WHAT DO YOU SAY AFTER YOU RUN OUT OF SERMONS ON LOVE?
The Vision of the Liberal Church
James Ishmael Ford
When two individuals meet, so do two private worlds. None of our private worlds is big enough for us to live a wholesome life in. We need the wider world of joy and wonder, of purpose and venture, of toil and tears. What are we, any of us, but strangers and sojourners forlornly wandering through the nighttime, until we draw together and find the meaning of our lives in one another, dissolving our fears in each other’s courage, making music together, and lighting torches to guide us through the dark? We belong together. Love is what we need. To love and be loved.
A. Powell Davies
There’s a rumor going around that the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles is going to be putting together a vision statement. Makes sense. It’s all part of a process of clarifying the why and how of a community’s existence. It’s good to review these things every now and again. Especially Unitarian Universalists, who are not famous for being clear on the matter. And, of course, as to this community here, this is a rich and pregnant time. A very good time to do such a thing. So, I hope you do.
The truth is every community has a “vision,” whether it’s written down or simply the inarticulate yearning of gathered hearts. A vision statement is the baseline understanding of a group about itself. Not that articulating a vision is necessarily easy. Especially in our liberal congregations, with our visceral resistance authority of various sorts. Something which manifests in our collective history as Unitarian Universalists as a resistance to creeds. No enforced “I believe” statements.
With that, there’s always pushback when people try to articulate something like a vision statement. Even if it’s meant to be a clarification of where a community is in a given time and place.
Still, I think it’s important to do this, especially for a group like a gathering of religious liberals. I think of it as a spiritual discipline. If we don’t have a binding creed, then who are we? What are we about? Unspoken visions are not only hard to deal with, they can turn out to be unhealthy. Either unhealthy because of the hidden ways they lead people to act, especially with potential members, but sometimes unhealthy right down to the bone.
So, how do we pursue such a thing? How do we avoid it become a laundry list of various things people want or wish were true about the community? A common trap with vision statements. Lists of what to do come later, a next step. I’ll talk about that in a moment. But, how to do the first thing first?
I find myself thinking of the Nineteenth century Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi. An enormously important figure in the meeting of religions at the forming of our era, and especially this emerging sense of spirituality between, what some call transreligious, or interspiritual. Big words for that quest for the true, the sacred beyond the confines of a single religion.
Ramana Maharshi’s core practice was a question: “Who am I?” “Who am I?” Sometimes, and I believe, here, it can also be phrased “Who are we?” You know, after the too easy responses about a clump of people who come to a place literally as in our situation, or figuratively as in some emerging communities that gather on zoom or similar platforms. Who are we? Really? In our bones? What is emerging? Who are we?
At its best a vision statement is the foundation, what I’ve seen called a group’s “vow with the universe.” I rather like that. The vision is the ground, as I said, a foundation. In some processes the vision is the community’s hope for a next period of time. Say a decade. I suggest the vision is better understood as one’s best take on the heart of the matter in the context of this moment in time and this place on the globe, that who we are.
It’s not necessary to assume it is who we will be for all time. But, again, in my view the clearer that sense of communal aspiration is, the better. A mission statement often follows, along with a covenant. Those are the other things that usually come with a formal vision statement. The mission statement tries to spell out how the vision is put into action. The covenant is an agreement as to how everyone will relate to each other in light of that vision.
This formula certainly isn’t the only way one can come to clarification of one’s vision. It’s just how we mostly do it today. When I served the First Unitarian in Providence, the covenant combined vision with promises of how to be together. And in Providence revisiting the Covenant, spelled with a capital “C,” wasn’t a regular thing, that every decade revisit. While I was there, we came to only the third Covenant in the church’s three-hundred-year history.
The process at Providence turned out to be one of the most powerful of my experiences within community. I also noticed a couple of moments along the way where things could have gone bad. Special agendas, wanting the formal vision be that of a smaller group within the community, or even a single strong personality, rather than an attempt at capturing the actual vision of the community, can be formulas for disaster. Like any authentic spiritual enterprise there are lots of opportunity to go off the rails.
In case you missed it, the Principles and Purposes are the denomination’s Vision statement. For the Unitarian Universalist Association, the denomination’s vision is spelled out in the Bylaws of the Association as Article 2. Our Statement of Principles and Purposes is the association’s vision. You know, the statement that begins with an assertion about the worth of every individual and concludes with an appeal to notice our radical interdependence.
It is supposed to be visited every decade or so. Although in fact it has only been revisited formally twice. While many people detest it, the majority among us have found it very useful. An additional Source acknowledging ancient earth centered roots was added to the Principles and Purposes in 1995. In 2009 a rather, in my view, mild revisioning in a somewhat more clearly spiritual direction, it called to change the 7th principle to speak of reverence for the Interdependent web instead of respect, failed to advance to a required second vote by a 573 to 586 vote of the delegates present at General Assembly. There has been some tweaking since. Today there’s a fair amount of energy around a proposed 8th Principle embracing a conscious commitment to the work of anti-racism, which originally started as a grassroots movement in 2013.
And now, just to keep it all rich, there is a commission that has been charged with a top to bottom revisit of Article 2. In fact, there’s a new draft being floated that, and which will be voted on this year, if it passes will set the stage to completely replace the Principles. You can find it at the UUA website. The draft runs three pages although you can bet the actual document that will be presented at this coming GA is likely to look somewhat different. There will be a vote at this year’s General Assembly, and then if it passes there will be a second vote in 2024. This year’s vote is a simple majority. The second vote requires three quarters of those present to affirm the change.
I find it unlikely it will pass. And that’s okay. Making changes in this statement is hard, and it’s meant to be hard. Although, I really, really like it, and would like to see it pass. The top line, the heart of the matter, of which all the rest is unpacking is a single sentence: Love is the enduring force that holds us together.
Love. A very interesting vision.
If ever there were a binding vision of our Association, I’d say that’s it. Although already I’m seeing serious pushback. Did I mention that I find it unlikely to pass? Some of the pushback is from people who say it’s a creed. Others think it’s too spiritual. And others say it’s too vague. Love is a complicated word. It invites interpretation, it calls to several parts of the human heart, sometimes contradictory.
For our purposes here, I’d like to use this question of love as a vision statement to sort of workshop what one might encounter with a serious vision statement for the church here. Something that actually tries to reflect the common heart of a group, of, say, our group.
I have a colleague who I knew from before either of us went to seminary. We first met at a Sufi study group in the early 1980s, before our paths diverged. Although as it turned out, independently we followed very similar trajectories. Eventually he found the spiritual grounding he needed within Insight meditation and for me that was and remains a revisioned Zen. In both our cases we saw the limits of the Buddhist sanghas that worked so well for us as places of practice. In both cases the practice was limited to meditation, classes, and spiritual direction. We didn’t see the living communities we each thought critical to the flowering of whole lives. In response to our own inner compass, we each separately found our way into Unitarian Universalism.
At the end of seminary, he went before the ministerial fellowship committee. It’s a harrowing experience, where after years of study, many thousands of dollars invested, an advanced degree obtained, a boatload of internships and specialized training, it all came down to an hour with an overworked, overextended committee of volunteers, clergy and lay. They make the last call. One begins the hour with a brief homily. Ten minutes max. Many a candidate had a harsh introduction to the rest of the hour when their homily is stopped mid-sentence and must begin the rest of that time without recovering from the lurch.
In my time the committee traveled between Boston, Chicago, and Berkeley, where they set up in a rented space, and met candidates an hour at a time, hour after hour for a couple of days. All volunteers, I think I said. Greater love, I suggest. But maybe for a different sermon.
So, there he was. My friend began with a little homily on love. A solid piece of work telegraphing his future success in parish ministry. However, when the homily ended, in the right time I can add, with an extinguishing of the chalice and a brief benediction; one of the committee sighed, and said, “So. What do you say after you’ve run out of sermons on love?”
My friend had the uncomfortable feeling his was not the first such homily they’d heard that day. The end of that story? Well, as I said he’s gone on to be a highly respected minister. But I believe he’s also been haunted by that question. After he told me about it, it seeped into my heart, and I’ve considered it from a thousand angles over the years, myself.
Love. So complicated. So messy. So easy to simply be maudlin. So hard to lean into the harsh and dreadful of love. And yet. And yet. Here’s a vision: Love. A vision statement that challenges, that might on occasion offend, that seeps into the back of your mind. That keeps it all a process.
Again, for workshopping purposes we have that draft UUA Article 2. After that most radical of all assertions: “Love is the enduring force that holds us together,” we get some unpacking. Words are floated: pluralism, interdependence, evolution, justice, generosity.
It’s actually presented as a graphic, with each of these words circling around Love. That presentation as a graphic is another reason some people give for not liking the draft. Me, I don’t care how it is ultimately packaged. Bullet points would be just fine, although I like the intention of the graphic.
But keeping to the actual intent. Those words are unpacked with practical on the ground applications. Under “justice” for instance, we find the draft language of the proposed 8th Principle appears as “We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of oppression within individuals and our institutions. We are accountable to each other for this work.” At our congregational level you might notice it sort of telegraphs what we might find in a mission statement. Of course, these things always bleed into each other one way or another.
So, maybe our denomination will decide to assert it is a spiritual gathering, with social and political consequences. I find that almost too wonderful to hope for.
And here we are, considering “why this First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.” It has had a storied history. And that’s part of it. But what are we now? Who are we? The question.
And so just a little more as you all consider those questions. Me, I find understanding love as an experience, my experience, of radical interdependence is critical for me as I aspire to be of some use in this world. I suggest you may find this calling to your hearts, as well. In any case, I find the draft Article 2 a dramatic example of what might lie ahead here.
I hope you all do follow through on this project of clarification. I know it was dear to Keola’s heart. Covid stopped the process at that time. I think that might have been all for the best. We went through some serious salad days. Since then, this little band has been growing. I think there are now enough of us to profitably engage such a process. A right time and place.
So, what is the vision of this church? When we ask ourselves what is it about this community that calls us, what is that? When we look at each other, what do we see? Can we name it?
To name it is to name our North Star. It can guide us through the dark night.
Nothing less. That important.