The Importance of Vow

I gave a sermon about vow three years ago. It’s been a while, and it’s an important – indeed, a vital – matter. I think we need to revisit the question: what is the great vow of your life? As I said then and remind you now: we are defined by our commitments, our promises, our vows.

In that previous sermon, I didn't mention the 13-century Sufi Muslim poet Jalaluddin Rumi, but this time let me begin there -- because it's Ramadan, and because of Rumi's line about breaking our vows. I need to preface the verse from Rumi, though, with a moment to honor what is popularly overlooked about Rumi.

He was Muslim – profoundly so. He probably had the Koran memorized. His major work, the Masnavi, Rumi described as “the explainer of the Koran.” Rumi’s mysticism is a mysticism that is integral to Islam, yet from the first English translations in the 19th century, those translations have tended to obscure or leave out the Islamic and Koranic references and allusions.

That Rumi became popular in the English-speaking world is almost single-handedly due to the translations by the poet Coleman Barks, which aren’t actually translations, since Barks knows no Persian. They are poetic re-interpretations of Victorian English translations. They are Coleman Barks poems for which he used a bad translation of Rumi as his prompt. Here’s a verse of Rumi, as translated by Muhammad Ali Mojaradi, who does speak Persian:
“Come again, come again, whatever you are, come again,
if you’re an infidel or idolater, come again.
This doorway of ours is not a doorway of hopelessness,
if you’ve broken one hundred repentances, come again.”
Still, it is Coleman Barks’ versions that speak to many of us – including to me. Barks’ version goes like this:
“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you've broken your vow a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come.”
You may recognize this as hymn number 188 from our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. Or, almost. What Mojaradi translates as “if you’ve broken one hundred repentances” and Barks renders as “even if you’ve broken your vow a thousand times,” is left out entirely from our hymnal. There is an alternative version of our hymn which includes the line back as repeated descant: “though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times.”

What for Rumi was a call back to faith – which he understood as a Muslim – becomes for us, via Coleman Barks, a welcoming song, though, also a call back to faith – which we understand rather differently from Rumi. For us, faith is, as Virginia Knowles put it describing the work of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman:
“the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.”
Faith calls us to the real value – the real good – the real joy of existence. It engages the fullness of our being and thereby calls us into the fullness of our being. Faith is also the opening of our hearts to the unknown – the courage to leap into the uncertainty of life. Our faith is our way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence. It’s how we make meaning. Putting these together, we get faith as committing to the fullness of our being, to ultimate value – as best we may apprehend what that is -- with hearts open to the unknown and minds engaged in meaning-making.

As ours is a liberal faith, we see revelation as continuous. On this point, we often quote another Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams:
"Religious liberalism depends first on the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism."
So we recognize that ultimate value is ultimately unknown – that our pursuit of it is a chasing after a something-we-know-not-what – and that, somehow, we always already have. It is a quest to become what we are – to become, in fact, the unknown and unknowable that we always have been. We must enter this pursuit with the fullness of our being – and the fullness of our being turns out to be the very thing we are pursuing. You cannot be admitted into this course unless you have already successfully completed it.

Yet we commit to it – tentative and shifting as our apprehension of it is. Thus Faith and Vow dovetail. I can’t tell you how to do that quest, how to have that faith, but I do know it requires commitment. It requires a vow – a vow, at its most basic, to not let our life be wholly consumed by, in Knowles’ phrase, “the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.”

Whoever you are, just keep coming. Come, yet again, come, whoever you are. And whoever are you, anyway? We don’t know, finally, who we are, but just keep bringing yourself. By coming again, and yet again, we become it.

A thousand times, we break our vow. A thousand times, we retreat from the fullness of our being – or retreat from recognizing the fullness that can never be retreated from. But we come again. And yet again. This is ultimately our vow. It cannot be articulated, and yet we must articulate it to keep it before us.

It is the same vow for all of us, and yet at the same time each person’s vow is unique to them. How do you articulate the universal vow – and thereby make it your particular vow?

What begins, as all our explanations of our behavior do, as an after-the-fact rationalization, can eventually become an actual driving force. So ask yourself what you mean to be. Why are you doing what you do? And then interrogate the reason for those reasons.

Suppose -- to repeat the example I used three years ago, adapted from Jan Chozen Bays, that a youth wants to become the highest scoring player on her basketball team. Well, why?

She might want to impress a certain prospective mate she has her eye on. Why? Maybe she’d say, "Because I eventually want to have a long, happy marriage like my grandparents had." Why? "Because I want a deep and lasting connection to another human being." Why? "To learn to love other people genuinely, and also myself." And this is where the why questions stop. We recognize implicitly that we have reached an ultimate.

The series of why questions might have taken us down a very different path to a different ultimate. She might instead have said that she wanted to become her team’s top scorer in order to get a scholarship to college, that would otherwise be unaffordable. Why does she want to go to college? She might say “to get a good job,” or she might say “to learn about international politics” and those would each lead to a different ultimate. Whatever it might be, when you get to the ultimate that puts a stop to further why questions, that’s your great vow.

Notice that a vow is not a goal. In this example, the youth started with a goal, and from there moved to something different – a vow. A goal is either accomplished or isn’t – but a vow is never completed. It’s what you keep pointing yourself toward, whether you ever make any discernible progress toward it or not.

You won’t be able to tell how well you become who you are – but your vow orients you in the direction that you want to go, whether or not you actually get there, or even get any closer. The only way to break a vow is to forget it – to lose your orientation. In that sense, we have indeed broken our vows, as Rumi says, a thousand times. We forget it. We become separated from our deepest intention.

When our young basketball player first formed her determination to be her team’s top scorer, there were almost certainly a variety of different urges at work. As my father used to say to me: “Son, nobody ever did anything for only one reason.” If subjected to the pressure of why questions, she’ll select rationales that sound good at the time. Yet the subconscious is listening to what the conscious brain makes up, and if the story is one that she sticks to, it will gradually become her true guide.

The great vow is your personal mission. Most of us are used to mission statements for institutions -- companies, congregations, and nonprofit organizations, etc. But do you have a mission statement for your life? If you do, you have articulated your Great Vow.

If we are never pressed for ultimate purpose, then we can spend our lives pulled this way and that by forces of the moment. So it’s important to pursue that series of why questions, get down to an ultimate that feels right, and stick to it. Keep repeating it – especially as an explanation for something you are doing, to strengthen the link between your words and your action. Each time you sincerely say it, you reinforce your orientation toward realizing that world that you dream.

When I spoke about vow three years ago I asked the congregation to reflect on their vow, to give a shot at articulating it, and send me what they came up with. Here are some of the vows from this congregation:
I vow to live with compassion and integrity.

Make the time to care for yourself, to be kind to all others, and to protect the planet.

I vow to push forward in love.

I vow to live soulfully, and to give back.

My great vow is to give of myself through caring, nonjudgmental listening, my empathy and sympathy, my friendship to all those who are struggling in life with things like sickness, death, relationships, daily life for an immigrant etc.

To give everyone the care I give to my family. To hold my beliefs lightly and change them as circumstances change.

To be present in loving awareness.

I vow to be mindful of both self care and care for others.

I vow to love and to learn.

Accept all beings as my teachers.

I vow to recognize, cultivate and nurture community.

See the Magic in everything.


Aging gracefully -- With Compassion, Frugality, and Joy

To fight for justice, to never give up, to be strong, to help the weak, to be honest and respectful, to be supportive of and nice to people and to respect each and every one of them, to work hard, to live with integrity, to see and enjoy the beauty of the world.

I vow to create peace wherever I can.

I vow to bring love with me wherever I go.

Be selflessly loyal to my family, Be open minded, no matter how challenging, and Be happy with less.

To be a scribe, to be empathic, to be a yoga mama.

To be free of emotional instability, and to fight for fairness and equality.
Those are inspiring vows. If yours isn’t up there, how would you articulate your vow? And if it is, has your vow evolved in the last three years? As you think about how you would articulate your Great Vow, it’ll be helpful to reflect on your sources of vow.

The sources of your great vow in life are the sources that made you you. You can think of them as mainly three: inherited, reactive, and inspired.

The inherited is what you were given to understand as you were growing up was the primary function of a life. Your parents or primary caretakers may never have articulated it to you, but if you had to now articulate what the significant adults during your childhood conveyed to you that life was all about, what would you say? My parents were both professors – Mom’s field was chemistry and Dad’s was English. In the early years of my life, they were grad students, then they settled into tenure-track teaching positions. So my inherited vow from both of them was two-fold: learn stuff; teach it to others. These vows made sense to me, and they guided me through young adulthood as I became a professor myself.

You might, however, have reached age 18 feeling that your parents showed you more about how you wanted NOT to be than how to be. So that leads to the second possibly important source for your vow: the reactive. Chozen Bays explains it this way:
“Reactive vows can ricochet through many generations. For example, a child raised by a military father who is precise, strict, authoritarian, and conservative may become a hippie. The hippie’s child, tired of dirty clothes, living out of a van, and not having predictable meals, may decide to become an accountant who lives in the same house for forty years and hoards food, toilet paper, and paperclips. The accountant’s child becomes a rock musician perpetually on tour; the musician’s child, a buttoned-up stockbroker; and so on.”
Or reactive vows can be a response to situation faced while growing up.
“People who become physicians often have had an experience with illness or death in their early years, either in themselves or their family. Their choice of profession may be due to an unconscious desire to gain control over the helplessness and vulnerability they felt as they faced sickness and death at an age when they had no defenses or coping skills. Incidentally, many lawyers seem to be impelled into law after an early experience of injustice” (Bays 12).
A reactive source of vows is not a bad thing. It COULD be over-reactive, but reaction itself is often not overreactive. What makes it reactive is that’s it’s driven by a desire to avoid something – avoid being like your parents, or avoid a kind of experience, such as sickness or injustice.

A third, and the last vow source I’ll mention, is inspiration. Who and what has inspired you to want to make yourself into a certain kind of person? We pick up inspired vows – often in adolescence or early adulthood – when we learn about someone and find we admire them. Martin Luther King Jr’s vow of nonviolence was inspired by the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. Athletes often draw inspiration from a particular athlete they admire. Who are your heroes?

The vow of your life lies within you. To bring it out, to consciously articulate and thereby strengthen it as the orientation of your life, it helps to explore those three sources: inheritance, reaction, and inspiration.

Let me invite you now, as I invited the congregation three years ago, to articulate your great vow. Write it down on a piece of paper this afternoon. Then sleep on it – that's a key step. Some time tomorrow, look again at your paper. Make the revisions that seem right to you. Then email it to me. Send it to minister at cucwp dot org. I will add it to our “Shrine of Vows” page at cucmatters.org. If you’d like your name to appear with your Vow, then include your name at the end of the vow in the same paragraph (i.e., without a line break before your name). Otherwise, vows I receive will be displayed anonymously.

And if you did this three years ago – thank you for that! I’d still like to hear from you – let me know if your sense of the Great Vow of you life has evolved or changed from what you said before. I am so looking forward to seeing what your Great Vows are!

Blessed be and Amen.


UU Minute #111

The Year-Book Controversy

The third National Unitarian Conference, in 1868, and the fourth, in 1870, were both held in Manhattan, and the controversy around the Christian creedal statement continued.

The third Conference passed an amendment that said the statement of belief reflected the majority viewpoint, but it was nonbinding. This failed to satisfy the radicals and served only to irk the conservatives. Conservatives talked of splitting off to form their own organization -- the “Evangelical Unitarian Association” – though nothing came of it.

Then the fourth Conference voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm allegiance to Jesus Christ. The radicals fumed. For the next 12 years the issue did not come to the conference floor, but folks were fussing. There was, for instance, the big year-book controversy.

Every year the AUA issued a year-book that listed all the Unitarian congregations and ministers. Rev. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, minister to New York City’s Third Unitarian Church, sided with the radicals, joined the Free Religious Association, and was elected F.R.A. President. Frothingham wrote to the editor of the year-book and said he doesn’t accept Jesus as his leader, and since the National Conference just voted to reaffirm allegiance to Jesus Christ, he guesses he isn’t a Unitarian, so please remove his name from the list.

Then Rev. William James Potter, minister of the Unitarian First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts – the secretary of the F.R.A. – wrote to say he DOES think of himself as Unitarian, but not Christian, so he’ll leave it up to the editor to decide what to do about that. The editor decided to delete all the ministers who had publicly said they weren’t Christian.

The ministers and lay members who identified as both Unitarian and non-Christian were outraged to be de-listed. And, as Unitarianism expanded Westward, the tide shifted in their favor.

NEXT: Those Radical Westerners!


UU Minute #110

The Free Religious Association

1865. It was a time when new ways of understanding were breaking out. On one front, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species had just come out. On another front, English translations of Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist texts were newly becoming available, and many Unitarians were reading them. Minds were being blown right and left.

So when, that year, the first Unitarian national conference was held and adopted a denominational constitution with a preamble that said Unitarians were "disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ" devoted to “the service of God and the building-up of the kingdom of his son" there was some opposition to that.

In 1866, in Syracuse, at the second National Conference of Unitarian Churches, the radicals renewed their argument against the statement about Jesus, which they said was a creed. They moved to have the statement dropped, but were outvoted 2-1.

A number of them subsequently met in Boston and, in 1867, formed the Free Religious Association – the FRA. Its purposes were:
(1) promote interests of pure religion;
(2) encourage scientific study of religion;
(3) increase fellowship of the spirit.

“sought the universal element in all religion and grounded that search in a scientific approach to human nature and the external world.” (William Schulz)
The first one to sign the membership list was Ralph Waldo Emerson himself.

The FRA members who had been Unitarian continued to be Unitarians – they didn't leave that behind. But the FRA also included nonUnitarian members – a smattering of Universalists, Quakers, and at least one Jewish rabbi. Through their publications and meetings, the FRA was a voice for radical religious thought – though it never established churches or developed a program.

Slowly, the FRA grew. And the controversy around the Unitarians’ Christian creedal statement continued.

NEXT: The Year-Book Controversy


UU Minute #109

Henry Bellows Organizes Unitarians

The American Unitarian Association – A.U.A. – established in 1825 – started out as not much more than a clearinghouse for a few Unitarian publications. It was not even an organization of congregations, but of individuals – mostly ministers – who joined.

Forty years later, it’s 1865. Rev. Henry Bellows, our minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, had, during the Civil War, organized the US Sanitary Commission to provide medical care to the sick and wounded soldiers. With the war over, Bellows turned his organizational energies to whipping this slack bunch of religious liberals into shape.

Unitarianism was stagnating. There'd been no growth for decades. Bellows organized the first ever national Unitarian conference. Invitations went out to every congregation: send your minister and two delegates. Over 200 congregations were represented at the Conference held in New York City. The Conference approved raising $100,000 for denominational purposes – serious money in 1865 -- and those funds ended up founding new churches and supporting Unitarian seminaries.

Interestingly, that 1865 conference also proposed union with the Universalists. It would take 96 more years before that happened.

Bellows wanted us to more effectively get the word out about who we were. Believing that adopting a statement would help, he introduced one that said Unitarians are "disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ" devoted to “the service of God and the building-up of the kingdom of his son." Many of the delegates were not so sure about that. Unitarians had always been noncreedal, and they wanted to keep it that way.

Henry Bellows’ motion passed with a thin majority, but the dissenters did not give up. It was the first round of a battle Unitarians would have for the next thirty years.

NEXT: The Free Religious Association


UU Minute #108

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Born Frances Ellen Watkins in 1825 in Baltimore, she became a great writer, lecturer, activist, abolitionist, and suffragist. Educated at Baltimore’s Academy for Negro Youth, her poems began appearing in newspapers, and her first collection of them was published when she was 20.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made conditions for free blacks in Maryland untenable. Frances, then age 25, moved on her own to Ohio, and a year later to Pennsylvania where, as part of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she helped people escaping enslavement along the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada.

In 1854, her second book of poems attracted critical notice and commercial success. Her poems attacked both racism and the oppression of women. She was now also in demand as a lecturer on the anti-slavery circuit.

In 1860, when she was age 35, she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children, and moved again to Ohio. They had a daughter together before Fenton died in 1864.

Raised in the AME Church, Frances had become acquainted with Unitarians through their support of abolition and the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, in 1870, she and her daughter settled in Philadelphia, and Frances joined the First Unitarian Church there. She was now devoting her energy to women's rights, campaigning for suffrage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was both an AME and a Unitarian. AME was the church she had been raised in – her family and her home. As a Unitarian, she could meet white allies who could help advance the causes she supported in places she could never go. And her faith was Unitarian Christian. For her, Jesus was a role model for a way of being any one could attain. When she died in 1911, her funeral service was at the Philadelphia Unitarian Church.

NEXT: Henry Bellows Organizes Unitarians!