Unitarian Universalist … Brand Identity?

In February, the Unitarian Universalist Association Headquarters, in its final days on 25 Beacon Street in Boston, announced a new logo for our Association. It replaced the star burst chalice, that has been used for the last nine years as the UUA’s logo. It replaced the first logo we used for 20 years starting in 1985. Many of us will continue to identify that one as our Unitarian Universalist symbol that will be different from whatever the UUA cooks up as its logo today and in the future.

In announcing the new logo and the new look for the UUA web site, the press release talked about “brand identity.” Those are fighting words. Here is what was written:

We asked UUs from across the country, of all ages with various levels of involvement in our faith, to answer three questions: Who are we? What do we do? And why it matters? From these conversations, and more, we began to form our brand identity for the future of our religious movement.

Using marketing style focus groups to develop our “brand identity” and introducing us to a very different looking logo sent shock waves through the small pool of UU’s who pay attention to what the UUA does. The commenters on Facebook and the UU blogging community went wild with offense and criticism. “What have they done to our chalice?” “And what is that odd shape that holds the flame?” “And just who do they think they are defining our identity for us?” Messing with our identity and putting it next to the word “brand” was enough to get UU ministers hot and bothered too.

This humble minister was not one of the nattering nabobs of negativism. Now I do of course have reactions and opinions. I just sympathize with what the UUA is trying to do. As the chair of the UUA’s good governance committee, I’m a close observer of both the UUA Board and Staff. I know many of the leaders personally, and appreciate their struggles and intentions. And my Insight meditation practice has cultivated in me a little institutional compassion.

This brand identity language I think comes from our UUA President, Peter Morales, who worked as a newspaper editor and publisher. He is very aware of the advertizing and marketing world. I sympathize with his position. The UUA Board has charged him with growing the membership of our congregations, something he doesn’t have a lot of control over. He must regularly report to the Board about how he is succeeding or failing at achieving this “end” (or goal – see 1.0.1.2-g). Being someone who has worked extensively in the business world, Morales knows if more visitors show up (and be welcomed and included effectively) in our congregations, they are more likely to grow. One way to increase that traffic is to market Unitarian Universalism more effectively. In business, this is referred to as developing recognition, identification and loyalty to your brand. It is the one thing the UUA can do nationally that we can’t do locally.

The problem is, they talked to something like 50 Unitarian Universalists in focus groups around the country to decide how to put this campaign together. For the UUA to sit in Boston consulting with their “top-notch branding agency” to assess what identity they want to project as Unitarian Universalism is a little presumptuous. I understand why they think they can do it. From where they sit, they have the bird’s eye view of what is happening in our congregations all across the country. They see trends in our movement that we in our congregations don’t see. Our congregation here in Albany, New York, looks and feels very different than the congregation in San Diego, California or Columbus, Ohio. I get that sense by reading their mission statements and knowing their ministers. Leaders in each congregation may think they know who and what Unitarian Universalism is and is not … without seeing the larger view. This is especially true of our ministers who talk about our identity in the pulpit every week.

Here is the disconnect. Individual congregations reserve the right to define ourselves rather than have any other congregation or our association of congregations tell us who we are, what we do, and why it matters. That fierce congregational individualism is what the term “Congregational Polity” is all about.

This identity tension between individual congregations and the larger association has been going on from the very beginning. Yet reviewing our history reveals consistent patterns. Historian Earl Morse Wilber’s analysis of Unitarianism came up with this conclusion. What defines us is a commitment to freedom, reason and tolerance. These three words are a very useful way to capture important qualities about our identity but they are far from complete.

We have an independent, elected committee within the UUA called the Commission on Appraisal charged with taking a bird’s eye view of our association, analyzing it and making reports to us. They decided to study our theological diversity to see where we had agreement and where we had disagreement, looking for the common core that binds us together. Not surprisingly, they found both agreement and disagreement in their 2005 report to our annual meeting of our Association called General Assemby at the end of June. Their conclusions were very interesting.

We do have quite a lot of agreement with each other that identifies a common core.

We agree:

  • All human beings have worth and dignity that deserve respect;
  • Our welcome should be widely inclusive not restrictive;
  • Though we are optimistic about our capacity for goodness, we are also capable of evil;
  • Wisdom and inspiration come from many sources;
  • Our perception of truth is incomplete and evolving;
  • Reason is a necessary part of religious inquiry;
  • Awe, wonder and love are also necessary and
    healthy parts of our religious journey;
  • Each individual ultimately gets to decide
    what to believe and not believe;
  • Each individual member gets one vote in
    democratically controlling congregational business.
  • The natural world is a continuously evolving web of interdependence of which we must be a respectful part.
  • Humanity is responsible for creating a just, sustainable and peaceful world;

Now think how other religions would affirm or reject these statements and you begin to see our unique identity emerging. We have lots of disagreements to be sure. We don’t agree about the nature and existence of God; the value of spirituality, spiritual practice and prayer. We disagree about the degree individual conscience should be informed, inspired or critiqued by tradition and community. Still, our vitally important agreements are enough to bind us together as a unique religious tradition.

At General Assembly, representatives of our congregations can democratically endorse these agreements to define how our congregations will work together. They cannot tell individual congregations who we are, what we do and why it matters. Only our individual congregations have the privilege of putting our member’s agreement into words that identify, define and bind each congregation. We’re bottom up, not top down.

The problem is, many congregations aren’t diligent or skilled at putting our agreement into clear, concise and beautiful language. Our congregation’s Board has decided we might have this problem. Times change and members change. Our mission was written over 20 years ago. Recognizing we might have a problem when I arrived here in 1999, I recast our mission statement as the chalice lighting we use every Sunday. I took more than a little interpretive license with the meanings that may or may not be part of THIS congregation’s member’s locus of agreement. After looking at other congregation’s beautiful mission statements, maybe you will agree that we could simplify and clarify it too.

Knowing we’d be considering such work, I asked Douglas Taylor, minster of the UU congregation in Binghamton, New York, to lead a workshop here a month ago on our shared theology. He gave an inspiring sermon on this theme the next day. In it, he used some high powered theological jargon to describe what a religion needs to do for its members. The three words he used were intimacy, ultimacy and efficacy. Let me translate for you.

We all face the existential condition of being alone, helpless and insecure. We experience ourselves as separate, limited in our ability to control our bodies and environment. We are all vulnerable to injury, sickness, old age and death. These are inseparable from being alive. Religions provide answers, responses and ways to cope with this existential condition. They provide a way for people to feel part of a greater whole, be it relationship, family, community or congregation. They provide a way for people to feel valued as part of that whole and useful to that whole. They support each person declaring:

I belong.
I matter.
I make a difference.

That is what the identity and the purpose of our congregation, communicated through our mission statement needs to do. The clearer, more concise and more beautiful the language of that mission statement, the more attractive, powerful and effective our congregation can become.

An example of that kind of clarity of mission happened for the UUA in Phoenix, Arizona in June of 2012. Arizona had passed SB 1070 which enabled discriminatory practices by police officers against people who appeared to be Hispanic or Mexican. The first impulse of our General Assembly representatives was to express our disapproval and move our yearly meeting to another location. But those affected by the law encouraged us to come and take a public stand against it. So we did that by organizing a symbolic action deeply rooted in our mission, a protest at night outside the Mariposa detention facility where undocumented immigrants were being held unfairly. Thousands of UU’s got on buses from the Convention Center to that demonstration in 90 plus degree heat. We listened to speeches, sang songs and chanted loud enough to be heard inside the facility. Thousands held up battery-powered candles in the darkness. Those torches, those beacons, moved many of us who were there as an expression, a visual symbol of our commitment to justice.

Here are the words Chris Walton, the editor of the UU World, used reflecting on that memory and the new chalice:

The flaming chalice is an interior lamp, a flame to light indoors in the particular context of worship. As an emblem, … it’s a symbol of our religion as practiced in sanctuaries and homes. But it has a cousin in our symbolic tradition that is a flame lit in the public square: the beacon lit in times of public crisis, the candles held up in vigils, the lantern in the steeple.

We too have a relationship with the word beacon. Architect Scott Knox worked with us to come up with a phrase to guide the design of Emerson Community Hall that also expressed our identity as a congregation. What we came up with was, “beacon of light.” Look around this space now, to see how we’ve made those words beautiful in glass, wood and stone. Our success, helped put the words “be a beacon of liberal religion” into our strategic plan in 2009.

Now look back at that new logo and see how it strives to hold together the image of beacon and chalice, both cherished parts of our heritage and vision of our mission in the world. I think it does it beautifully.

The effort the UUA put into crafting that new logo and the result suggests the kind of inspiration and beauty that a well crafted mission statement can offer. It can organize and prioritize what we do. It can attract people to us and express our identity and purpose. It can guide us advocating for and building a just, equitable, and sustainable community here and around the world. I hope you see the beautiful results of that effort expressed in some of the mission statements I’ve listed for you below.

Now its our turn.

I can’t craft the language by myself. None of our members individually can do it either. Only this congregation working together can find those beautiful words that communicate who we are, what we do and why it matters.

We need your help!

Select, copy and paste to an email the text below to the end. Mark the mission statements with Bold, Italic, or Underline as indicated. Then answer the five questions after the last mission statement. and send it all to fuusa-mission@albanyuu.org.

If that doesn’t work for you, print out the next section, fill it in then mail to Mission Task Force, c/o FUUSA 405 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12206.

Unitarian Universalist Mission Statements

 Mark in bold/circle the words/phrases that express core values of our congregation. (Optionally, underline/cross-out the word/phrases that don’t)

Welcoming all, we worship together with loving hearts and open minds, promoting peace, equality, and respect for the Earth. Questioning, reflecting, learning, leading . . . we change ourselves as we change the world. – Monterey, CA

Joining hands and voices for justice and peace, we inspire lives of joy and spiritual integrity, growing an inclusive community of courage and caring. – Denver, CO

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder will become a beacon of liberal religion, committed to: (1) Nurturing the spiritual growth of our diverse and multigenerational religious community (2) Fostering ministry and hospitality between and among our members, friends and visitors (3)Actively promoting Unitarian Universalist values here and in the wider world (4) Sustaining these efforts through our culture of social justice and generosity – Boulder, CO

As a Unitarian Universalist faith community, we nurture individual search for meaning and work in community for freedom, justice and love. – Asheville, NC

Listen! Open! Serve! Creating connection by listening to our deepest selves, opening to life’s gifts and serving needs greater than our own -every day! – Rochester (Unitarian), NY

We are here: (1) To learn and practice true hospitality (2) To revere the reasoning mind and the generous heart (3) To claim our diversity as a source of our strength, and (4) To relinquish the safety of our unexamined privilege for the freedom to engage in transforming justice. – Columbus, OH

We are a caring, religious community inspired by our Unitarian Universalist heritage. – Bellevue, WA

UUC is a community that covenants to awaken spirit, nurture hope, and inspire action. – Seattle, WA

Welcoming, Growing, Leading Welcoming everyone; Growing in mind and spirit; Leading in social justice. – Appleton, WI

The mission of this church is to carry forward the cherished legacy of the free faith tradition, to own the brilliant, boundless mind of Unitarianism and the fearless, grateful, loving heart of Universalism – to recognize that these legacies of the radical Reformation continue to evolve in history, and we will have a hand in their evolution before we hand them on to young people who will come later, to shape of this inheritance a religion of hope, reverence and love. – Mahtomedi, MN

Guided by Unitarian Universalist principles and powered by the energy and resources of its members, Jefferson Unitarian Church acts to nurture our spiritual community, grow Unitarian Universalism, and transform the world outside our church walls. – Golden, CO

Fostering community through love, spiritual growth, and social justice. – Oak Park, IL

Our mission is to create community, to nurture spiritual growth, and to act on our values to help heal the world.

Nuestra misión es crear una comunidad, fomentar el crecimiento espiritual y actuar en nuestros valores para ayudar a sanar el mundo. -San Diego, CA

We gather in community to nourish souls; transform lives; and do justice. – Austin, TX

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What are strengths of FUUSA and most valued by our members?

  2. Look at our mission statement below. What parts are critical to preserve (bold/circle)? What could be reworded (italics)? Removed (underline)?

    We welcome all men, women and children who seek a religion based on the inherent sanctity of every person’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In keeping with our distinctive, non-creedal religion, we strive to excite the human spirit and inspire its development; to respond to moral and ethical issues in our local, national and world communities; and to sustain a vital and nurturing congregational life.

  3. What is missing from our mission statement?

  4. What differences should FUUSA try to make in Albany, the Capital Region and the world.

  5. What slogan would most FUUSAns be proud to wear on a T-shirt?

    Please put any additional comments and responses below (or on the back)

Liberating Habits

Woman doing a yoga pose with the sun setting over the ocean behind her.Here is the service on habits I did this Sunday to kick off a series of three sermons on Purpose.

Call to Celebration

The Buddha encouraged his followers to make four great efforts:

 

 

  • to prevent from arising negative states that have not arisen
  • to let go of negative states once they have arisen
  • to give rise to positive states that have not yet arisen
  • to sustain positive states once they have arisen.

 

These efforts encourage the cultivation of positive patterns as a means to help overcome negative patterns. But although they are simple, they are by no means easy…

Beneath the surface of our consciousness lie numerous mental and emotional patterns that, when certain conditions arise, prompt us to behave in a destructive, self-defeating manner. These patterns are easily triggered and once triggered take us to those same familiar but painful places. Yet, if we spend time cultivating constructive and positive responses in their place, we will discover that they have the capacity not only to weaken the power of our negative patterns but even to disable the trigger mechanisms that spark them. Much of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice consists of a systematic cultivation of positive patterns that enable us to engage creatively with those negative patterns that cause us pain.

Batchelor, Martine (2007-06-27), Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits (p. 18-19). Wisdom Publications. (Kindle Edition)

Readings

Hundreds of habits influence our days— they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves.

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. (p. 270).

Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business . Random House Publishing Group. (Kindle Edition)

 It takes around 21 days to form a habit. That means repeatedly practicing said habit and stopping yourself when you aren’t employing it where it should be used. Adjusting your behavior in that way for 21 days forms a habit that you will from there onwards no longer need to work on so vigorously. After that 21 days it will have become a part of your normal thinking and behavior and thus will reinforce itself automatically…

All great habits of people with great character are learned. Some consciously, others by a process of acquisition over time and as a result of other habits. The beauty of bad habits, if there is such a thing, is that they are often easily acquired. This is because you often do not realize you are forming them, you are doing the behaviors for whatever reason you choose to and the habits form. The beauty of that is that it can be applied to good habits. This means no obsession over results or progress is necessary, actually it’s a hindrance. All you need to do is apply the behavior when it’s necessary, and trust your mind to do it’s job.

http://resonateswith.me/all-habits-whether-limiting-or-liberating-are-learned-heres-how-to-improve-your-life-with-great-habits/

 Sermon

Good habits guide us away from trouble. Bad habits get us into trouble. No surprise here.

The surprise is how hard it can be to undo bad habits and create good ones … unless we understand how the habit formation process works in our brains. Changing bad habits and creating good ones is much easier than you might think once you know how.

Rats and people form habits in similar ways. Researchers at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done some ground breaking work measuring the brain activity of rats running mazes. They put a rat in a T shaped maze, at the base of the T, and let it explore. On the hidden left side of the T, there was a piece of chocolate. The rat could smell the chocolate but couldn’t see it. The rat got very excited moving round sniffing and seeking the chocolate. Researchers measured a lot of activity in the rat’s brain as it searched. Finally it found the chocolate through a random search. Very quickly the rat learned to run to the end of the T and turn left to get its reward. What was interesting to the researchers was the steep decrease in brain activity. The rat stopped thinking and just reflexively ran through the maze. How different are we when passing a cookie on a plate, or drive past a Starbucks or McDonald’s and automatically pick up the cookie or turn into the pickup lane for something to eat or drink?

Brains are energy hogs, more than any other organ, using up to 20% of the available fuel. Habits reduce our brain’s energy consumption … and can save our skin. I wouldn’t want to be thinking too hard about what to do when a tiger appears out of the jungle and starts sniffing my scent. I’d want my plan already programmed in my head. Soldiers drill their routines over and over to make them automatic. Hear a loud sound or see a flash, don’t think about it, drop to the ground immediately.

Imagine if we had to figure out each morning how to stand up, put our clothes on, brush our teeth, make breakfast, and all our other routine tasks as if we’d never done them before. We’d be exhausted before starting our day. Habits have been critical to our survival as a species … but also a source of a lot of problems.

Dr. Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, does research with monkeys. He wanted to understand what happens inside their brains during the habit formation process. His subject for this experiment was an eight pound macaque named Julio.

He inserted a very thin electrode in his brain that allowed him to observe neuronal activity as it occurred. Then he put Julio down in front of a computer monitor. When yellow spirals, red squiggles and blue lines appeared on the screen AND Julio touched a lever at the same time a drop of blackberry juice came down a tube near his lips.

Julio really, really, liked blackberry juice.

At first he didn’t recognize the connection and was restless. It didn’t take him long to make the association between seeing the shapes, touching the lever and the reward. Once he figured it out, he stared intently at the screen without moving. As soon as he saw one of the colored shapes appear, he pushed the lever, got his reward and smacked his lips contentedly. Dr. Schultz measured a spike on his instruments of neuronal activity he associated with Julio’s pleasure sipping the blackberry juice. Julio had formed a strong habit pattern.

Dr. Schultz didn’t let poor Julio just play with the lever and get his reward. He sometimes didn’t give him any blackberry juice when he pushed the lever. This made Julio agitated and angry. What Dr. Schultz measured on his instruments was even more interesting. The more Julio repeated the habit, the spike of neuronal activity moved forward from receiving the juice to seeing the shape on the screen even before pulling the lever.

When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression. (Duhigg p. 47)

Combine craving with habit’s non-thinking, automatic quality and we start to get a sense of how powerful habits can become. Habits don’t sit in our minds like a computer program that can be easily erased by flipping a switch. Habits are laid down as synaptic connections. Once they are made, they are there for the rest of our lives. Rats, taught to run a maze will remember how to run it for the rest of its life.

That’s the bad news about habits. They are permanently wired into our brains and cannot be removed. They can however be changed.

To understand how, we need to better understand cues, behaviors and rewards, the three elements of a habit.

Habits begin with cues, something that triggers them. Cues predominately come from one of five sources:

a location
a time of day
the arising of an emotion or urge
an interaction with another person or
An action or sensation that precedes the habit starting.

These can be identified by asking five questions about a habit activation.

Let’s say you have an urge to buy a soda, a common habit. Ask:

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
What time is it? (3: 36 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (bored)
Who else is around? (no one)
What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

If you were to do this over several days, you’d find variation in all but the primary driving cue for the habit that would be unique for each person.

The cue initiates a sequence of behaviors that stimulate a reward, some positive affect that motivates the behavior. Like the cue, the reward may not be obvious. The reward that is sought may not be sweetness of a Coke. It might be the caffeine lift. It could be the stimulation of the bubbles. It could be the exercise of walking. It could be passing an attractive person’s desk and stopping to chat.

To modify a habit, it is critical to understand both the cue and the reward.

Now, for the hard truth about habits. Because of the physical mapping in the brain of cues to rewards, they can’t be removed. We can’t forget them. The cues and the rewards remain intertwined for the rest of our lives. This is sobering to reflect on as we consider initiating or repeating unhealthy behavior patterns. On the other hand, initiating and reinforcing healthy behavior patterns can program them into our brains. (This is a great gift to our children, establishing life affirming habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.)

What we can do is substitute a new pathway between the cue and reward that is far less destructive and far more healthy.

That’s what Mandy did to solve her nail biting problem. And a big problem it was. She nibbled on her finger tips so much, she had scabs all over them. Those scabs caused her to walk around with her hands in her pockets so no one would see them. Embarrassment about the appearance of her fingers with missing nails interfered with her dating and spending time with her friends,. Yet she just could not stop the nasty habit she had repeated daily since childhood. Finally she broke down and sought a therapist skilled in habit reversal training for help.

First the therapist helped her identify the cue that triggered the habit. She would run her thumb along the surface of her nails. If it caught or she felt some tension, into the mouth they went. Mandy was surprised by the cue question because she hadn’t even considered that there was a cue for the habit. She was only aware of the habit when it was already well underway.

Mandy was also unaware of the reward she was getting from causing herself all this discomfort. After considering several different alternatives, she finally landed on the sense of completion she experienced after biting all her fingernails.

The next step was to make her aware of when she felt the cue. The therapist gave her an index card and asked her to put a check on it when she felt the urge. She came back the next week having checked the card 28 times. But something had changed already. She had only chewed her nails three times that week. Her awareness of the cue had given her a new option. But that wasn’t quite enough.

Now the therapist introduced a new behavior for her to do when she felt the cue.

Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation— such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk— anything that would produce a physical response. (Duhigg p76)

After a few weeks, the nail biting habit, one that had tormented her for years, was gone.

Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training says:

It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” (Duhigg pp. 76)

This is good news that can give us hope. Hope that we can change our habits if we understand our cues and rewards then rewire them with new behaviors.

But it doesn’t always work since the old habit is still there along with the new one. Sometimes those habits revisit us when we are under stress.

The most heartbreaking for me are cases of addiction relapse. An alcoholic has been in recovery for years, hasn’t touched a drop, then has an emotional crisis. A beloved relative or pet dies, a relationship breaks up, a job is lost and all of a sudden the old urge takes over. The patterns of behavior are right there in the brain waiting to be reactivated by an unanticipated cue. It’s why in Alcoholics Anonymous, the expression, once a drunk, always a drunk lines up with what we know about habit formation. The patterns don’t go away even if new patterns are added. The risk of relapse cannot be eliminated.

But some people under stress do not relapse. One critically important factor in preventing relapse is belief.

Is it belief in God? Not necessarily. There are plenty of devout believers in church who are active alcoholics and drug users. Not a few priests who serve communion become dependent on the sacramental wine outside celebrating the Eucharist.

The concept that AA uses of the Higher Power points to something outside the self. My favorite higher power that worked for one fellow was a bed pan. He chose his bed pan as his higher power, worked with it, and it worked for him.

The key insight of belief in a higher power is the process of believing itself. Firm belief that somewhere, somehow, there is some resource that is dependable and not self-created or controlled that can be called upon in a crisis to help, does make a difference.

Is it God in disguise? Is it the Spirit of Life? Is it the Power of Creative Imagination? What the alcoholic discovers, and usually discovers in a crisis situation, is that the process of having a belief is enough to not drink for one more day. And that is sufficient.

J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who has studied AA for over a decade said:

I wouldn’t have said this a year ago— that’s how fast our understanding is changing—but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. “Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.” (Duhigg p.85)

So if we want to be free of bad habits and develop good habits we need both determination and we need faith. One or the other is not quite enough. Enduring change requires effort and the confidence there are resources that we can rely on to see us through.

May we seek those resources as we strive to bring peace to our troublesome habits and to our troubled world.

Benediction

William James, whose story of overcoming youthful ennui could be an inspiration to young people who have yet to set upon a meaningful purpose to guide their lives, sent a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who had expounded at length on free will. James wrote to him:

 “I must not lose this opportunity of telling you of the admiration and gratitude which have been excited in me by the reading of your [work]. Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom.… I can say that through that philosophy I am beginning to experience a rebirth of the moral life; and I can assure you, sir, that this is no small thing.”(Duhigg pp. 272-273)

 Let us use our self-determination to shape our habits in ways that lead to freedom for ourselves and others. Let us not squander our most precious asset, our will.

 

Living With Purpose

A house called The Person surrounding a smaller house called various life rules surrounding a heart in the center titled Life PurposeI grew up surrounded by people driven by inner purpose. Barbara wanted to be an excellent flute player so she practiced, tried out for the orchestra at Newark High and got picked as first chair. My friend Nick with a beautiful baritone voice auditioned to be one of our high school madrigals. Matt had a dramatic flair that he took to the stage for lead roles in our high school plays. Steve loved to play football became a first string offensive lineman. All of these friends found an inner drive that they translated into a purpose.

How well I remember taking a class on numerical methods as a freshman at the University of Delaware. As part of that class, I wrote my first BASIC program on a 300 BAUD DECwriter terminal connected to a Digital PDP-8E computer. That experience of typing a line of text, hitting return and having the computer respond deeply excited me. It felt like there was something alive on the other end talking to me! Young people today take the enormous power of an iPhone or an iPad for granted. For me back then, my passion for these amazing machines formed a strong purpose in me to understand how they worked and explore what they could be programmed to do. This purpose drove the next ten years of my life.

But before that purpose had run its course, a new and unexpected purpose started shaping me as I finished my electrical engineering and computer science degree at UC Berkeley. This new life purpose drove me to open my heart and develop my capacity for insight and wisdom. Instead of being concerned primarily with my interests and needs, now I was driven toward developing virtue and serving ethical principles. My religious life began to dominate my personal life.

Religion has long served as a dominant purpose to organize individual and communal life. In traditional societies, one’s religious life completely structures one’s personal life. Observant Jews are constantly reminded of their relationship with God by offering prayers throughout the day, following rules of behavior and consumption. Muslims surrender to God, don’t eat pork and pray five times a day. Christians strive to love God and love their neighbors. Buddhists vow to save all beings and abstain from killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants. If you claim a religious tradition, it claims you too.

Unitarian Universalism isn’t quite like that. We take responsibility for our own search for truth and meaning. We support each other in that search, but we may not find the same truth and meaning. We strive to appreciate what others find but do not feel bound to another person’s moral code of conduct. We are not all vegetarians, vegans or carnivores. We do not all agree on the same child rearing practices or philosophies of education.

What we do have are shared purposes and principles within our association of congregation. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all is a purpose most of us share. Respect for the interdependent web is a looser purpose that does prod us toward serving the whole rather than just ourselves. Honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person, maybe even every being, is a noble purpose that could organize one’s whole existence.

Purpose points toward the Spirit of Life itself. On a deep level, the source of unique expressions of purpose are mysterious and amazing. The purpose that drives someone to keep going, even in agonizing pain, to run a marathon for the first time is a marvel to me. The scientists and engineers that train their minds for years and years to master their field impress me. Watching the graceful movements of a gifted dancer, listening to the ethereal sounds riding on airwaves from a virtuoso’s instrument, gawking at the stunning reproduction of light on glass in oil on canvass , fill me with awe and wonder.

The Spirit of Life is not a neutral, chaotic process seeking rest. It has purpose and that purpose is imbued with meaning. Our challenge is to recognize it’s energy in us and find purposeful ways to bring it to life.