First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"A Trailblazing Religion"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore June 2, 2002
I'm someone who always knows where I am and how to get where I need to go. Not only do I know how to get where I need to go, but I also know which of several alternative routes would be least encumbered by traffic lights and congestion. Basically, I'm never lost.
So getting lost in Poughkeepsie a couple of weeks ago was an unusual, awkward and troubling experience.
Leaving the UUA Public Ministry seminar I attended in Riverdale on a gorgeous afternoon, I decided to take the Taconic Parkway back to Albany and cut across to the Thruway at the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Being the congenial and generous person that I am, I offered to take the minister serving our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Poughkeepsie home. Unfortunately, her home was not as close to the main road as I expected. We weaved through a number of streets, we slowly wound around the Vassar College campus, and wandered into the winding and curving streets of her suburb. During the journey to her house, I lost my bearings. I wasn't too worried at the time because I knew my colleague would be able to tell me how to find the Thruway.
I thought I followed her directions to the letter but I must have missed a turn in the long sequence lefts, rights and lefts because the landmarks she described did not appear in front of me as I expected. In fact I had no idea which way to turn next. I had that sinking feeling that I could now be going the opposite direction I wanted. I hesitated at a stop sign disoriented and wondering if I should turn right or left.
Of course, I could have stopped to ask for directions … I suppose. Not the manly thing to do of course. Even as I wandered around in bewilderment not having a clue where I was, I trusted, in a confident masculine way, sooner or later, I'd see a sign. I'd see that little blue circle with an arrow that points to the Thruway and I'd follow it. Well, I didn't and by this time, I was out of town.
Finally, after touring the countryside, up hillsides and down into valleys, I entered a small town and I saw my sign. It was a sign with the name of the town. With a great feeling of relief, I looked at my map to see if I could find the little town I was entering and if, perchance, there might be any direct route from that town to find the Thruway. This unplanned detour added an extra hour to my trip but it increased my gratitude for those trailblazing highway signs that make finding the way so much the easier.
Tasting a little of the terror of being lost reminded me of that elemental fear. I was reminded of those first forays out into the world as a toddler living on busy Delaware Avenue. If I turned the corner and was out of sight of my house, I could as well have been on the other side of the earth for all I knew! I was an adventurer back then too! Much to my mothers horror, one day I did go around the corner … and kept on going thinking I was returning home. I journeyed all the way around the long block passing large intersections until I discovered my home again following the sidewalk trail I knew would lead to my house.
In both these situations, the path was there for me to follow, blazed with signs and markers to guide me home. There have always been trails to follow. Our hominid ancestors followed the trails of the animals to find water holes, shallow places to ford streams and rivers and low gaps to travel over hills and between mountain ranges. Archeologists believe Native Americans came to this Continent following trails left by mammoths, mastodons, extinct bison, deer, elk and other migratory animals. Once humans settled this land, these animal trails became ancient human footpaths we still travel today. For example, the roads to Jackson, Ohio were well traveled long before they knew the step of the white man. The salt springs found there offered pleasing refreshment to native and beast before him.
The trails of the mind serve many of the same purposes of the trails of the feet. And like the trails of the feet, many trails of the mind have been marked out by our ancestors to show us the way. Unitarian Universalism is not a wilderness into which we are dropped without map or compass. There are many paths within our religious tradition to follow but each of us must blaze and follow our own trail.
We stand in a tradition that makes new trails and modifies the old ones to guide us. Unitarians and Universalists traveled new theological routes that didn't include fear of hell or the exclusion of predestination. They embraced the use of reason and historical and literary criticism to interpret the Bible. They saw Jesus as a moral teacher and not the one and only Son of God. They responded to the social demands of Jesus' teachings. They opened themselves to direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder as a way to have contact and communion with what is beyond us. They recognized that there is truth and value in all of the world's great religious traditions.
Today Unitarian Universalists continue to forge new trails. We accept both Humanism and Theism as legitimate ways to fashion a religious life. We see religious pluralism as a trustworthy religious path that guards against idolatry. We cherish diversity in sexual orientation, we entrust women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and now transgender persons with leadership in our ministry.
I know as I walk these trails marked by our forebears, I benefit from those who walked this path before me. When I advocate for religious freedom I am walking in the way of Sebastion Castellio, Martin Luther and Thomas Jefferson. When I work for the harmony of science and religion I am walking on the path that Copernicus and Galileo tread before me. When I work for justice and human rights I am walking on the path that Susan B Anthony and Lucretia Mott walked before me. I may be a little different and I may even bring new ideas to the table but still I benefit from those who cleared a path for me. I cannot literally see these teachers from the past. They are hidden from my eyes. Yet it seems as if I can hear a voice from behind me saying, "This is the way. Walk in it" (this text borrowed from the Rev. Chris Buice)
It's an awesome responsibility to dare to blaze one's own trail through life. One must constantly questions one's actions. Here are some of the question I ask myself: How much time and energy should I put into my public ministry, working with the West Hill Ministers and ARISE, creating opportunities for the poor and oppressed? How much time and energy should I put into serving the needs and growth of the members of this congregation? How much time and energy should I put into serving the growth of Unitarian Universalism outside our congregation in our Capital Region, New York State, the United States of America, and even in Transylvania or Sri Lanka? How much time and energy should I put into developing my own inner spiritual life and confronting the obstacles to my spiritual growth? How much time and energy should I put into the spiritual life of my family? And is there any time left for just having fun? In trying to balance all these competing pressures, I run the risk of getting lost. I fear loosing touch with the landmarks that keep me sane.
The positive side of this struggle is claiming the freedom to make up my own mind about how to juggle my commitments and responsibilities. I wouldn't want our congregation to make these decisions for me. For example, I think I'd be miserable if this congregation decided it didn't want me doing any public ministry. Being a community leader this past year has been very satisfying and stimulating. My efforts have blazed a new trail for our members to respond morally and ethically to the troubles in our community. The freedom to risk charting a new path is an important part of the leadership ministers bring to a congregation.
The negative side of the increasing individual freedom in our society is the breakdown of the social norms, the social signposts that help guide our choices. Most of us don't feel obligated to do, think or believe what our parents did. We have hundreds of life directions to consider. What kind of career do I want? Where do I want to live? Who do I date and marry? What sexual orientation fits me best? What obligations will I accept? What activities are worth my energy? What social responsibilities will I accept? What pleasures will I pursue? Each fork in the road offers the opportunity to get lost and perhaps turned get turned around the wrong way.
The ones who struggle the most with being overwhelmed by decisions and choices are our children. As they grow, they seek out trustworthy signs and markers to guide them. Faced with impulses fed by media violence, sexual peer pressure, and substance abuse temptations, they struggle to make decisions beyond their years. And even though most of them will never admit they are doing it, they turn to us for guidance.
And we must respond. Just as we needed and benefited from our ancestors who blazed trails for us, so we can be the trailblazers for the next generation. We can help guide them as they make their choices pointing out the signs and signals we've found and teach them how to make choices in a free and responsible way.
My Unitarian Universalist parents were wonderful models for me in this regard. My mother and father encouraged me to develop good habits, attitudes, behaviors and values. They didn't do it by constantly correcting, haranguing and criticizing me. They showed me how to live by their example. They walked their talk.
My parents took their politics into the town square. My father was chair of the local Democratic committee and my mother ran for the Delaware state legislature in 1972. We regularly discussed politics around the dinner table, debating the issues of the day. My mother was a feminist leader among her friends during the 60's and 70's. Once my sister and I were in school, she attended night school and got her Masters Degree in Library Science. She consistently educated my father and I about sexism in society, the media and in our behavior. One way my father and I responded to my mother's feminism was by taking on greater responsibility maintaining our household. We both did our own laundry and learned to cook. My job was cleaning the bathrooms each week.
My father is one of the most honest, generous and trustworthy people I know. The IRS audited him a few years ago. The auditor was surprised at the rigor and detail of my parent's tax return so he challenged a deduction for paper clips. My father quickly produced a receipt for them. He would never think of taking a box of paperclips home from work! I think about this story when I'm tempted to try to get away with something on my tax returns. I want the IRS owing me money after an audit, too.
My families' participation in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark, Delaware particularly had a strong impression on me. This community of people infused me with values that I've grown into over the years. Even as a young person, the respect and appreciation of my parent's friends and my religious education teachers strengthened my sense of confidence and self-worth. My religious education classes allowed me to talk with kid-friendly adults who weren't giving me grades. I heard values being discussed from the pulpit that we discussed as a family later that day. Even if I didn't attend services, I was always curious to know what was being discussed and what my parents thought about the topic. (By the way, I encourage parents to discuss the issues I bring up so your children can overhear you, even if they don't participate in the conversation.) Whether or not I agreed with them, I always wanted to hear my parents evaluation and judgment of an issue and why.
Our children need this help because accepting responsibility for making one's own choices in life takes a lot of practice. And we don't stop learning as adults. We keep learning. And there is no better way to learn a lesson than to teach it. Having to speak each Sunday about Unitarian Universalism and our values has deepened my appreciation for our need for religious paths and markers to help guide us on our religious journey. The more I've explored our religious heritage, the more I recognize that the hard religious choices I face are the same ones Unitarians and Universalists have been wrestling with for almost two hundred years. Thousands of ministers before me have marked out ways to respond to the calling liberal religious leaders serve.
Those ministers are not alone. For the last hundred years, religious educators have translated those responses to the free religious approach into curriculum for our children. As many religious education teachers will tell you, they get as much as the children do through preparing for and facilitating classes. These field-tested and time-tested lessons are one of the important reasons our religious education program is so strongly supported by our families and our congregation. Last year, as you've seen and heard today, around 60 people served as teachers. They teach not just out of an altruistic motive. They teach because they too grow in their religious understanding and practice.
Virginia Satir understood well how to mark the trail for our children.
In the nurturing family, she said, parents see themselves as empowering leaders not as authoritative bosses. They see their job primarily as one of teaching their children how to be truly human in all situations. They readily acknowledge to the child their poor judgment as well as their good judgment; their hurt, anger, or disappointment as well as their joy.
In other words, with each self revelation, they leave another little marker to help a child find their way.
Of course, we cannot mark every trail for our children. There will be intersections of their lives we cannot anticipate. What we can do is to help the child discover and learn to be guided by their inner moral compass that will see them through. It takes great courage to head north when the crowd is going south. It takes moxy to go east when they smart money is going west.
This is the great gift of Unitarian Universalism to us. We put our trust in each person's individual compass as our surest guide in our religious lives. Any divinity to be found beyond us, also has a home within us, ever to be nourished, protected and cherished.
I close with Shakespeare's words on the subject from the mouth of Polonius in the first act of Hamlet:
This above all- to thine own
self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to anyone.
Farewell. My blessing, season this in thee!
Copyright © 2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.