Way Too Many Choices For The Story
Upon moving to any new place – specifically a new state – I’m sure the first impulse of anyone is to run and get their license plates changed. It certainly isn’t my motivation, but last year it had a little bit of excitement as I was eager to be branded as a resident of Kentucky and lose my New England license plates – and all of the weird questions that came with them every time someone saw them.
The joys of moving to a new place and taking up a small piece of that new identity awaiting you – it can be exhilarating, even if it involves bureaucracy. There is something fascinating about any county clerk or department of motor vehicles office where you stand in line and wait, wait, perhaps get yelled at, and wait some more.
Sometimes there might be awkward chatter with the people near you, all of you agreeing that this is indeed the longest you’ve ever had to wait. My own experience has been the same. Every time in Chicago, I felt like if only I slid an extra 20 dollar bill across the desk, I’d be taken care of immediately.
In Massachusetts, I braced for the employees to find some reason to yell. And here in Kentucky…I marveled at the abundance of choices I was given in the county clerks office.
Upon finally reaching your destination, walking up to the clerks window, you are asked a question that I had never been asked in either Illinois or Massachusetts: What plate do you want? The question itself caused me to pause. What plate do I want? You mean I have a choice?
In Illinois and Massachusetts, you had to know beforehand if you wanted a special plate. You had to fill out a special form, pay a special fee, and sometimes wait weeks before you got your plate. But here in Kentucky, the plates are all splayed out on the wall, there for you to take in their variety and ponder: What will my car say about me?
Upon being asked to choose, the clerk clarified: I could have pretty much any plate up there, except the Kentucky Colonel plate and a couple other ones. I hadn’t thought about it, so I stood there, thinking, she told me to take my time. In the window next to me, a man was also surveying the plates and debating which one he should get: The Keeneland plate or the UK plate. Or some other plate he named.
His clerk offered her opinions on all of them. The experience was a little baffling, but I took a moment to think: What should the UU minister in Lexington have on his car? I continued my search and landed upon the words: Conserve Wetlands. It was a sentiment I could relate with.
I like wetlands, I like conservation, I like nature – it comes with the territory as a UU minister. There was also a duck on the plate. I like ducks as well. It sounded like the perfect plate for my car. And so I selected it – my eco-friendly license plate. The clerk gave me an odd look and I just assumed it was because she thought I was a tree hugging hippy.
With my brand spanking new plate in hand, I put it on the car, and proudly drove home. And then for some reason, I was compelled to look up the plate on the internet later in the day. The information I found…stunned me. I learned that evening that, yes, indeed, I selected a license plate that represented one of the largest hunting and pro-gun organizations in our country: Ducks Unlimited.
And better yet, the thought cut through me, the UU minister in Lexington, was driving around with his duck hunting license plate, an LGBT equality sticker, and a flaming chalice on his little Volkswagen Jetta.
Now, I’m from Chicago. I truly am. And the farthest I ever got out of Chicago was to the suburbs. And beyond that, the suburbs of Boston were my second home. There were not many people in my life that were hunters, actually, I cannot think of anyone I know that hunted. I had never heard of Ducks Unlimited until the day I selected a license plate that donated money to their organization.
My colleagues were confused, our music director was confused, our director of RE was confused, I’m sure the giant trucks with the very same plate following my little Jetta were confused, and I was confused as well.
Let me assure you, I have since donated an amount equal to the cost of that plate to an eco-friendly organization that leaves my conscience clean. Though if we are splitting hairs, Ducks Unlimited actually does conserve a considerable amount of wetlands. I no longer have the plate, but part of me misses the irony of driving around with it.
When have you been presented with innumerable choices on the path before you, only to choose the one that brings you embarrassment, grief, humiliation, anxiety, or a combination of those experiences and emotions? I’m sure there are many a small blunder coming to the front of your thoughts right now.
I know the great Fayette county license plate adventure was not my finest example of a poor choice. There have been many a job I regretted, classes I should not have taken, people I should not have known and people I should have known better.
Did I turn right when I should have turned left, did I buy the right thing for some purpose, am I making the right choices about my health, my happiness, my place in this limited life? What choices did we make this very morning that have shaped the story of who we are as individuals and as a community?
It is no great mystery that life, as far as we know it, is about the choices we make. They impact our personal lives, the lives of those near us, the lives of those around us, and the lives of those we may never meet. Our moving about in this world and deciding left and right about the paths we take and the things we will welcome into our lives leaves a mark that others will undoubtedly see, feel, and encounter.
That license plate I chose – I am certain there were some eco-warriors driving behind me cursing my name, whereas some hunters felt kinship. And while that story is lighter in tone than much of what we encounter in life, it still caused people frustration or joy. So, too, in most of what comes upon us.
And it can be difficult to realize that our choices have consequences and, perhaps equally as important, the choices presented to us have the power to alter our lives permanently, forcefully, and without regard to joy or sorrow.
I do not want to get lost in pondering whether or not we truly have choices or free will, but what I do want to name is that sometimes we can easily get lost in having far too many choices for the story of our lives.
What choices are before you right now in this moment? How does it feel to be confronted with them? Terrifying? Exciting? Exhilirating? Overwhelming? Are paths diverging, possibilities overflowing, decisions looming? Are they bright rays of freedom or storm clouds sweeping across your day?
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I…I chose the duck hunting license plate. The first part of that is, of course familiar to our ears. And there are many paths diverging before us – even in this moment.
I know it is cliché to quote Robert Frost, but I’m reminded of the wise words of the late British fantasy writer, Terry Pratchett: “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.”
And so paths diverge before us in yellow woods, dozens of license plates hang on a wall in a clerks office, a doctor offers us a smorgasbord of treatment options for a health concern, there are at least 30 different types of canned tomatoes at the grocery story, and our theological tradition leaves us with choices and choices and more choices.
It is no wonder that our religion, Unitarian Universalism, is one of seemingly endless choices. Our very tradition is a reaction and a refutation of the idea that we are powerless to captain our own lives. Our Puritan siblings were of a Calvinist persuasion – and they believed wholeheartedly in the doctrine of double predestination.
They believed that God had both determined who was to be saved and who was to be damned. And you were born into this world not knowing which. What kind of life was that? A world where God had already judged your worthiness and there was nothing you could do to change that.
But just in case you found a loophole in this understanding of the Universe, our dear Calvinist ancestors put in this little footnote: Even though you are already judged for either heaven and hell, know that only God can make you a better person. You cannot free yourself from what the Puritans called, “total depravity.”
It is no wonder that Rev. Lorzeno Dow said of Calvinism in the 1830s: “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” With such an airtight theology that despised humanity, it was inevitable that the Unitarians and the Universalists would break this mold.
The Unitarians adopted a radical understanding that God gave us the power to save ourselves by the improvement of our character, and the Universalists believed that no matter what, all were saved.
And here we are today. The children of both the Puritans and those early radical traditions. And we have nothing but choices for own our spiritual paths in this place. We affirm a responsible search for truth and meaning, wherever that may take us.
It might take us to one true and loving God, to multiple spirits and deities, to no supernatural understanding of the Universe, to miracles, to prayer, to contemplation, to meditation, to Jesus, to Rumi, to wherever the heart sings when we think and feel, “Ahh, yes, I am a Unitarian Universalist because of this!”
And yet, still, faced with these multiple paths, these seemingly endless choices before us, we can still choose one or two or three or many that leave us feeling embarrassed or foolish or simply not at home with our religious selves.
In those moments we might flirt with the idea of having only one choice – a creed or a doctrine that would make things sensible and straightforward. There is a very good reason why Unitarian Universalism is not a major world religion – and I suspect that it is because we offer the anxiety of choice instead of the comfort of dogma. We automatically invite you to experiment instead of sit comfortably.
Think about that for a moment, though. What have you experimented with as a Unitarian Universalist? Have you tried prayer? Devotional, centering, contemplative, or any other variation?
Have you prayed with images or prayer beads? Have you meditated? Danced with spiritual exuberance or solemnity? Reflected on a koan? Fasted? Gone on a pilgrimage? Looked at the stars and lost yourself?
What choices have you made for your spiritual journey – your spiritual story – here at UUCL? Ultimately, above many other things that make Unitarian Universalism what it is, it is an invitation to experiment and tread many paths.
It is a place where we can blunder in our practices and seek out new ways of being in community without being ridiculed – so long as we do so responsibly and in accordance with our very broad principles.
If you have not done so, I invite you to experiment. I invite you to choose the choice waiting for you on the wall that will leave you feeling awkward immediately after. Or the one where you discover a hidden voice you did not know was a part of you.
Now, I’ve said a whole lot that often leads to the accusation that we Unitarian Universalists can believe anything that we want. I’ve rebuked that understanding of our religion before and I’ll do it again. There are many choices before us as a people of faith, perhaps too many choices that it’s hard to take them all in.
But not every choice is before you. An anarchist would not feel comfortable here…as we are a religion of democracy. A Satanist would feel out of place…as we reject their principles of selfishness and retribution.
A person believing in hell would have a hard time being here…because even now – with atheists, theists, Buddhists, and any other variation of Unitarian Universalist in this room, this religion wholeheartedly and down to the marrow rejects any concept of damnation.
But back to the choices we do indeed have before us, and they are many. It is okay to be terrified of them. It is okay to be joyful and excited and worried and everything all at once. Here we have the spiritual freedom to model what it is like to be free and yet to give of that freedom to be in community with one another.
We get to model that. We get to carry out that grand experiment, that grand story, every time we gather as a people of faith. And there is failure in it. There is anger, contentment, happiness, disappointment. And that is okay – it is okay to stumble in our experiments.
My great hope is that it would be okay in real life to fail miserably or stumble, but as we all know just by living, there are places and people with whom experimentation is not an option. Only success and only a still puritan orthodoxy are available in many things.
And I’m not speaking of unbounded freedom in choices that risk life and limb, but those places in our lives where we could use a few more diverging paths. Our vocation, education, culture, politics – the list goes on.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I often despair that we have far too many choices for our religious story. Sometimes, and I’m not alone as far as ministers are concerned, I look with envy at those traditions with Bishops and centralized authority and a dominant story to guide their religious lives.
But those are passing thoughts. There is a freedom and joy in seeing our communities find likeminded friends or disagree with one another in the spirit of acceptance. But ultimately, it truly is up to us to make a choice, see how it feels, make another choice if need be, and keep on choosing in our communities of faith.
It is up to each and every one of you to start choosing – to take the initiative to make this a place where religious freedom and the failures and successes that come with it – is good and right and a part of who we are.
We have here, right now, a place where we can test the expression of our faith in ways we could not imagine. Church is, after all, an experiment – an experiment that is still sometimes working. Two road diverge, a wall is before you with dozens of choices, deep calls unto deep. What is the next chapter of your story of faith and what is the next sentence in our collective story?