I used to work at a movie theater, one of those gigantomous mall multi-plexes. To be perfectly honest, there were a lot of things about that job that were truly awesome. But there were more than a few things that...uhm...provided deep insight and life learning (these, of course, were really frustrating at the time).
Take the example of the between-showing theater cleaning. It is the job of the usher to clean up spilled popcorn, candy, soda and leftover trash after the movie ends, to prepare the theater for the next showing. Sometimes this job is easy. Many people pick up after themselves and a quick sweeping up is all that's needed. That's the job and ushers are happy to do it. Other times... Let's just say that you'd be surprised what some people leave behind in theaters. So here's the life learning part: no one leaves that kind of mess in the lobby. No one blows their nose and tosses their kleenex behind the concession stand. No one spits their gum in a planter by the bathroom. No one throws their empty candy boxes on the floor in the lobby.
It's not dark in the lobby.
For better or worse, people—in general—behave better when someone is watching. Or, to put it another way, when people understand that there are expectations of them, when their relationships—however brief—with other people are affected by their choices, they more often make choices that honor those relationships.
Which brings me to my point: there is an incredible tension within liberal religion between freedom and obligation. We so value our freedom, that we often resist calling others to account. As a result, being part of a Unitarian Universalist community can be a little like being in the dark. You are free to steward our community as much or as little as you like. Should you volunteer your time? Should you pledge? How often should you come to services? The answer, of course, is that it's up to you; you are free to choose your own path, with no one evaluating your choices.
For me, that kind of freedom loses its appeal after a while. What I want from my religious community is to find a way to matter in the world. I want to learn how to make meaning out of everyday life. I want to make a difference to someone. I want someone to be glad I'm here.
It isn't freedom that will help me do those things. It's obligation.
Unitarian Universalist churches don't like to talk explicitly about obligation because we are often afraid of scaring people off, of seeming too strict or sounding too much like the churches so many of our members escaped from in the past. And the truth is that if you just have a cup of coffee and come for the sermon now and then, you are still part of this community. However, if you want more, here are some obligations you might try:
• Come to church every Sunday. Unless you are sick, come to church. We are your people and we want to see you.
• Pledge. There is no reason not to make a financial pledge to the church. Small and large, financial pledges form the backbone of this community.
• Join a group. Whether it's a committee, a teaching team, a neighborhood circle or the Board, joining a group is a way to make connections with other people who care about this community. If you don't know what group to join, drop me a line and we can talk about what you like to do and what group might be a good fit (email@example.com)
• Stay for coffee hour (and bring your kids). This is your church, filled with your people. Spend some time getting to know each other.
• Sign up to be an Usher. As an usher, you are one of the few people who get to see each person's face as they arrive. This is a wonderful spiritual practice.
• Resist donating junk. If you don't want it in your house, you probably don't want it in your house of worship either.
• Donate valuable items. If something has ceased to be of use to you but might be of use to the church, contact the office about whether it would be a valuable item.
• Work. Contact the office or keep your eyes on the announcements for ways you can contribute your time. Installing baseboards, painting, folding the newsletter and helping in the kitchen are all ways that you can make a home here in the church.
• Name-drop. Tell your friends where you go to church. I wish someone had told me about Unitarian Universalism sooner.
• Become a member. You and this community are part of each others' life stories. Make it official.
May your life be long and happy, filled with freedom and obligation.