(Sermon) “How to Do UU”

(While I wrote this sermon explicitly for my fellow Unitarian Universalists, I think it may speak equally well to all people who try to join with others to seek meaning and make a better world.)

How to Do UU”

I always appreciate it when restaurants have a daily special. I don’t always choose the special, but I often do. It just makes the decision a little bit easier: rather than wade through hundreds of possible sandwiches and platters and meal combinations, I just have to think: “do I want lasagna today? Yep. Good Enough!” And then I’m done. Call me an intellectual coward if you want to, but sometimes I don’t like to have to think too much about what I’m going to eat.

I mention this because there’s some disturbing research coming out about choice and living a Unitarian Universalist life. We Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on being a free faith – we can choose what we believe, we can choose how we live our lives. Surprisingly, though, more choices don’t always correlate with greater happiness. Recently, a professor at Columbia Business School interviewed people of different religions as they left their weekly services. Unfortunately for us, she found that Unitarian Universalists – as well as other faiths that give people the most choice about what to believe – scored the lowest on the surveys when it comes to happiness and optimism. By contrast, those from more orthodox or fundamentalist faiths – those religions that tell you in no certain terms what to think, what to do, when to do it – these people, on average, were happier and more hopeful than we were. This Columbia professor, Sheena Iyengar, has spent her professional life studying choice, and she theorized that religions with too much choice in them tend to make people pessimistic because the participants are overwhelmed and not given enough direction. 1

I didn’t know what to make of this study. At first I was tempted to laugh it off, to think that maybe the professor just interviewed Unitarian Universalists in some congregation after a really bad hymn, and that was why they were unhappy. Then, in a more serious vein, the thought actually crossed my mind, “well, if it’ll make me happy, maybe I should join one of those stricter faiths, run off and join the Amish or something.” That temptation lasted for all of about 10 seconds, after which I remembered how much I like to be told what to do, which is not much. A dogmatic faith may make some people very content, and good for them, but in my case it just ain’t gonna happen..

On reflection, though, I think Professor Iyengar’s study highlights a need in Unitarian Universalism that I have felt for a long time: we Unitarian Universalists need positive expressions of faith, not negative expressions of faith. For too long, we’ve been describing our religion in negative terms: nobody tells you what to believe, we don’t have a creed, you don’t have to be theist and you don’t have to be atheist, no one’s breathing down your neck. All this is true. But these are all negative statements of faith, saying what we aren’t. They don’t get to the heart of who we are. What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist. Yes, there are no restrictions on what we can believe. But what is it that we actually do? What is our practice?

Today I’m going to share a few suggestions I have about how Unitarian Universalists live our lives. These suggestions are not beliefs, but practices – things we can do to be Unitarian Universalists, ways we can practice our faith outside these walls, from Monday to Saturday. Think of these suggestions as the special of the day: if you don’t want to follow what I have to say, no problem, choose something else, but here are a few ideas of what it means to live a Unitarian Universalist life. It may not be the Ten Commandments, but there nothing wrong with handing down, from this high pulpit, the three or four suggestions.

And to make it even easier for you, all the suggestions I’m going to offer today have a common theme: connections. The longer that I’m in the ministry, the more I see how important connections are to Unitarian Universalist theology and practice. The affirmation of the interconnected web of life is one of our seven principles, our attempt to put into language the way we try to relate to one another. This idea of being connected is very simple but very profound. If we truly believe that we are connected, on a deep molecular level, and every level above that, if we live with this belief in connections on the forefront of our consciousness, it will have a powerful affect on us over time. If you want a fulfilled and fulfilling life, I suggest you pay close attention to your connections.

The first way I’d suggest every Unitarian Universalist connect is to connect with the grandeur of the universe. I once stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon. In many ways it looked exactly like all the pictures I had seen in all those books and posters over the years, those characteristic reds and oranges, the shapes of the plateaus and the valleys. You all know what it looks like. It was a picture I had seen a thousand times. And yet, although the colors and shapes were familiar, being there in person was something entirely different. Nothing prepares you for the “wow” of actually being there, seeing it, walking around, being one with the Grand Canyon. Now, I want that feeling in my life every single day. Don’t you?

And you can get it. You don’t need to go all the way to Arizona to connect with the grandeur of the universe. Walk out your front door. Take a deep breath, look around. With practice, you can connect with that sense of “wow” on a regular basis, wherever you are. If you’re a reader, you’ll find the “wow” in books. Or you might find it in meditation, or cross-stitching or pinewood derby racing or looking at cells under a microscope. What matters is not the means of establishing this sense of connection, what matters is that you get to that place of recognizing how awesome this all is. Because if you don’t, if you don’t live with this sense of wow in your life, it’s like you’re looking at the Grand Canyon in a poster. You see it, but you don’t really live it, you’re not really there.

So when I say connect with the grandeur of the universe, connect with the “wow”, I’m really saying be present to your own life. Be impressed by the fact that you are alive. How many dead people would change places with you at a moment’s notice? Appreciate this. Soak in the wow. Look at your hands once in a while, say to yourself, “wow, I have hands. What a miracle. What a life I get to live, to have hands. To have sight. To have a beating heart. To be alive.”

Another way of saying this is make a connection to the spirit, each and every day. Don’t be a cog in a machine, be fully human. If you’re a theist, ask yourself every day where God is for you. When you start asking this question, you start finding God in the unlikeliest of places. God’s there at the exercise bike at the gym, as you feel that rush of energy. God’s in that difficult phone call you had with a member of your family, when you were courageous enough to pick up the phone. God’s there at your greatest achievement and every bit as much there at your worst moments. Seeking that connection to God changes the quality of one’s experience. You see, what God asks of you is different than what the world asks of you. Sometimes what God asks of you is radically different than what the world asks of you. I won’t say more than that now. Just listen, and seek that connection to God, and it will have an impact.

Non-theists, I’m not letting you off the hook here – you should seek that inner, spiritual connection, too. Inside yourself, beyond the needful nagging of the ego, is a different kind of presence. Psychologists refer to it as the subconscious. Hindus call it Atman, which is often translated as “self” but is really the great self, the self beyond selfishness.2 When Whitman sings his “Song of Myself”, this is the self he is celebrating, the interconnected self.3 Seeking the deep self is not the same as being selfish. When we dig deeply enough, we discover that we are one with the everything. This awareness gives us a sense of peace in a frantic world. It‘s like the difference between trying to doggie paddle and growing a set of gills. Don’t spend your life on the level of the ego, out of breath and panting your way from day to day – search for that deep self, connect with it, immerse yourself in it.

The next connection, connecting with others, is pretty obvious. We all surely know by now, what study after study confirms: spending quality time with people we love make us much happier than having lots of stuff. As the old children’s song goes, “the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”4 We know that genuine connection with others feeds the spirit.

And yet…we find ways not to connect, don’t we? In modern society, we are more isolated than ever before. Although we communicate with hundreds of people on email, text, Facebook, and so on, the number of close confidants that people have – the number of people we can confide in – has decreased with every passing decade.5 A 2005 study found 80% of Americans had no-one outside of their own family they could confide in. Much worse, 25% of that number had no one at all they could confide in – in their family or otherwise. We are becoming more individualist with every passing decade. And this has deep ramifications. When we’re in trouble, often we don’t ask for help: either we retreat into our shells at the time we need others most, or we read self-help books and hope we can figure it out on our own. In American religion, we stress the importance of personal spiritual journeys while forgetting that being there as a community and being there for other people’s personal spiritual journeys is critically important. Our resources don’t tend to go toward connections, either. Typically, people spend more on cable TV then we do on our congregations. We certainly spend a lot more on our personal houses than we do on our community centers and houses of worship.

Connecting with other people is more than spending time with other people. It’s a spiritual inclination. After all, it can be hard to spend time with other people. Even people we love, it can be an effort – and for people we don’t love or don’t know, it can be really hard. It’s to be alone; we know ourselves so well. Or we can deal with other people without really connecting with them – just go through the motions, spending time with other people but not really meeting them where they are. That’s a whole lot easier than embracing the Other-ness of another human soul.

Some of you know our first principle, that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. These days I think of the first principle as a practice, more than a belief. We can sit here and argue whether Adolf Hitler has inherent worth and dignity, we can debate about what the word inherent means. That’s all well and good, but to practice the first principle is different than just believing it in our heads. I call this practice “worthiness living”. Worthiness living means that in our actions we treat other people as worthy even as we’re struggling to believe whether they are or not. It’s in the connection that worthiness happens.

I’ve been reading a stirring book about the Unitarian Universalists who participated in the march to Selma in the 1960s.6 Thousands of people responded to Martin Luther King’s call to march. Unitarian Universalists were one of the largest groups there, the largest group of clergy and hundreds of laypeople. It was a scary thing to be in Selma that week – many marchers prepared their wills before they left their hometowns, knowing the danger they would be facing. As the civil rights activists marched down the road, rows of hostile police officers stared at them, billy clubs in their hands. The marchers sang freedom songs.

And here’s the amazing thing: they included in their freedom songs verses about the Governor of Alabama and the Chief of Police, and instead of making fun of them, they sang out their wish that these people, their enemies, could be free. Free of hate, free of ignorance. They prayed for the police officers holding weapons that might be used against their own bodies. They did this not as a political tactic, but because they realized they were interconnected. We’re all in this together, some of the marchers said afterward, we’re doing this for the 7-year-old Selma white boys who are full of hate as much as for the 7-year-old black boys and girls who are here marching for their lives. We’re all in this together. That’s worthiness living. Who cares what you believe. How do you live?

The final connection is to create communities where connections can happen. They created a community in Selma, and though the marches only lasted a few weeks the impact lasted a whole lot longer. Creating communities of connection is one of the most important things we can do with our lives. With our time, our energy, and our money, we are creating the villages in which we raise our children. We are creating the communities in which human beings of all ages can grow a soul.

Supporting a congregation is means taking a gamble on moral beauty. When you support a congregation, you risk your time, your talent, and your treasure towards the proposition that our connections to each other, and our connections to the spirit, can make a better world. There is absolutely no guarantee that congregations will be succesful. Indeed, congregations fail all the time. They are deeply imperfect, and as mortal as we are. But congregations lift up the possibility of meaningful connections. And then, using only enthusiasm, hope, faith, ingenuity and human endeavor, congregations work to make those possibilities real. What we embark on here, each and every Sunday, is a quest to bring a little more beauty to our relations with one another, and our lives in the mystery. Or to put it another way: the salvation of the world.

Well, that’s the daily special of Unitarian Universalism, as I see it. Not just Unitarian Universalists – other faiths are in this with us – but it’s what we try to do each and every day. And you are always, always welcome at our table.


1 Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing (2010)

2 “Let us meditate on the shining Self/Changeless, underlying the world of change,/and realized in the heart in samadhi.” From the Tejobindo Upanishad, tr. Eknath Easwaran (2008). Composed perhaps 1500 BCE.

3 “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, 1891

4 Traditional.

5 “Study: 25% of Americans have no one to confide in” USA Today, June 22, 2006 (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-06-22-friendship_x.htm). The study cited is from American Sociological Review.

6 Call to Selma, Richard Leaonard (2001)

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
This entry was posted in Sermons, Sermons - Text and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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