Naming Our Core Values

Experiences of “the Holy”

The Board of Trustees needs your help.  Those good folks need for you to attend any one-hour session of workshops they are holding from now through November, and they need you to bring along your UUCA friends.

We need as many of our members and friends as possible to participate in a process to name the values of this faith community.  Sure, we are Unitarian Universalists and our CHURCH has agreed that as a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association the church affirms and promotes the principles and sources that we know so well.  But these principles are not exactly “values.” (You’ll learn more about that at the workshop.)

We want to distill the values we hold individually into a set of 4 or 5 that are common to most of the congregation.  Those values will then be used to re-write a mission statement that will be more of a call to action than our current one (but that’s for a later time).

For now, please pick one of the workshops and attend.  I’ve done it and it’s not only painless, but gosh darn, it was even interesting and fun.  And I know one more UUCAer better now than I did before I attended.

Choose ONE and attend! (NOTE: no registration needed except for childcare.)

Sunday, October 23, 11:15am-12:30pm: 23 Edwin Boardroom
Sunday, November 6, 9:15-10:15am: 23 Edwin Parlor. Childcare-RE for all ages
Thursday, November 10, 1:30-2:30pm: Sandburg Hall. Childcare-RSVP Kim by Oct 27
Sunday, November 13, 11:15am-12:30pm: Jefferson House (21 Edwin Place)
Sunday, November 13, 12:45-1:45pm: Sanctuary. Childcare-RSVP Kim by October 30
Tuesday, November 15, 6:30-7:30pm: RE Commons. Childcare-RSVP Kim by Nov 1

Sermon: Who’s White Trash (text only)




             J.D. Vance says he knew when he was growing up in the coal country of Kentucky and a city in southern Ohio that life was a struggle for the people he was raised among.  In his recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, he tells of how his grandparents, the island of stability in his upbringing, scrambled to get by, while he saw little of his drug-addicted mother, and other family members careened through episodes of violence, joblessness, and abusive relationships.

            These were people he loved – and still does – but he says they were also people uninclined to foster big dreams, knowing full well they were not likely to be realized.

Vance writes, though, from the perspective of one who escaped that orbit, who found his way into college, then Yale Law School, and now to a position at a Silicon Valley investment firm. But his tale is not a riff on self-congratulation or some up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger myth. It is really a kind of lament for the sad straits in which a huge stratum of American culture finds itself.

He identifies this group, what he describes as his people, as millions of poor and working-class, white Americans of Scots-Irish descent, people scraping by who dispute the notion that many of us are learning to wrap our heads around, that white skin is a ticket to privileges that people of color in this country have no hope of achieving, because they have yet to experience anything like privilege in their own lives.

“To these folks,” Vance writes, “poverty is the family tradition – their ancestors were laborers in the Southern slave economy, share croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers in more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash.”

They are people, he says, with “an intense sense of loyalty” and “a fierce dedication to family and country” but who also remain innately suspicious of outsiders and people different from themselves.

There are historic reasons we can cite for why all that J.D Vance describes should be so – and I want to explore some of them today – but in this chaotic election year when political candidates seem intent to double-down on all that divides us, I also want to take a moment to step away from the fray.

  I want to invite us as people who covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person to open ourselves to complicated truths and reexamine some of our own preconceptions so that by careful, compassionate reflection we might in time help blaze a path to fully realizing a beloved community.

All ideas, it seems, have their zeitgeist, and this appears to be a year for “white trash.” In addition to J.D. Vance’s best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, we have Nancy Isenberg’s comprehensive study, White Trash – The 400-Year-Old Untold History of Class in America. The title clues you in to the theme.

As you heard in the reading earlier, Isenberg argues that this habit of categorizing some human beings as “waste people” is a direct result of what she calls a “relentless class system” operating across this nation’s history. What confuses this understanding, though, is a national myth from our founding days that, unlike the Europe that our forebears left behind, ours is a classless society.

It’s a free country. Anyone can get ahead, right? All it takes is grit and gusto. And yet, we live in a society with clear evidence of vast economic inequalities. That means, Isenberg tells us, that “rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control.”

That’s complicated, but it’s important. So, let me tease out what I hear her saying. If we claim that there are no real class divisions in America, then when we see signs of them anyway – like poverty – we must look for other reasons to explain them. And across our history, those explanations pretty much come down to two factors: sloth and breeding. That is to say, the poor are simply lazy – “shiftless” was the term that was widely applied – or they are genetically deficient.

So, let’s join Isenberg on some of the history behind all this. In her book, she carries us back to the time when the first settlements in America were planned. Leading planters in colonies like Jamestown, she notes, “had no illusion that they were creating a classless society.” Rather, they recruited the poor as indentured servants to work the land, an arrangement that essentially reduced them to “debt slaves.”

Indentured servants were also recruited to serve the Puritan colonies in New England. In both places, there was little economic mobility, and so even for those who completed their indenture, the only way up, often, was out, fleeing their bondage to make their own way, roaming and eventually settling in the countryside.

In much the South, Isenberg says, we see that trend most dramatically. A ruling planter class captured much of the land and took hold of the economy. Where land wasn’t as productive, though, a different ethos evolved. Eastern North Carolina, with its sandy forests and swamps, was one of those. It became a harbor for some of the refugees, making it, in her words, “what we might call the first white trash colony.”

Indeed, one official of the crown who toured the region dismissed it as what he called “Lubberland,” a place of “lazy, bog-trotting vagrants” resistant to any form of government. Why they resisted is plain:  government as they saw it largely served the interests of the wealthy, not their own.

As the frontier opened up and settlers encountered these country people, lore grew around them as either folksy sorts who welcomed weary travelers into their humble cabins, or as drunkards, brawlers and highwaymen.

As the Civil War approached, poor whites entered the debates over slavery, with northern abolitionists arguing that they were the victims of a slave economy that closed off the chance for them to advance.

Southern apologists, though, insisted that slavery elevated the status of poor whites by putting them over blacks, even if those whites complained that they had been drafted into a rich man’s war that the poor were called to fight.

After the war, the anger of poor whites at policies that they felt helped blacks but left them languishing built a deep resentment that fueled the growth of the Klan and support for Jim Crow laws that marginalized and disenfranchised blacks.

Meanwhile, the economic shackles that left many poor whites scraping by as tenant farmers remained essentially unchanged well into the 20th Century.

 For some time, the rag on the poor had been that they were simply deficient human beings, but after World War with the rise of the eugenics movement it took on a new edge.

As the notion gained currency that what were considered “unfit human traits” could be reduced with controlled breeding, reformers turned their eyes to the South, where lack of education funding and medical care left many illiterate and in poor health. Poor white women became the major target of a campaign to isolate, quarantine and sterilize people declared to “feebleminded” and “unfit for breeding.” In North Carolina alone, for example, from 1929 to 1974 some 7,600 people – men and women, white and black – were medically sterilized.

It wasn’t until Roosevelt’s New Deal, Isenberg says, that class divisions were recognized not as preordained or somehow the fault of the poor, but the result of concrete, mutable conditions that government could alter.

She points to James Agee’s famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as making a similar case. The poor, Agee insisted, “are not dull or slow-witted; they have merely internalized a kind of ‘anesthesia’ that numbs them the shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities.”

This takes our little tour of history takes us roughly to the 1950s and 1960s and the economic boom that did in many ways raise all boats. And along the way as conditions improved the label of red neck, white trash shifted from badge of shame to a cultural trope, with everything from the rise of Elvis Presley to the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gomer Pyle.”

Around here, the trope for mountain people is different – the hillbilly with his coon dog, rifle and still. But the pressures are no less real. Ours is a region that has never known much wealth, where land-poor people hold tight to steep mountain acres that bring them no income, and employment is hard to find.

In an interview from 1988, Jim Wayne Miller, author of the poem you heard earlier, said he worries about the effect that this economic instability is having on people in this area.

“Poverty, or the perception of poverty, is often a matter of discrepancy. It’s not a matter, inherently of what you have or don’t have, but what you have compared to someone else. . . . If I had a nightmare, it would be that we will never be able to talk about the last taboo in this country, which isn’t sex or death, but class. Class is the one thing we will not admit.”

And yet its influence continues to intensify. As J.D. Vance notes, recent years have been less kind than previous decades, resulting in increasing numbers of people being pulled into economic instability. As income equality grows, many are losing ground, and once again pundits are putting the onus on struggling people to get themselves out of their messes without any hope of a hand up. Some make it anyway, like Vance cobbling together a series of fortunate circumstances; many others crash and burn into long-term unemployment, broken families, addictions and suicides.

At the same time, Vance says, he sees growing cynicism that nothing anyone can do will make a difference. The feeling is, he says, “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs.”

Vance identifies himself as a conservative, but says the political right has done his people no favors by “fomenting the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers.”

“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives,” he says, “yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

And it’s plain how that old bait and switch strategy is affecting our politics. Simmering feelings of disillusion, disappointment and shame are being fanned into blind and feral hatred and rage. All that energy not only does terrible damage to our public life, but it conveniently distracts people from that apparent unmentionable in our politics: class.

Yet, there it is. As Nancy Isenberg puts it, “Class defines how real people live. They don’t live the myth. They don’t live the dream. Politics is always about more than what is stated . . . . Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues.”

So, friends, let’s stop fooling ourselves and name what we see, not as political partisans but as people committed to healing the brokenness of humankind, as people who find beauty and wonder, hope and possibility in every living soul.

Let us abandon the scorched earth of fearful speech and fevered imaginings, the sad hubris of wounded ego, of desperate, predatory disrespect.

A generation ago the New Dealers opened the door with the then-radical notion that class divisions were not preordained or somehow the fault of the poor, but the result of concrete, mutable conditions that people working together could alter. It remains no less true today.

Growing up in his “hillbilly” surroundings, Vance says, there were any number of occasions when because of his own poor decisions he skirted disaster. But he says he was blessed to have family and friends who stuck by him and saw him through.

It’s another reminder that none of us is self-made. Each of us struggles and stumbles and sometimes needs to be called back to the original wholeness that is our birthright.

As in the story that Joy told us earlier, even in bleak and scary times, we are called to see the beauty, the vital energy and aliveness that is present in the world. Even when our lives seem “weathered and old-fashioned,” in Jim Wayne Miller’s words, we have the capacity to leave the heaviness that dogs us behind, let it perish, let it topple like a stone chimney and instead let us live into the lightness that dwells within us like a song.


Experience the Holy

exp-the-holyThere is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about . . .

  • Margaret Wheatley


During November the Board of Trustees will be holding a series of workshops asking –

What timeless, transcendent qualities of our religious community will we embody in all we do?

Our goal is to identify our congregation’s core values – what Mark often refers to as the burning ember at our center. Having that conversation is a process we are calling Experience of the Holy – holy as what we value most.

Values are the foundation of our covenant, of the promises we make to each other. Our shared values are what we endeavor to make real in our congregation and in the world.

We have a strong mission and Ends, a strong sense of what difference we’re in the world to make and for which people, but we’ve never had an explicit conversation together about the values that inform our sense of purpose, the values that provide the underpinning to everything we do in the congregation.

The Board felt it was time to explore and articulate the values that provide the touchstone for everything we do together as a congregation.

The workshop process will tap into people’s real, lived experiences and uncover the values embedded in those experiences and how they connect us as a community. From the information shared in the workshops, the board will discern and articulate no more than five words or very short phrases that capture what timeless, transcendent qualities embody all we do. And, of course, share the results with the congregation.

Attend any of the one-hour workshops and shape our future.

by Kay Aler-Maida, UUCA Board President

Sermon: The Hubris of Discovery (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward
There are scripts that run unquestioned through our cultural memory, and one of those is discovery: the idea that Europeans had dispensation to murder, oppress and uproot peoples in North America and elsewhere for their own benefit. What might be the consequences today of naming and relinquishing that mindset?



“next to of course god america i” By: e.e. cummings

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

“The Magic Lake” A Cherokee Story
There was a young Cherokee boy walking in the woods one day, and he saw droplets of blood upon the leaves. So, he began to follow the trail because he was concerned that somebody had been hurt. He followed the drops up the hillside and eventually came upon a small bear cub who had been wounded and was bleeding. The cub was climbing up the hill, so he followed it. As he watched, the cub would stumble and fall, but then get up again. He watched the bear make its way up the great mountain that the Cherokees call Shakonige, which is the Blue Mountain, also known as Clingman’s Dome.
Slowly the bear climbed ahead, and the boy followed him until they got to the top. It was hard to tell exactly where he was, though, because fog covered almost everything. Then, as the boy watched, he saw the bear cub jump into the fog. The boy couldn’t believe his eyes, and so he ran up to the spot, figuring the bear was gone. But then suddenly he saw the fog turn to water, and the cub began to swim.
When he came back to the shore, the bear got out of the water, and his injured leg was completely healed. The boy was very confused. But then he saw a duck swim into the water with a broken wing, and it made his wing well, Animals were coming from all directions, swimming in the water and being healed. The boy looked up to the Great Spirit and said, “I don’t understand.”
The Great Spirit said, “Go back and tell your sisters and brothers, the Cherokee, that if they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they too can come to the magic lake and be made well again.”

“By gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum. . .”
The language of ee cumming’s poem is a little dated – not surprising, as it was composed almost 100 years ago, in the 1920s. But we can still recognize the figure that he archly lampoons here: the blowhard politician whose speech is a kind of scrambled eggs of worn pieties and pseudo-patriotic gobbledygook. Indeed, in this tumultuous election year we don’t have to look far to find them. So, his poem is good for a chuckle and a weary shake of our heads.
But if we linger just a little longer we can see that cummings is also making a deeper and more penetrating point here. His object is to draw attention not just to the politicians spouting the pieties but to the pieties themselves: pieties, the poem suggests, that are in many ways no less foolish than the speaker himself.
We recognize these pieties, for they are not radically different today from what they were in cummings’ time. They celebrate a triumphalist view of American history that we all know from our high school textbooks. As he says: “land of pilgrims . . . in every language, even deaf and dumb” where the voice of liberty rings clear.
There it is in Katherine Lee Bates’s great civil hymn:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

I must confess that I was taught well. My patriotic heart still beats a little faster when I hear those words – such lovely images, such soul-stirring sentiment. There is, it is true, historic truth embedded in those verses, and yet . . . and yet so much else that remains unspoken or even acknowledged that is cause, not for celebration, but for mourning and atonement.

This month in our worship and small group ministry we turn to the discipline of healing. Healing is the process of recovery from a wound – physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual. It is not something we can impose or thrust on another; it is something we can only offer with humility and care. When we speak of healing, we begin with the presumption that the one in need of healing has the natural capacity to recover from injury, but is also likely to need time and some assistance to do so.

Today I invite us to consider what it would mean to be agents of healing of one of the oldest and deepest wounds of this nation, one that centuries after it was first inflicted continues to be aggravated even today, a wound summed up in the word, “discovery.”

We grew up being told of the “Age of Discovery,” a time roughly from the 15th to the 18th centuries when “courageous” Europeans set sail to establish routes to trade with other people in Africa, Asia and the Americas. But truth to tell, those sailors were interested in more than trading. Where they found valuable resources – precious metals, gems and so on – they also sought to seize foreign lands for their own.

In this enterprise, they received the blessing of the church. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V issued a proclamation, or papal bull, that authorized the king of Portugal, whose soldiers were colonizing West Africa, to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all . . . pagans and other enemies of Christ . . . (and) to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery. . . (and) to take away their possessions and property.”

After Columbus’s trip to Hispaniola in 1492, the Spanish court sought and received a similar papal bull that extended them the same privileges. Other European courts adopted this “Doctrine of Discovery” to support their own colonizing.

“Discovery”: What an exciting word! Isn’t that what goads so many of us in our work? To discover new things – “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” right? Who would ever have thought that it could become a shield for oppression, murder, enslavement, and even genocide? And yet it did.
Those plucky Pilgrims, among our religious forebears, paid little mind to the indigenous peoples who occupied the land they traveled to. To their eyes, they were looking upon pristine, virginal wilderness.

Remember from “America the Beautiful”?
O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness!

Nope. Sorry. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, that untamed wilderness was actually occupied by some 15 million people, the majority of whom were farmers who lived in towns. Also, by their actions it’s plain that it was not freedom that the settlers sought to spread across the country but dominion.

And Thomas Jefferson, he who proclaimed that it was self-evident that all are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was quick as secretary of state to claim the European Doctrine of Discovery as a way of denying Indian claims to their own lands and opening it up to settlers.

And later Chief Justice John Marshall declared in a Supreme Court decision that due to the European Doctrine of Discovery, Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations,” and would only be recognized as occupying their lands. Subsequent decisions designated Indian peoples as “domestic dependent nations” forever subject to the control of the federal government.

Those precedents not only remain in the law but in years since have been used repeatedly to appropriate Indian lands previously given by treaty and to remove Indians from their ancient homelands, as our neighbors, the Cherokee, experienced. They also were the basis of campaigns of violence against them, including moments that were nothing short of slaughter.

We can even see it in the current presidential campaign. When Donald Trump asserts that the US should have seized Iraqis oil wells when it drove out Saddam Hussein, he is making essentially an extended argument based on the Doctrine of Discovery. It’s the kind of “to the victor belong the spoils” philosophy often asserted by conquering nations but which in fact amounts to nothing short of a war crime.

In America, it is part of a legacy that has crippled and marginalized native peoples for generations. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book walks us through much of it. I recommend it to you if you’d like to pursue this further: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. It’s published by our own publishing house, Beacon Press.

And so we are left to wonder how to deal with all this now. As Dunbar-Ortiz points out, this notion that we as a nation or even we as individuals are privileged do to what we want, grab what we like and throw our weight around heedless of the consequences or of the impact on other people is collateral damage from the wound that the Doctrine of Discovery has inflicted.

Back in 1993 at the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas indigenous peoples argued that to recognize this history, the day now designated as Columbus Day, which comes tomorrow in our calendar, should instead be designated Indigenous Peoples Day.

Since then, there has been a growing movement seeking to bring attention to the experience of indigenous peoples. This year for the first time, the city of Phoenix will join Seattle and Minneapolis – all places with strong indigenous communities – in recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. So far, South Dakota is the only state to do so.

Back in 2014 Lakota activist Bill Means had this to say about why the celebration should be changed from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day: “We discovered Columbus, lost on our shores, sick, destitute, and wrapped in rags. We nourished him to health, and the rest is history. He represents the mascot of American colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. And so it is time that we change a myth of history.”

That’s not a bad idea: It’s time that we discard the myth of discovery, that we acknowledge the damage that our forebears inflicted on native peoples by the ravages of colonialism. And maybe it’s time that we open a conversation about who indigenous people really are – not exotic figures out of a mythic past, but people with a unique story and a unique place in this country.

In 2012 at our General Assembly the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a move that put us in the company with the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches. We also resolved to “expose the historical reality and impact” of the doctrine and eliminate it, wherever we might find it, even in our own policies and practices.

What that might look like is an interesting challenge for us each to consider. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz talks of how frustrated native peoples are that in recent years even as their history has been acknowledged, they find themselves lumped in as just one of many racial minorities who have suffered historic discrimination. All that, she says, ignores the many very real ways that they continue to be marginalized today.

She quotes Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien who talks of how Indians are written out of existence by what she calls “firsting and lasting.” Towns, she says, create monuments to what they call the “first settlement” or “first dwelling,” as if there had never been occupants in those places before Euro-Americans. Meanwhile, she says, a national narrative tells of “last Indians” or “last tribes”: the last of the Mohicans or the famous sculpture by James Earl Fraser of a mounted Indian slumped over his horse entitled “End of the Trail.”

Among the initiatives our own UUA resolution urges is that congregations make efforts to learn about native peoples in their local context, to develop relationships with them and awareness of their culture.

Several years ago as part of a class here on developing a “Sense of Place” I arranged a visit for our group to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where Education Director Barbara Duncan told us something of the struggles the Cherokee have faced and still face to claim their identity and sustain their culture.

The Qualla Boundary, the 56,000-acre reservation at Cherokee, North Carolina, provides a place where many in the Eastern Band of Cherokee make their home. But their heritage in this part of the world extends far beyond this narrow space. You can still see it in dozens of burial mounds scattered across this region as well as town sites, and sacred centers of years gone by. You get a sense of it from Cherokee tales that feature places that remain popular today, including what we know as Mount Mitchell, the Devil’s Courthouse, and, as you heard in our story, Clingman’s Dome.
Here, too, though, the Cherokee struggle with being perceived as a relic, rather than an active, evolving culture. To avoid that fate, they rely on the hope that some of the descendants of Europeans who colonized this land will relinquish the hubris of their heritage.

As Charlie indicated, hubris is the pride that blinds us, an overweening arrogance that insists on its way and will not be bothered with the facts or other people’s perspectives. What might it look like to discard outworn pieties and remove the blinders that the “discoverers” of this land left us and look with new eyes on this land and its people?

It could be a path toward healing, a path perhaps something like the one the Cherokee boy found when he followed the wounded cub up the mountainside, leading us to a place where, as the Great Spirit puts it, if we love all our brothers and sisters and if we love the animals of the earth we might just be made well again.

Naming Our Center

Naming Our Center

One of the things that we celebrate as a congregation and as a religious movement is that we affirm no creed or doctrine that we believe encompasses religious truth. The living tradition in which we stand honors many sources of religious understanding, but we privilege no particular text or teacher as the sole fount of wisdom. Each of us in our own reflections, in conversation with others and through work we are called to in the larger world, develops our own centered sense of where our faith, our sense of that in which we can trust, lies.

That can make it hard, though, when we are asked to name what is core to us. What guides us in deciding what our work as a congregation is? Why would we do one thing instead of another, and to what purpose? The short answer to this line of questioning is that we are centered in values that we affirm as a congregation that speak to our collective understanding of what is true and good, that give our lives meaning and fill us with hope.

I think that if we were to have a conversation, we’d find that we pretty much agree on those values, though we might also hear some different ideas that open up new possibilities. But here’s the interesting thing: to my knowledge we at UUCA have never actually had that conversation – until now!

I’ll get back to the – until now! – in a minute, but first you might ask: how could it be that we’ve never had that conversation? Well, it’s not as if we haven’t done meaningful and wonderful work as a congregation for ourselves and the world, but for some reason we’ve avoided focusing on the values underneath it.

This isn’t to say that we have no words to guide us. Many of us look to our seven Unitarian Universalist principles for that purpose. It’s worth remembering, though, that the principles were not intended as a statement of values. They are framed as terms of a covenant that member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association have with each other. In it, congregations agree to “affirm and promote” such things as “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and so on.

The principles are good, but we’re looking for something deeper: basic values that underlie the principles, that speak to our sense of what has greatest meaning in our lives. It’s hard to articulate because we’re really looking at feelings that emerge from our experiences. So, it takes some digging and head scratching, but in the end it can give us the kind of clarity we need to awaken to the work of living our values every day.

It may sound a little daunting, but it actually isn’t so much. In fact, it’s fun. I know because I took part in a meeting your Board of Trustees had with members of the congregation who will be facilitating this conversation with you in several venues in the next month or so. Keep an eye out for their announcements about your opportunity to take part.

Why has it taken us so long to get around to this? Part of it, I think, is that we’ve just kind of assumed we’re all on the same page. And part of it may be that we’re a little bit shy about bringing up this deep stuff with each other. A number of us were raised in or exposed to religious traditions where we felt shamed for bringing up our own ideas of what is good and true, what is sacred or holy, and worry that we might look foolish or that this kind of conversation might stir up dissension.

It is true, of course, that when we open a conversation like this, we can never be sure where it will go, but I believe that rather than stir division, this exercise will energize us and give us the clarity we need to live into the mission that calls us.

Written by Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, NC