This I Believe: Jon North (2016)

I’m a Unitarian – and the reason I know I’m a Unitarian – is that for the last ten years, I’ve driven a Prius.

However – in the words of our friend Bradley Bush – I have an “unapologetically heavy foot”. Which isn’t very Unitarian because driving fast lowers your fuel efficiency, and metaphorically it means I’m rushing through life and not relishing the journey. .

But I believe my heavy foot is very Unitarian. That it represents my belief in radical justice, that I won’t be slowed by conventional doctrine until social justice is achieved.

But that analogy and many other reasons are what we love about the Unitarian faith. One of the reasons my wife and I decided to be part of this community is for moments like this. Where we value each other’s opinions and each other’s life experiences. Where we gather to share, to listen, sometimes to grieve, but also to rejoice and to serve others.

Earlier, I was joking about why I knew I was a Unitarian. The real reason I know I’m a Unitarian is like many of you, I also googled the infamous “What Faith Are You” test, and I was either a Unitarian or a Liberal Quaker, neither of which I knew much about.

You see, I grew up United Methodist. My parents met in the student Methodist group at college. Their faith is an anchor in their lives. I grew up with the rhythms of the year, celebrating Easter and Christmas, and all the related songs that to this day can still move me. We attended church regularly; and even sat in the same spot in the same pew. As a kid, I thought everyone knew that the 3rd pew on the left was reserved for the North family. In good times and bad, my parents have turned to their faith.

But like many of you, my core belief structure is not as easy to explain. I do know that my belief structure is essentially humanist. And it’s ultimately informed by my ever-expanding life experiences – and I can’t talk about “This I Believe” without sharing some of those experiences. Those themes are:   to make a statement; walk the walk; and support each other.

Make a statement: My daughter Annaliese had to choose an instrument for school band and narrowed it down to the flute and the baritone. My wife Melinda was hoping for a flute. Delicate – soft – quiet. ……But if you know my daughter – which many of you do – you know that she’s not a flute girl. Instead, my daughter told my wife, “Wouldn’t it be cool for me to play this big baritone? Wouldn’t that really make a statement?”  This kind of sums up what I mean by saying, she’s not a flute girl. So Melinda put it back to her and asked: “Do you want to make a statement or do you want to play the instrument that you love?” And Annaliese, being Annaliese, chose the instrument that did both. She picked the baritone, which is big, brassy and unmistakable. And I love this choice. I mean, maybe not at 8pm after half an hour of practice – but I love that she understood the person that she is, understood the statement she wanted to make, and she went for it. …. we can all learn from that.

Walk the walk:  Last month, I learned that unwittingly, I had somehow become a liberal elite. I grew up a scrappy blue collar East Sider, but like some of my friends I talked to, we realized we must now somehow inexplicably own that label – liberal elite. Like many of you, I’m a study in contradiction: I’m a white, straight male with food security. I’m clearly of white privilege. And yet, I’m clearly not. When people meet me, they’ve already labeled me. Some even presume to know my story. I’ve been under-estimated, and sometimes I’ve even been over-estimated, all because of my stature. But that’s just one visible label I wear. I’m also father, husband, music lover, and hundreds of other labels. I’ve long thought that because of my difference, I was more in tune with other people with a difference, or with different opinions. I didn’t think I was liberal elite.

Last month, I asked myself why I was surprised. Had I been pro-actively meeting people of many different experiences or viewpoints? Was I challenging my confirmation bias? Was I actively engaged on the frontlines of the good fight?

Somewhere along the way, I had reached what the great philosopher Roger Waters of Pink Floyd called “soft middle age”. Now that’s a boring label. Maybe I had become a little content. I come here to nurture my soul, but here’s the thing: in addition to talking the talk…. Luke & Victoria actually walk the walk. A quick shout-out to them as right now they are on the frontlines in North Dakota, standing with the water protectors. If we’re Unitarians, and we’re going to proudly wear that label, then we should walk the walk. Are we walking the walk?

Support each other: It was my senior year in high school and I realized that my term paper on the Panama Canal was due the next day. So I decided that I would pretend I was going to school, wait for my parents to leave for work, and go back home to finish the report.

Ok, this is a bad example for me to talk about – I mean, there were so many other great reasons that I played hookey, but that’s a story for another day ……

I waited, but my parents never left home. High school procrastination is common, but I remember this particular day clearly because this was the day I learned my mom suffered from life-long depression. And at the time, she was battling a deep, dark, and dangerous depression. In the subsequent weeks and months – and quite frankly, in the subsequent decades – I came to understand how debilitating depression is for the person. How it can turn a person into themselves, thinking their problems are theirs alone; or thinking that no one could possibly understand them. I also came to realize how depression affects the entire family. My dad, who by the way is the most gentle, pacifist person I know. My dad became caretaker, decision-maker and charade maker, as he tried to shield both my mom and others from the reality and the gravity of the situation. Part of that school year, my dad & I took shifts staying at home – with the simple goal of ensuring that no harm came to her if she was left alone…… Over time, I realized how important it was for all of us to stay connected with friends and our various tribes that support us. At its core – I’m a humanist. I’ve had blue days like everybody, but I’ve never felt the crushing weight of depression. To anyone in this room who has experienced depression firsthand, and felt alone – I speak for all of us when I say: We see you. We’re with you. You are not alone. To anyone in this room who has experienced depression through and with a loved one – I say that we see you. We’re with you. You are not alone.

And this is one of the things that moved me to this congregation. Despite the lack of a mandated belief, we all have shared values. We all support each other. I have many tribes that I belong to. …. including the tribe in this room.  While I don’t know all of you, I know that we all share common goals. This tribe that spends as much time raising money for other organizations as it does for our own church. This tribe, whose weekly bulletin spends more ink on volunteer opportunities than anything else. This tribe that supports each other through depression, celebrations, times of political uncertainty, or whatever else we may be going through.

This tribe and our shared values – this tribe makes me know that I’m a Unitarian.

Well… that and my Prius.