How to Get Out of the Woods

I came into this association in 1969 full of social justice passion. Opposition to the war in Vietnam, admiration for the established commitment to racial justice through leadership participation in the Civil Rights movement. Instantly I had a community of like-minded individuals. If those who disagreed with us departed, well, so much the better for our effectiveness. Either they’d see the light and come back, or they’d wallow in some wilderness of their own making.

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In those first years everything we seemed to do was about social justice. Hunger feasts for La Raza, pastoral and liturgical support for the first feminists and gay rights activists. And always, opposition to violence. My LRY met in a room displaying the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and we were quick to respond to accusations of excessive force by the police, let alone the military. Don’t even mention ROTC chapters: these we considered little better than indoctrinators of evil.

That’s what happens when you enter a passionate relationship: you can’t wait to get into the weeds. Upstream you plunge, hacking at low-hanging branches, wallowing in sudden clearings, wiggling your toes in clear water when mud starts to ooze into your shoes. New plants and animals fascinate you. Your hiking buddies support you. As teamwork builds, you sense a collective power to lay a path.

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But weeds have a price. You get too far away from other folks finding the same joy on other paths. Your jubilant blossoms are weeds to them. The branches you hack away were brush from which they build enduring structures. If by chance your paths cross, these discrepancies make it impossible to converse, to rejoice together. Far from settling in on common ground, you turn away, back to the path whose flora and fauna, practices and pitfalls you know best.

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But if you stay on this hike long enough, and your paths cross with different journeyers often enough, the team which once felt so strong will start to weaken. One by one—or even in small groups – folks will find other descriptions of this environment intriguing. Maybe even more persuasive.

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You worry for them, but instinct means you’ll fight even harder for yourself. This is the path you have followed, these are the details you know. Here in the thickest woods, you cling to what you know, treasure the details by which you hope to free yourself. Louder and more stridently other hikers strive to shake your confidence. They call for a general redefinition. They hold out the hopefulness of recreating, reframing.

If dialogue fails, they feel no other choice but to remove. If they can’t remove you and your details, they’ll remove themselves from you.

The first great removal of UUs came as early as 1970, removing UUs who supported the war in Vietnam, or at least the government’s right to make such decisions. Many, I’m sure, left because that era refused to affirm the rights and dignity of those who wound up fighting, either through the draft or – shudder—voluntarily.

Other social forces thinned our ranks as well, in particular the lessening of social pressures to espouse formal religious membership as part of the corporate career path. Theological issues complicated life among those who chose to stay. Which plants were the good ones to eat? God or not God? Weekly worship or outside spiritual self-expression? But these are old questions, and they didn’t hurt us more than they hurt other religions.

In the deepest woods, we started to listen to those who wanted to redefine. We lightened up on theological language issues, even agreed on a symbol for our faith community. Our best thinkers and listeners, ordained or non-ordained, helped us set up processes for clarifying what we truly believed, hacking off the weed-making process of distilled collective liturgy. For if ethics can be summarized simply, God, or whatever you experience as the ultimate, can never be nailed down. (Yes, that’s a deliberate pun: I’m a Christian UU preparing for Holy Week.)

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