Faith Matters: Aspiring to integrity

  • First Parish Unitarian of Northfield Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • The Rev. Melissa Carvill Ziemer of First Parish Unitarian Church in Northfield. Staff file photo

Affiliated Minister, First Parish of Northfield, Unitarian
Published: 1/17/2020 3:10:41 PM
Modified: 1/17/2020 3:09:46 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email

“But there are times in this harum-scarum world when figuring out the right thing to do is quite simple, but doing the right thing is simply impossible ...”

— Lemony Snicket, “Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid”

I once heard someone say that doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time is a good definition of integrity. As Lemony Snicket explains, sometimes the right thing is clear to us, but we don’t have the will or the strength or the resources to follow through. Other times, we know the time is right and even have a sense of the reasons we must act, but we don’t know what it is we should do or say. Looking at it from this angle, I think of integrity as something to which we can aspire. Maybe it is a guiding star we can follow or perhaps an inner compass pointing the way. We can’t, we won’t always get things right, but maybe integrity is the thing which helps us keep learning, growing, trying to find a right way.

“Don't you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can't be exactly who you are.”

—Lady Gaga

Be yourself. We’ve all heard that advice, maybe given it, too. If you want a quotation on being yourself, you can choose from a host of pop stars, literary greats and inspirational speakers. This dictum is so widely offered because it is so enduring. A range of spiritual teachers observe that being true to ourselves is the key to living a whole and undivided life. Not only that, they also tell us that when we learn to live a whole and undivided life, we are modeling that possibility for others. Looking at it from this angle, it seems that integrity is something which requires practice. Maybe becoming a person of integrity requires developing habits of authenticity and honesty and learning to hone them day by day by day.

“On some questions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it polite?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but we must do it because conscience tells us it is right.”

—The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It feels like in this new year we’ve been offered a glimpse into a terrible dystopian future. It is frightening to feel that we may be balanced on the precipice of another terrible war with our neighbors in the Middle East. It is heartbreaking to read news stories of the way racism, transphobia, ableism and other forms of oppression damage and destroy lives. It is terrifying to watch vast swaths of land burning around our neighbors in Australia. We live in a world at risk of destruction. Looking at it from this angle, I think of integrity as the feeling within us that pushes us to take a position, even when it doesn’t feel safe or polite or popular or comfortable. Maybe integrity is one of the things we need most right now for ourselves, our children and the future of our planet.

Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I encourage you to join me in reflection. What does it mean to you to live with integrity in these times?

About First Parish

The mission of First Parish of Northfield Unitarian is to embrace the spiritual through imaginative contemplation and reflection; to nurture fellowship, service and charity; and to share, celebrate and affirm diversity and explore common needs among members, friends and the larger community. Growing out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we also seek inspiration from great philosophers and world religions. We cherish diversity among our members and require adherence to no creed.

All are invited to attend services at First Parish every Sunday at 10 a.m., followed by coffee hour in the Webster Room downstairs.

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