Great Expectations

Sarah Richards
December 6, 2015

Great Expectations

I love the story of my friend Brian’s first experience with a Unitarian Universalist worship service. An ex-Catholic, he had never heard of Unitarian Universalism before his friend invited him to “come to church.” I don’t know what he thought of the sermon, by our Buddhist UU minister, but he describes a feeling of growing panic when he heard the ringing vibrations of the Tibetan singing bowl, marking the moment of meditative silence. “I thought it was a way of brainwashing!” he says, then dissolves into laughter. This is funny to us, maybe because we’ve had similar experiences of UU services surprising our expectations. Some of you, I know have heard my own story of visiting UU churches in the Boston area, and panicking at the invitation to communion after a service. Raised as I had been in a humanist Midwestern lay-led Fellowship, communion did not fit my rather narrow expectation for UU worship! I think this poem by Robert Bly applies here:

Things to Think[i]

Think in ways you’ve never thought before
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

Where do our expectations for Unitarian Universalism, for our congregation, and for ourselves as Unitarian Universalists come from? Experience? Culture? Family? There are so many sources: Our Time For All Ages story shows that in general, maybe we expect a lot more of those we know best, and have low expectations for those distant from us. Both familiarity and distance can make us lazy about altering our expectations of others. What can our expectation be for our Unitarian Universalist movement, given that it’s made up of more than 1000 congregations in the U.S., each one with members of diverse theologies, cultures, and experiences? In these times of mass shootings, systemic racism, extreme economic inequality, what are our expectations for fulfilling our second principle – “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations”? In these times of civil wars, record numbers of displaced and refugees, unprecedented climate change, how do we expect to work toward our sixth principle, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all?” We are going to need to shift our expectations, and “think in ways we’ve never thought before.”

There is an historical parallel we can learn from here: in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1637. Unlike other towns in the New World that were established by people from the same towns in England, Dedham’s new settlers didn’t know each other previously, and hadn’t even arrived on the same boats. By modern standards, they would seem pretty homogeneous, pretty much the same in class, religious belief and cultural background, but these folks were strangers to each other—I’ll bet they didn’t have high expectations of each other. So what did they do? As Alice Blair Wesley tells the tale, “ to get to know each other and to approach—gently, slowly—some very profound and personal religious issues….” They set up a series of weekly neighborhood meetings, “lovingly to discourse and consult together… and prepare for spiritual communion in a church society, … that we might be further acquainted with the (spiritual) tempers and gifts of one an other.” Meetings were held every Thursday “at several houses in order,” in rotation. Anybody in town who wanted was welcome to attend.[ii]

After a year of these cottage meetings, with a lot of discussion of civil society, they began to organize a church. “These laypeople’s central conclusion, from all these weeks of discussion, was this: Members of their new free church should be joined in a covenant of religious loyalty to the spirit of love.[iii]” Alice Blair Wesley’s modern English adaptation of that covenant goes:

We pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled and that we may speak to the world in words and actions of peace and goodwill.[iv]

We Unitarian Universalists are religious descendants of those Dedham Congregationalists. Almost 400 years later, Unitarian Universalism is much more diverse theologically, much more inclusive of all genders, sexualities, classes, races and ethnicities. What are our expectations for UUism’s place and roles in American society given this diversity of strengths and challenges? What are the promises that need to be made/re-affirmed? What are the actions that should be taken as part of those promises? All of these questions will be addressed at the Assembly of the UUA MidAmerica Region—our region– in March in Minneapolis. All of us are welcome to take part in the discussion of great expectation: “Who will we Unitarian Universalists need to be, to be relevant? How will we get there? Who will be joining us on this journey?”

The Dedham Church members worked together to set expectations for how they would be together, and how they would interact with other congregations—they made a covenant and held themselves accountable to it. Expectations wouldn’t matter at all if they didn’t influence our behavior. The links between expectation and behavior are key, whether we’re talking about the expectations for international climate agreement and the national follow-through needed to fulfill it, or parental expectations for a child’s academic achievement and that child’s study habits. Expectations of others and of self influence behavior. One of the moral lessons of Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations is that the way one goes about fulfilling expectations is as important as their attainment. The central figure of the story, the poor orphan Pip, becomes a shallow and thoughtless person as he becomes a “gentleman.”

Another aspect of the expectation-behavior connection: setting expectations that are too high, leads to repeated failure, and while motivating for some (great artists, athletes, political leaders), is demoralizing for most people. This explains the many variations of sayings about keeping expectations low to avoid disappointment in others or in oneself.

But keeping expectations low to avoid disappointment is no way to live—no disappointment, no opportunity to learn, readjust, grow – Pip recognized how he had hurt those who had been good to him; his disappointment in himself, set new expectations to be kind and caring of others. I think we should aim to set expectations just above our status quo. To strengthen muscles, we don’t go from lifting five pounds to 25 pounds, but work our way up incrementally. The status quo shifts, though, so expectations have to shift, too—as injury and age cause a decline in capacity to lift weights, we readjust our goals accordingly. Ideally, we don’t just quit exercising our muscles altogether because we’re not able to do it how we used to. Keeping expectations of others low is also no way to live—it is a sign of prejudice, cynicism and disconnection. If that butcher had kicked the dog out again, he’d never have found out what an incredible animal it was. No doubt we can all think of our own experiences underestimating others of the human variety as well.

Generally speaking, UU’s have long erred on the side of setting high, rather than low expectation for humans. From its beginnings in Unitarianism’s application of reason to religion, rejection of original sin, and its impulse to social reform, our religion has often been criticized as being overly optimistic about human nature, naïve about human capacity for evil, and elitist. Well, we’re still working on it, especially in dealing with race and class. We struggle to think and act in ways we’ve never thought or acted before. The fact that we are working on it shows our bone deep expectation of the possibility, even probability of improvement. Oh, we have disappointed ourselves—there are at least as many examples of missed opportunities in our history as glorious achievements. UUism has its friendly critics and that helps to check our hubris, helps us develop resources and improve—but UUism is not all things to all people, and is not the path for everyone. Having a covenant rather than a creed may make it harder to explain ourselves to others, but explaining our principles, and how we live them is as important to us as it is to inform others. Last month, I learned three steps in maturely and effectively dealing with anxious situations—I think that they are equally applicable in maturely and effectively dealing with others’ expectations of us (which can be anxiety producing, after all). 1. Be clear about values and principles. 2. Manage your reactivity – don’t panic! 3. Stay connected. Based in the first two steps, we can alter the form and quality of that connection.

I see these three actions at play in the Dedham church’s process—they took the time to be clear about their shared values and principles; we can assume they managed their reactivity, because no one stomped away to form their own church; and they stayed connected through their covenant to walk together in love.

What are our expectations for CUF, our expectations of each other and selves? How do we put our principles into action now and in the future? Our mission statement gives us solid guidance creating a spiritual home empowering, enlightening and encouraging our congregation in important ways. But you know what I found out recently? It’s at least 20 years old, so we should consider renewing it in coming years, to make sure that it is relevant to our lives and times today.

Before that though, we might take a page from our Dedham ancestors and create a covenant—set expectations in how to be in relationship in all our processes. Plans are in the works for a congregation-wide Spring retreat that will feature discussions of a covenant (in addition to outdoor fun and games). Cottage meetings about the covenant and other expectations of membership will be held in the months leading up to the retreat. As individuals and as a congregation, we have expectations of spiritual growth and development of connections: covenant groups can help. We’ll be having informational gatherings about what covenant groups are and how they function in the coming months. We have expectations for the Fellowship’s role in the community: collaboration with other communities of faith and organizations on responsible budget, prevention of homelessness and services to homeless, racial justice. All are welcome to all of these activities within and beyond the Fellowship.

Friends, we have before us countless invitations to reflect on our expectations of ourselves, our families, our Fellowship, and our UU movement. Not only to reflect, but to adjust them, to stay open to being surprised, to think in ways we’ve never thought before, to act on them. As we accept these invitations, may we be clear about our values and principles, may we manage our reactivity, may we stay connected.





[i] Bly, Robert. “Things to Think” in Poems to Live By: In Uncertain Times, Joan Murray, ed. Boston, Beacon Press, 2001, p. 51.

[ii] Wesley, Alice Blair. Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures, The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant. Chicago: Meadville Lombard Press, pp. 18-19.

[iii] Ibid., p. 22.

[iv] Wesley, Alice Blair. Reading 223 in Lifting Our Voices. UUA, 2015, p. 74.