Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper: The Importance of Welcome


Just over a week ago, I spent the weekend at the Campaign for Southern Equality’s second annual “LGBT in the South” conference. The conference was attended by nearly 500 people from all across the south. I was a lead volunteer this year, responsible for wrangling volunteers and assisting conference attendees at the Pack Place conference location. In this role I got to see many old friends, and meet lots of new people. It was a fun weekend for me personally, but the best thing about it was the community-building I got to witness.

I have been working in the LGBT-rights movement for over a decade. I’ve been out since 1995. I tend to move in circles where my sexual orientation is not much of an issue, or where it is considered mostly part of the mainstream. And so I forget sometimes what it means to be in queer community. I know that many LGBT persons across the south have very different experiences, whether they live in rural areas, attend conservative churches, or have unsupportive families.

The conference is intended to be a safe space for LGBT persons, and is organized carefully to meet that goal. From gender-neutral bathrooms to pronoun buttons, to the simple fact that the majority of attendees are part of the queer community, and ALL of the attendees are supportive, the weekend was a powerful reminder for me.

I remember times in my life when it was novel to be accepted as a lesbian at work, or at school. I remember the first time I attended a pride parade and experienced the power of being in the majority and not second-guessing my actions and surroundings, even if just for a few short hours. I remember how free and empowered I felt, and how that contributed to my ability to stand up today as secure and grounded in my identity as I do every day.

It was so wonderful to watch the youth and young adults at the conference enjoying the freedom of inclusive community. It was so lovely to see genderqueer people in all stages of transition having their identity honored. The experience made me recall my own history, and feel grateful for the work of the conference organizers.

YallMeansAll-buttonsBut most of all, it made me so deeply grateful to be a part of this UUCA community.  From our Sunday morning words of welcome – whatever your history, whatever your heritage, whoever you love, you are welcome – to our marquee stating Black Lives Matter, to the new trans* inclusive signage on the bathroom doors, you are creating a place that strives to welcome ALL. And that is important, sacred work. Because we can’t always be in safe spaces for our individual identity groups, and it is an amazing gift to come into a space like UUCA and have all these different identities welcomed.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Joy Berry: And How Are the Children?


One of my favorite UU sermons includes this gem from Reverend Dr. Patrick T O Neill, First Parish Unitarian Universal Church in Framingham, MA:

Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have more warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warrior s “Kasserian ingera,” one would always say to another. It means, “and how are the children?”

It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer. “All the children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless are in place, that Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities.

Soon after taking the position of DLRE here I learned that the Board of Trustees was reaching out to “build access” for the whole congregation, making sure they heard from and considered the input from all stakeholders.  Being a mama hen, probably from birth, my first response was a less than graceful “That’s wonderful.  Have you asked the children?”

Now I’ve been a professional religious educator for six years now, and have worked with kids my whole adult life, and I’ve gotten used to asking that question, and having the answer be a less-than-satisfying, sometimes vexing, often vague one.  Boy, was I surprised to hear from the board just a few days after I asked, with a note that indicated they too had been considering how to do just that.  We began planning the best way to get feedback from our kids. We used an approach based in Appreciative Inquiry (read about that here: and modified the questions the board was asking the whole congregation, making them a little more sensible and accessible for kids. Finally we decided that having an adult the kids feel connected to would elicit the best results.  We had a plan!

On Easter morning, between Time For All Ages upstairs and an Easter Egg hunt downstairs, we gathered the K-5th graders in RE Commons and welcomed members of the Board of Trustees to join us in considering three questions:

1) What is your best memory of church?
2) If you were in charge of church, how would it be different?
3) What would you like to do more of in church?

Even with the small group there for holiday service, we had a great conversation. I wanted to share with you some of their answers–some of them are surprising.

Best Memory? Fun, All Ages, Food, Making Art, Play, Contemplation, Stories

Kids mentioned Game Night right away, talking about the fun of everyone, all ages, playing games together and eating.  Some remembered a Seder Feast at Passover, and told about the fun of multigenerational story and food.  Food came up again with a mention of Stone Soup, a story we heard and then engaged more deeply with by making and eating soup in our science classroom.  Art came up, with kids talking about how exciting it was to make things with their own hands after hearing a story, and the feeling of pride they experienced at seeing their creations. A particular memory was that of making Social Justice signs that showed what they believed in and were willing to work for. They mentioned making choices and being able to play in RE, and not be told exactly what to do all the time. They mentioned the Contemplation Center, a favorite classroom with a structure that supports their learning healthy habits toward peace and self-calming through activities that are deeply engaging and creative.  They didn’t say all that–they said they liked how peaceful the classroom is (it’s one spot in the church on Sunday morning that is almost always silent, with children working hard on their own chosen activity).

But then the conversation turned to STORIES.  They said they like the stories upstairs in Time for All Ages when I use the Wonder Box to get everyone thinking and listening, and they like the stories we enjoy weekly in Spirit Play as our centering, guided element for the day in RE.  Asked why they liked stories so much, they got into a fairly deep philosophical discussion about how how, yes, they are fun and interesting, bt that you really learn things from them.  After some back and forth, they decided they were talking about how stories tell us how to live, and they think those stories are very good, because we learn more deeply from them.  We talked about how stories, especially the ones we enjoy here together, are moral tales, helping us orient our thoughts and action toward the good.

If They Were in Charge…What Would They Change? 

I expected lots of requests here for candy and ponies, but only the trampoline seemed like a crazy idea.  They edited themselves quickly on this, talking about how this would be a blast, but trampolines would mean lots and lots of rules, which would take time and would have to keep us safe.  Then they voted (almost unanimously) that we need to figure out how to have more time outside, maybe not on a trampoline, so they can be more active. (We can absolutely have more outside play: I began plans for a nature classroom to support the container garden and vermiculture plans already in the works!)

Then they focused in:  could they have more, bigger, signs showing the UU Seven Principles in the RE Commons (Yes!) They would like big posters with each of the Seven Principles printed n large letters, so we can talk about them and see them more.  (Working on that now–great idea, kids!) Could we have a circle of light surrounding us sometimes, to make it seem really special when we worship or have stories? (Maybe; that sounds lovely).  Could we have MORE CHURCH? (Ask your parents!  We’re here more than you may think.)

And then they turned toward a brilliant idea:  What if we did REVERSE CHURCH?  Could we have the adults come downstairs for a day, while the kids go to worship?  What would that be like, I asked them?  They said adults would learn what we learn downstairs, and when prompted they said that would be all about chalices, stories, and morals. And what would they do upstairs, I wondered, in the adults’ place?  They said: Sing, worship, talk about God, share ideas for change (like we do downstairs, one said), talk, and drink coffee.  They wondered about being separate so much, and what might happen if we were together more.  I told them this was a BIG IDEA and needed some serious contemplation, but that I was impressed and excited by it.

What Would They Like to See More of in Church?

They said they’d like more art, with many votes in that category, and a few kids wanted more talk and learning about God and about Jesus. They had already shared they wanted more time outside. But the runaway winner in this category was STORIES.  Every child in the room shared or voted for more stories.  They like stories told to them, they said, by a storyteller, and not on paper.  Why?  Because a storyteller can help you learn more, make you see the details more clearly, ask you questions that make you think, and help answer questions you may be wondering about.  A story told to you makes you FEEL, they said.

I was so grateful to be part of this amazing conversation with our youngest kids.  I’ve already taken some of their requests and worked to bring in their ideas to our Summer and Fall programming. I know the Board was pleased to be part of this important conversation too. Our kids are learning from us every day, and what we do in church to include, welcome, support, and listen to them helps US to learn from THEM too.

And so now, if someone asks you “How are the children?”  you’ll know better how to answer, because we asked them.  As always, I hope you’ll consider how your own spiritual journey would be enriched by joining us in Religious Education, in some way.

Sermon: Counting on Chaos (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
My wife, Debbie, has begun a new practice when we go out on our walks. Periodically, she’ll just stop and jump. She’s not jumping over or onto anything in particular – just jumping, for the sake of jumping. She started this after reading that she might be able to reduce the gradual loss of bone mass in her hips and legs by mildly stressing them in this way. Just jumping something like 20 times a day, it seems, can halt the loss of bone density – something that is a particular concern for women – and in some cases even improve it.


My wife, Debbie, has begun a new practice when we go out on our walks. Periodically, she’ll just stop and jump. She’s not jumping over or onto anything in particular – just jumping, for the sake of jumping. She started this after reading that she might be able to reduce the gradual loss of bone mass in her hips and legs by mildly stressing them in this way. Just jumping something like 20 times a day, it seems, can halt the loss of bone density – something that is a particular concern for women – and in some cases even improve it.

Now, of course, I need to caution that I’m not prescribing this technique for you. You need to decide for yourself what physical exercise makes sense for your situation. But, when Wes introduced the topic for the sermon he hoped I’d write, it occurred to me that Debbie’s jumping had already anticipated it. It’s an interesting idea that I find challenges some of the ways we think about how we organize our lives. So, I welcome you to open your minds, and as you consider it reflect with me on what implications it might have for our religious lives as well.

The notion we’ll be working with today is something called “Antifragility,” and it was invented by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a one-time financial trader who now teaches in a field called “risk engineering.”

Taleb begins with the premise that the way we thrive in a world full of uncertainties is not to flee from risk but to work with it. As I said, it’s counterintuitive to the way most of us tend to think. We work to make our lives predictable and so protect ourselves against risk. But Taleb argues that risk is not only unavoidable, it can actually be a spur to growth and make us stronger.

So, what is this “Antifragility”? Well, we begin with the idea of fragility. Things that are fragile break easily. So, that would seem to imply that the opposite of fragility is robustness, resilience, the quality of resisting being broken. But Taleb sees it another way. Things that are antifragile, he says, don’t resist forces that threaten to break them, they gain from them.

Debbie’s jumping is a good example. Our bones are strong, but they are also at risk of breaking, a risk that increases as we get older: our bones get more brittle to the point where any fall might result in a serious break. We can do things to reduce the risk of breakage. We can keep ourselves fit, make ourselves more robust, and limit our activities to avoid circumstances that put us at risk of falling.

But, as some of you have discovered, surprisingly serious falls can happen just about anywhere. And even if we eat well and stay healthy, our bones still lose density over time. Apparently, though, one way to slow and even reverse that process is to give our bones a little stress. Small jumps now can reduce the impact of big falls later.

This is true of other systems in our body as well. We know, for example, that exercise that works our cardiovascular system strengthens it. Taleb goes so far as to say that stress is how our bodies learn about their environments, and when we deprive ourselves of stress – the right kind of stress, something we’re more likely to call stimulation – we increase our own fragility and imperil our health.

He pushes this to our inner lives as well: all of us, he says, need some stressors that make us wonder and think, some push-back against our pat certainties, ways to engage our hearts. “If you are alive,” he says, “something deep in your soul likes a certain measure or randomness and disorder.”

Indeed, antifragility, he claims, “looks like the secret of life,” or how it is that living things have endured across the millennia, despite the assaults of one extinction event after another. The trick, of course, is that while life may be antifragile, individuals aren’t. The dinosaurs couldn’t endure the circumstances of their extinction, but life did.

The perspective that Taleb seems to want to urge on us is to see randomness and uncertainty as inherent to anything we do. So, as I’ve framed it today, we should count on finding chaos everywhere. Again, this is contrary to the way we like to organize our lives. We like to create islands of stability in our lives where things are predictable. We look for things we can count on and organize what we do around them.

But Taleb insists this grasping for predictable outcomes is an illusion. The parable of the Chinese farmer that Pat read earlier is an example of this. When the farmer’s horse runs away, the villagers console him. What a terrible thing! But the farmer is not so quick to make a judgment, and sure enough the next day his horse returns with a herd of others. But this blessing turns out to be mixed when his son breaks his leg trying to train a horse. Ach, bad luck! But maybe not, since it leaves his son out of the fighting that suddenly erupts.

The parable teaches that we need to be cautious about how we assess the implications of events in our lives. That means steering away from “catastrophizing” – oh no, we’re doomed! – or smugly congratulating ourselves – well, we’re in clover now.

Another way of looking at the story is that we need to be careful what we assume is predictable. For example, none of the incidents in the parable were things that the Chinese farmer was likely to predict. They are what Taleb calls “black swans” – events that are surprising and rare, that could not have been easily predicted from prior circumstances. When such things happen, we’re inclined to discount them as flukes that we needn’t attend to, while paying attention to what appear to be predictable patterns in our experience. Yet, we know from experience that many of the most important events in our lives – from who we meet to how we make our way in the world – are inherently unpredictable.

But we tell ourselves otherwise, going about planning our lives as if we could control them. All of this worries Taleb, who argues that acting this way blinds us to variability in the world and when adopted, which he insists that it is, by many of our major institutions in the economy, political life, education and more can get us into difficulty.

We look for strategies to reduce risk, to make our lives more predictable. This may be possible within limits, he says, but in the end there is no escaping randomness and volatility. By seeking to remove the uncertainties, the stressors that impinge on us we, in his words, “fragilize” our lives: we increase the chances that a “black swan” event will do real damage.

So, how does Taleb suggest we respond? Do we simply leave ourselves to the whims of fate? Here’s where he introduces another term that came from his work in the financial markets, which he calls “optionality.”

Essentially, as I understand it, this means seeking out circumstances where there is a good chance that good things can happen and taking advantage of them when they do.

For example, we can’t map out the circumstances for when we will meet the person that will be our life’s partner, but we can place ourselves in situations where we are likely to meet people who share our interests. If you like hiking, join a hiking club; if you like music, go to a blues club or the symphony. You can’t be assured that it will work out, but you improve your chances of a good outcome by your choices.

It’s a strategy that rather than fighting the randomness of events, seeks to take advantage of it. We put ourselves in a situation with a number of positive options without betting on one in particular, hoping that in the end we will get something close to what we think we want.

The trick is that to use this strategy, we also have to be comfortable making mistakes – say, a string loser dates until we find the right person. What’s important in this scenario is that the mistakes are small ones – bad dates, say, rather than a bad marriage – so that we have an opportunity to adjust our strategy. That club was a little sleazy. Let’s try a different one.

It’s the tinkerer’s approach to making our way in the world, rather than that of the master planner. And, whether it appeals to us or not, Taleb insists, it is the way of things. We stumble around in a world we don’t really understand and through experience put together ideas of how things work that we continually tweak and test. It is a viewpoint that sees mistakes or bad outcomes simply as information, bumps we find a way to overcome. But, in the end each one makes us more adept at navigating the world around us.

This is all fine as long as we’re aware of our mistakes and upfront with others about them. But, what if we are insulated from our mistakes or able to keep them quiet? The negative effect of our decisions doesn’t go away. It just gets passed on to someone else.

An example of this that Taleb cites is the 2008 financial crisis. It was an episode brought on largely by a limited number of people who made risky deals that brought them great gain and little personal risk. When they collapsed, they passed the pain on to others and it endangered the entire financial system.

So, in any endeavor Taleb warns against working with anyone who isn’t invested in the result, who doesn’t have what he calls “skin in the game.” If I put myself at risk to some degree, I’m more likely to work for a positive outcome, and in doing so I reduce the fragility, the overall riskiness of the endeavor because I’m helping to share the load. Indeed, in some cases I may go even farther and sacrifice something of myself or my situation because it will help the larger good. That itself would be an antifragile act since it would transmute the pain of an individual to a strengthening of the whole.

So, what does all of this have to do with the religious life? Well, in keeping with our monthly worship theme of Revelation our dance with antifragility does offer up some truths that open new ways of thinking about what we hope to accomplish as a congregation.

First, it seems to me that religion itself can be an intensely antifragile enterprise. That’s because through activities that take us out of our comfort zone it helps us grow. We come here and find a diverse community of people with different backgrounds, different beliefs. We are challenged in worship, in classes, in small group ministry, in justice work that takes us into the community to think about things that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed our minds, to reflect on them and consider new ways of looking at ourselves, each other and the world. That is to say, when religion is doing its job, it is changing us and inviting us deeper into lives of compassion, integrity, service and joy.

It’s also antifragile in that we share the risk we encounter. We care for and support each other. We collaborate in the work of raising each other’s children. We attend to each other when we are ill or in crisis. We celebrate each other’s successes, and we mourn each other’s deaths. We affirm it in the covenant that joins us and reminds us of the part we each play in this enterprise. And, like exercise, the more deeply we are committed to it, the more we involve ourselves in it, the greater benefit it gives us.

Also, our Unitarian Universalism has some particularly unique antifragile qualities. Our community is centered not in a fragile, monolithic faith statement to which we are directed to adhere but in a path intended to guide us toward spiritual maturity. We are invited to reflect on and develop practices that help us know and name our core values and sense of purpose.

It is work that we begin by going deep inside ourselves but that we complete in our interactions with others who join with us in a similar spirit of exploration and in our service to the larger world. We do it in different venues that suit our own particular needs, but each grounded in a larger purpose.

To say that we might count on chaos, on volatility and uncertainty is merely to say that we needn’t fear it. As beings of inherent worth and dignity – resourceful, antifragile creatures – we have evolved to cope with a changing world: in fact, not only cope with it but employ it to our advantage.

It gives us enough confidence that we, like the figure on the cover of your order of service, might look into the abyss of uncertainty and offer each other a few notes.

Jane Bramham: I Didn’t Know That!


You discover a colleague has an exhibit of her pots, a skill of which you weren’t aware.  An acquaintance turns out to be from the same small town as one of your grandparents.  In conversation with a friend you learn they have a political opinion in opposition to what you thought was a shared belief.  Each revelation elicits an “I didn’t know that.”  In a reflective vein, you could ask why you didn’t think she was artistic, why you’re surprised that their geographic history overlaps yours, why you assumed a common partisanship.  Such revelations widen your view of the other person.

There is some “I didn’t know that” when it comes to the Lead Minister’s job description, specifically the expectations in his Letter of Call and, with respect to his administrative role, described in our Governance Document.  The Board of Trustees received, discussed and accepted the Ministerial Review Task Force report in March, and has reviewed the findings with Rev. Mark Ward.  The Task Force reported “there was a surprising lack of specific clarity as to what exactly he is responsible for. On the other hand, there was a general appreciation that the job must be complex.”  In last week’s Staff & President Reflections, Mark described elements of his job, and I encourage you to look back at his report.  Mentally add up the hours it takes to accomplish the variety of worship, pastoral, administrative and outreach tasks – each of which has its own skill set that make up his week – and you will have a deeper sense for the dedication, time, and skills Mark’s work entails.

WORSHIP is the most visible, and creating “thematic, interconnected flow” to each worship experience takes lots of time.  In addition to coordination with staff members, Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Joy Berry, and Milton Crotts, he promotes lay participation in Sunday services in various ways, including training Worship Associates. PASTORAL CARE, a more personal and thus less visible activity, is a role in which he is felt to be trustworthy and compassionate.  We take pride in seeing his COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES in the news; he is creating new connections in our Asheville community, as well as with his community of UU ministers regionally and the wider UUA.   

In my four years on UUCA Board, the Trustees who have served, and I, have observed Rev. Mark Ward grow in leadership through a complex transformation of congregational governance, learn along with us and work collaboratively and creatively with the Board.  I concur with the Task Force conclusion that he “has been and continues to function as an exemplary lead minister.”  I think you are saying “I already know that!”

I hope you say “I know that!” and “I’ll be there!” for these upcoming events:

  • Welcome Project groundbreaking is this Sunday, April 12 between services at 10:30am.
  • Town Hall Meeting, April 26, 2pm is an opportunity to hear and ask about two items prior to voting at the Annual Meeting.  The first item is the budget.  The administration prepared a budget with input from Annual Budget Drive and Finance Advisory committees and presented it to the Board, which on April 7 approved this budget for presentation to the congregation.  The second item for discussion is an amendment to our Bylaws.  Planned Giving and Finance Advisory committees worked with the Board to craft a bylaw amendment on using Bequests to UUCA.
  • The Annual Meeting will follow the one Sunday service on May 31.  At this meeting the Congregation elects Trustees and members of the Leadership Development Committee, votes on the budget and the bylaw amendment, and celebrates this year’s volunteers and our accomplishments.

The next time you are sitting in the pew or getting coffee in Sandburg Hall, take time to talk to someone and try to find an “I didn’t know that” which might create one of those connections we are seeking by being members of this congregation.