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Towards a Spiritual Discipline of Love

02/19/23

I am slightly embarrassed. My intention this morning was—and still is—to continue reflecting on the proposed changes to Article 2 of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) bylaws, which I began in my sermon on January 22nd. I’ll explain my embarrassment, but first, as a reminder, Article 2 is the section of the bylaws that tells the world, in writing, who we are as a religious people. It proclaims to the world, in writing, the center of our faith. It currently lists the seven Unitarian Universalist principles and the six sources of our living tradition. These lists—the principles and the sources—will go away, in writing, if the new version of Article 2 is accepted by the UUA General Assembly over the course of two years of voting.

As an aside, I emphasize in writing, because while what we say in writing about who we are matters immensely (which is why I continue to talk about it), I firmly believe the world learns most about who we are, not by what we say about ourselves in writing, but by how we live, how we engage the world. As the 19th-century Transcendentalist Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker once prayed: Be ours a religion which, like / sunshine, goes everywhere; / its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.[1] In religious short-hand, we might say deeds, not creeds.

I am embarrassed because when I spoke about the proposed new Article 2 last month, I was responding to a rough draft proposal originally published last fall. What I understood last fall is that the Article 2 Commission that produced that rough draft was holding a series of feedback sessions in November and December. Some of you attended those sessions. What I did not quite understand is that the Commissioners would use the feedback they received in those sessions to create a final version of their proposal to submit to the UUA Board of Trustees for its mid-January meeting. When I spoke about Article 2 a month ago, I was completely unaware of the final version, which has some significant differences from the rough draft. That’s why I am embarrassed. I was speaking to you about already outdated material. I hope and trust you will forgive me.

[To read the final draft of the Article 2 Commission’s report, click here.]

Love is our ministry theme for February, so I want to talk about the place of love in the proposed new Article 2. However, before I do, it feels really important to name that quite a few of you have shared reactions to and concerns about the Article 2 proposal. I don’t have the space to address all those reactions and concerns here—and I don’t necessarily think that’s my role—but I do want to say there will be opportunities for us to discuss the Article 2 proposal as a congregation. Carrie Kocher currently holds the role of UUS:E Denominational Affairs chairperson. Carrie, I’m pretty sure, accepted the nomination for that role, without knowing (because who knew?) that Article 2 would be up for debate this year. Carrie, like me, is receiving a lot of the comments, reactions, concerns, etc. Carrie and I are committed to organizing three UUS:E public forums on Article 2 proposal, likely in May. The purpose of those forums is for Carrie and I, and any other UUS:E delegates to the General Assembly, to develop a good sense of how you want your delegates to vote regarding Article 2 and the likely hundreds of amendments that delegates will be proposing during the General Assembly.

Among those of you who’ve offered comments, observations, concerns, I want to thank in particular Malcolm and Susan Barlow, Carol Lacoss, Judy Durham, Lorry King, Fred Wildes, Carrie Kocher and Sudha Sevin. Many others have commented, but I want to personally acknowledge these eight. Their comments have gone into depth and are leading me to deepen and nuance my own assessment of the proposal. We’ve talked about everything from the wordiness of and lack of poetry in the proposal; to observations that there is too much emphasis on antiracism and anti-oppression identity and practice at the expense of promoting a more holistic religious setting for spiritual searching, experience and growth; to concerns that the rough draft makes no reference to democratic processes and what that implies for the future of our faith; to fears that with this proposal the UUA is actually attempting to usurp power from the congregations. There’s a lot to talk about. There’s a lot out there on the internet, some legitimate some not so legitimate. There’s a lot of anxiety in the system, so to speak. There are camps forming within Unitarian Universalism, which is problematic, though to some degree predictable and I don’t believe fatal. I have complete faith that the UUA’s democratic, General Assembly process, over the next two years, will produce the best final new Article 2 possible.

Our ministry theme for February is love. I feel the most important and essential change the proposed Article 2 makes is the way it centers love as the preeminent value of Unitarian Universalism. My favorite sentence from the rough draft proposal is “Love is the enduring force that holds us together.” I kept repeating those words when I preached about this a month ago. Now I’m upset. That language was removed from the final version. The final version says “love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values.” It’s a clunky sentence. “Enduring” is such a beautiful, poetic word. Love is the enduring force that holds us together. I miss it already.

Despite that change, something else emerged out of those national feedback sessions that moves me deeply. Vivian Carlson focused on this last Sunday in her reflections on love. The final version of the proposed new Article 2 adds this statement: “We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love.” As an aside, I wish the statement didn’t use the phrase “doing the work.” Its jargony. It adds no value to the sentence. “We are accountable to one another for living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of love.”

The spiritual discipline of love.

Framing love as a discipline brings it out of the realm of pure feeling or mere sentiment, out of the realm of Hallmark and Valentine’s Day, and more importantly, out of the realm of consumer capitalism, asking: what is the practice of love? How do we manifest love in the world? How do me make love real, impactful, healing, transformative? Last week Vivian asked the question this way: “how do we keep our hearts open to the source of love when others are difficult, hurtful, hateful?” She reminded us that “the spiritual discipline of love calls us to understand that many who have been hurt, met with hatred and violence often know only how to share the same with others. They have not been held in the heart of another. They do not know the experience of love.” The spiritual discipline of love attunes us to the knowledge that we typically don’t know about a person’s life circumstances, that we typically don’t know about the ways they have or are suffering, about what burdens they are carrying, about how their day is going.

I told the story earlier from my colleague, Rev. Jo VonRue, about her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fong. As a child Rev. VonRue was poor, at times homeless, often wore dirty clothes that didn’t smell good, struggled in school and was the target of bullying. Though she was terrified of Mrs. Fong, who tolerated no shenanigans, she says “she was never unkind towards me.” One day Mrs. Fong pulled her aside and asked if she knew what deodorant is. She was mortified. However, she writes, “when I was recently asked about a time when someone stuck their neck out for me, Mrs. Fong was the first person I thought of. It’s funny how perspective changes over time: something that once seemed mortifying now strikes me as a gesture of caring; of love.”

I don’t want to speculate on Mrs. Fong’s motivations. She probably woudn’t say she was holding herself accountable for living her values through the spiritual discipline of love. But who knows? Maybe she was conducting her life and her teaching in accordance with the values of a faith community. Maybe she just had a wonderfully caring heart and knew what needed to be said in that moment, even if it would be difficult for the child to hear. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that opportunities to practice love abound. They are everywhere. They meet us every day. A Unitarian Universalist spiritual discipline of love, in my mind, orients us to these opportunities, sensitizes, alerts, attunes us to these opportunities, helps us not pass by without noticing them, helps us respond to them as best we can.

A spiritual discipline of love helps us respond skillfully when, as Vivian challenges us, others are difficult, hurtful, hateful. A spiritual discipline of love helps us respond skillfully, as Rev. VonRue challenges us, in “the messy, vulnerable places.” A spiritual discipline of love helps us respond to the neighbor in crisis, the neighbor who is sinking down, as the hymn says, the neighbor facing homelessness, the neighbor whose anxiety will not subside, the neighbor whose depression keeps deepening despite treatment, the neighbor who is lonely, the neighbor whose child is struggling, the neighbor who cannot shake their addiction, the neighbor for whom the treatment did not work, the neighbor who has just lost their beloved, the health care worker neighbor or the teacher neighbor who are burned out and exhausted, the immigrant neighbor who cannot access health care to treat a condition that could be life threatening, the prisoner neighbor preparing for re-entry, the survivor neighbor of the earthquake who has lost everything and everyone, the child neighbor who needs deodorant. Indeed, a spiritual discipline of love calls us back to that ancient, moral commandment to love neighbor as self; the commandment, in Vivian’s language, to hold others in our hearts, even those who are hurtful and hateful.

I don’t know what this spiritual discipline of love looks like, not yet. But I do look forward to figuring it out, exploring, experimenting, testing, practicing … with you. And assuming some version of this love-centered UUA Article 2 is adopted next year, I already have an elevator speech ready to go. When people ask me to explain Unitarian Universalism, I will tell them: It’s the practice of the spiritual discipline of love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Parker, Theodore, “Be Ours a Religion,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #683.

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