Thursday, September 22, 2016

Reflections of a New Mom

This service was presented on Sunday, September 18, 2016, by Rachel Alvarez. 

301 Touch the Earth, Reach the Sky!
338 I Seek the Spirit of a Child

Responsive Readings
Generation To Generation
by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Give Us the Spirit of the Child
by Sarah Moores Campbell

Reflections of a New Mom
by Rachel Alvarez

I have been a mother for almost 6 months now.  I can't believe how quickly the time has passed already, and I know it will continue to fly by as Natalie grows.  By no means do I consider myself an expert on motherhood.  In fact, there are days I feel lost and confused. 

Watching her has prompted me to consider human nature and societal issues.  I have been reflecting a lot. I've been reflecting in the middle of the night during feedings, while I am scrolling through her pictures during my lunch, and while driving, with her cries ringing out from the back seat.  She has not yet realized the joy of road trips, which her dad and I love.

So, today I’d like to share some of my musings from this first half-year.  I apologize if some of my thoughts are a bit disjointed.  It has been rare for me to have more than a few minutes at a time to really focus on any single task.  I have lots of questions, and not as many answers, but here we go.

Observation #1:  Babies are born ready to love.  At this time in her life, Natalie's list of needs is relatively short.  As long as she is fed, clean, and comfortable, she is generally satisfied.  She loves to be held, and if she can stare into a smiling face, she's happy.  Bonus points for swaying to some music in her dad's arms.  She has no grudges, no self-doubt, no ill will toward anyone.  She is open, confident, and friendly.  She does not yet know of the discrimination and hatred that some people hold toward others.  Hopefully she will continue loving all types of people throughout her life.

In a scientific study I recently read about, children have been found to be naturally helpful and giving.  According to Adam Gorlick in “For kids, altruism comes naturally, psychologist says”

“kids are quite altruistic... They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged. They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward.

“But as they grow, children's spirit of cooperation is shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. They become more aware of what's around them, and worry more about what it's like and what it means to be a member of a group. They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation...But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others—their public reputation and self—as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves."

How can we continue to encourage that spirit of generosity?  I think in part, it is making an effort as a parent to model positive behavior.  I will try not to express negativity or ill-will that Natalie might be influenced by.  In fact, I will try to let her young sense of positivity influence me in my relationships with others.  That sense of love and beauty in a child’s world is truly inspiring to me.

In the words of comedian Denis Leary, “Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” In Natalie's case, her list is comprised of only car rides.

This brings me to my next observation...

2) Babies are born ready to learn. Natalie is learning.  All day.  Every hour, every minute, every second.  In the past six months, she has had to learn to breathe, to eat, to vocalize, to smile, to laugh, to grab, to roll over, to sit up....  When I see her clear, bright eyes focusing on Mark's facial expressions, on our cat walking by, on the pictures in her story books, on the ceiling fan blades turning... I am reminded of how she is a sponge.  She is constantly observing, learning, and growing. I admire this, and rather than spend mindless hours on my smart phone, my goal is to observe the world around me more and soak up as much as I can, the way Natalie does. She is just interested in everything!  I want to feel that spark of curiosity again and realize how much I can continue learning myself each day.

Now, my little sponge is soaking up lots of love, laughter, and new lessons.  But, how long can I shield her from the ugliness and hatred of the world?  At what point might she start to learn about the tragedies of the world?

In Natalie's short life, so many tragic and horrifying events have already taken place: the Orlando night club massacre, a long list of shocking Trump comments, various instances of police brutality and the sometimes violent backlash, the mishandling of rape cases,  Islamophobia, Internet trolling, deadly forest fires, floods, earthquakes... the list goes on. 

I myself feel so desensitized by all the world's violence, that I am ashamed to admit I hardly feel any emotion in response to most tragedies.  I don't want Natalie to be numb, but I also don’t want her to feel debilitated by the world’s sadness.  I hope that she develops confidence, while remaining sensitive and thoughtful.  My friend's daughter, a 2nd grader, was working on a school assignment last week about 9/11.  My friend said that each time her daughter rehearsed the presentation, reciting the number of deaths and detailing a victim’s last phone call to his wife, the little girl would burst into tears, crying, “that's so sad!”  What a heavy assignment for a 7 year old.  And I admire her sensitivity.  I feel embarrassed that I don't feel that emotion when reflecting on 9/11 or other more recent events.  How terrible for someone to have to confront such horrors at such a young age.  I hope Natalie can feel sadness and anger at these events, but that she will also see the good in humanity and look positively toward the future.  If hatred and racism can be taught, so can love and compassion.  What lessons can I teach her to give her a solid foundation so that she can face the ugliness of the world with confidence by the time it reaches her senses?

What about the pressures she will face as a girl growing into a woman?  Will she meekly apologize for everything or undermine her own ideas?  There's a funny, but at the same time too-real sketch by Amy Schumer in which the women are apologizing for every little thing.  In the sketch, a panel of women-- experts in their respective fields-- sit on a stage.   They apologize for interrupting each other, for speaking up, for requesting a glass of water, and, in an exaggerated sequence, for getting injured and bleeding on the stage.   I, too, find myself saying sorry when someone bumps into me, when sharing an opinion at a faculty meeting, and when asking a question of a friend.  I am determined to do everything in my power to help Natalie develop confidence and be proud of herself and her abilities.

Will she start to feel insecure and be uncomfortable in her body?

I hope to instill a positive body image in Natalie as she grows up, but I know how difficult that can be.  I grew up disliking my own body and lacking a lot of confidence as a girl and into my teen years.  How can I avoid passing on my insecurities to her?  Now she is uncorrupted and safe from the photoshopped, glossy magazine covers and the comments of her peers.  In a few years, will negative thoughts begin to seep into her consciousness?  How can I support her?  Can I arm her with the tools to fight those demons of hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity?  I am starting now by being mindful of my own thoughts.  Instead of criticizing my own body, I remind myself of the amazing things it has done for me.  It has run half marathons, traveled the world, and most impressively, created a tiny human which it now supports and nourishes.  When I look at Natalie, instead of referring to her “chunky” thighs, I try to rephrase, calling them strong, instead, so that I will be used to this mindset by the time she can understand and speak.

The following passage is taken from an article called, “Dear Daughter, you are so beautiful” by Chaunie Brusie, published Dec 4, 2015.  Recently I read this and it really resonated.

“The truth is, sometimes I just watch you. I realize that perhaps that might sound a little strange, but I make no apologies because I’m a mother and therefore just a tad clinically insane, because it’s impossible to live with your heart walking around outside of your body in a world that’s basically a ticking time bomb of hate and sorrow without losing your mind just a little bit.

“But I want to bottle up the beauty I see in you, in every careless way you jump and run... in every breath you take while you sleep, in every hug you give me without even thinking about it. I want to scoop your breathtaking beauty up, like piles of sand and hand it to you when you hit that age I know is coming, that age when you start to live not just for yourself and the pure joy of being you, but in comparison to others—to women, in the eyes of boys, against your own harsh standards.

“I want to hoist up the world’s biggest mirror, a mirror that could magically show you what I see, and gesture wildly, begging you to look, just look at what I see in you.

“To see the kindness, the strength, the sensitivity, the intelligence, the kindness, every quirk and flaw and trait, woven together in a tapestry I could never create.

“Because dear daughter, you are so beautiful.

“Even though someday, I know you won’t believe it.”

What will the world be like over the next one hundred years, throughout Natalie's lifetime?  How are we leaving the world for her generation to take over?  How much can I support her while also giving her independence? How much is within my control at all? How can I best support and prepare my daughter for living in this world of ours? This tragic, scary, but also wonderful world of ours.

What Shall We Do Now?

               What Shall We Do Now?
                 by Shirley Rickett
               July 31, 2016, UUFHC   

     Let’s talk about speech.  About what we say, how we say it, when we say it, and the other half of that, listening. I’m going to attempt to weave an essay by Phillip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Washington Post with some of the text of President Obama’s speech at the Dallas Memorial for the five fallen policemen.
     The time frame for this goes back to July 12th when we had gone through a month of violence.  Since that time the terrible attack in Nice has happened, an attempted coup in Turkey took place, and more troops were commissioned to Iraq.  Remember Orlando?  Forty-nine killed, fifty injured. In Louisiana a black man was held down by police and ultimately shot, and in Minnesota, another black man was shot with his girlfriend in the front seat of a car and four-year-old in the backseat. And now we have Nice, France and a 19-ton truck.
        Kinnicott talks first about empathy in his essay.   He says, “If we can’t empathize across lines of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, then there’s no hope of preserving democratic governance. Before this day is over you will have dozens of encounters with people who disagree with you, and the vast majority of those encounters will be amiable,” and later he says, “It is difficult to persuade anyone to change his or her mind about political, ethical or religious matters; it is virtually impossible to persuade a stranger to change his or her mind about anything. You may shame someone into silence for a while, but you will not change their heart.  It is possible to transform the way people think, but this takes years, or decades, and it requires love.”
     So what shall we do now? 
     President Obama found himself in one more church, one more memorial, with the job of speaking to violence and death, to more than one audience.  Like Lawrence O’Donnell, I believe that speech is something we have not heard and may never hear again, although I would go further.  The structure and performance of the presentation, (half-sermon, half-speech some say) was profound. It is difficult enough to focus a speech on one audience and keep people engaged, but the President spoke to at least three audiences:  the bereaved families of the policemen, the bereaved families of the most recent African Americans killed by police, and local and national audiences.
     “You may shame someone into silence for a while, but you will not change their heart.” That’s Killicott.  The President spoke of the heart also.  Late in his speech this is what he said:
“Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?
     Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?  And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.  I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt.  I’ve been to too many of these things.  I’ve seen too many families go through this.  But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel.  I will give you a new heart, the Lord says, and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
     “That’s what we must pray for, each of us:  a new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens. That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days.  That’s what we must sustain.”
     Empathy. What both Killicott and the President are saying we need empathy.
     Empathy implies more than feeling.  Miss Hester, my fifth grade teacher, once taught us the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you feel sad for someone else.  A grandmother dies and your friend was very close to her.  You see your friend sad and you feel sad for what your friend is feeling.  However, empathy is different.  You become involved with the loss, the suffering of another friend, or someone you never met.  So you make a card, (or a protest sign) and your mother bakes cookies and you go to their house after the funeral and try to comfort your friend and the family. And you tell your friend how you felt when your beloved uncle died.
     Empathy can work on another level, too, said Miss Hester.  You go to a concert and sit through a piano concerto. You play the piano yourself and as the music rises from the keyboard your hands move on your lap and the music reaches a crescendo and the audience rises as one at the finish.  As you go home, you realize your fingers and hands are tired. You were so lost in the music and the playing that your own hands were moving and you weren’t aware of this. Part of the enjoyment and appreciation of art involves empathy.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Life as a White Person

This sermon was presented by Doug Trenfield on Sunday, February 28, 2016

I’ve been white my whole life. Many of you have been too. The awareness of my whiteness, though, has evolved slowly. As a white person, I have had the luxury of letting that awareness evolve slowly. Because I, like a large percent of white folk, I imagine, did not grow up or ever live in environments where my not truly understanding my place as a white person put me at risk, physically or in any other way. Not like the black woman I sat next to at a convention luncheon, a woman about my age from Galveston. She told me ­­ and told me like it was just a well­-processed funny story, one she often traipsed out at convention luncheons when sitting next to white folk ­­ that her mom taught her at an early age that when she goes into a room of people she doesn’t know, to find the white people and figure out who they are. Her life, her prospects for her future, her profession could depend on how well she did this, her mom told her. I was stunned. I’ve told this to friends who are people of color, and they have not found this remarkable. And I found that stunning as well.

Turns out, stories like this are common among those of you (not me) who identify as people of color. After the horrible murder of Trayvon Martin by a self­appointed neighborhood watchman in Florida, we’ve heard a lot about the talk, when a black father sits down with his son and tells him how to act around white people he doesn’t know, around police. Ta­Nehisi Coates writes about this in Between the World and Me. There’d be real fear in his parents, fear that someone would take away their children’s bodies, enough fear that his father would beat him if he misstepped, hurting the very body he feared losing.

And all my life, I’ve gone blithely into that room, not knowing that the eyes behind the darker faces took me in, measured me, judged me quickly because I might judge them quickly, and if I didn’t like what I judged, that I would bring harm. I’ve gone blithely into that room, aware only of prospects ­­ friendships, jobs, maybe romance ­­ and never was afraid. Well, not in the way people of color speak of it.

I’ve never thought of teacher’s judging my academic abilities based on my skin hue. Tim Wise in his memoir White Like Me writes of this. He was raised and schooled, thanks to happenstance and, for the seventies, fairly enlightened parents , in a multicultural neighborhood in Nashville. He had done little to distinguish himself academically, but apparently his whiteness was his ticket to advanced classes. The skin hue of his black friends, many of whom he admits were probably more capable than he, was there ticket to remain in regular ed or, sometimes, to go to special classes.

I’m sure this sort of thing happened around me in school. Even now, 41 years after I graduated from high school, the U.S. Department of Education reports harsh disparities between ethnicities in how discipline in schools is doled out, and multiple studies (for example, one by the Applied Research Center, suggesting racial bias when schools determine who will take Advanced Placement courses) show how race can influence educators’ judgments of students’ academic abilities. I’m sure it did when I was in school, but I didn’t witness it, because I was that well insulated. My parents were liberal college town folks, supporting vociferously the civil rights movement (though showing some disdain for the uglier side of that movement [I remember my mother, a supporter of Martin Luther King, saying that in a way he “asked for it”]). They didn’t set out to insulate me. But the system insulated me nonetheless.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this, race from a white viewpoint, for years, literally for years. I think it began when I discovered literature, and found myself drawn to the literature coming from people of color. They had something to write about. My people, white people, abdicated our ethnicity when we were accepted into the white club. We were no longer English­Irish­Scottish­Dutch­French­Italian­German, we declared. We were white, void of color and void of histories that reached further into the past than two generations. People with similar ethnic heritage to mine and with my skin hue (yeah, I mean white people) who cry out about reverse racism have never held sway with me. I’m more inclined to white folk like comedian Louis CK, who a few years ago was doing lots of bits on race from a white vantage. He said the following in one:

'Here’s how great it is to be white. I could get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be f­ing awesome when I get there. The year 2? I don’t even know what was happening then. But when I get there, ‘Welcome, we have a table right here waiting for you, sir.’

Language and images get a little dicey here, so I’ll summarize. He said he would not go forward in time in his time machine because, “We’re gonna have to pay for this sh!+.” And it gets dicier. You get the idea.

But if you’re not familiar with how white privilege functions, and you’ve never been around people of color, when you hear of measures to bring people of color to our bounteous table ­­ affirmative action, for one ­­ something like reverse racism, as poorly coined as the term is, comes to mind. A student at West Virginia University, responding to charges of reverse racism at another southern college, wrote:

Reverse racism does not and cannot exist by definition. While racial minorities can certainly hold prejudices against white people, they cannot be "just as racist as white people" or "just as discriminatory as white people" because they do not hold the same economic, institutional and political power.

A friend of mine, a former student who’s working on her PhD at Florida State, would agree. She wrote, responding to a post on my FB feed: Yes, racism is systemic, but it's not bilateral. In other words, it only goes in one direction, and it always favors Whiteness. People of Color cannot be racist; we can be prejudiced and biased, but we are not evoking racism. That is because racism is anchored in systemically conferred power­­power being the operative notion. In racism, only White people have power (just like in sexism, cis­men have power, and xenophobia/nationalism U.S. citizens have power­­you get the point). Power is unearned influence that benefits one group (i.e., White people) over another group (i.e., People of Color). A simple example of power is as follows: You can hate your boss, and your boss can hate you. Certainly, you can hurt your boss' feelings, but only your boss has the power to fire you­­not the other way around. Likewise, when People of Color pit against one another, it's not racism­­it's internalized oppression. Because when we pit against one another, we pull each other down, thereby anchoring White supremacy.

For a long time, I wouldn’t talk about race, but ethnicity. I think most of us know by now, from any scientific standpoint, there is no race. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists has eschewed the idea of race. They wrote, in a 1996 position paper, "Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past." But the word race has crept into another very useful word, racism, which I’d hate to have to drop out of our discussion. Besides, our prejudices toward peoples are not just about ethnicity, but also appearance, specifically, and tragically for a large percent of our population, those features associated with people of African heritage.

But why has this been my obsession? If I want to vaunt my goodness, I’d say it’s because I want to do my part to understand and right centuries of wrongs. And though I do, I don’t think that’s why I’m obsessed. Is it guilt? I think, yeah, though we ­­ you others of my skin hue and having similar heritage (oh yeah ­­ white people) ­­ should do what we can to right wrongs, for the most part, I’m sure, we’ve done nothing consciously to further these wrongs.

So I don’t know. I don’t have any memorable encounters that would lead me to this.

These are the encounters with people of color as I was growing up that I remember. In 4th grade (yes, it took that long for there to be a memorable racial encounter), my nice little suburban neighborhood had its first black family, the Greggs. Kevin Gregg was in my class. He was fun to play football with, which is all I wanted in a friend at that age. The next year, he and his family were gone. Mom told me later that many of our neighbors made life difficult for the Greggs, so the Greggs up and left. At that time, 1966, black families were concentrated in, unironically, two areas of town ­­ Whiteley and White City.

Sixth grade. My sister Gail, five years older, the hippie in our family, brought home a black friend who was a boy. My father ­­ as I’d said, a staunch advocate of civil rights ­­ had never had race relations be so personal. The young man left. I remember there was yelling and stomping. And I remember my father standing over a seated Gail, looking as though he wanted to hit my sister. He didn’t. He wasn’t like that. But that’s how mad he was.

High school, ninth grade. I started at Northside High School in Muncie, Indiana, in 1971. The school opened a year before, rumor has always had it, to give a neighborhood school to the mostly white end of town. Town wasn’t big enough that Northside could exclude all black students, though. I had black students in my classes, but they seemed to have no interest in talking to me. But to be fair, I and my friends had no interest in talking to them. Or about them. Odd, but there was no friction that I knew of. Black and white just lived in skew, though unequal, worlds. At lunch, the blacks ate at one end of the cafeteria. So far as I knew, there were no rules that mandated this. It just happened. After eating, they played on their own end of the gym.

Eleventh grade, at a different high school, Larry Wilkerson broke my nose. No, no drama. We were playing flag football in P.E. I mention it only to bring up Larry, who was a thin bridge between the small group of black kids and my group of white boys (mostly boys). He had good weed. And was open to some good­natured kidding around.

I could go on, but not for very long, and it wouldn’t get more interesting. My point is that I ­­ and I think I’m typical, a type ­­ do not have much to say about my experiences with race, 4 even though, as I was growing up, the U.S. struggled with it mightily (and among whites, mostly unwillingly), and even though the black kids in my town would probably put race close to the center of the stories of their youth.

So I’m almost done with my sermon. And I haven’t given you a lesson, a homily. I don’t think a lesson or homily would be appropriate. I think it’s presumptuous that I, a white guy raised in suburban Muncie, Indiana, would have a lesson to give about race. My purpose in speaking today is to start a conversation. Would someone else like to speak on race? It’s hard to talk about, I know. What’re intended as observations can be taken personally, yes. But I think it’s important that we ­­ by we, I do not mean exclusively we at UUFHC, but all U.S. humans ­­ that we do talk about it. No one needs to presume to give lessons, but I think it’s important that we talk. Since I did not grow up around people of color other than African­Americans, I did not talk today about white­Latino relations. How are those different? How are they similar? Since I’ve spent almost all my adult life as a minority ­­ still white, though, so still a member of the more powerful class ­­ here in the Valley, I could talk about it. But so could most of you, white or Latino. And I’d love to hear the Winter Texan perspective on race here in the Valley.

The first reading today, Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” ­­ it’s connection is pretty easy to see. I’ve loved that poem since I first read it as a young teacher. Hughes, I think, gets at the subtler tensions between white and black, even though at the time of its writing there were much less subtle tensions between the races. He says:

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

The second reading, the sermon at the end of the novel (and movie) A River Runs Through It, is about what we can do when we don’t know what to do. Maclean writes, “And so it is that those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them ­ we can love completely without complete understanding.” We may not understand one another because of our various differences ­­ gender orientation, race, ethnicity, social class. We can work toward understanding, but until we get even close to understanding, we can still love. And when we love, we listen.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The First Principle: Our Inherent Worth and Dignity

This service was presented by Rachel Alvarez on Sunday, January 31

Reading #1:  Reflection on the First Principle
“Reverence and respect for human nature is at the core of Unitarian Universalist (UU) faith. We believe that all the dimensions of our being carry the potential to do good. We celebrate the gifts of being human: our intelligence and capacity for observation and reason, our senses and ability to appreciate beauty, our creativity, our feelings and emotions. We cherish our bodies as well as our souls. We can use our gifts to offer love, to work for justice, to heal injury, to create pleasure for ourselves and others.
“‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy,’ the great twentieth-century Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote. Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person as a given of faith—an unshakeable conviction calling us to self-respect and respect for others.”
—Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker, minister, theologian, and author

Reading #2:
The following quote was written in the wake of September 11, 2001, by Rev. Sean Parker Dennison of South Valley UU in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In a time like this, it is important to remember that "inherent worth
and dignity" is not the same as blamelessness or freedom from
accountability. If we uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every
person we are not saying that whatever they choose to do is somehow
okay. What we are saying is that unlike the people that planned and
carried out these horrific events, we value human life—every human
life. When people behave cruelly and with hatred we will intervene,
but we will do so in ways that protect and preserve life. Even when
we are enraged and seek to redress a horrible wrong, we will measure
our acts by the standards of dignity, honor, and justice. Even in the
face of tragedy, we must not forget that every life—American, Arab,
Persian, Afghani—is precious. May we not waste a single one.
Inherent worth and dignity is not something we confer upon people
when they are good and rescind when they are bad. Inherent worth
and dignity is not something that resides in the other, but

something that is demanded of us.

            As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have specific creeds that we must all agree upon and follow.  Instead, our Seven Principles provide guidelines for us to live by.  Growing up, when friends would ask about the church I attended and our beliefs, I would struggle with how to respond, but usually, I said something related to the importance of “being a good person.”  In my opinion, the Seven Principles are the foundation for UUs to be good people.  Knowing that UUs may have different beliefs than me about the existence of a god or gods, heaven, hell, etc…  I generally understand that UUs share the Seven Principles as a common foundation, which is comforting to me in a very diverse religious community. 
          Today’s presentation will be kicking off a second cycle of a series discussing our Seven Principles.  To begin, I wanted to discuss the Seven Principles in general, before specifically focusing on the First Principle, promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
          In preparation for this sermon, I found an article that resonated with me and made me think of the Seven Principles in a slightly different way.  I would like to share some excerpts from it.  In the Summer 2014 issue of UU World, in his article titled “I don't 'believe in' the Seven Principles: I don’t think of them as beliefs at all…” Doug Muder writes, “The absolute worst of the common answers [to the question of what UUs believe] is “[that we] can believe whatever they want.” In fact the exact opposite is true. Maybe more than any other religion, Unitarian Universalism pushes us to ask: “Is that really true or is it just what I want to believe?  Precisely because I am a UU, I question ideas whose primary virtue is that I want to believe them.  Once you step around that pothole, discussions tend to gravitate towards the Seven Principles. As a list of things that our congregations are committed to affirm and promote, the Principles have at least a formal resemblance to the creeds of Christian churches; we teach them to our children, introductory books are organized around them, and so forth. So if someone comes to a UU congregation looking for the Unitarian Universalist creed, the Principles seem to be it.  But if you’ve ever tried to present the Principles to creed-seeking newcomers, you’ve probably seen their disappointment. “And?” their expressions seem to ask.
          I can relate to this feeling.  In telling my friends that my religion promotes “being a good person,” I feel like I fall short of some deeper meaning.  Is “being a good person,” really such a great feat for us to strive for? Do we really need a religious community to remind us and encourage us to be good people? 
          Muder continues, “The Principles fail as a creed because they’re too easy. Billions of people who literally would not want to be caught dead in a UU church can nod along with them. Take the Second Principle: “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Does some other religion take a bold stand for injustice in human relations? People may argue about what “justice” means, but everybody is for it.
The Principles are littered with feel-good terms like that: “spiritual growth,” “democratic process,” “search for truth and meaning,” “world community,” “peace,” “liberty.” If all Unitarian Universalism wants you to do is approve of such concepts, that’s not very demanding, is it? In addition to thinking that they describe a really wimpy religion, I have an even more serious objection to the Principles as a defining set of Unitarian Universalist beliefs: I don’t believe in them.  In fact, I don’t think of them as beliefs at all. I think of them as visions.
          “The point of putting the Principles in the front of the hymnal and teaching them to our children isn’t to assert their truth, or even to encourage you to nod along with the idea that they should be true. Unitarian Universalism is a commitment to envision a world in which the Principles have become true, to envision it so intensely and in such detail that it becomes a genuine possibility, and to join with others in making that possibility real.  That’s how the Seven Principles turn into a challenging spiritual path.  So, do I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? No. I am committed to envisioning it. Together with others, I hope to imagine it so well, so convincingly, and so beautifully that the vision becomes viral and takes over the world.
          “That’s much harder than just believing the First Principle is true, because truths can take care of themselves. The difficulty of our task is why Unitarian Universalists need each other. If the point of Unitarian Universalism were just to believe the Principles, I could do that on my own. But the path of not believing—or believing that the First Principle is not true yet—is more challenging. I can’t do it by myself. If I’m trying to envision the Principles into existence, then I need my congregation and all the other congregations and all the help they can muster.  So what do Unitarian Universalists believe? We’re not committed to beliefs, we’re committed to visions.  That’s much harder.”  [End quote]
          So, looking more specifically at our first principle, we as Unitarian Universalists we “covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  According to Merriam-Webster, “inherent” can be defined as “belonging to the basic nature of someone or something,” “involved in the constitution or essential character of something,” or “belonging by nature or habit.” The definitions of “worth” include “the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held,” “moral or personal value,” or “usefulness or importance.” Finally, “dignity” is defined as “the quality of being worthy of honor or respect.”  Putting all of these terms together, the first principle, to me, means consistently and deliberately recognizing and promoting the importance and value that is essential to each person’s very being.  According to our first principle, each person is unconditionally worthy of honor and respect.  Building off Muder’s assertion, this may not be true in our world yet, but we are envisioning a world in which all people are treated with unconditional honor and respect.  That is, indeed, much more challenging than just believing that it should be the case.
          Even this can potentially be a struggle for some of us when we encounter stories of crime, racism, terrorism, or even just a difficult co-worker.  How do we reconcile the inherent worth and dignity of people with their sometimes careless, hurtful, or downright tragic actions?  How do we treat people with respect, honor, and compassion, when we don’t feel they are offering the same treatment to others?  To skip ahead a bit, I’ll tell you now that I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I struggle with thoughts like these.  When challenged by a person I can’t seem to understand or with whom I cannot find common ground, I want to make a greater effort to treat that person with kindness.  I try to remind myself of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  By acknowledging that every person is complex and that any number of factors can contribute to his or her beliefs or behavior, it is slightly easier to remember their inherent worth and dignity.  Beyond this, how can we commit to building a world in which this is, undeniably, the case?  I don’t know, but I feel that in coming to our services here and reading more about UUism, I feel closer to that reality.
          Finally, part of honoring every person’s inherent worth and dignity must be applied to the ways in which we perceive ourselves.  On the UUA website, a downloadable cell phone wallpaper reads, “Remember your inherent worth & dignity.”  I love this message.  Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies and critics, and UUs who may be extremely forgiving and compassionate toward others may put themselves down or be too hard on themselves.  In addition to treating others with respect, it is arguably more important to consciously remember and reinforce our self-respect. 
          As I think about raising my own daughter, who will be arriving in just two months, I remind myself of the messages I want to teach her.  I want her to be self-confident, curious, open-minded, and compassionate.  I hope that she learns to treat herself kindly, which has not always been easy for me to do for myself.  I also hope that she treats others with respect and kindness, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, age, or background.  And I hope that she doesn’t just nod along in agreement to the first principle, but that she strives to contribute to the building of a community based on that vision of each person’s inherent worth and dignity.