gift and the challenge that Unitarian Universalism offers the world is the opportunity for each of us to develop our own unique spiritual truth, understanding and religious practices. “Exploration” is a great concept – it implies adventure, a walk into something unknown, the possibility for discovery, for breakthroughs. We don’t “affirm spirituality” or “define spirituality”. Exploration is a living, dynamic, ongoing activity. It also implies not knowing it all, maybe ever. The journey IS the goal in Unitarian Universalism – we are offered the opportunity to ever expand and deepen our sense of the truth of our world and of whatever ultimate reality we aspire to understand and engage.
At the same time the challenge of this opportunity is knowing how to evolve our spirituality without explicit guidance. How can one understand and synthesize the religious practices of an entire planet over past millennia, to find the parts the resonate with ones’ self? And how does one evolve a set of spiritual practices alongside everyone else who is doing the same thing, without offending, impeding or otherwise confusing each other? How can we help each other explore spirituality without telling each other what is true, especially when we are on a similarly ambiguous and uncertain journey to truth ourselves?
This challenge, I believe, is one of the primary reasons our faith tradition has thousands, not millions, of adherents. Building a house from scratch requires a level of courage, energy, persistence, and willingness to continuously learn that’s not for everybody. Most people just buy the houses already built and inhabited by someone else. You have to LIKE exploring spirituality, and/or be adamant about the need for independent spiritual awareness and understanding. Conversely, this fiercely independent spiritual thinking is one of the strongest things that UNITE UU’s. So we DO share this common value: that we value how WE see the world, and the right for others to do the same.
Still, how does one explore? There are as many specific answers to that as there are UU’s, certainly. But we can identify some generally effective approaches. In my experience one finds truth through exposure to a wide variety of spiritual ideas, traditions and thinkers, in non-dogmatic ways, preferably including direct dialogue with others, and openly imbibing their rituals. While many, if not most, UU’s are ‘recovering’ from previous traditions in which they felt coerced or threatened with the consequences of non-compliance, a strong UU thinker is not afraid to engage in open, positive discussion with any person of any faith. I don’t need to accept Jesus as the one and only son of God, my personal Savior, to learn a lot about how that archetype and energy generates hope, faith and love with those to do. There’s reasons faith traditions stand for centuries and attract billions of followers, beyond guarantees of Heaven and threats of Hell. UU’s can find those flowers in the garden of any tradition, including secular, humanistic, or non-religious pursuits such as the sciences. Spirituality is a state of mind, an act of consciousness, so anything approached from that state can glean learnings.
Our church itself is the crucible of our exploration, or should be – the beautiful thing about church services is they bring forward ideas, traditions, perspectives we may never have encountered otherwise. A healthy UU church is regularly seasoning and widening its scope of understanding and interaction with other spiritually-focused organizations, and from within its membership, mixing and melding perspectives to form an ever-enriching ‘tapestry of truths’. So not only are we called on to explore spirituality, but to celebrate those traditions, practices and insights we have gained with each other. Exploring spirituality need not be a solo sport!
So let’s explore, stay open to ideas, encourage each other, and not shy away from entering into dialogue with anyone who’s getting spiritual nourishment, and share our sources with them as well. I consider this exploration a fundamental duty of our faith tradition. If and when we stop exploring, and possibly assert final, immutable truths, at best our experience can grow stale, or at worst we can set onto the very path towards dogmatism that is the antithesis of exploration. If we are to persist as a liberal faith tradition, exploration is an ongoing act of our faith, whatever that is for each of us.
THE PARADOX OF OUR TIMES (abridged)
Is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers
Wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints
We spend more, but we have less.
We have bigger houses, but smaller families
More conveniences, but less time.
We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.
We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often
We have learnt how to make a living, but not a life.
We have added years to life, but not life to years.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back
But have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.
These are the days of two incomes, but more divorces;
Of fancier houses, but broken homes.
It is a time when there is much in the show window, and nothing in the stockroom.
– The Dalai Lama
At a glance, ‘building community’ seems a pretty straightforward concept, right? We build connections, expand our groups and interactions, and community comes forth. In live practice building community is a more complex and challenging thing – especially the type of active, engaged, impactful community most of us visualize as the ideal.
In the 21st Century community is possibly the most essential and yet elusive thing to attain. We live in a world of endless opportunities to interact through technology, yet at the same time we often lack direct, sustained connection to each other. The church environment provides an open, positive, trustworthy place to build those enduring connections and commitments that are the heartbeat of any community. We have the option to engage in all sorts of groups and events that sustain our unique interests and contributions. The phrase “build community” in our mission statement gives specific direction to our endeavors together. We are committing to invest in the effort to build, to strengthen, to grow, and to evolve as a group, not just as individuals. In fact, this acknowledges the essential nature of community in evolving human beings fully, and of community as a critical and fundamental component of our existence.
There are many types and flavors of community. Less evolved ones are casual conglomerations of people with varying degrees of interest and participation. These might be just great for certain simple joint purposes (going on outings, or reading books together) with a low level of mutual activity required. More evolved communities are deeply interdependent, defining shared values, actions and commitments (they might build houses, feed people, march in the streets, nurture the needy, etc.) Communities are neither good nor bad, the only question is: is the level of mutual understanding, co-commitment and activity of a community consistent with the goals of that group?
When the participation and outcomes of a community are less than the aspirations of what its members want to create from it, the community is to that degree unsuccessful. When the members are engaged, mutually supporting, energetic and sympathetic in action, the community thrives and can do more. So part of the gift and challenge in being together is being able to invest in each other through communities that make a difference. Community itself becomes a healing, centering activity and refuge, where we can re-discover the simple, profound joys of just being and acting with and for each other. It can be where we most deeply celebrate our humanity together.
At East Shore this is a big deal, as communities are the reality of much of the social existence of the church. So building community is not only a thing we do, it’s a large part of who we are. So let’s do it TOGETHER, shall we? 😉
Promote (from Google Dictionary):
– To further the progress of (something, especially a cause, venture, or aim)
– To support or actively encourage
– To give publicity to (a product, organization, or venture) so as to increase sales or public awareness.
– To act as a promoter of (a catalyst).
– To advance or raise to a higher position or rank.
“Promote” might be my favorite verb in the mission statement. Promote, Extoll, Expand, Raise Up, THESE are the things we must do to establish, enhance, and evolve Justice in a positive way. I also like the fact that “Promote Justice” really gets at the heart of so many of our UU values and activities, including racial & social justice, economic justice and climate action. It states the root goal positively – we want to PROMOTE something that has been DENIGRADED or DEVALUED. As a result we must often drive educational, political and social action to challenge, evolve and change the assumptions underlying unjust actions, institutions, laws or norms. This is a big part of the proud UU heritage of social action – to STAND on the side of love, regardless of the situation or the pushback.
We would do well to keep this clause “promote justice” in our minds as we engage in the world to make it a more compassionate, equitable and respectful place. It can empower us, guide us, and also teach us how to BE as we stand for change. We must focus on and relentlessly speak of that which we would PROMOTE. Those invested in prejudiced or narrow views will often see and characterize us as obstructive, irrational, disruptive and angry. That’s ok, and a bit of that isn’t a bad thing – the positive purpose of anger is to motivate to action to change something. But we needn’t nor shouldn’t lose sight of the need to always communicate and re-commit to the positive outcome we seek to engender, and the costs of not attaining it.
One of the greatest geniuses of our times in the promotion of justice was Martin Luther King. He understood the combination of clarity of purpose, consistency of behavior, personal patience and relentless commitment to action required to change the deepest injustices. It can be a painful, sometimes disheartening and draining thing to address deeply rooted social issues and institutions. But it must be done, and the act of participating in it is cleansing to the souls of those who engage.
We can enter into these struggles armed with the LOVE, the SPIRITUALITY and COMMUNITY shared by those we stand with in our church. So we never need be alone in promoting justice – it is our shared heritage and our joint responsibility as Unitarian Universalists.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE.”
“I have decided to stick with LOVE – HATE is too great a burden to bear.”
“If you can’t FLY then RUN. If you can’t Run then WALK.
If you can’t WALK then CRAWL. But buy all means KEEP MOVING.”
– Martin Luther King
PRACTICE Love EXPLORE Spirituality BUILD Community PROMOTE Justice
— John Chmaj, East Shore Unitarian, Bellevue WA – May 2, 2017