The Integrity That Connects

January 26, 2020, Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Augusta, Maine

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If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing to throw a punch, you have to make sure your arm is aligned. Keep your thumb on the outside of your fist- this will protect the thumb from breaking on impact. Strike with the knuckles, keeping your wrist and forearm in one straight line, and it can better absorb the blow and protect the delicate wrist bones. Above all, to minimize the risk of injuring yourself, there should be “no deviation in your weapon.” 

This lesson in integrity was brought to you by years of Shotokan karate classes that I took as a teenager. It’s been a long time since I was effortlessly able to drop into a thigh-busting kiba dachi or perform the fluid moves of a kata, but that phrase made an impression on me even deeper than muscle memory: “no deviation in your weapon.” 

Now, I know I’m taking a couple risks with this metaphor. We Unitarian Universalists often think of ourselves as a peaceful people- not weapons, but rather instruments for good and justice in the world. And the commandment to tolerate “no deviation” is fundamentally antithetical to who we are as a community that welcomes many beliefs, many views, many different kinds. But the lesson we can take from the idea still remains true, because we are a people who move through a world of realities—and often, we want to have an effect on the physical and political realities of this world. We want the tools we use to have an impact, no matter what we’re using them for. And whether you’re using a hammer to affix two pieces of wood with a nail; a ruler to measure the distance between one point and another; or your fist to knead dough or soften clay, it benefits you to use a tool that’s strong, with no breaks or joints or bends. The tool you’re using to make an impact must be one of integrity; of unified strength; united in purpose. Otherwise, not only do you risk not having the effect you desired; but you risk hurting yourself in the process of trying. 

Such are the dangers of choosing action without integrity.

Beneath every structure, there is an underlying integrity. To live, then, “with integrity,” we need to continuously not act out our own values, but we need to understand how those values create structural integrity in a community. We need to state them; remind ourselves of them; reaffirm them. 

A house, an office building, or a church each has this sense of structure in common. We can see it all around us in this space: pillars, beams, columns, frames. We look at these structural elements all the time; but how often do we really consider the things they’re making possible?

Our roof and walls are protecting us from the cold weather of winter. Our floors give us a sturdy and level ground that minimize the risk of tripping and falling, and enable our congregants who use canes, wheelchairs, or scooters to come safely into this place. Our windows let us view the world and see the life-giving sun as the seasons turn. And many of us come here this morning from houses or buildings that share many of these same features. But structural integrity includes not only that which is solid—the bones or beams—but also that which is soft and pliable, allowing things—including immaterial things, like ideas and intent—to flow freely through the structure. 

In a tree, the vascular structure, the combined xylem and phloem tissue, creates the plant’s shape and makes channels for nutrients to flow through it. In cells, the endoplasmic reticulum serves the same purpose. In big cities, invisible networks of trestles and tunnels and train tracks teem underneath the streets and create channels for commuters and travelers. And these subway systems are built not only to allow that movement, but also to uphold the streets. No matter how large or small the organism or system, for it to survive, it must be built on a foundation that’s not only strong, but open. You can’t say that roofing tiles arranged on the ground don’t have a structure or pattern of sorts; but without the channels, openings, arches, and doorways, they don’t create the space for us to pass through. They don’t create a home for our stories, or a room for the dreams we bring to this place. 

Physical structure can be important; but if we ignore the integrity of ideas, principles, and values, the spaciousness that we need to grow and change, physical structure alone cannot make a home, or a church. It takes all of us acting with integrity to create that… and we have to decide what it means, what it looks like for us to act with integrity as a community, not just as individuals. Where I, or you, might be one beam; one roof tile; one pane of glass, it’s only by acting in common purpose that we create the walls, the roof, the window through and under which the light of our ideas and beliefs can pass. And an unbalanced beam, a broken pane, a missing tile creates “a deviation in our weapon”- a missed opportunity to join together. A missed opportunity that could even put us at risk. 

When viewed through this lens, our seven principles begin to look less like a set of guidelines or rules, and more like the stones that together create an arch- purpose and integrity, aligned into structure, creating a framework for our choices and actions. The first three, on one half of the arch: personal worth and dignity. Equity and compassion. Acceptance and encouragement to growth. These are all invoking how we treat one another as individuals. On the other side of the arch, we have the fifth, sixth, and seventh principles: democracy; world community; and the acknowledgement that all are connected. These are all oriented toward our actions in community. “But! But!” I can picture some of you saying. “There’s another principle!” Correct. Our fourth principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, creates the keystone of this arch. It is this principle that connects the “I” to the “we,” the individual to community.

When we imagine them as architecture, our principles create a narrative for us. It’s freedom that characterizes our first three principles; responsibility that governs the final three; and our fourth principle is what joins freedom to responsibility. Too often, we want to hear “free,” but conveniently forget about the responsibility that comes with that freedom. Without considering the principles that rely on responsibility, we are not drawing upon the structural integrity that’s only available to us when we see the whole arch. By only considering freedom—personal expression, personal truth, personal relationships—and not thinking about the responsibilities tied to that freedom, we create a deviation in our weapon of choice.

We’re witnessing this kind of structural breakdown now in real time, on the national scale, as an impeachment trial gets underway. We’re looking at a presidential administration and political party who act without integrity; without heed to truth, compassion, or justice. Rather than a sturdy structure built of wood planks, steel, and brick, or even a flexible and adaptable one like a tent that can endure inclement weather, that administration in Washington is as brittle and ramshackle as if it were built out of sticks being nibbled away by termites. There is no integrity connecting its disparate parts. And yet, its existence—tenuous as it is—is actively causing harm to us, and to many people we count as our family, friends, lovers, and siblings in humanity.

Once again: such are the dangers of choosing action without integrity.

And lest we forget: termites can attack any structure built from wood. With enough of them, even those institutions that once were hallmarks of integrity can become as dilapidated and dangerous as today’s presidential administration. And we see them in our UU communities all the time: disagreements about the decorations in the sanctuary, or what we wear while we worship together, or the insistence that any one individual’s truth is more important than the work we can accomplish together. These might all have varying degrees of importance from one community to the next; but none of them can warrant taking our hammer, nails, and boards and going home. Our work—our shared goal of a church founded on integrity—is too important.

Like any good architects, we know where our structure needs shoring up. We know which beams and planks are bearing the most weight and are most susceptible to collapse. We understand that without maintenance and upkeep, our structure will fall, and our integrity will be compromised. 

The materials we build with—our tools, our plans and blueprints, our wood and stone—create the shape, the channels, the corridors of what we believe. The structure that we build shows us, and others, what we honor and care for—and likewise, where we refuse to compromise: the places where we allow no deviation in our weapon. 

So when we plan, let us plan with wisdom.

When we build, let us build with an eye on what we can sustain, upkeep, and maintain. 

And when we finally choose the safety of living inside that house built out of our values, let us always create doorways and halls for love to flow. Let us be lifted by the light that enters our windows. Let us be sheltered by the roof we’ve built together. 

All of our tools await us, sturdy and strong.

Now let’s get to work.

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Image by Debby Hudson