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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


But that powerful naming impulse fought back in a different realm. Having entered this faith community to escape the countless details of how to be a “good” member of the middle class, I found myself more and more encircled by lifestyle prescriptions whose genesis seemed to be rejection of all the details that my parents once tried to impose. The religion got caught in an endless adolescence.  Clutching Edward Said’s caution that we not let anyone different be labeled as “the other,” we opened ourselves to everyone other than our own.

Suddenly we find that not everyone’s adolescence was the same as ours. Youth – even our own – have other journey wisdom and they find too few of their innovations are welcome here. Folks from other social realms, with different family journeys in relation to our parents’ middle class mores, chafe at the assumption that those questions have all been resolved in certain ways. Sure, some of the resolutions meet the scientific tests – but others are simply acting out, with footnotes to hurl at those who disagree.

And then it ended. In yellow stoles and tee-shirts, the name-imposing leadership led us into a final paroxysm of detailing inherited names. Thirty Days of Love, they called it. With skillful religious technique and disciplined calendars and readings, the leadership committed the only religious crime this religious tradition agrees on: they tried to lay out answers. Answers not to God, but to politics, but answers all the same.

People ran screaming from the building, leaving too few of us to pay for the buildings we own. And those of us who for forty or more years have worn the badges of leadership now face the sticky question: How do we get out of these weeds?

Happily for us, we have the vital skill of listening to diverse voices and distilling details into fundamentals. Not for us the detailed creeds of some faiths: we look for the simple, the flexible. In the 1980s we confirmed this in our original statement of principles. Some folks argued they were creeds, because we memorized and recited them, but in truth, they were simply values, which anyone could apply in their particular choice of details. These were the blossoms to which we failed to open our hearts, our ears, our minds: those who encountered us and wanted to tell us about themselves, rather than line up according to the labels we had laid out for them.

But that very impulse to plunge into thick woods despite agreement on the Principles and Sources reflects an omission in what we assembled back then. Once before we acknowledged that our first list left something out. We went back and, through conversation, advocacy and democracy, adopted our Seventh Principle.

Several decades of listening to people convinces me that our Principles left out something else we hold sacred. At the time, we needed to test it, reframe it, examine it, to see if it really was God’s work in the world, but now we know, we’re missing a Second Principle. We have no language for the dream, the hope, the work, the covenant, that most folks list separately right after they lift up their own desire to be affirmed.

I propose this now, as a distillation of the good intentions behind so many of our last two decades of dialogue, work, and reflection on a group of secular questions.  My goal is to elevate these concerns into language we can easily share with anyone who asks what we hold sacred, not only for ourselves but also for them, whoever or wherever they might be.

Here, then, is our way out of the woods, our missing Second Principle:

  • The right of every person to choose, design, support and protect the family to which love calls him or her;

Stepping away from legislative arguments on particulars of family life involves reframing two of our Sources:

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to (omit “challenge”) *measure worldly* powers and structures (omit “of evil”) *with the eternal values of* justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom*s* from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical, spiritual *and liturgical* *lives*;

Finally, if you carry around those little UU Principle wallet cards, I propose a widening of our commitment to diversity:

Gratitude for the (omit “religious”) pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith *and world *and *inspires us to deepen understanding in order to expand our vision*. As free congregations, we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

When we confronted the loss of membership in the 1970s, discernment called us to turn conversation into our personal and family issues. These conversations blessed the world with the ordination of women, a wide range of reproductive options, and finally, the right of same sex couples to love and marry each other equally. We need to confirm what has been won, even as we add in what has been lost in these same years: the very middle class economy against which we once rebelled.


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