Sunday, January 12, 2020 9:15 & 11:15am Phil Roudebush, Guest Speaker
The magi or wise men are regular figures in accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of the Christian tradition. Epiphany, which traditionally falls on January 6th, is a Christian feast day and western Christians commemorate the visit of the magi to the baby Jesus. Phil Roudebush will explore the magi story from biblical, historical and contemporary religious viewpoints with thoughts on how Unitarian Universalists might view these scholars and their message.
Sunday, January 5, 2020, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We begin the New year with a reflection with the first of our UU principles, which calls us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity. How does this principles call us to live and grow? We will also be welcoming new member to our congregation.
Sunday, December 29, 2019 11:15am (SINGLE SERVICE)
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister Our musical guest for our service on December 29 will be Musicke Antiqua,a 13-member recorder consort of musicians who perform in costume and offer historically informed live performances and educational programs designed to inspire appreciation of early music and support its study. Musicke Antiqua began as a recorder trio in Brevard, NC, in 2001, and now includes 13 members from several areas of Western North Carolina, including UUCA members Jim Manhart and Nanette Muzzy-Manhart.
The single service, will be coordinated by Lead Minister Rev. Mark Ward and Worship Associate Susan Andrew and will include stories, readings and a meditation.
Sunday, December 22, 2019 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister Charles Dickens and a Unitarian Christmas Charles Dickens imagining added much to the traditions of Christmas we now celebrate. But did you know that his encounter with Unitarianism may have done much to shape his thinking? Come hear the story.
Sunday, December 15, 2019 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development Reverence is a Choice It is by some accounts where religion begins, a moment where we are filled with wonder, where we make connections that carry us beyond ourselves and our heart throbs with joy. How do we help ourselves open to awe?
Sunday, December 8, 9:15am & 11:15am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It is by some accounts where religion begins, a moment where we are filled with wonder, where we make connections that carry us beyond ourselves and our heart throbs with joy. How do we help ourselves open to awe?
Sunday, December 1, 2019 Rev. Iris Hardin
Dementia’s effects on memory impacts many of our lives and relationships in profound ways. Join us for worship on Sunday, December 1st, when we try to make meaning of the disease sometimes called “the long goodbye.”
Bio: Iris Hardin, MDiv, facilitates Advance Care Planning for the Mission Health System. Prior to relocating to Asheville in 2017 with her spouse Clyde, she worked in the Boston area as a Hospice and Palliative Care Chaplain and Bereavement Counselor.
Sunday, November 24, 2019 Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
In a world where so much shouts for attention, today we turn to people’s stories of hope gathered by our UU Service Committee that aren’t as loud as some but just as worthy. We will be invited to welcome these folks and many more like them as Guests at Our Table this holiday season.<i>Click on title to continue</i>
Sunday, November 3, 2019 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
People around the world eat bread in all different shapes, sizes, colors and textures. Join us to explore stories some of you have shared about the mystery and beauty of breadmaking. What lessons can we learn by reflecting on this simple food which is part of many of our diets?
Sunday, October 27, 2019 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
Join us for our annual service to recall loved ones (human and otherwise) who are no longer with us. Please bring a picture or memento for our “All Souls Table” so we may all honor their memory.
Sunday, October 20, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We proclaim that everyone is welcome at UUCA, but messages we send can inadvertently lead people to question that claim. How do we make it clear who we feel belongs among us?<i> Click on title to continue.</i>
Sunday, October 6, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
Forgiveness isn’t easy. It takes courage and vulnerability to forgive those who have hurt us. And yet the ability to do so can be transformative. Can we choose to cultivate love instead of hate in our hearts? Can we always forgive? Should we always forgive? Join us for an exploration of the complexities and possibilities of forgiveness.
To Forgive by Desmond Tutu
To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.
However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.
If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.
You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.
But the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence. I don’t like to talk about my own personal experience of forgiveness, although some of the things people have tried to do to my family are close to what I’d consider unforgivable. I don’t talk about these things because I have witnessed so many incredible people who, despite experiencing atrocity and tragedy, have come to a point in their lives where they are able to forgive
Last Wednesday I watched a video of 18 year-old Brandt Jean offering his forgiveness to the woman who killed his brother a year ago. Amber Guyger, a white Dallas police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Brandt’s 26 year old brother, Botham Jean, after Guyger apparently mistook his apartment for her own. Botham was in his apartment watching TV and eating ice cream when he was shot. Brandt’s statement included his saying, “If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.”
Is there a possibility of restorative or transformative justice beyond the punitive for Amber Guyger? We know that she will serve prison time and will have the rest of her forever-changed life to contemplate her actions that resulted in the taking of an indisputably innocent life. After his statement, Brandt asked the judge for permission to give Amber Guyger a hug. It was granted and he did.
Brandt’s words and the image of his embrace of his brother’s murderer – this unconditional act of forgiveness that elicited both praise and outrage from the bipolar twitterverse.
There was praise for a young man responding to personal tragedy with compassion based on his Christian values. There was outrage, anger and frustration with what some perceived as a continuation of a history of black people forgiving white people when the same grace is not extended to them. And, there was dismay with a 10 year prison sentence for the taking an innocent life. I found myself feeling outrage because of our well documented propensity – historical and current – of disproportionately incarcerating black men and youth and disproportionately suspending or expelling black youth from our public schools. But my outrage at the seemingly light sentence was tempered by the impossibility of knowing the motivation and in-the-moment emotional and cognitive state of the woman pulling the trigger. How can that be judged? And how can it be adjudicated?
This morning I invite us to reflect on the complexity of forgiveness. What was your response to this story? As I listened to Brandt’s statement I recognized he made a choice: he chose to forgive. His forgiveness did not condone his brother’s murder. His statements implied that he was not seeking revenge. He responded to this tragedy, a year later, with compassion, grounded in his Christian faith and going as far as saying to Guyger that there was a possibility of redemption; that if she were truly repentant God would forgive her.
We have seen this theologically grounded response before. In 2016 during the trial of a white supremacist who massacred 9 people in their church during a bible study gathering, some of the survivors and family members who spoke forgave him. Because this was explicitly a racially motivated killing, there was concern that forgiveness interfered with accountability for the horrific consequences of white supremacy culture.
In these two tragic incidents, religious doctrines provide the foundation that allows family members to forgive; they can begin the process of healing that cannot occur if resentment or the desire for revenge is allowed to consume them as they seek to regain their lives and adapt their daily existence to the new reality of loss.
I may not share the theological concept of divine judgement that motivated the families of the slain, but I must admit to a most sincere admiration for their gestures and the courage to act on their beliefs.
In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we do not have specific religious language around redemption and grace. We take inspiration from various sources and personal spiritual practices as we grapple with the reality of evil and its manifestations. We reject the notion of original sin while recognizing that we all have a capacity for good and evil. And when evil and misfortune strike, we step up, offering each other comfort and support. For UUs, our covenant to affirm our principles includes respect for all beings. That covenant binds us and holds us accountable to each other. So do the many covenants we create as participants in congregational life. When we miss the mark, we recommit to our covenant and begin again in love. Even when we or others fail, we don’t give up. We work to repair relationship. We work to re-enter that sacred space of covenant, of fellowship, of commitment to love and to doing the larger work that can only be accomplished in community.
And yet, when others transgress feelings of anger, bitterness, and hatred are inevitable. They are part of being human. Holding on to them can be self-destructive, weighing down our spirits and closing us off to the possibility of moving into a future with a transformed narrative: a victim becoming a survivor.
We can’t change the past, erase transgression, but we can choose our response. Do we hold on to resentment, anger and grudges? As Desmond Tutu reminded us remaining in a state of anger and resentment locks a person in a state of victimhood making [the person] almost dependent on the perpetrator. He said “if you can find it in you to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.” This changes how you tell your story. I think it allows for a transformation from victim to survivor.
And it’s not an easy path. There are many questions to consider: What if the person won’t apologize or express remorse? Does forgiveness require reconciliation with the offender? What if the transgression is deemed unforgivable? Each person will answer these questions for their particular situation maybe with support from a therapist, a spiritual leader, a close friend. Brandt was able to forgive his brother’s killer. We do not know what his process was for reaching that decision a year later. I wonder over time how it will impact his family, his community and Guyger? UU minister Forrest Church explained it this way many years ago:
“This is how forgiveness works well. When we forgive her we don’t change her, but ourselves. We liberate ourselves from all obligation to continue bitterness. This doesn’t reverse the past. It doesn’t remove from the record whatever crime was perpetrated against us. But it changes the present and the future.”
Forgiveness can change the present by allowing us to be liberated from carrying the story of the perpetrator. It might even allow us to be curious and shift from asking “why me”? to asking “why them”? Why would someone do that? I think that is the empathy Charlie was talking about in his opening words. Reaching that level of empathy takes time. Each person decides their readiness and capacity for forgiveness. I close with a prayer written by Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter who is also a Christian minister:
Prayer Before Prayer
I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
in case you give it to me and I am not yet ready.
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften.
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again.
Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes.
Or that the one who hurt me also cried.
I am not yet ready for the journey.
I am not yet interested in the path.
I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness.
Grant me the will to want to forgive.
Grant it to me not yet, but soon.
Acknowledging the complexity of forgiveness, and recognizing the importance of forgiving ourselves as well as each other, I invite you to partake in the “Litany of Atonement” inserted in the Order of Service. We will sing the first verse of hymn 218. Then, you are invited to repeat the litany “I forgive myself. I forgive you. We begin again in love. When we finish, we will sing the second verse of Hymn 218.
Sunday, September 29, 2019, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
As part of honoring this weekend’s Pride Day festivities, our worship on Sunday will focus on the stories that tell how we came to be the congregation we are today, celebrating GLTBQ people as out and proud.<i> Click on title to continue.</i>
Sunday, September 22 2019, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, Guest Minister
For nearly 80 years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has been advancing UU values by working with justice makers the world over confronting unjust power structures and challenging oppressive policies. Join us to hear UUSC President and CEO Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, describe how deeds of common courage are transforming the world; one brave, ordinary act at a time.
Sunday, September 15, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Claudia Jiménez, Minister of Faith Development
Have you heard that Unitarian Universalism is “covenantal not creedal?” What does that mean? Interestingly (and probably surprisingly to you), there are several covenants that inform our relationships here at UUCA. Let’s explore the ways that covenants underpin our behaviors, our mission, and even the theological grounding of our faith.<i> click on title to continue.</i>
Sunday, September 8, 2019, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We are a religion without creeds, but our forebears long ago asserted that there is a doctrine that united them and that I want to argue unites us still. It is both simple and complex, but most of all it will never stop challenging us.<i>Click on title to continue.</i>
Sunday, September 1, 10am Rev. Mark Ward , Lead Minister
We begin our fall worship season considering what role Expectation plays in our lives together in this community. So, let’s begin at square one on that topic: How might we talk about what we can reasonably expect of each other?<i>Click on title to continue.</i>
Sunday August 25, 10am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister and Rev. Claudia Jiménez, Minister of Faith Development
Once again our annual intergenerational Water Service features puppets, stories and songs as we explore what the ways of water teach us about change in the world. Please plan to bring with you a little water from a place that is special to you to intermingle in our ceremonial bowl. <i>Click on title to continue.</i>
Sunday, August 18, 2019 10am Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
What does the practice of improvisational theater have to teach us about living? Join us for a reflection on how the curiosity, playfulness and vulnerability of improvising can enrich our lives.<i>Click on title to continue.</i>
This month marks my first-year anniversary at UUCA. It has been a year of learning, juicy challenges and building relationships. When I consider what preparation I had for this job of being a minister I recall my first seminary class: Creative Encounters: Ministry as Improv. You might be thinking, “Really?! You mean they make all this stuff up?!”
Well, as with anything in life, there are no scripts, in many ways we do make it up as we go along. We are always improvising to life as it reveals itself to us, day by day. Like the jazz musician in our reading who was classically trained, our perception of the world emerges from the interaction between our experience, our expectations and the unpredictable events of the day – the quotidian ‘stuff’ of life.
The idea of ministry as improv made sense to me – ministers should be prepared for anything: requests for spontaneous prayers and invocations; unscheduled pastoral conversations and “a few words from the minister.” That is why when I moved to Asheville last year as part of my professional development, I took improv classes. It was not only a way of meeting people in my new community but also groundwork for my work with you.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been challenging myself to move beyond my comfort zone. And, it wasn’t easy. I tend to be very detail oriented and a planner so the concepts of spontaneity and improvisation are, well, difficult. Nevertheless, I did it! I survived 8 weeks of improv training with total strangers. In terms of this sermon, which I assure you is not improvised, I take inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson who said of preachers that they “deal out to the people [their] life passed through the fire of thought.” Go Ralph Waldo! I love the image of our lives passing through the fire of thought!!
This morning I share with you a few takeaways from my experience with improv, a year later.
But first: How many of you are familiar with improvisational theater?
You may be familiar with professional improv through exposure to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Steven Colbert. Improv doesn’t always have to be funny. It is basically theater without a script in which the players (in improv the actors are called players) create a scene in the moment based on a phrase or word provided by the audience. It is a spontaneous, collaborative, creative, and for some of us, scary experience.
Improv players prepare by playing games to involve our voices, bodies, our creative impulses by miming, chanting or acting out short skits (Examples: Catch, The Expert). Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater practitioner described games as “warm ups to shed inhibitions and establish a form of theatrical communion” I think the games we played accomplished that. We started out as a group of strangers, awkward and probably mortified who learned to play well together and share a lot of laughter.
What were the rules of playing well in improv that generated such laughter?
One takeaway was accept your partner’s offer and advance the scene. Your partner says: Look, what a beautiful green sky! You respond: It matches my green hair…” Notice how that is different from Your partner says: Look, what a beautiful green sky! You respond “But, it’s blue!” That shuts down the conversation. The first scenario is an example of a foundational principle of improv: responding with “yes, and.” You accept their idea, not necessarily their point of view. You choose your response.
I found this principle to be life changing. When I took the Ministry as Improv class I was serving my final year on a county school board in Florida. I had a difficult relationship with my conservative and intransigent colleagues. As a result, I entered board meetings defensively, prepared to argue my positions. I was a “but” person. I usually preceded my responses with but… and deepened our disagreement as they in turn, became more defensive. After improv class, I changed my strategy. I still prepared well but preceded my arguments with yes, and have you considered instead of “but”…. That seemingly small modulation changed the tone. My colleagues didn’t always agree but they were more willing to listen. Our conversations were less combative. And, sometimes they even agreed.
I don’t always remember this strategy, and I keep trying. It has also been helpful in dealing with the news. Lately, the cruel treatment and policies of the administration toward immigrants have been exasperating. My initial response is anger, followed by what can we do?
Last week in a meeting “Faith Communities Organizing for Sanctuary” I listened to accounts of the Bus Ministry organized to help asylum seekers passing through Asheville, visits to lawmakers and the detention center visits being organized, efforts to host and sponsor asylum seekers and a workshop “Anti-Racism and Sanctuary Training on Sept 13 hosted here at UUCA (visit the Justice Ministry table for details)…. All of that gave me hope.
Yes, we lack moral, compassionate leadership in our country when it comes to immigration, that’s real, and caring people are organizing to speak out and act against the hate some of our leaders promote and enshrine in policy.
Another takeaway from improv is the importance of being in the moment, meaning paying attention and listening deeply. If I approach a scene trying to plan a response that will get laughs, I will miss “gifts” from my partner. In improv, “gifts” are information about the character or relationship being established in the scene that will help improvise a response. Being in the moment makes us vulnerable, especially if, like me, you’re used to planning and controlling. That’s why improv is challenging for me. Comedian Amy Poehler describes it this way, “We all think we’re in control of our lives, and that the ground is solid beneath our feet, but we are so wrong. Improvising reminds you of that over and over again.”
A benefit of being in the moment is that we can embrace silence. In improv, that is very helpful because when your scene partner says something totally off the wall (and that happens often), being comfortable with silence allows you to gather your thoughts and respond. I wish I had taken improv when we were raising our daughters: pausing before responding and being creative in my responses may have added humor and levity amidst the complexity of those improvised parenting moments. I think my partner, a jazz pianist, understood this approach somewhat better than I.
I recently listened to a podcast “The Worship Whisperer” no, I’m not making that up, in which colleague Rev. Glen Thomas Rideout proposed a little more playfulness and levity in worship planning. He shared an improvisational exercise for Worship Associate training. In the group you call for an object, call for a worship theme, call for a liturgical element and then invite a participant to weave those together and create the element on the spot: closing words, opening words or prayer. We have some or worship associates with us this morning. What do you think? Up/down gesture
A final takeaway (there are more, but there isn’t enough time) is that “it is not about you”, imagine that? In improv you are basically working on building trust and supporting each other. Your job is to make your scene partner look good. If you are seen as focusing on yourself and trying to be funny or witty it will be hard for your scene partners to trust that you have their back. The humor usually happens organically when you connect with each other. The more you play together, the more you’ll know how to gift your scene partner and make each other shine. That is a refreshing attitude in an American society that worships rugged individualism.
Ultimately, I think good improv is all about relationships, and isn’t it the same in everything we do? It is about community building, like we do here at UUCA strengthening and nurturing our community. The “I” focus that interferes with trust building in improv also interferes in nurturing the communal “we” in a congregation. And, how often do we mistakenly think that even in religious community it’s about what I want, what I am comfortable with, what I need? If we are to create a truly welcoming beloved community -because this is where it starts-what are we willing to do to be welcoming to all? It is important, if we want to create a diverse community of spiritual seekers that embraces African American, Latinx and Indigenous People who traditionally already consider the family, tribe or community before individual advancement.
Oh, and one more really important takeway…It’s OK to fail! Really, it is. One of the reasons I accepted this job a year ago is that UUCA is willing to experiment with programs like the Wednesday Thing and in all ages worship. I feel comfortable experimenting here knowing that the goal isn’t perfection. Mistakes are opportunities for growth and learning.
In improv, when missteps occur each actor will do their best to make the others look good and move the action forward. The attitude of making one’s scene partner look good, is an attitude we can use in our everyday lives to help us be more compassionate when others make mistakes. One of my favorite warm ups was the entire group raising up their hands and shouting “I failed” (lets do that) How did that feel?
Failure means you have acted. Without risk, there is no change, no sparking of the imagination to explore other possibilities.
This coming week, I invite you to consider the ethos of improv (not theology, “I failed!)
be in the moment,
support your partner
embrace uncertainly and imperfection
find ways to use “yes, and” thinking.
These are strategies that can help us build the inclusive, welcoming beloved community we talk about as well as cope with the justice challenges facing our world.
And be on the lookout for the gifts. In the words of Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who is also a fan of improv
“Life is constantly handing us stuff.
Tragedies, too often.
Opportunities, all the time.
To be the change we wish to see in the world.
To respond to hate with love.
To not let the darkness have the last word.”
May it be so.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher. Address, July 15, 1838, “The Divinity School Address”
 Games for Actors and Non-Actors, Augusto Boal, p2
Sunday, August 11, 2019 10am Rev. Julianne Lepp, Guest Minister
This service will explore the theology, poetry and legacy of the poet, Mary Oliver.
Bio: Rev. Julianne Lepp has served the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin since 2010. Originally from South Carolina, she is always grateful to visit her family in Asheville and further points south. She lives in Wisconsin with her partner Karl, two teens and her mother-in-law. She has three new kittens that are keeping her busy this summer! She enjoys writing science fiction, reading voraciously, and being involved in community organizing and activism within her community.
Sunday, August 4. 2019 10am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The summer skies open wide and invite all sorts of meandering. Join us as spend a little time exploring what those pinpoints of light bring to mind.
From Searching for the Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman
“It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sounds I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off the running lights, and it got even darker, Then I turned off my engine. I law down in the boat and looked up.
A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.
A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before. . . . I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and them into the far distant future long after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot.
I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something for larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity. . . . After a time I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been looking up.
Summers are made for star-gazing expeditions like the one that Alan Lightman takes us on. Funny, isn’t it? It seems to take trips away from home – to the sea shore or camping in the mountains – to lure us outside to look up at the skies. Soft, sultry nights tug at us, and we wander outside and turn our eyes skyward.
Apparently, this is a thing these days, a practice some call “skying”: peering at the night sky with no particular end in mind, just receiving, taking it all in. And there is so much to take in.
It doesn’t take long looking over the spray of stars that greets us on a clear summer night for the oceanic feeling that Lightman describes to come over us. It is like opening a window on the universe, as if for the first time we really take in everything around us.
Before long, though, we start noticing patterns and someone will start calling out constellations. “There’s the big dipper. Find the side opposite the handle, follow it up. and, yep, there’s Polaris, the north star,” the point around which the whole sky seems to revolve. This goes on for a while and a few knowledgeable ones will start naming other stars. There’s Vega, one of our nearest neighbors, and Deneb. And so on. Before long, though, the talking stops, and we are left with the immensity before us.
Years ago when I was working in newspapers I was given the opportunity to cover science. I came to this assignment not as an expert but as an amateur, in the literal sense, one who was endlessly fascinated with science, who loved delving into almost every dimension of it.
Astronomy, though, was one field that was fairly new to me. As it happened, the institution that was the source of most of my reporting, the University of Wisconsin, was a leader in the field. So, I needed to orient myself quickly.
I quickly learned that the primary focus of astronomers’ work these days are phenomena we star-gazers cannot see: stars or galaxies too distant to be see with the naked eye or in wavelengths – infrared, radio waves, x-rays, gamma rays – that are invisible to us.
And what a chaotic, tumultuous universe they reveal! Stars exploding or spinning at inconceivable speeds, galaxies crashing into each other with ravenous black holes at their centers.
Serendipitously my time in science writing coincided with the heyday of the Hubble Space telescope. Also, lucky for me, the government was anxious to publicize the telescope’s findings. And so periodically I would receive fat packets of prints and slides of the Hubble’s latest discoveries.
The images were breath-taking: lacy nebulae – remainders of exploded stars – in stunning colors, swirling galaxies, clouds of bright gas that were stellar nurseries, and perhaps most astonishing of all, the image dubbed the Hubble Deep Field. We have a large reproduction of this image in this building in the light well just behind Sandburg Hall. It was created by focusing the Hubble camera for 10 days on a tiny spot of the night sky right near the Big Dipper that appeared to be totally empty of stars. How tiny a spot? Essentially, the size of a tennis ball seen at 100 meters.
In that apparently starless speck of sky, the Hubble captured an image of around 3,000 galaxies, equivalent to the number stars we see on a clear night. They have since repeated the exercise, just in case there was something extraordinary about that spot. But there wasn’t. They found essentially the same thing.
Imagine that! In every speck of dark sky between the stars that we see we could expect to find around 3,000 galaxies, another night sky full of nothing but galaxies, each of them home to hundreds of billions of stars. To this, add the fact that the light captured in that image had been traveling millions, perhaps billions of years before it entered Hubble’s lens.
So, the Hubble Telescope gives us a feeling for not just the astonishing plenitude of the universe – there is so much! – but also a greater feeling for time. In that image we are looking back to a moment some three-quarters of the way back to the Big Bang. Indeed, even in the visible night sky the stars that seem to twinkle and glow for us, represent ancient history.
The light we see is hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of years old. And so it’s likely that some stars we see today winked out of existence thousands, or even millions of years ago, but it will not be us, but our descendants who discover this.
The more we learn about the stars, I can’t help but wonder if the image that best communicates the truth about the night sky might be not a static picture of the night sky but one of the last paintings that Vincent Van Gogh completed just before he ended his life. He called it “The Starry Night.” Do you remember it? Amid shimmering centers of light the sky is swirling with color, giving us an image of a universe that is not static and distant but dynamic, active and in tumult.
Van Gogh, who rejected organized religion, once wrote to his brother, Theo, that nonetheless he had a need for religion. So, he said, “I go outside at night to paint the stars.”
For us, too, the stars stir thoughts that turn us to religion. In the presence of such impossible vastness, what meaning can we find for our lives, our brief three score and 10?
The biologist Ursula Goodenough wrote of going on a camping trip in college shortly after sitting through a physics class. In the class she learned many of the details of our Solar System: the sun forming 4.5 billion years ago out on one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, the Milky Way, while a disc of rocks, water and dust spinning around it collected into planets, including ours, the Earth.
Then, how the Earth itself evolved wit life emerging and covering the planet And how the Earth will continue spinning and evolving until in about 5 billion years the Sun will expand and turn the Earth into a cinder.
“I found myself a sleeping bag looking up at the sky,” she said. “Before I could look around for Orion or the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror. The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.” The starkness of the picture was too much and created for her a kind of “Is that all there is?” moment. Maybe you’ve had one of those, too.
After all, we remember that all those constellations we have fun searching out we’re grounded in stories, stories that oriented people to a narrative of how the universe came to be and our place in it. And those stories were good at reassuring us that, as daunting as the world, the universe may appear there were forces greater than us seeing to things, forces that could somehow be appealed to and persuaded to work in our interest.
If that isn’t so, if we’re on our own down here, then where does that leave us?
Goodenough said she spent many years simply avoiding the subject, finding it too depressing to think about. In time, though, she came to the conclusion that she was satisfied simply to regard the world, in her words, as “a strange but wondrous given,” something that she was satisfied to accept and regard as “a locus of mystery.”
Alan Lightman said he finds it a comfort wandering about the small island of Maine where he kept his cottage reflecting that, as he put it, “the material of the doomed stars and my doomed body are actually the same material. Literally the same atoms.”
The universe, after all, began in a sea of hydrogen and helium, clumps of which later collapsed into stars. It was in those stars that those early gases were fused Into all the larger atoms that make up the universe. And as those early stars exploded and spewed those elements all throughout the universe they later coalesced Into planets, then organisms, then us.
“It is astonishing but true,” he said, “that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that these atoms originated In particular stars in the sky. These very atoms.”
So then, the words of Robert Terry Weston’s meditation are literally true: “Out of the stars in their flight, Out of the dust of eternity, here have we come.” We are not adrift in a cold meaningless world: we are home in the place of our origin, connected via the atoms in our very bones to all things.
Once we get done imagining ourselves as somehow special, creatures given a unique destiny from some supernatural hand, we can tune into a truth that is far more profound: that we are a manifestation of an amazingly creative, endlessly evolving universe, creatures of inherent worth whose being, whose destiny is tied up with that of all things.
And so, looking out on the night sky we get a ring-side seat on all of this, knowing that the fires we see burning in distant stars are of a kind with the fires driving the cellular machinery of our bodies. And that’s not all. The fires that drive us impel us to survive, and not just survive but to continue beyond our three score and ten, not us as individuals, but us as carriers of life, creating and nurturing future generations.
For, we see that along with all the gases and such of the Big Bang there was born a tendency toward connectedness. It didn’t have to be there but somehow it emerged, and having emerged it made possible the universe we know. Quarks combined into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules of increasing complexity into life, life in its latest manifestation into humans.
And humans – we curious, fragile, inventive creatures – turn out to possess one trait that offers us hope for the future, a trait the embodies once again that tendency toward for connectedness that was born with the Big Bang – the capacity to love. “This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the Earth; life upon Earth rose to love.”
And so, I do not despair on looking at the night sky. True, it is astonishing in its vastness and complexity. Like Ursula Goodenough I do not seek to take it all in or understand it fully. In its whys and wherefores it is a mystery. And still, it fills me with awe, with gratitude and joy. To be alive, to simply be is a grace. What a wonder that out of all that is, this being that is me emerged and is present now to be part of the stream of life, capable of building on the human heritage of love.
I do not begrudge that in time my life will end – though I do hope that that time is a ways in the future. Instead, I am content to know that, as the poet David Ignatow wrote,
“I am of the family of the universe,” and so “in no way shall death part us.” For me, there is peace in that understanding.
“This is the marvel of life,” Robert T. Weston declares, “rising to see and to know; Out of your heart, cry wonder: Sing that we live.”
Sunday, July 28, 2019, 10am Poetry Sunday
Coordinated by Virginia Bower, Sammy Fong, Charlie Marks, and Mariana Warner
The theme for this year’s Poetry Sunday is “A Matter of Life and Breath.” Take a breather from busyness and join us. You will be welcome here, as always.
Sunday, July 21, 2019 Rev. Tobias Van Buren
Time is woven through all we are and do, but what the heck is it? How do we regard it? Are we enslaved, driven and dragged by time? Does it weigh upon us? My sermon will suggest ways to become liberated from time-bondage.
Bio: Tobias is a member of UUCA and also an ordained UU minister. He has a BA from the University of South Carolina and an M.Div. from Starr King School for the Ministry. He served congregations in Atlanta, Baton Rouge & Beverly, MA, then left ministry from 1979 to 2013 to do shrimping and crabbing and developing a clam-oyster farm in the Charleston, SC area. He also enjoys gardening and fiction writing. Tobias and his wife, Winslow Tuttle, moved here in 2018 and are active in UUCA.
Sunday, July 14, 2019 Rev. Ed Brock, Guest Minister
We will explore what creates, destroys, undermines, and sustains healthy relationships between individuals AND groups. Rev. Brock’s remarks will be based on his recently published book Optimal Relationships.
Bio: Rev. Ed Brock is UU minister who specializes in transitional ministry and is an Accredited Interim Minister. Rev. Brock lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, Alphise, and their two daughters. He is also a licensed psychotherapist and has written a book entitled “Optimal Relationships: A Path Toward a More Civil Society.”
Sunday, July 7, 2019 Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri, Guest Minister
What if we could understand animals? What would they communicate with us about what they see and what they are experiencing? What kind of invitations might they offer to the human community? Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri will explore these questions weaving stories and sacred text.
The Rev. Scott Hardin-Nieri is partner, dad, spiritual director, pastor, and sojourner. He is the Director of the Creation Care Alliance of Western North Carolina and Associate Minister of Green Chalice of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Prior to living in North Carolina, Scott and his family served in the vulnerable cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Scott is ordained with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and enjoys accompanying people during transformative experiences.
Sunday, July 23, 2019 Rev. Terry Davis, Guest Minister
About our annual July 4th celebration, The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked, “Is America today, in any meaningful sense, the same country that declared independence in 1776?” Are we “out of many, one” as our national motto states? As we reflect together on this upcoming Independence Day and the values of freedom and unity it celebrates, let’s also consider what our UU values may be asking of us in these complicated times.
Bio: Rev. Terry Davis, who recently moved to Asheville, was ordained to Unitarian Universalist ministry in 2010 at the Unitarian Univeralist Congregation of Atlanta after a 25-year career in corporate communications. She has served as minister in Atlanta and St. Louis, as well as serving as the resident chaplain of the women’s maternity center at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital. She recently consulted for the UUA office of Stewardship and Development and currently provides pulpit supply to UU congregations in Western North Carolina. A native of Washington, DC, Rev. Davis earned her Master of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta in 2008.
Sunday, June 23, 2019 Rev. Lisa Forehand, Guest Minister
Beauty, our theme this month, may easily conjure up images of natural beauty, but today we’ll also spend some time looking at our own beauty. Is beauty really just skin deep? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Let’s appreciate the natural beauty around us and also unpack our ideas about own physical beauty. We walk around in our bodies every day, but do we love them?