Sunday, September 25, 2011

Our Seven Principles, our First Principle, and our Covenant of Right Relations

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 25, 2011

When I was in seminary, I took a class entitled “Worship and Liturgical Arts”, in which we were divided into small groups of three, all from the same denomination, and assigned 10 minute slots of time in which we presented a mini-worship service representing our faith tradition.

These tiny worship moments began each class period; we met in the oaken hall of the seminary chapel with its stained glass, pipe organ, and velvet padded seating, and did our best to present a minuscule version of our liturgy. We were all first-year students and this was a big challenge!

There were three of us Unitarian Universalist students in the class, a distinct minority amid the ranks of the mainline Protestant denominations represented. We were determined to present our faith in a stellar light, proud of our reputation as free thinkers, social justice advocates, and, historically, political catalysts who had helped to bring the fledgling United States of America into being.

So what if the others had their Apostles Creeds and stately prayers? We had our Principles and once we revealed them, surely all would desert their stodgy mantras and climb aboard the UU bandwagon.

The format of the class was that each group would present its worship service at the beginning of the class session; we would meet in the chapel instead of in the classroom and after worship, we would adjourn to the classroom to evaluate and discuss the elements of the worship service for the edification of its worship leaders.

My UU compatriots and I designed a pretty nice 10 minute service; our worship committee here would have been pleased. We settled on a chalice lighting, a hymn, a responsive reading using our Seven Principles, and a benediction. There’s not really much you can do in 10 minutes!

We lit our chalice that morning, sang our favorite hymn “Spirit of Life”, led the responsive reading of our principles, and offered the benediction.

When we went back into the classroom, expecting high praise and the inevitable questions about where the nearest UU congregation might be, the room was strangely silent. Our professor said encouragingly, “Thoughts?” But the silence persisted.

We weren’t sure what to think. At last, one brave man raised his hand and said, “umm, that reading. Those are nice things to say, yes, but they don’t seem very religious. They seem more civic-minded, like something you’d read in a civics textbook.”

This incident has stuck in my mind for a long time and I’ve experimented with various ways of understanding it, of interpreting it, of explaining it. At the time, however, I was dumbstruck and unable to formulate much of a defense. The three of us sat numbly and wondered if we were really going to fit, there at Iliff School of Theology, that training ground for United Methodist and other Protestant clergy in the making.

Our professor gave us a chance to respond to the critique and we did so, perhaps inadequately in our naivete, explaining that our religious tradition was rather different from Protestantism in many ways and that we came from a long line of radicals and heretics who simply didn’t do things in an orthodox way.

But the moment, disturbing as it was, caused me to take a fresh look at the principles of UUism, to try to understand what that student saw there that left him bewildered. And what I saw, as I compared it to the various creeds of mainline denominations, was a profound statement of purpose that emphasized humanitarian behavior toward other humans and the world we live in. That wasn’t religion, to my student colleague. His idea of religion was expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, which reads thusly:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

It’s beautiful----and it would never work for us. Too many certainties within this statement. Too many assertions that are difficult to prove. Too many otherworldly and restrictive pronouncements that make entry into the religious tradition seem exclusive and narrow, at least to my mind.

Now, as a person with an American Baptist upbringing, I was quite unfamiliar with creeds when I went to seminary. The Baptists have historically been non-creedal in that they have never tried to tell their members exactly what to believe, though I understand that the Southern Baptists have now broken that unwritten rule and do have a statement of required belief.

But I’d never had to pledge allegiance to a set of statements of religious belief, like the Apostles’ or Nicaean creeds. “I love Jesus and want to take him into my heart” was no problem for me as a child and I find it appealing even now, now that I know much more about who Jesus was and what he taught. That simple sentence only meant that I wanted to live as Jesus lived, with passion for justice and mercy and love of humankind.

I know that many devoted Christians don’t necessarily accept all the statements in the creeds they recite and the beliefs of many non-creedal denominations are stated more generally than explicitly.

But I love our Seven Principles. I find them deeply religious in that they point out the importance of how we treat each other and the earth and its creatures. That, to me, is a sacred charge, a sacred responsibility.

In carrying out these precepts, I believe we also stay in better relationship with the power beyond human power, the power that many call God and which I think of as the mysterious and sacred laws of the Universe, not fully understood but in a partnership with all its living creatures.

As you may have learned when you took Philosophy 101 in college, any philosophical movement has a main guiding principle, called the First Principle.

This is the statement that sets the trajectory for the development of the philosophy, in our case the rest of our faith tradition’s commitments. This is the Overture, if you think of it in musical terms, the piece that says who we are and what we are about.

Our First Principle, I believe, is profound and it sets us apart from many religious faiths, most of which mention a deity in their first principle. Let’s look at it together. You’ll find it in your O/S, on the back page.

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

From this simple statement flow all the rest of our principles, moving from a faith in the value of a human life to the responsibilities dictated by that faith in human life: justice, equity and compassion, acceptance, encouragement, a search for meaning, the right of conscience, the use of the democratic process, the goal of peace, liberty and justice for all humankind, and a recognition of our place in the interdependent web of existence, not our pre-eminence, but our partnership with others in the universe.

For me this is much more relevant to my life than any creed based on otherworldly teachings. It gives me freedom and a framework for my behavior. It is a covenant, not a creed, a mutual agreement, not a set of required beliefs.

As Sandy and I talked about how we wanted to shape this service, we shared stories of what it was like to raise our sons within this faith. We agreed that we had watched our sons learn about themselves and other people as they studied these principles.

We saw them discover who they were and how to be in good relationship with others and with the earth. We saw them thinking through the big issues of life, not looking for easy answers but for the answers that made sense to them. Our boys learned that our principles are strong guides for life, even life in these difficult times.

What I most appreciate is how my son Mike has taken seriously our First Principle. It may have been because others in our congregation respected his worth and dignity enough to be honest and caring with the teenage Mike about behaviors that were interfering with his success. They told him, honestly and caringly, what they felt when he behaved in certain ways.

And to his credit, because (I like to think) he had learned that this was the right way to do it, he listened, he apologized for mistakes he’d made, and he vowed to do better. And then he did what he said he’d do. And his life changed dramatically.

Our First Principle sets the trajectory for our life together as a community and as a religious faith. It’s hard, though, to discern just how to respond to a person whose behavior has been hurtful, perhaps even cruel or criminal.

I’m occasionally asked “what about Hitler? Osama bin Ladin? Murderers, rapists, abusers? Do they have worth and dignity?” And my answer is yes---but no person, regardless of his or her worth and dignity, must be allowed to hurt others deliberately or to wreak havoc within a community. All the worth and dignity in the world cannot exempt a person from taking responsibility for hurtful actions.

And our own sense of our worth and dignity is essential to our ability to act appropriately in our relationships with each other, with the earth, and with ourselves. When we act out of an understanding that all creatures, human and others, have worth and dignity, our interactions with them take on new meaning and importance.

A couple of years ago, the board of our congregation undertook the writing of a valuable document, a covenant of right relations to help us deal with the inevitable misunderstandings and hurt feelings that can arise easily in any community.

A task force of members of the board, the committee on ministry, and myself collected and examined covenants written and adopted by many other UU congregations. Some were very general, some very specific, and, in the long run, we created a document that we brought to the congregation for discussion, an event that took place about a year ago. We read it together a few minutes ago.

We discussed it as a group, made adjustments here and there, and, in February of this year, it was adopted unanimously by the congregation. It is a set of promises we make to one another, promises based on the goals set forth in our Affirmation statement. Let’s say our Affirmation together: “Love is the spirit of this congregation and service is its practice. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek truth in love, and to help one another”.

By approving the promises which fulfill this great covenant, we agreed to be careful with our relationships with each other and to behave toward each other with peaceful responses, loving action, and service to one another and to the community.

I think the decision to write and vote democratically on this Covenant of Right Relations shows a clear commitment to our Seven Principles and recognizes them as religious actions.

When I was a teenager, trying to sort out the many do’s and don’t’s of Baptistness---no dancing or drinking or cardplaying or worldly movies---I happened upon a scripture text that made infinitely good sense to me. It probably happened when my Sunday School class was studying the Hebrew prophets and we read this text in the book of Micah, chapter 6, verses 6-8:

In this interchange, an unknown seeker asks a probably sarcastic question of the prophet: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

And the answer comes thusly: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

For me, this said it all. It dispensed with fretting over what movies might be worldly, whether dancing was allowed, whether drinking a glass of wine was evil, whether any of these sacrifices were going to appease and mollify a stern Father God.

Doing the right thing was more important than all the sacrifices in the world. And that became my inner plumbline, the conscience which directed my actions.

Our Seven Principles are guidelines for right living, for living in ways that affirm and promote justice, kindness, and humility in the light of all that is sacred.

Our First Principle states that every person, every person, has worth and dignity inborn and that respect for that worth and dignity must be part of our response to all persons, even when they behave badly. For to do otherwise is to damage our own sense of worth and dignity.

And our Covenant of Right Relations is where the rubber meets the road; it helps us sort out both our own behavior and how we respectfully address the behavior of others, always remembering that each of us is worthy of respectful treatment.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the universe are at their best when we are respectful and honor the worth and dignity of all. May we strive to be at our best as we live together in this Beloved Community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

NOTE: The Covenant of Right Relations mentioned above is printed in an earlier post. Scroll down, thou good and faithful reader.

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