06/03/19 by UUSEadmin
On May 26, 2019, the service was titled “Living Your Faith: Finding and Walking Your Path as a Unitarian Universalist.” Stacey Musulin presented the following talk.
Image courtesy Ian Riddell and Kimberley Debus
Those who participate in the Living Your Faith program are encouraged to write and deliver a “manifesto.” This is defined in our learning materials as “a specification of your beliefs and a description of how your practices support and further those beliefs.” It’s like a capstone project that strives to bring together what a person believes with who she aspires to be. In March, my Living Your Faith compadres and I wrote our manifestos and shared them with one another. At our last meeting, I received some really good feedback on my delivery as well as what I’d written. The best advice I got, other than to sloooow doooown, was to open up more and talk about the uncertainties I have, and the times when I feel I’m losing my way. We recognize that the spiritual path we Unitarian Universalists are on is not a lock-step linear route to inner peace and enlightenment. I value that Unitarian Universalism supports people in their search for truth and meaning over our lifespans, both individually and collectively within the congregation. I have sincere gratitude for the joys and wonders in my world, but life can also be hard, messy, and hurtful. It’s ok to question everything. I don’t have it all figured out. I know that I will struggle and change my beliefs over time, but the important thing is to keep trying, keep learning, and keep evolving. As professor Brene Brown said in her recent Netflix special, The Call to Courage, “You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life,” and I hope that over time, I will learn to be more courageous in my precious time here on Earth, and I believe that my faith can help me do that.
I would like to share with you some of my own history and those that have influenced me on my spiritual path:
I only recently joined UUS:E. I am not a life-long UU. I was first introduced briefly to this faith at age 13 by a classmate, Emily. I’d never heard of Unitarian Universalism, so I asked her, “What do you believe?” Emily paused, then answered, “We believe everything is connected.” That summed it up for her and it obviously struck a chord in me because here I am at age 48, remembering her simple words of faith. That short sentence left an impression: “We believe everything is connected.”
Like so many in this country, my beliefs and cultural expressions have been influenced by Christianity. My ancestors identified as Catholic and I attended Catholic school for 11 years. However, one of my grandfathers for a time sought other religious community in the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and both my parents encouraged me to question what I learned in Catholic religious education classes. When I was a teenager, my father told me I could choose whether or not to be confirmed in the Catholic religion. I chose not to be. When she was middle-aged, about the age I am now, my mother studied many concepts of spirituality, from Bart Ehrman lectures & books about the historical Jesus to the writings of psychic Sylvia Brown. When she died, my mother identified as an agnostic who believed in a soul and some kind of afterlife. When I met my husband, Andrew, I found a fellow person-of-Catholic-traditions-who-no-longer-identified-as Catholic. He and I enjoyed deep conversations. Andrew introduced me to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Campbell, Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation of the Tao Te Ching, Karen Armstrong, and the Bhagavad Gita. In short, I am grateful to my family for demonstrating and supporting the idea that there is no one single path to truth.
I am also very grateful for the religious education experiences I’ve enjoyed at UUS:E these past two years. I began coming to UUS:E in March 2017. I’d done a little internet research beforehand. A liberal religious tradition and the absence of a set creed intrigued me, but I think I was most curious to find out what Emily meant by, “We believe everything is connected.” As I learned more about Unitarian Universalism, the concept that participating in a discussion on race, attending a Social Justice Committee meeting, creating art, or learning strategies for nonviolent communication can count as religious education and spiritual practice at first surprised me. However, I think I always believed that those self-improvement activities, and any actions that help people directly, were more important than the traditional religious practices in which I may have engaged in the past. It was just really nice to finally have that understanding acknowledged.
I credit the influence of my participation in the Living Your Faith program this year for my decision to officially join UUS:E. I so appreciate the time, thought, and energy that facilitator Tom Gervais and my co-participants, Angie, Carolyn, Ed, Elizabeth, Peter, and Wendy shared with me. With everyone’s support, I met my personal goals to improve my confidence in articulating my spiritual beliefs and to define and develop some sort of spiritual practice.
So what do I believe?
I believe in the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, and acknowledge at least six sources of faith…I leave room for the possibility of there being a few more sources of inspiration, like art, music, and maybe even mathematical equations.
I believe in the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to even aspire to a higher level: to treat others as they would wish to be treated (within rational limits, of course)
I believe in the power of language, of reason, and the scientific method. I believe that our minds are powerful forces, both individually and collectively.
I believe there is inherent goodness in humanity, and that inherent goodness is best expressed in activities that support the rights and worth of all people.
I believe that actions are more important than words and I recognize the admonition in the New Testament book of James that says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
I believe that “it takes a village” – that there is value in engaging and growing with other people, even when it is not in my introverted nature to do so.
I believe that it is in my very nature to be imperfect and to experience suffering. But I also believe that it is possible to learn from my mistakes, to gain wisdom from the difficult experiences I have lived through, and will live through in the future. I believe it is possible to move beyond the negative emotions I feel. Hopefully I can be a wiser and less-judgmental person for having lived those experiences.
I believe that there is some kind of all-inclusive Divine energy, but whatever that Mystery is, is not necessarily something that I can have a personal relationship with or fully comprehend with my human mind.
I believe that other people can hold different beliefs and have different practices, and that my beliefs and practices are not superior to that of others. I believe that freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right.
I believe that it doesn’t matter what I label my spiritual beliefs, so long as they “work” for me, respect others, and support my continued development to be a better person.
Finally, I believe in what my wise teenaged UU friend Emily believed, that “everything is connected.” I think that the Seventh Principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” may have been written as the final UU principle because it can be interpreted in a way that encompasses all the ideas within the previous six principles. Body, mind, and spirit are connected. Past, present, and future are connected. All life forms, our planet Earth, the Universe, and the Great Mystery (whatever you might believe that to be) are connected. The purpose of our lives is to realize the connections, and to achieve balance and peace.
So how can I get to that state of connection, and feel good about who I am and what I do? In Living Your Faith, we discussed the importance of spiritual practices, but that these can take many forms. I try to meditate daily in an attempt to give my consciousness a break and realize that my true Self is not the myriad of thoughts and emotions running through my mind at any given moment. When meditating, if I stick with it long enough, I notice that I can breathe more deeply. I practice noticing the thoughts I have and realize that there is a “me”, a truer Self, that is separate from them. I am very, very good at imagining and preparing for the worst possible future scenario. While this may sometimes be a good survival strategy, it is not the best way to appreciate the gift of the here and now. Meditation and mindful actions (such as yoga or gardening) are one way to balance my “monkey mind” (no offense to monkeys) and allow myself to be a better spouse, dog-mom, daughter, sister, friend, and co-worker. On the days when concentration and releasing thoughts fail, I meditate on a short prayer I heard Reverend Josh use in an archived sermon: I don’t know….I am not in control….I have something to learn…I am here now. The key is to commit to a spiritual practice consistently, and not to allow chores, work, and worries to get in the way of what I need to do to try to stay balanced.
There is a tendency to judge in our culture that left unchecked, creates toxic environments in our political system, our communities, our workplaces, our families, and within ourselves. Compassion and empathy can seem in short supply. I recognize that I can be quick to judge as well. However, when times get tough, I can, as Fred Rogers quoted his mother, “(l)ook for the helpers, You will always find people who are helping.” Witnessing the helpers, and learning and emulating their examples is one way to develop the empathy and compassion I think is needed in our outer and inner worlds today. When encountering extreme behaviors such as racism, sexism, and other forms of violence, I can employ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s principle to “attack the forces of evil, not the persons doing the evil.” I can demonstrate respect for life and keep hope through actions supporting the goal of a Beloved Community. Hopefully, my minor contributions may combine with others’ actions, like the effect of a steady wind creating multiple ripples on the surface of water. Over time and under the right circumstances, I have faith that those combined ripples can form great and powerful waves of good in our world because everything is connected, all our actions are connected. I can also commit to educating myself in ways to improve my connections with other people, the Earth, and my own Self. I will continue to read, study, ask questions, attend service, and engage in other experiences to expand my understanding and create positive connections with others. When I feel the actions of others bruise my ego or put me on the defensive, I can identify the needs of others and how those needs and values are similar to my own, thus breaking down the illusion of “me” versus “them.” I can meditate on the concept that all life holds within some Divine spark that I share as well.
When I do not live up to my ideals or potential, or when my life seems hopelessly out of balance, I need to be compassionate towards myself, just as I continue to strive to be more understanding of others. Forgiveness is important to freeing oneself from the disappointments and frustrations of the past. The important thing when one falls down or falls short, is to get up and try again, to try to stay connected to your true Self, your beliefs, your loved ones, your community, and your world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…we must keep moving. We must keep going… if you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.” I think that admonition can apply to just about anything we want to accomplish in our lives.
In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I believe that the purpose of our lives is to realize how we all are connected to one another. As my husband, Andrew, often says, the most important thing in our lives is our relationships. The sharing of our stories, our concerns, and our joys is a sacred act that binds us into community at each Sunday service. With the love and support of my family, friends, and my UU community, I know I have a better chance of living a more purposeful, active, and balanced life that I would if I were going it alone. Diversity of thought and action is celebrated here. The inherent sacredness of each life and the stories we represent and relate are respected here. How do we stay connected amidst our differences? Retired UU minister and author Jane Ranney Rzepka credited her mother for explaining what holds a liberal religious community together. She said, “We don’t think alike, we walk together.” Being together, truly together, and present to ourselves and each other to me, is the best way to show “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Thank you for listening and for helping me on my personal spiritual path. Thank you for being with me now, and in all the days to come.