Spiritual Lessons from John Hiatt (Or – Why I’m Not Ashamed to Be a Super Fan)

July 31, 2011

In two days, my favorite musician will be releasing a new CD. It’s amazing how much joy such a relatively small event brings me.  Yes, the U.S. economy is on the verge of collapse.  Yes, I’ve got stresses at work and family.  Yes, I haven’t been to church in months, and I am wondering if the problem isn’t church, but me.  All that disappears and I feel nothing but giddy bliss when I visit John Hiatt’s facebook page and hear the new song.  I start gathering articles and bits of information to create a new issue of my fan magazine, which I started when I was a teenager, and not only do I feel like a teenager again, but my mind enters a trance-like state that I’ve never achieved through meditation.

Yes, I am a super fanatic when it comes to singer-songwriter John Hiatt. His music and his story have made such an impact on me that I even gave a sermon at my church titled “The Gospel of John Hiatt.”

Now, before any of you worry that I’ve gone around spray-painting “Hiatt in God” in subway stations, let me remind you I’m an agnostic humanist. (So, no, I’m not like the Clapton fans of London).  I’m also not one of those people who baldly say that “Unitarian-Universalists can believe anything they want,” as a blanket statement to allow me to claim anything and everything belongs in our churches. But, I’d be ready to defend my decision to bring this seemingly unspiritual subject into the pulpit, because I think there is something universal about how we chose our modern-day heros.  To me, that choice is as important as any debate about the nature of a higher power.

I won’t go on about the many joyful experiences I’ve had listening to John Hiatt’s music, or fill up virtual pages with the reasons why I consider him the greatest singer-songwriter alive today.  But, here are some of the lessons I shared in that sermon, which I feel are quite in line with our principles:

Lesson 1: When you stop focusing on the end-game and concentrate on being true to yourself and the best YOU you can be, the rest has a way of falling into place on its own.  John Hiatt began his career in Nashville in the early seventies.  He dreamed of becoming a star, and bounced from record company to record company, with each promising him that they could break him into the mainstream.  He never fit into any particular genre of music, which kept him from finding that huge audience both he and his record company wanted.  Along the way, he made the mistake of so many artists and started to abuse alcohol and drugs.  Finally, he hit rock bottom and decided he needed to clean up and received addiction treatment.

That decision, along with a great personal tragedy, led him to create what many consider to be his breakthrough album: Bring the Family.  He created that amazing work when he wasn’t even signed to a record company, but gathered friends and used his own resources to record ten songs full of life lessons of joy and hope, including his signature song “Have a Little Faith in Me.”  Since then, his career has had ups and downs, but often the greatest ups, including his first Grammy nomination, came when he was dropped by a record label.

It takes time for all of us to learn to not let others tell us who we are or what we need to accomplish.  We all do best when we follow what we love.

Lesson 2: Life’s not about avoiding those dark times, it’s about finding the pin-prick of light that will guide you out of them. The way we’re brought up on fairy tales, it would be easy to believe that after John cleaned up and overcame the tragedies mentioned above that he “lived happily ever after.”  That’s not ever true.  In the decades since Bring the Family, he’s released over a dozen albums, and most contain at least one song of woe that is inspired by his real life. I not only feel solace when listening to his songs about “the nagging dark,” I am inspired by his courage to acknowledge his pain, but to keep on living.

Lesson 3: It takes very little to show kindness and bring joy; you may never know the impact a few words may have on someone.  John Hiatt is incredibly generous to his fans, and I have taken up far more than my fair share of his time.  But, he has said in interviews that he realizes what it means to people when he comes out after a show to sign autographs, shake hands and takes pictures.  He does this incredibly graciously.  For example, at a record store signing years ago, my mother and I were amazed by how each time a new fan stepped up to the table he was seated behind, John stood up to greet them, the perfect Southern gentlemen.  Or, another time when a crowd of us waited by his tour bus on a December night, John stepped out of the warm auditorium and apologized to us for making us “wait so darn long.”

These are all small gestures in and of themselves, but they add up not only in the effort and patience it must take John, but the great joy he brings to so many people. Not everyone can make it onto the pages of Rolling Stone, but every day we have the opportunity to put in that little extra effort to be gracious, courageous, or kind.

Lesson 4: Love and happiness are never anything to feel sorry for or embarrassed about. I learned this somewhat indirectly from John, but it may be most important.  I was reminded of this particular lesson last night when a stranger noticed the t-shirt that I was wearing and asked if I liked John Hiatt.  Boy, did she get more than she bargained for when I answered.  Yes, I can be a little over-enthusiastic at times when I talk about my favorite musician, especially if the other party shows the slightest bit of interest.

I think one of the most significant conversations I ever had was when I was talking to a friend in college about my fan magazine and the enormous amount of time and emotional energy I had invested in pursuing my bliss through John’s music.  I read her expression, and asked her “You think this is all pretty lame, don’t you.”  “Well,” she replied, “I just can’t imagine being that enthusiastic about anything.”  Suddenly I was no longer embarrassed for myself, but deeply sorry for her.

How could I not lose my embarrassment to make way for sympathy for my friend?  Nothing in her life excited the same kind of passion I was fortunate to feel when a new John Hiatt album was released.  She could not understand the joy of sitting on concrete sidewalks for hours with other Hiatt fans waiting for concert tickets, or most wonderful of all – waiting for hours after a concert, your ears ringing with the music you had just been baptized in through amplifiers, for the thrill of a two minute conversation with your hero.  How sad – almost as sad as having no religion.

So, it is only with the slightest blush that I post this blog and turn back to my fan magazine.  I know I will continue to learn more about myself and my spirituality while acting like an idiot in my enthusiasm for my favorite musician.  I hope you all have something that brings you the same kind of happiness.

Advertisements

Ask Not What Your Church Can Do for You, but What Can You Do for Your Church… Just Be Prepared for an Honest Answer

July 24, 2011

I almost was pulled back into my congregation this weekend.

A few weeks ago my minister e-mailed me about coming to a Board Retreat to share some of what I’d learned at the UUA’s “Harvest the Power” leadership training. This was the most recent of several questions about this great program, all of which seem to have led to misunderstandings between my minister and I. After much inner-turmoil and angst which involved a lot of me bombarding my poor husband with retellings of the many ways I felt both myself and this worthy program had been demeaned, it naturally came to nothing.

In many ways, I was relieved to not have to do it. For one thing, it meant I had more time to enjoy a nice summer weekend. For another, I really felt it was unfair to the people who has designed the Harvest the Power program to try and squeeze even a piece of the training into a day of other events. But perhaps most of all, I was afraid that if I tried to teach my congregation’s leadership anything, I would be marginalized by them. I was afraid they would go through the motions and pretend to listed to what I tried to share from the program, but all the time they’d be looking at the clock and waiting for when I was finished so they could get on to “real business” or go home.

Was this an irrational fear? Well, I do have some history to make me feel as though this was to be exptected. First, there was the way in which I first became involved in Harvest the Power. In the Spring of 2010, a friend I had known as a teenager in my first Unitarian congregation visited my present one. She pulled me aside and asked if I would consider attending a leadership training program that had been recently developed by the UUA. It was called “Harvest the Power” and was designed to give lay leaders the spiritual and practical skills they needed to be more effective through a variety of workshop experiences.

She explained that in exchange for the training I would receive, I’d be expected to work with a smaller group and lead the workshop for others. I had a few trepidations, as I’d had some negative experiences with the UUA, mostly around what I felt was disapproval from some higher-ups there of my serving as an interim / lay speaker while we were without a minister. My friend assured me that I would be a great candidate and that she’d check with my minister to fill her in as well. A few days before I went off to the training, I called to touch base with my minister and we were both surprised to find that she knew nothing about my attending the training. Whether it was just her surprise and my less than clear explanation of what I was doing and why, I got the feeling that she had some misgivings. Unfortunately, we were never able to communicate our feelings clearly to each other, and to this day I don’t know if I have been able to explain Harvest the Power to her. (More on that later)

When I arrived at the conference center, I was energized by the people I met and the information I received. Though I was kind of the oddball of the group, coming from one of the smallest congregations with the least developed organizational structure, I felt I did have a lot to offer and a lot to gain from the curriculum. I was impressed by the range of workshops, some based on story telling or watching a DVD, others on crafts, others on writing, others on games, etc. The material was dense, but accessible, covering spiritual and ethical development, Unitarian-Universalist identity, and all different approaches to leading and facing the challenges of leadership.

The entire program is online at the UUA: http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/tapestryfaith/harvestpower/index.shtml

Perhaps the only negative moment of that first weekend spent with leaders of other congregations came when one of the attendees questioned whether they could fulfill the promise of leading the workshop themselves. One of the UUA staff responded to their fears by saying “all of you are here because you are already leaders in your congregation now. You are here because your ministers believed in you and sent you here because they know you can do this.” At those words, I was so struck by my not belonging under those terms, having stepped down from leadership a month or so before to take a second job to pay bills, and having my minister if anything vaguely aware of my attending the conference, I burst out into a brief laugh. It was either laugh or cry, so I chose the option that was easiest to stop and least embarrasing.

After that exhilarating but emotionally draining weekend, the small team of lay leaders in my cluster got together a few times to plan our own training. The major obstacle, we felt, was that we hadn’t had enough time when we had done the training ourselves. We decided to spend two weekends on our event, and split up all the workshops and activities to play to our individual strengths and interests.

I spoke to my minister about it and we tried to think of ways to get a group from the congregation to attend the cluster training. She wrote a brief piece for the newsletter and I made a few different announcements during services. My minister also passed the official invitation/letter from the district to the congregation’s board president, but he didn’t remembering ever seeing it. One person approached me that she was interested, but ended up not being able to go.

Later that fall, those of us who had trained to be facilitators had two successful weekends. Several different congregations sent teams, though they were all larger than mine. We the leaders continued to learn and hopefully extended some useful lessons to the attendees. We hopefully pushed just enough to get those who signed up for the training to work out of the comfort zone and reconsider how the structures of their own church functioned. I was struck by how even the “story” type activities worked differently there compared to when I read them to myself. It was our willingness to admit when we didn’t understand something, or when we saw something in a different way than others that the material came to life. In other words, it was the diversity of the group that made the most learning possible.

I was also struck by how the lessons built on each other. For example, telling your own story of how you became a UU was useful when later you were looking at the bizarre diagram of how people are directly and indirectly connected to each other in a congregation. You realized that we all have our own stories, our own strengths and weaknesses. Your realized that it’s not only okay, but natural when things don’t run smoothly. Those who came were very positive in their reviews, but still complained that they didn’t have enough time to really get all they wanted out of the materials we presented to them.

So perhaps I was unfairly frustrated when I received an e-mail from my minister the week after the training, asking if “the information and materials were something I might want to share with the congregation and leaders at some point.” I realized that she couldn’t be expected to understand what I had experienced, not being part of it herself, but I was still hurt by the implication. I felt as if I were being asked to share a text book, as if the materials were what had been valuable, and I could hand them off. It wasn’t as if I, or any of the others I had worked so hard with to prepare a program were necessary at all.

I responded in that I would be happy to lead some activities if others wanted me to, and reiterated that the entire program was meant to function as a workshops that built on each other. My minister replied that she and the President would talk about it and see if there were any workshops that were of interest. The next two board meetings went by (November and December) without anyone talking to me about Harvest the Power again. In January I received a thank you letter for the District, which reminded me of the e-mails and I followed up to see what they had decided. My minister wrote back that they wanted to ask someone else, and then sent another message that said they thought it would be better for the summer retreat. In June my minister let me know they were putting together the agenda and asked if there was “a particular piece” I thought would be good. I still had misgivings about doing only a single piece given my own reactions to and others feedback to the program, but I made a few suggestions. I also noted that in the agenda my minister had sent my “sharing” Harvest the Power was one of six items in a two-and-a-half hour time slot and asked how much time I could expect to have.

The retreat was supposed to be this weekend. Needless to say, I never heard back on whether they wanted me to present the activities.

I know from many church experiences that you are most rewarded when you try to give something back. The only problem is, what if  it feels like what you have to give is not considered of any value?


Why Dignity? My proposed edit to the first principle

July 17, 2011

Unitarian-Universalism is not a religion based on rote. So, it’s not too surprising that even those who attend services regularly may be hard-pressed to recite our seven principles verbatim. Most can manage what we call the first principle In this, we covenant to affirm and promote: “the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.”

Since the seven principles were adopted in 1966, you can imagine the number of times this sentence has been repeated. Ours is a faith in which every person is important. Even those who we do not agree with or those who do horrible things, they have worth and dignity.

The worth part is easy to understand. But, lately, I’ve started to wonder if we might have been better off choosing a word besides dignity. What is dignity, after all? Is it something worth affirming and promoting? Does it need to be affirmed in every individual?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers four definitions for the word, dignity:

  1. the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
  2. a : high rank, office, or position b : a legal title of nobility or honor
  3. archaic : dignitary
  4. formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language

Let’s assume that we can rule out the possibility that those who drafted the principles intended definitions 2 or 3 as a meaning here, as official ranks or legal titles shouldn’t have been part of what we were trying to convey about all people. So, we’re left with a restatement of worth (1), or (4) “a formal reserve of seriousness of manner, appearance, or language.” A good description of what drove me away from Sunday services, and is probably keeping many “unchurched” from giving our congregations a try.

Who wants to be reserved and serious on Sunday morning, when we have to stuff ourselves into those kinds of boxes in so many other of life’s circumstances? Wouldn’t we be better off if we tried to be a little less serious?

Pondering this word reminded me of a story about Maria Von Trapp, the real life Maria who Rodgers and Hammerstein immortalized in the musical The Sound of Music. After fleeing Nazi-ruled Austria, the Von Trapp family came to America and tried to earn a living by performing their wonderful music. But at first it didn’t go very well. The audiences here weren’t really connecting to the singers who performed in what can only be described is a very “dignified” manner. Then one night, a bug flew into Maria’s mouth, almost choking her in the middle of the performance. Chagrined, at the end of the song, the former nun explained to the audience that she had missed notes because something that had never happened to her before had just happened: she had swallowed a fly. The audience broke into laughter and the rest of the performance went better than any previous. Maria later wrote: “The spell was broken…Three cheers for the fly!”

Should we all take ourselves a little less seriously?

When I was a lay leader of my congregation, I considered each sermon I presented a success only if I got the congregation to break out into laughter at least once. One of the “sermons” I gave which I am most proud of was nothing more than a recitation of some of the many oft-repeated jokes about Unitarian-Universalists. Hopefully you know some of them, and perhaps could add more to the list:

  • What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door but can’t tell you why.
  • A bride-to-be wanted to make something special for her honeymoon. When asked how much fabric she wanted for her neglige, she told the clerk: 30 yards – my fiancé is a Unitarian, so he’d rather seek than find.
  • A man buys a new sports car and decides he wants a holy person to bless it. After being turned away by dozens of clergy from other denominations who have to ask “What’s a Ferrari?” he ends up in front of a UU minister. “I just have one question,” the minister says, “What’s a blessing?”

These are just the best of those that I can remember off the top of my head.

I should also put this service into context. It was the last time I was scheduled to speak at the end of a church year, so I had decided to cut loose in the pulpit. Then, a few days before that Sunday, a long-term member and past president of our congregation died suddenly of a heart attack. I wondered if I could go through with my plan, or if it would be disrespectful. But then I remembered that the recently-passed congregant himself had once told a slightly off-color joke during announcements and joys and concerns.

I had a brief phone conversation with his widow that Friday night. It started awkwardly, as I said all those things we all repeat despite our worries that they will sound hollow and meaningless, “I’m so sorry,” “He’ll be missed,” “He was a joy in life.” Then I mentioned my plan for Sunday and how the memory of her husband telling a joke made me feel he’d appreciate it. It was as if the phone was suddenly passed to a different person. My friend laughed one of those great laughs that comes through pain like sunshine breaking through clouds. She approved of my telling jokes in her husband’s honor, and felt he would have to.

When I say that I am proud of that sermon, it’s not only because I felt I really did honor that long-time friend in a way that would have made him proud. It’s also because afterward, another long-term friend, and probably one of those most deeply affected by the sudden death, wrapped her arms around me in a great hug and said “I needed that!”

Sometimes, what we need is less dignity. So maybe the next time the principles are up for review, we should leave a blank spot in place of that word and see what people come up with.

My suggestion: joy.


Fate, Faith, or Luck?

July 10, 2011

“There are no atheists in a foxhole.”

“Prayer: the last resort of a scoundrel.”

The two quotes above have always made me feel somewhat defensive of my constantly changing position on whether or not god exists. They both illustrate what I consider the worst kind of selfish theism: you believe only when you hope that by doing so you’ll get something out of it. I came to Unitarian-Universalism because it is one of very faiths that welcome atheists as well as those who put their faith in a higher power. In the twenty-odd years since, I’ve danced back and forth across that line of believer and non-believer.

My own deep disbelief in the god described in my previous Catholic faith is most complete when I face struggles. The first time I realized there may not be a god was when I prayed at my grandfather’s funeral and was rewarded by an empty silence and overwhelming loneliness. Ever since then, when tragedy strikes it as if every cell in my body humms with the knowledge that they are all just random molecules, strung together by chance and without any kind of spiritual overseeer. If I ever did find myself in a foxhole, I have a feeling I would find it hard not to shout “there is no god” for any nearby ally or enemy to hear.

The few times I’ve felt some kind of god-like presence in my life were actually ones of great joy: standing on a mountaintop with sun and sky touching me, I could almost accept that there was something beyond human experience or definition. When I am greeted with an amazing phenomenon of nature, or witness some small act of human compassion, I think I see god.  I can find that belief only through expressing gratitude, never when seeking help or comfort.

Those who do believe strongly in God often misunderstand me when I try to explain why I don’t. They may quote the famous footprints poem and suggest that their God is carrying me through hard times when I feel alone. They think I pushed god away as a child over the anger of losing my grandfather. I’ve tried to explain that the hurt I felt over losing my grandfather was nothing compared to the shock and hurt I felt when I reached out to God and felt nothing. I wish I could believe I was carried through the hard times like the anonymous poet examining his footprints in the sand.  Instead, I pull down into my own soul for the strength to keep walking, even through the darkest days.

I feel I must first start with myself, and then when I am able, to reach out and ask for help from my friends and family. Introspection and human conversation, almost always in that order, give me what praying doesn’t. (At least, what most people call praying, though many UU’s would consider sharing coffee with a friend its own kind of prayer.)

My darkest days I count on me, my brightest days I catch a glimpse of god. And in between, I hope for luck. Instead of praying when I am worried or things start going wrong in my life, I fall back on superstitions that are completely non-spiritual for me. I cross my fingers and hold my breath before calling the plumber back. I chant little good luck sayings to the car when the serve engine light comes on. I read my horoscope everyday, and occasionally play with numerology.

Perhaps these things are easier for me to have faith in because no one ever tells you that you HAVE to believe saying “Rabbit-Rabbit” on the first day of the month with make the next few weeks luckier. No one tells you that the afterlife is going to be torturous if you don’t find a four-leaf clover. No one has ever suggested that all Aries are going to hell, but if your moon is in Cancer, you’ll be okay. The stakes are all a little lower for these kind of luck games.

You also have more of a chance of making an impact on your luck than your religion. Another cliche is that we make our own luck. Only a few UU’s ever say that we make our own religion. Most faiths proscribe that you can pray to God, but you cannot change God. “He works in mysterious ways,” etc.

But what do either of these beliefs do to us in the process? C.S. Lewis reportedly said that “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me.” Does believing in luck change us as well? Certainly, there are plenty of studies that tell us that optimists live better lives. We can argue whether they get their sunny outlooks from their good lives, or that by having faith that things will work out, it perhaps allows people work harder and make better choices, believing their efforts and their choices will make a difference. But, does believing that it is really God’s effort and God’s choice have the same effect, or the opposite?

There was a poet who contributed to my high school literary magazine whose one line always stuck with me. He wrote: “believe you own fate.” Our faculty adviser suggested what he meant was “believe in your own fate,” but he insisted it was the opposite. He meant believe you possess the power to rule your fate, not to mindlessly give yourself to the reality that the universe presented to you.

Believe that you are in control of your own destiny, and that there is no one or nothing listening to your prayers. Can you live that way, and still be religious? Or is believing you own fate, believing there is no God, an attempt to make us Gods ourselves – fate makers more powerful than any external phenomenon. I shrink away from this idea, because I don’t want to think I have such an ego. And maybe it’s my weakness and simple-mindedness that leads me to think that it was luck that made my well-pump die, just when we were starting to catch up on bills. Maybe the reason I can’t fully have faith in those finger-crossings, throwing salt over my shoulder, and avoiding bad luck omens is that I don’t think I have any power over my own fate.

But, I have come to learn that I have power on how I respond to fate. I may not have the power to move god with my prayers, or even move myself out of a spiritual funk by praying. However, I can remind myself that there are millions of people without access to clean drinking water who would gladly trade their situation for my stress-inducing bill to replace a well pump.

I can also recognize that it makes a positive impact on me when I put faith in myself to make things better. Even if I’ll owe the plumber or the mechanic more than I think I can pay, I refuse to just shove the bills in a drawer. Even if I think I might be underpaid, I refuse to not give my work my best. Even when a stranger does something stupid and cruel, sometimes smiling at them will make them stop faster than getting angry.

So, I will do whatever I need to put myself in the state of mind where I am ready to respond to fate in the best way I can. Maybe someday that will include prayer, but for now, I’ll just ask you to wish me luck.


How I’ve Failed the Seven Principles

July 3, 2011

When I was younger, the beginning of July marked the start of me missing church.  Even though I may not have attended services for months, being wrapped up in end-of-school business or family events, the first Sunday I realized that I wanted to go to church, but couldn’t because church wasn’t there, I felt a real loss.  Many Unitarian-Universalist congregations close for at least a month or two in the summer, and for the most part congregants don’t complain. Instead, they appreciate the additional time in their too-short summer days to be outside or traveling.

This July is different in that I have been purposely not going to church for several months.  So, the fact that there are no services this morning shouldn’t really make any difference to me. I’m not really sure that it does make a difference, to be honest.  I think that I’m missing the feeling of missing church more than I actually have any real longing to be back there.

Yet, even in rejecting the idea of personally participating in congregational life, I have a deep desire for UU congregations to continue to exist and thrive. I still believe that our faith and our principles have a great deal to offer people.  I believe that groups of people can work together for social justice, and doing so as part of a Unitarian-Universalist congregation can be a holy thing. I believe that diverse thinkers, believers, and sceptics can explore life’s great questions together and be benefitted from each other’s company in their questioning.

I believe that having an organization, a building, a community, committed to nothing more than ideas, most importantly that all people are good, is important.  So important, that it’s worth struggling against all those other thoughts like raising money and setting agendas for meetings and not really caring for the sermon on a particular Sunday.  It’s worth the extreme efforts it takes to build and maintain a community.

I just haven’t had the personal strength to make myself fit in the community in which I once belonged.  I haven’t had the energy to do anything but feel frustrated by my congregation.  I haven’t been able to challenge myself or challenge my community by putting into words all that I find is lacking and harmful going on.  It’s unfortunate because I know that if I don’t have the energy and strength to at least share my true thoughts and feelings with my congregation, than I can’t even call myself a good Unitarian-Universalist.

It’s against all seven of our principles for me to say: I just have to walk away.

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.  
I tried to deny this at first, but by giving up on going to church, I am spitting in this face of this key idea.  Not only am I failing to continue to struggle to see the worth and dignity of all the people I don’t see eye to eye with in my congregation, I’m breaking off friendships with those I find it easiest and most joyful to be with.  Also, I am denying my own worth and dignity by acting as though the church would be better off without me.

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
Perhaps I think I’m being compassionate to myself and my congregation by removing myself from the Sunday morning experience. It’s so easy to imagine these three concepts blend naturally together, but they don’t.  To be just is not always equitable. To be compassionate is often the exact opposite of acting according to the laws of justice and equality. I once mused that this principle instructs us to rip off the blindfold of justice and stare deeply into each others eyes.

But, really the most important part of the principle is the final word: relations.  We have to relate to people, we need to connect. Removing yourself from a situation may feel like a kindness to yourself, but it is only just to yourself and others when you can honestly say you’ve done everything you can to be compassionate and ask for compassion.  It doesn’t mean hiding your feelings, but giving others and yourself room to think and feel differently.

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations.
No denying the failure there.  Though I have been trying to accept other’s different directions and feelings, while finding my own way to growing my spirit, it hasn’t been in a congregation. Accepting isn’t the same as encouraging, just as justice isn’t the same as compassion.

4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I’ve given myself the freedom to search for truth and meaning, but I haven’t been responsible about it.  I know that I need to communicate in more than this one-sided way of blogging if I’m ever going to achieve.  Also, the more I separate myself from my congregation, the less I’ll know about them.

5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
As they say, democracy is ruled by those who show up.  I have participated in a fairly important vote within the past couple of months. I can also say with a clear conscience that I lived up to the principle of democracy because it was a vote I educated myself about, and thought deeply about. I asked questions at the congregational meeting before the vote. I weighed the pros and cons and I made what I thought was the best choice for the congregation.

But is that enough?  I have voted, but I have kept deeper questions to myself about questions that were not on any ballot.

6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
Okay, perhaps it’s a stretch to compare my microcosmic situation to this principle, or the next.  But, it does give me a shiver of terror to realize who easy it is for me to stop working toward community and justice within my own congregation, with people that I consider wonderful human beings and friends.  It’s hard to then imagine that world community is possible with the much greater differences that others face.

7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.   
Another stretch.  But, I think about the Sundays when my husband or I would “go rogue” by taking the paper cups off the coffee table and staying later than we planned to wash dishes because no one else had volunteered. Maybe we’re failing the earth by not showing up on Sundays, too.  Maybe if we could fully commit ourselves to the community that community could do more in the way of creating educational programs to inspire others to respect the interdependent web. Or maybe would work together to find a way to afford solar panels as part of the upcoming renovation project, only…

The real truth that I’ve been avoiding saying bluntly is this.  I have stopped attending services for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that I find it stifling to be told how to breathe and what I think during the sermons.  But, the greater reason is that I have felt too often and too strongly that the only way I can belong there is if I put enough money in the collection plate. And, with temporary lay offs, unexpected house expenses, new and old debts, there wasn’t much we could give. Certainly nothing like what we were being asked to give.

So, though I miss my friends, though I miss the feeling of being part of something larger than myself, I can’t accept that any of us can be measured in dollars and cents. And until I can find the strength and courage to deal with both the internal and external forces telling me that the money matters more than anything or anyone, I can’t be a part of my church.

I know I need to find the strength and courage to be a Unitarian-Universalist.  Luckily, I have the time of summer months and the room of cyberspace to work on that.