Five Aspirations (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 18 September 2016 (Audio Available)

I don't know if you ever encountered the Rev. J. McRee Elrod. Everyone knew him as Mac. He was one of those legendary Unitarian ministers — I might even say a legendary character — here in Canada. Mac died this past June at the age of 84. 

Mac was born in Georgia, a briar patch kid, he would say. He thanked his mother for not letting his father, a member of the KKK, indoctrinate him as a white southern man. Mac came of age fighting for civil rights, marrying a black woman and being ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the 1960s he found his way to Unitarianism and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1970. Soon after, he began serving churches in Canada. 

Mac and his wife Norma were anti-war activists. They were pioneers in the environmental movement. In the 70s, Mac came out as a gay man and, with time, became an increasingly vocal activist for LGBT rights. He personally paid to finance the Canadian Unitarian Council to act as an intervenor in the 2004 Canadian Supreme Court hearings concerning same-sex marriage. Late in life, Mac was actively working with his son on drug policy reform. 

Mac was hardline. He could be strident in his communications. He was a great singer, too, and I remember once singing with him long into the night at a minister’s retreat. Mac always called us back to the real purpose of our place in this world. You could always count on Mac to get you thinking.

Back in February, when the Canadian Unitarian Council unveiled one of the final drafts of a newly proposed vision statement, Mac questioned the worth of such an exercise. He wondered why we needed a mission statement. 

(He used the word “mission” while the CUC calls it a vision statement. Can I just say here that some people use vision and mission interchangeably? In the corporate and non-profit world there are detailed explanations of what distinguishes a mission statement from a vision statement. But for now, let’s just say we’re talking about the words that name our sense of purpose that moves us into the future.)

Here’s the final version that was ultimately ratified:

As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice.

These 5 Aspirations guide us in living out our faith:

As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we are Deeply Connected, Radically Inclusive, Actively Engaged, Theologically Alive, and Spiritually Grounded.

Mac didn’t see why we needed some new words to describe what we aspire to be as a movement in Canada. All we really needed, he said, was to state that we are trying — to the best of our ability — to live the values that are expressed in our 7 Principles: That we uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person; that we believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations; that we accept each other and encourage each other to grow spiritually; that we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; that the democratic process is central to what we do; that we aspire to build world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; that we respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

Mac feared the CUC statement would replace our principles. He wanted to know where in the new statement was “the emphasis on reason, social justice, or the importance of ecology?” These may have been among Mac’s last questions to us, his last reaching out to ask us to reflect carefully on what we were doing.

In May, the CUC presented the final version of its vision statement at its annual business meeting held in Vancouver. I remember one of the staff members telling me before the vote, half jokingly and half seriously, that they feared the whole CUC staff would just pack up and go home if the statement wasn’t passed. She said, “We need something to guide us as we take action on behalf of the Canadian congregations. We need need something to work with when we're feeling lost at sea.” 

In the end, it was our own Katharine Childs who proposed a significant change to the statement, calling us to aspire to be “radically inclusive” instead of just “intentionally inclusive.” She passionately reminded us that we need to make it clear that our communities welcome and embrace people of diverse backgrounds, ages and identities, being especially sensitive to those who find themselves on the margins. An amendment was made, and the whole statement was passed with much enthusiasm.

I understand Mac’s concerns about the vision statement process. Trying to define your purpose in a few words can seem like an exercise in navel gazing. The thing is, in a religious tradition that has no top-down dogmatic theology, there is no sitting back and waiting for someone else to tell us our purpose. We are constantly refining our understanding of why we exist and what we are called to do in the world. 

Maybe our principles are enough to guide us. Certainly, the CUC is not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Those principles remain central to who we are. But when was the last time you were able to accurately name all seven principles? They say that strong communities are able to articulate their mission. When welcoming guests, we need to be able to say clearly and proudly, “This is who we are.” Nothing is more embarrassing than saying, “Well, we have seven guiding principles. I’m pretty sure I remember the first and the last. Inherent worth and dignity… Interdependent web…” These days, in contrast, there’s a trend toward trying to sum up who you are in three words: “Seek, Connect, Serve,” are the words the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto has set as the cornerstone of their mission.

A few years ago I spoke about the book, Start with Why, by Simon Sinek. It was a book given to me by a ministerial colleague who often finds inspiration in books written for business leaders. This was not one of my favourite reads. I found it a bit simplistic. But it made a useful point. The author argued that most corporations start by thinking about what they do and then figure out how to do it. Rarely, if ever, do they ask themselves why. “Let’s make these widgets. Here’s how we’ll do it. Oh yeah, now that we’re launched, maybe we should figure out why we’re making these widgets so we can sell more of them to our customers.” 

The author argued that only the most successful companies begin with answering the question why, before they move on to the what or the how. He said that Apple was a perfect example (this was in the days before Steve Jobs died). Apple knows that it doesn’t really exist to create computers or phones. It knows that its purpose is to challenge the status quo, to think differently. They just happen to make beautiful phones, computers, etc., that are a pleasure to use. (Or, at least they used to.)

If you take this into our congregation’s context, you might say that we know what we do: We gather in community to worship on Sundays and to share in fellowship at other times. We take action in the world doing social justice projects, sponsoring Syrian refugee families, for example. You might say that we know how we do what we do: We welcome and nurture, we inspire and challenge. But do we know the why? What is our purpose?

Back in 2008, we went through a yearlong process to define our mission. We talked about our dreams and our aspirations. We spoke about our identity and how we perceived ourselves as a community. We shared in visioning exercises and even did collages to express what couldn’t be said in words. In the end, a task force boiled everything down to this statement: We welcome and nurture, we inspire and challenge, we take action in the world. 

The board of management pondered the results. They liked it, but there was something missing.  Any organization might have the same aspirations. “We’re a spiritual community,” they said. “Where does it say that in this mission?” That’s when the simple preamble was added: “As a spiritual community we…” (As a spiritual community we welcome and nurture, we inspire and challenge, we take action in the world.)  That, to me, feels like a big piece of the “why” in the equation.

Why are we here? Are we here to exist as a spiritual community? Are we here to live out our seven principles? The new vision of the CUC says that we are here because we envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice. 

En tant qu’unitariens universalistes canadiens, 
nous aspirons à un monde dans lequel notre interdépendance nous inspire amour et justice.

In other words, our purpose is to bring more love and justice into the world, to recognize that no one of us is an island. We are interconnected and interdependent not just as humans to humans but as creatures within a vast, interdependent web of existence.

The statement says that we have five aspirations that guide us in living out our faith, (and I have Hélène Boucher to thank for providing translations in French). 

Nous avons cinq aspirations qui nous aident à vivre notre foi. 
Nous développons des relations profondes. 
Nous sommes radicalement inclusifs, activement engagés, théologiquement vivants, 
et spirituellement centrés tout en ayant les pieds sur terre.

These five aspirations are a way to flesh out our reason for being:

•    To be deeply connected is to foster healthy relationships across our communities, the broader world and with all life.
Nous travaillons à cultiver des relations saines entre nous et entre nos communautés UU, dans la société et avec toute forme de vie. 

•    To be radically inclusive is to strive to create welcoming and diverse communities. 
Nous travaillons à créer des communautés inclusives, diversifiées et multigénérationnelles.

•    To be actively engaged is to work toward justice and compassion.
Nous travaillons avec enthousiasme pour une société plus juste et plus compatissante et nous explorons de nouvelles façons d’être en communauté.

•    To be theologically alive means that revelation is never sealed. We are ever-evolving in our understanding, and we strive to encourage each other to seek new perspectives. 
Nous cherchons à évoluer continuellement dans notre façon de voir, toujours ouverts à de nouvelles connaissances et de nouvelles perspectives.

•    To be spiritually grounded is to constantly reach out in wonder while trying to keep our feet on the ground. 
Nous recherchons la transformation à travers les expériences spirituelles personnelles et les rituels partagés.

I’ve been trying this statement on to see how it fits, and I’m starting find that I like how it feels. As a religious leader, it gives me something to reach toward. 

This Thursday, I spent the day at the Third Global Conference on World’s Religions After 9/11. There was an engaging roster of speakers including Karen Armstrong, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Deepak Chopra, Susannah Heschel, Amir Hussain, Harvey Cox, and Charles Taylor. Each had a story to tell of the need for religion to be relevant, calling for greater openness and exchange between religious groups and less insistence that any one group has the final truth. 

There were many laments. We’re seeing more and more people in the West feeling rootless, disconnected and desperately seeking meaning, a perfect breeding ground for fundamentalist recruitment of all kinds. Harvey Cox argued that the global marketplace has taken the place of religion. It has a mythic story, symbols, priests and prophets/profits (spelled both ways). “The market has become God,” he said. Susannah Heschel, academic and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, cried out for more passion in liberal religion. 

I walked away pondering how much we need to get clear about why we are here as a congregation. As the world swiftly changes around us, our message is going to have to get louder, clearer and a lot more passionate.

Three years ago, I asked the leadership of this congregation why they were here. Their answers were beautiful and deserve repeating:

I need this faith community.
It is an oasis that gives me space to reflect in my life.
I can be here by choice.
I feel I belong and I am welcomed.
We can make mistakes and start over.
This is a community that aspires to be intentionally inclusive.
It’s a community that voted so many years ago to be welcoming to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
This is one place that makes room for so many different people with so many different experiences.
The seven Unitarian Universalist principles resonate for me.
I believe in building bridges across differences.
First impressions told me this was a place that cares.
Being here is a habit of the soul. 
All my gifts are used here. 
I love the magic of music. 
We accept a diversity of beliefs. 
I can live my spiritual life out loud.
I am being called to something larger than just myself.

We are constantly constructing and refining the expression of our “why.” We do it on a personal level. We do it on a local level. We do it on a national level and even on a global level. Our principles, the CUC vision statement, the mission of this congregation, and each of our own personal reflections are connected by fine, nearly invisible but strong threads that hold us together. This is our living tradition. This is why we call it a living tradition:  A living tradition means we are actively transforming it at the same time that it is actively transforming us. That, to me, is beautiful.

Each community and each generation needs to articulate its purpose in a new way, even if we’re reinventing the wheel sometimes. Three, five or seven aspirations, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we come to feel those words in our own mouths so that they can travel to our heads, into our hearts and become expressed through the real actions of our hands. My hope is that how we come to live our aspirations will be exactly what would have made Mac proud of the movement that called him into action so long ago. 

Mac, thanks for everything. I’m going to miss your critical voice! 

Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste.

Download Five Aspirations