This article originally appeared in the January 2013 Newsletter of the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts.
If the crux of Unitarian Universalism were reduced to a few points in space and time, they would be those potent moments just before and just after we keep a promise, or we break it. All that is exceptional about being human and becoming whole is crystalized in these decisive microseconds:
- Will I say “hello” to the visitor standing awkwardly near the sanctuary door or not?
- Do I stay connected to Miguel even though he just voted against my idea?
- Do I acknowledge the tug on my heart and wallet that asks me to really wrestle with the amount of my pledge?
- Will I or will I not risk feeling unsure and uninformed as I step outside my comfort zone and spend time with those of other races, classes or generations on their terms rather than mine?
- Will I expose my need for wholeness, my hope for forgiveness, my longing to belong, and my desire to matter?
People in all faith communities face microseconds like these. Sometimes we “live into” these moments and consciously wrestle with our instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Rising above these instincts to respond rather than react is what makes us human and what moves us toward wholeness. That this power to become whole is so concentrated in these common moments of experience is what makes them extraordinary.
Sometimes we subconsciously squelch these moments by automatically retreating into the ideology of our particular belief or non-belief. We may then spend time feeling wounded or righteous, debating, competing or even warring over religion.
Unique among the faiths, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the ordinary but decisive moments of human agency as its center rather than a particular system of belief. Instead of aiding a retreat into ideology, UUism invites the moral codes of religions and ethics to inspire and support individuals, but it refuses to let those codes blur or distract from the key questions of all humanity: how do we strive for communities of wholeness, with ourselves and with creation; what must we promise to make this so; how do we “begin again” after we break our promises? These are the questions of covenant.
The exceptional moment of our unique faith is not only the microseconds when we decide to make and keep covenant, but also this larger cultural “moment” in history. Worldwide social media has made it abundantly clear that we are connected to and reliant on each other despite our religious differences. Increasingly, people are looking beyond institutional religion for communities that matter. Unitarian Universalism speaks most directly to the covenantal necessities of these emerging communities. We are not exceptional in our perfection of covenanted community, but we are called to be exceptional in our promotion of it.
And this is why it is important for us to shed the historic (and justified) fear of “exceptionalism” as vain individualism and adopt the humbling realization that because our Faith is, as proclaimed by UUA President Peter Morales, “the faith beyond belief,” we are the stewards of a great gift desperately needed in this day and age.
To share this gift we need to extend ourselves further into new and different kinds of communities, bringing the message of covenant. And to share this message with humility, we need to remember how difficult it can be for us all to rise above our instincts during the extraordinary microseconds of living in covenant and to marvel at the Grace that makes it possible at all.
Doug Zelinski has been serving as the Director of Leadership Development for the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts since May of 2010. Before that he served for three years as the Leadership Development Consultant for the Metro New York District of the UUA. Prior to that, he honed his skills during 20 years of organizational development work with human service nonprofit agencies as well as city and county government.