Random Acts of Unitarian Universalism

Friday through Sunday of last week I was with some of the men of our congregation at their annual retreat at The Mountain and Learning Center in Highlands, North Carolina. I’m in my ninth year at UUCA and I had never joined them before. It was way past time.

And I’m so glad I went.

The retreat theme was “core values,” or the drivers of how we think and behave.  What determines our priorities. The yardstick for success in life. Frank Casper and Bailey Pope were our discussion leaders, and they used video clips to immerse us in the richness of the topic. For example: Han Solo in Star Wars near the movie’s end. Luke invites him to join the rebels in their assault on the Death Star, but Han says no. He wants to skedaddle out of there with all the loot he’s earned. Feels bad to watch this. So no wonder, when we see that he’s turned back to help his friends and that his deeper “good guy” impulse has prevailed, we cheer.

But then there’s the question: Why did Han say no to begin with? How is it that good people can act so out of sync with the values that are dear to them?

Another clip was from It’s a Wonderful Life, and just as with Star Wars, we men are in a circle discussing questions, linking what we see to our own personal experiences and knowings, coming back again and again to the retreat topic of core values. In this clip, we see George Bailey who, all his life, wanted to build big things but ended up having to take over his father’s leadership of the Building and Loan, and he never stopped lamenting this—even as he was so good at fending off local Scrooge Henry Potter and preventing Bedford Falls from falling prey to destructive values of envy and resentment and greed and bitterness. George Bailey is one complicated guy—and the scene we men are discussing in our circle takes place right after he’s discovered the loss of the $8000 of building and loan money and disaster and ruin are coming for him. He goes home to his sweet wife and children and a good man starts to act very badly to the people he loves. He loses it. Despair has him in its teeth. We men in a circle, watching this, are asking:

Can one be living out of a core value and not recognize it? How do you expand your limited sense of who you really are?

With each subsequent film clip, we explored yet another angle on core values. More questions. So many layers to the topic. I loved being with those thoughtful men.

Best of all, there was no time when Frank and Bailey called a halt to all the talk, distributed a handout, and said, “Good try, guys—and now here are all the correct answers to our questions, handed down from On High. Good effort. But we can stop thinking now. Just read what’s on the handout.”

That didn’t happen. No one got a “you can stop thinking now” message. The message instead was about how the issue of core values is fundamentally spiritual in nature and, now that we’ve started reflecting and discerning, don’t stop. To all that is spiritually-related, there is no end to reflection and discernment. The journey is lifelong and it is never-ending and no one can ever say, “I’ve arrived, I know all there is to know.”

Lots of messages I got from that circle of thoughtful men at The Mountain this past weekend: Living out of core values brings a person to aliveness and authenticity. We Unitarian Universalists are a people of the journey and don’t do spirituality by handout.

Now, speaking personally, when I am brought into my aliveness, often what that looks like is me writing poetry. The world and I are dancing and words tell the story. Something about the time with the men moved me so deeply that I found myself writing this poem:


Fall on the Mountain—
Standing still I hear the shiver of leaves on branches.
I’m amazed to realize I’ve heard this before.
Sound of gentle waves upon a shore.
Ceaseless sibilance.
Eternity close at hand.
Then this: how they crunch as you walk upon the path
and scatter them with your feet.
Riot of color: crimson and lemon and honey…
Walking, I see a maple leaf in glorious fall color, a burst of beauty,
and I want to pick it up, hold it, as though it were a kind of gem.
I do this again and again until I’m not walking anymore
but going zig zag at a snail’s pace, going ga ga, going all woo woo with nature—
and why not?
The Unitarian Universalist in me believes
that a secret of the Universe resides in each leaf,
and if only I had the key to crack the code….
If only.
The beauty will have to be enough.
The beauty of the turning seasons.
The beauty of letting go.
Beauty reflecting my own, where I am in my life cycle,
how I am myself a kind of leaf
and the Tree is the Tree of Mystery.
As for the leaf I do pick up—
The only thing I have at hand to press it
is my book of Mary Oliver poems.
“Who made the world,” she writes.
“Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?”
“Tell me,” she says, “what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Right upon this, I place my prism of Fall color,
my fantastic leaf,

and I close the book.

Now here I am, a week later, and I am seeing very clearly that that Unitarian Universalist space of men reflecting about core values put me into alignment with my own personal core values around the spiritual journey—and I felt the quickening. And thus the poem.

That’s why I’m filled with gratitude. Gratitude for that time and for all the times that Unitarian Universalist spaces have helped people connect with what’s core for them and the result is more aliveness, more authenticity.

There are so many spaces in our world that do just the opposite. They sweep you up into something that might keep you busy for a time but, in the end, you feel degraded or depleted, transformed into something lesser….

It’s like this. Imagine that the sound of your soul is “Spirit of Life”: “Spirit of Life, come unto me…” But then you enter into a space where the competing sound is “Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey [clap clap clap] hey Mickey [clap clap clap]”—and you can’t get it out of your brain, it’s stuck in there, it’s a drunken monkey, and there’s no way “Spirit of Life” (the sound of your soul) is going to escape being garbled and muffled by it.

That’s actually why Han Solo in Star Wars momentarily considers skedaddling with his loot rather than fighting side-by-side with his friends. The “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song of his greed overwhelmed (for a time) his “Spirit of Life” deeper self. Somehow, “Spirit of Life” bounced back, and that’s when he returned to join his friends.

I want you to think of a time when an “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song of greed or prejudice or apathy or entitlement threatened to drown out the sweet, pure music of your soul—and Unitarian Universalism reversed that course, brought you back to your core.

One of these times for me has been situations when the “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song is that of fear. Religion as a fear-based thing. Messages that basically say, If you don’t get with what’s on the theological handout, you’re going to Hell. Conversations around the kitchen table with relatives who love you and are concerned for the state of your soul. Conversations in the playground between your kid and other kids. “Are you saved? No? Uh oh….”

It’s almost as if the God here behind the scenes is an abusive parent just waiting for an excuse to pounce. One wrong move, and WHAM! What a universe to live in! What misery!

Compared to this, Unitarian Universalists live in a completely different universe and our song is a totally different song. The journey is safe. In this complicated, big, hurtful, beautiful world, there is time enough for a person’s 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 we know that from even such things a person can learn so much that is good. God did not put people on this earth to be afraid. God put people on this earth to be truly and fully alive.

Unitarian Universalism brings us back to our core. This is but one of many, many ways. Run down the Seven Principles, and each one suggests all sorts of ways.

And what I want is more of this. More people whose “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” broken record spiritual soundtrack is disrupted, and the sweet music of what’s truly core in us comes through, and the world is made more beautiful….

That’s really what this sermon is about. Growing our faith. There was a moment when I was with the men at the Mountain, and I said to myself, We need to have hundreds of people in this room, this is so good. And what about a women’s group and an annual women’s retreat, too? Or even an annual all-congregational retreat. What about that? I was just getting delirious with visions of grandeur. A vision of more and more people living in our Unitarian Universalist universe. More and more people brought into their aliveness and maybe the result is a poem. Maybe it is a kind word when a harsh one would have been easier. Maybe it is an act of justice when it would have been far simpler to turn away. Results like this.

How do we get there? More and more people brought into their core….

One solution is certainly an institutional one. Build the infrastructure so the ways and means are clear and effective. This is the path of more money, improved programs, renovated buildings, more volunteers like Kay or Bailey and Frank or our RE guides or our musicians, and on and on.

Of course. Yes. And in this vein I will tell you quite plainly that plans are underway for creating that Family Room I referred to several weeks ago and which you might have read about on The City. The Family Room idea originally came from UUCA member David Soleil, who wrote, “How about piping nice loud sound and video into a runaround/social room where no one cares if my child screams with joy or fights with her sister or cries because she bumped her knee or needs a snack or has to go potty or gets bored? As parents, ALL of these things happen with our children EVERY service. This could actually be fun for the community. For those whose spiritual journey is loud and full of interruptions, for those whose journey is as much social as spiritual, for those who want spirituality, lattes and donuts at the same time, for those who enjoy the blissful cacophony of the human experience, etc. Let’s make a joyful noise together!” And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to multiply the kinds of worship spaces in the building. Stay tuned. Hopefully we’ll have it complete by the end of the year.

This path is an exciting one. But, you know, it’s not enough. For what we also need to bring to UUCA and Unitarian Universalism for them to be truly vital is our gratitude. Gratitude, as writer Melodie Beattie says, “unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. […] It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Isn’t that a great quote? We want the fullness of Unitarian Universalism and UUCA unlocked. We want it to be a feast, a home, a friend.

Gratitude is the way there.

I ask this with the film clip from It’s a Wonderful Life in mind. We touched on it a moment ago. The complete irony of the movie is that George Bailey, on the one hand, wants to build big things like bridges and skyscrapers but he doesn’t get to, so that makes him snarky and sad. On the other hand, George Bailey IS building big things: not bridges and skyscrapers but a town with a big heart and a family with big love at the center and hundreds of people who are treated justly with dignity and strength and compassion. He does this work every day—he is eyeballs deep in it—and yet there is this huge perception gap. He does not perceive the reality of how he’s already doing the thing he’s always wanted to do. It takes the supernatural intervention of a certain Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, for the perception gap to be crossed and for George Bailey to really see what’s right before his eyes. That’s when he realizes, with gratitude, that he’s already been living from his core. All along, his life has been wonderful. This is how the fullness of his life gets unlocked, and to him it becomes a feast, a home, a friend….

Gratitude takes him there.

So look around you. Look at your friends. Look at the people you don’t know but could become friends. Look at Don. Look at me. Look with your eyes, and look with your heart. We are building big things. We have, in our past, and we’re doing it now. You bet there are limitations. You bet there are imperfections. Always. But the things we are building… justice…. kindness… a sense of wonder … a sense of awe…

I think of that leaf I picked up at The Mountain, how in my poem I say,

The only thing I have at hand to press it
is my book of Mary Oliver poems.
“Who made the world,” she writes.
“Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?”
“Tell me,” she says, “what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

There are simply no bigger questions than the ones Mary Oliver asks. And what my time with the men at The Mountain gave me—what Unitarian Universalism gives me every day—is not just words but an experience, and I lay that experience itself down as an answer. And I am so grateful.

Right upon this, I place my prism of Fall color,
my fantastic leaf,
and I close the book.