The Fine Print

By Rev. Brian J. Kiely, September 8, 2013

This is the first of a two part series on Unitarianism for newcomers.  The second is entitled “Why I Am a Unitarian”

Reading:  “No Fine Print Here” (excerpt)  Rev. Alex Holt, Bend, Oregon

I have been fascinated for years by the fine print that either gets spoken or read (if you can read it at all) on radio, TV, web, or other media at the end of sales pitches. Cars are the most famous example here in America. A voice or voices will implore you to purchase a car (as an example) with no down payment, no interest, etc. and may make you want to run down to the car lot before all the cars are gone. At the end of the commercial, there’s a short segment where some other voice speaks very rapidly about the exclusions, caveats, limitations, etc. of the main ad…

I’ve wondered over the years if religious communities ought to have truth-in-advertising endings on come-hither ads. Just as a hypothetical example, a Buddhist community might entice seekers with an ad like this: “Come to Willy-nilly Dharma Center and get enlightened at no cost. 100% satisfaction guaranteed.” The fine print at the end of the promises might say something like “Five years constant meditation and mindfulness practice required for entry. All promises are conditional on absolute obedience with the teacher, … etc.”

Imagine religious communities having to put important details at the end of their sales pitch. There might be words like: “Salvation not guaranteed and dependent on size of tithe beyond the 10% minimum…” All sorts of mischief can be hidden in such fine print.

Would … any Unitarian Universalist community need fine print in order to have truth in advertising? Would it have to say something like, “Applicants must be prepared to discern what spiritual practice works best, to commit to deepening such practices with others, and to be prepared to take on greater tolerance and acceptance of different cultural or religious beliefs…”? A colleague suggested that UU fine print would include: “Concepts of God may vary. Principles and purposes are subject to individual, congregational, and associational interpretation. Coffee might be hot.”

Personally I am not sure what we would need to say for fine print. Do we have unseen or unspoken criteria or limitations we must say to newcomers? Do we have something to hide that needs to be explained in fine print?…



This is the first of a pair of sermons that are – well – “Basic Unitarianism”.  This seems to be a good topic to address early in September, partly because we often get to welcome some new folks doing a little church shopping… and because even we long timers need to be reminded what this church is about now and then.  Because Unitarian services address such a wide diversity of topics, and because we are not confined to a particular doctrinal approach to those topics, the specifically Unitarian ‘take’ on any moral subject can easily get lost in the discussion.

The thing is, I may have planned these two services backward.  Next week I will speak on “Why I am a Unitarian”.  Pretty obviously that’s the one where I get to sing the praises of our liberal faith and speak about why it moves me still more than 30 years after my first visit.

And today, my topic is “The Fine Print”, which is really an explanation of the kinds of things I might be saying next week. Now we all know what the ‘fine print’ means.  The fine print carries the warnings, the legal restrictions, and the limitations placed on the offer:  “Offer valid only for the next 14 seconds, no rain checks, only people who are too wealthy to actually need this sale need apply.”

The fine print in any ad is like the word ‘but’ in a conversation.  A wise friend once pointed out that the word ‘but ‘is most often used to negate everything that has gone before it. “You really are a wonderful person, sweet and intelligent, BUT…” and I bet you can fill in the rest of the sentence.  In advertising, the fine print serves as the ‘but’ that negates or at least limits what has just been said in glowing terms.

In our reading my longtime friend and colleague Alex Holt pondered about what kind of fine print some religious groups should really produce.

Any ad, any act of outreach starts with the promise- the offer, perhaps even the guarantee.  What does a religion offer to the people who come through the doors?  Some promise salvation and an afterlife.  Some promise God’s approval.  A few even promise wealth and success of you follow their path.

It seems so simple and so glorious to people who approach these churches hurting, lost, suffering and alone. “Come in!  Give yourself over to Jesus, or God, or Allah!  Follow our interpretation and you will get your heavenly reward.

But the promises don’t always pan out, do they?  This congregation has a lot of people who started in other religious communities, including me.  For one reason or another they/we became disaffected, usually because our needs were not being met.  Sometimes it was because we felt the promise was not being fulfilled.  We might even have come to a place of believing that there was some hypocrisy, or t least a failure to ‘walk their talk’.

Well, I am not interested in critiquing other groups today.  Instead I would like to take a look at this tradition of ours, not just Unitarian Universalism as a whole, but this congregation in particular.

I don’t know about you, but my life has its share of promises that I have made and not fulfilled personally and professionally.  That’s probably true of this church as well.

So let’s take a look at some of the promises this church seems to make and consider what the fine print that follows them might be like.  I posted the topic on our UCE Facebook group this week asking about our promises and got a few replies, so I’ll start there.

Bonnie McMillan  said that we promise, “Community and a friend where it’s needed.

That’s a good one, something that has been at the core of UCE for a long time.  You will find that promise stated in many ways in our hymns, in the readings at the back of the hymnbook.  It’s even in that Vision Statement we shared earlier, “We believe in the compassion of the individual heart, (and) the warmth of community…”

We love to share meals with regular Soup Sundays and other food events, of course there is coffee hour every week, the annual picnic service and our Annual Blue Christmas service and supper.  All of these activities and things like the choir and the walker’s group  and Religion on Tap are meant to bring people together in ways that allow the deepening of personal connections.  It’s a good thing.

And while we are not perfect at care giving, we also try to look out for each other through care and connections, and to keep in touch with our elders and those in hospital or in distress.

These are the little things that have to happen for a congregation to become a caring community.

So what about the fine print?

Well it might include the following:

You have to risk getting to know people and letting them get to know you.

This can be hard for shy folks.  It can feel dangerous to even pick up a plate of food and sit down with someone you have never met.  Over the years I have seen some folks come through our doors and dive right in and others hang around the edges for weeks or months until they felt comfortable enough to take a chance…and some never do take that risk.  That’s part of the fine print, at some point you have to take a chance on us.

I even recall when a longtime member in another congregation I served went into hospital. She had major surgery and was there for ten days.  When she got out, she quit the church because I had not been up to visit her.  The thing is, she didn’t tell anyone connected with the congregation that she was ill or having the procedure.  Sometimes if you want church support, you have to let us know you need it.

A second and similar note might be, Community is a two way street.  To have a friend you have to be a friend.

People who grow in a community are folks who are willing to give to others as well as receive their gifts.  But giving to others can also mean moderating your expectations.  Some people come to a welcoming place like this and only ask.  They don’t give back.  These folks see their own problems writ so large, that they forget that others have needs as well, even the people who are trying to support them.  Community is reciprocal if not exactly balanced, because we each have times when we are needy and other times when we are in a place to be giving.  But we need to be aware that the balance of giving and receiving is key to healthy community.  You have to give even as you receive.

And finally, Offer valid only for those who show up.  It’s hard to become part of a community or develop meaningful friendships if you don’t come.


A second promise was noted by Scott Keeler in Toronto, son of longtime members Dorothy and Bernie Keeler

The promises … of acceptance, spiritual growth (and) meaning, … should have fine print of “may require some assembly … and energy … and commitment …”

I like that.  Some religions appear to promise a great deal at very little price.  That’s never true.  Religion, any religion is valueless unless you work at it.

True, here we don’t pray five times a day, or say the rosary, or attend four hour or more services.  In fact, it is possible to drop in, listen for an hour, share a cup of coffee and leave.  And what you will likely get will be coffee and maybe an idea or two that makes you think a bit.  But that won’t grow your spiritual awareness much or deepen your sense of meaning.  That takes work, either in church or in your own life.

As with so many things in life, you only get out of your religious exploration what you put into it.  Take the Statement of Principles, for example.  To read them is to read seven reasonably poetic life guidelines.  Pretty words, but largely meaningless unless you put some effort into interpreting them.  What is implied in the affirmation of, “the  inherent worth and dignity of every person”? What is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”?  And in these days of climate change concerns, what do you mean when you say the words, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”?

The challenge for any person who calls themselves religious is not what you say you believe, but how you live those beliefs into being.  And living beliefs into being takes thought, conscious awareness and some work.

I am far from perfect at this exercise, but I do find myself using the Principles to help guide me through tough decisions.  When someone I meet makes me feel uncomfortable, mostly because they are just different from me, I often remind myself that this person has the same worth and dignity as I have, even if it presents differently from mine.

When I hear of – or have to make – some judgment or decision, I do ask if it is just, if it is fair and if it is compassionate.  I may not be able to bring all three into balance, but as someone trying to live my Unitarian values, I at last try to consider them as I make my decision…or reflect on a fast decision already made.

Most of us who call ourselves UU already subscribe to these values and already have at least some of them as part of our moral compass.  Reminding ourselves of the Principles is nevertheless helpful.

Religion takes work.  It’s less about what you believe and more about how you live.

One more promise for this morning – though there are many we could consider.  Again from our vision statement:

UCE – a liberal religious, multi-generational congregation: We celebrate a rich mosaic of free-thinking, spiritually-questing individuals joined in common support and action.  We welcome diversity, pursue the common good, and work for justice.

Well, there are a lot of promises in that one and several bits of fine print to go along with them.  To break them down:

  • “Liberal religious” and “free-thinking” do not actually mean you can believe whatever you want.  True, we have no creed, no required set of beliefs, but we do have some limits.  We will not welcome beliefs that limit human rights or that attack others.  Hate-speech has no place here.  We will not welcome beliefs that are exclusive and absolute.  You are entitled, for example to believe that some are chosen for salvation and some for damnation, but you will not hear it preached here, and speaking those views will not be welcome.
  • “We welcome diversity”.  Hmm.  Look around the room.  I don’t see a lot of diversity, do you?  People tend to join in communities where they feel some level of comfort.  Often things like background, income, education and cultural affinity contribute to that sense of comfort.  We may welcome diversity, but we aren’t overwhelmingly successful at it.  Few congregations are.  Perhaps the fine print will be.  “All are welcome. Those at ease with middle class Canadian values will likely find it more comfortable than others.”
  • “Pursue the common good, and work for justice.”  Now that’s a bit open-ended, isn’t it?  Reading the newspaper opinion pages suggest to me that there are some quite different views of what the common good and the pursuit of justice might look like.  In the past one wag tagged Unitarians as “ the NDP at church”.  I don’t think that’s fair. I think our political views are broader than just one party.  But the fine print might state, “Expect to find generally liberal and socially open-minded views among our members and friends.”  We tend to define justice and the common good as a vision where the rights of the minority are more important than the wishes of the majority.  Our diversity does not easily extend to social conservatism.

I don’t know about you, but when I came to Unitarianism I found myself home at last.  I love this church, its Principles, its values, its people and above all the community I have found here.  But because I love it I refuse to pretend that we don’t have our share of shortcomings.  Like it or not, we do have fine print.  There are qualities in this place that will exclude some people who pass through our doors.

A famous passage from our tradition reads, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.” But the fact is we do have some limits to how much unalike thinking we can handle.  We are not so open-minded as to be empty headed.

We do have community expectations some may not wish to meet.  We have common ideas some may not wish to share.  Once upon a time in the arrogant 1950’s there were some who thought Unitarianism would be the religion to unite the world.  I don’t.  I would rather go beyond that arrogance and remember hat the occasional hard look at what we fail to do can only make us stronger as a religion and as a local community.

We have much to offer, but we are not the last word in religion.  Looking at our fine print now and again reminds us neither to get too self-satisfied nor to become spiritually arrogant.