Sunday, March 24, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
“One day,” writes Mary Oliver, “you finally knew what you had to do, and began.” What was that day like for you?
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Sunday, March 17, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward , Lead Minister
The history of the Civil Rights movement is told in moments of achievement – protests made, laws passed – but the deeper work of justice is focused on the continuing journey of freedom. This Sunday we’ll recall the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama: what it achieved and what it tells us about what remains to be done.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The Buddhist practice of “metta” offers a way of guiding our lives by the principles of loving kindness. This Sunday we’ll explore what that might mean for us and how we might orient ourselves to this practice.
Reflections from Dan Damerville
In the service today, we’ve talked and sung about and practiced metta — a quality of heart and mind that figures prominently in Buddhist religion and psychology.
Although exotic sounding in the Pali language of ancient Buddhism, metta translates in English as loving-kindness, warm heartedness, goodwill, and, my favorite, plain old friendliness. However we refer to it, this quality is essential to making everyday human interactions enjoyable and positive.
Earlier, Reverend Mark led us in a metta meditation that has the avowed aim of increasing one’s kindness or friendliness, even toward people we might not have such feelings for.
Given that we all value loving-kindness, the idea that we can cultivate such feelings by deliberate practice might seem odd. Typically, we think a feeling is something we either have or don’t have, not something that we can dial up a few notches through practice.
Even so, research shows that even a modest practice of metta meditation – such as several minutes a day, several days a week — can ease us in the direction of thinking about and interacting with others in a more kindly way. As a long-time meditator I know that when I include metta in my daily practice, (something I don’t always do) I am simply a better version of myself, one who is more clearly inclined to think better of and interact with other people in a more friendly and kind-hearted way.
It should be said that practices like metta, ones that target specific characteristics such as kindness, are not what most people think of when the topic of meditation comes up.
Instead, we are probably familiar with more wholistic forms of meditation such as Zen, T M and insight or mindfulness, all of which convey more general psychological and even physical benefits to those who practice them.
Although often presented as something mystical or other-worldly, meditation is nothing more nor less than exercise for the psyche, for the mind and heart. And like with physical exercise, belief is not necessary.
Believe it or not, if you lift heavy weights several times a week for a month, you will grow stronger.
Believe it or not, if you practice any of the more general forms of meditation fairly regularly, results happen, over time your mind will grow calmer, clearer, more flexible and responsive. And if you practice metta meditation your heart will grow warmer toward others and toward yourself.
In closing, I offer good news: Current meditation instruction and support is much better than in the past, Even ten years ago, someone wishing to learn how to meditate might have to learn from a book, (possible, but not easy) pay a lot of money to an outfit like Transcendental Meditation, or even travel to some exotic land to learn from a master. All that has changed, and for the better.
Today, the internet and the cell phone — those notorious weapons of mass distraction and needless agitation — can be used to the opposite effect, to calm and clarify the mind. Numerous websites and phone apps provide high quality instruction, most of it free. Finding these resources is as simple as making a computer search for “best meditation apps and websites). One meditation teacher I particularly like is Tara Brach at tarabrach.com.
If you would like to learn from an actual as opposed to a virtual teacher and, perhaps, meditate with other people, you’re living in the right place, Asheville, not surprisingly, has quite a few teachers and groups that provide instruction and ongoing support in various styles of meditation.
Which brings me to my very favorite local meditation group, one that meets right here in the sanctuary. For over two years UUCA has had a meditation and study group called he Buddhist Fellowship. Despite that name, many, maybe most, of the members don’t identify as Buddhists.
We meet the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of each month from 7 to 8:30 to meditate together and discuss issues related to Buddhist oriented psychology. Information related to upcoming meetings is available on the online congregation calendar. We would love for you to join us. Namaste ya’ll. Dan Damerville
Reflection on Bodhicittta, Metta, Virginia Bower
“All through the day, I, Me, Mine, I, Me, Mine, I Me Mine…”
You know the song—and isn’t it fitting for the time in which we live?! Every day, I collect experiences of “me-ism,” acts involving people being so caught up in themselves that they can’t even imagine the effects of their acts on other people—folks who, for example, block the street with their car because they’re waiting on someone they dropped off while 10 cars, meanwhile, pile up behind them—like that—we all have our own examples—people who we deem “selfish”—“self consumed”—“self-absorbed.” I, Me, Mine…could be a serious condition.
. . .
I’ve had a spiritual practice most of my life—since I was about 15—poetry, gurus, Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga—some of those early concepts for tapping into higher consciousness included whatever might lead to a “higher self,” to “self realization,” to “self awareness”—selfish? Self aware? So as I read my dharma lesson or meditate or practice yoga, I seem to be paying a lot of attention to myself—am I being self-ish? Or self-aware?
I recently had a backache—never had this kind of backache before—and it dawned on me how little sympathy I’d ever had for all those others who’d shared with me their backache—and now, since I was experiencing it myself, I really knew what a backache was—I felt it—and I would never be callous again to someone who shared with me that they had a backache—it hurts! I’m so sorry I wasn’t more sympathetic! Or compassionate!
I was delighted recently, when, after my 47-year-long spiritual journey, I finally had a little bit of insight into a basic Buddhist teaching, which for me is where understanding metta begins. Bodhicitta means “basic goodness” and as a Buddhist concept, it means the basic ground that is at the heart of every human being—kind of like the “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” UU principal?! The problem that many of us have with being in touch with our own basic goodness is that that basic goodness gets obscured, clouded over—through so much living—stayin’ alive—reacting—relationships—competition—losses—feelings of being less than—basic goodness, that essence, can get covered up. If my essence is basic goodness, then your essence must also be basic goodness—but I have a hard time seeing that basic goodness in you because in truth I’m not totally clear on what it is in me—I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to get rid of all that I thought did not measure up: the residue of a crappy childhood; all those times I’ve been really mean in my life; all those bad decisions, all those times I felt like I just didn’t measure up. If people knew who I was with all these flaws, they probably wouldn’t like me; I might not even like myself! Surely I could never reach Nirvana—or even more modestly, a state of feeling like a decent human being—with all this muck and mire attached to my being! I had to get rid of this stuff, all the grime, wash it all off OR maybe pretend like it wasn’t there and maybe pretend to be someone else other than who I am in the process; it all seemed to be handicapping me, preventing me from attaining more saintly qualities, and thus in need of being gotten rid of—wouldn’t that be the way to get back to my basic goodness, i.e., remove the undesirable in order to find the desirable?
Seems my understanding was a bit turned around—and so thank goodness for my study of Buddhism and for my practice—and Buddhism is, after all, mostly a practice—since I have come across some very generous and insightful teachings—specifically that any chance I have for self-realization or enlightenment depends not at all on getting rid of anything but rather of being aware of and making room for, perhaps uncovering…all that is me—those qualities that I’m not glad I have, the habits that too often prescribe the automatic way I look out and perceive the world, that judgy part of myself that never takes a break, with me, with others—but the trick is not in identifying, through self criticism, what needs to go, but rather coming closer to who I am by allowing what exists in me the space to be—and coming to know that—from the pretty to the warty, from what I can accept to what I have a hard time accepting. Pema Chodron, a beloved Buddhist dharma teacher, talks about the need for intimacy with self, for unconditional friendship with ourselves that must be the ground for the possibility of unconditional friendship with others—she calls this maitri or metta. Self-knowing, knowing ourselves intimately is always the starting point. And if I can stay—another pith Buddhist instruction—with everything, esp. those areas I’d rather run away from—and I’m an expert at running away—through food, drink, denial, shopping—then I can come to know my basic goodness—maybe not instantly, maybe not today, but back to that idea of Buddhism being a practice—when I know loneliness in myself, when I can stay with that instead of running away, when I can consider it a way of coming closer to myself, I can see more clearly and compassionately another person who is experiencing the same—perhaps this is also compassion—Pema says that compassion is between equals.
So back to my insight: it involved my clear realization that I could never know what basic goodness or loving kindness is without experiencing it in and towards and for my own self—no platitudes, no intellectual exercises—and that it is really my responsibility to experience this basic goodness, bodhicitta, in myself so that I can see it in others—it’s my work. If I’m to be of any use as a tool or a channel for upliftment in this world, I must take on the mature and brave, maybe even heroic task—putting on those grown-up panties—of accepting my own humanity—and my own basic goodness. Only then can I practice another Buddhist concept which is committing to help alleviate suffering in this world (no small project!)—I can only know basic goodness by experiencing it as my self, knowing that I am one vessel that holds the same basic goodness that every other vessel holds—and in this way I come to know, love, and have compassion for myself so that I can come to know, love and have compassion for others. Bodhicitta, in this way, seems related to maitri, metta…loving kindness.
Mary Oliver was right—we really do NOT have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves; we only need to see the sun behind all the obscurations. We don’t even have to wait to get a bad backache before we can develop compassion. We only have to practice knowing ourselves—Pema might say, “Coming closer to ourselves”—and in the knowing, practice loving kindness—for ourselves, and for others.
Self-ish? Self-aware? There’s probably a difference…But all I know is I need to start right here with me and feel kindness towards myself—but perhaps in doing so, I can also know and feel kindness for you. Virginia Bower
Sunday, March 3, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Come help us celebrate this amazing congregation, all that we are and all that we do. There will be wonderful music, good words, and best of all our community joined as one. Please fill out and bring with you the financial commitment form you received in the mail for the coming year form, and we will receive them.
Sunday, February 24, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
“Amazing Grace” is a song loaded with history and knotty theology. This year’s auction winner of the sermon topic, Phil Roudebush, asked that I grapple with how we UUs might respond to it. So, here we go!
From Chronicles 1 17:16-17
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “Who an I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God, you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank.”
This House by Kenneth Patton
This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature.
It is a house of friendships, a haven in trouble, an open room for
the encouragement of our struggle.
It is a house of freedom, guarding the dignity and worth of every person.
It offers a platform for the free voice, for declaring, both in times of
security and danger, the full and undivided conflict of opinion.
It is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage
devotion to their quest, where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.
It is a house of art, adorning its celebrations with melodies and
It is a house of prophecy, outrunning times past and times present in visions of growth and progress.
This house is a cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor.
My most memorable experience with the hymn “Amazing Grace” came in the early 1980s. Debbie and I had recently moved from the New York-New Jersey area, where we were both raised, to Charleston, West Virginia, where I was working in my first newspaper job.
The move was a big change for us in many ways and not least when it came to religion. We had been married in Princeton, New Jersey, in the Unitarian Universalist church where I had grown up. And back there UUs had seemed just part of the religious mix. In Charleston, though, the tiny, lay-led fellowship we found was clearly outside what seemed a mainstream of evangelical Christianity.
Its members included some transplants, like us, but also a fair number of locals who had had their share of battles with the predominant religious perspective. So, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that one Sunday when a visiting minister invited us all to rise and join in singing “Amazing Grace” several in attendance sat instead in stony silence, their jaws set and their arms folded across their chests.
We Unitarian Universalists can have long arguments about what hymns we sing and why. In fact, we’re famously known as people who stumble through hymns because we’re reading ahead to see if we agree with the words. (More about that later.)
But I think it’s fair to say that “Amazing Grace” is a uniquely challenging case, which, I suspect, has something to do with our member Phil Roudebush, who won the church auction item to name a sermon topic, zeroing in on this hymn as my topic. Gee, thanks, Phil. But also I have to say that this hymn, how it’s been used and how we respond to it to offer grist for some fascinating challenges for people committed to the broad liberal path of religion.
So, let’s begin with the origin story, which takes us back to about the middle of the 18th century. Our protagonist is John Newton, born in 1725. By now you’ve likely heard the story of this son of a merchant seaman whose devout mother, died of tuberculosis when he was young. Off he goes to boarding school, then joins his father shipboard.
It is said he learned to love the sea, but not the merchant life. Shy and bookish, he spends much of his time in books. But then comes a shock when he is press-ganged, essentially forcibly enlisted, in the British Navy. After a few years of that brutal living, the Navy foists him onto a slave trading ship, where malaria and dissolute living break his spirit.
His defining moment comes one night when his shoddily-built ship starts falling apart in a storm. Watching waves wash his shipmates overboard, Newton says, the words appeared in his mouth: “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.” Somehow, he survives the night and Newton marks that as the moment when he first felt what he considered God’s saving grace, his religious awakening, “the hour I first believed.”
It’s worth noting that his conversion doesn’t end his work in the slave trade, though later he did oppose it. That only happens when a mild stroke ends his seaman’s days. He then digs into religious study, eventually persuading a landlord at the parish of Olney to ordain him, even though he lacks a university degree.
That doesn’t trouble his parishioners, many of who are Illiterate laborers and traders. And they like the simple hymns he writes often as an alternative to the more difficult psalms. Early in 1773, he offers them a new one based on the verse from First Chronicles that you heard earlier. It is the passage from the Hebrew scriptures when David expressed his gratitude to God for assuring him that his progeny will always be blessed. “Who am I that you have brought me this far?” It is for him the ultimate expression of grace, the undeserved, divine bestowing of love and care, something that Newton felt his own life had taught him well.
“Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fear relieved.
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come.
Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”
“Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
and mortal life shall cease.
I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.
“The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
the sun forebear to shine
But God who called me here below will be forever mine.”
We can’t be sure what tune that hymn was first sung to, but we know that it wasn’t the one that we sing today. That pairing didn’t happen for another 50 years when John Newton’s words were joined with a tune in American composer William Walker’s Southern Harmony. You’ll notice that the words are a little different from the version most widely used. ‘The “ten-thousand years” verse was added later and others were dropped from most renditions.
It didn’t take long for the song to catch on, appearing in hymnals and songbooks, including those of the shape-note singers. It also was widely embraced in the black gospel tradition, where it was reshaped again.
We don’t have time today for a full discussion of the hymn’s fascinating evolution and history. But it spread across religious traditions and then was picked up mid 20th century by musicians such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez as part of America’s folk revival. It soon became a country music standard and was recorded by dozens of musicians across music genres, from Eric Clapton to Aretha Franklin, topping the charts in a 1971 recording by Judy Collins.
How to account for this hymn’s “amazing” popularity? At least in part, it has to do with the nature of the music and the nature of the message. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the simple tune that makes it eminently singable and satisfying. And while there is a very clear theology underlying the song, it doesn’t hit you over the head, which makes it appealing to diverse audiences. Who hasn’t experienced moments of wretchedness, of dangers, toils and snares and found themselves or at least their spirits rescued by totally unexpected, unexplainable words, actions, or compassionate presence of another?
It’s telling that the hymn doesn’t insist that we regard this grace as divine intervention. It simply offers gratitude for being the recipient of it. It gives us room to make of it what we will.
As I said, though, Newton’s words were grounded in a very clear theology, one that regarded God as the author of all things, that regarded all humans as wallowing in sin from the day of their birth, sin that only God’s unmerited salvation could relieve. It was this theology that my friends in West Virginia had in mind when they angrily crossed their arms in protest when invited to sing, a theology they rejected, yet that earlier in their lives had been used to shame and demean them.
So, I understand. And while I have never had that experience, I have to admit that knowing their experience has made me, too, a bit wary of this hymn. It has helped me understand why in our hymnal the editors gave people (again, reading ahead to see if they agree with the words) the option of singing “soul” in the first verse instead of Newton’s “wretch.” It’s not that the singers never feel wretched about themselves but that they may not care to affirm a theology that denies the inherent worth and dignity of all people that we affirm, even when we feel shamed and debased.
What’s interesting to me is that the hymn is there at all. Our grey hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” printed in 1993, is the first to include it. Previous hymnals, printed in 1964 and 1935 respectively, did not. I do not know the thinking that went into including it, though I expect it was a lively discussion. What I suspect is that editors of that hymnal felt that “Amazing Grace” was a powerful part of the religious landscape that it would benefit UUs to experience. As evidence of this, I’d point to other hymns grouped within several pages of “Amazing Grace,” such as the Lutheran standard, “A Mighty Fortress” and the spiritual “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
So, should we UUs sing “Amazing Grace”? Sure. We can find in it the expression of a universal human experience of rising from despair. Whatever its history or theology, it speaks to us of the need to hold out hope of renewal, even in the most troubled times.
And I think that is what made it so powerful to hear President Obama end his eulogy for the nine parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME church with an acapella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” his hesitant baritone growling out the first couple of notes as clergy behind him smiled, stood, and joined in, with the President’s voice, low and slow, reaching into the black gospel tradition, throwing in his own musical ornamentation to draw out the melody and draw in his listeners.
It was not theological disquisition he had in mind. It was healing; it was hope. It was a moment to affirm that bigotry would not prevail, that the nation would disavow hate. And the way forward that he implicitly offered was for all of us to be both givers and receivers of a profound grace that reaches across all that divides us. Whatever our errors, our foolhardiness, our wretchedness we have the capacity, we people of inherent worth and dignity, to rise up and begin again.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Nothing in our lives shuts us down like fear. Yet, there is a way through that can open us to hope. What might that look like?
Sunday, February 10, 2019
As UUs, we strive to make our worship as inclusive, encouraging, and supportive as possible to all parts of our faith community. As a radical expression of that commitment, today’s worship is designed and delivered entirely by our YRUUs–high school youth (in grades 10-12). Prepare to be inspired by what motivates this crew, with this month’s theme of Trust as the framework for their exploration–venturing toward what poet Albert Huffstickler lifts up as that dark edge where the first light break
Sunday, February 3, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Sooner or later on our spiritual journeys, we come to the question of the foundation of our faith, what grounds us and opens us to our true selves in compassionate engagement with the world? Today we’ll wrestle with how we might answer that question.
The author Brene Brown, who writes on issues of shame and vulnerability, says she was struggling over how she might illustrate the importance of trust in relationships when her school-age daughter offered her a metaphor that she felt worked.
Her daughter told her about an upsetting episode at school when friends in her class had shared with others the story of an embarrassing incident that she had told them. The story caused a small uproar in the class when the other students in the class began to make fun of her. The teacher told the students to calm down.
As a discipline tool, she had kept a jar of marbles on her desk, agreeing to add marbles when the class behaved well and to remove them when they didn’t. When the jar was full, she would arrange a treat for the class. As the noise level rose, the teacher warned them that she would start taking marbles from the jar.
Brown’s daughter, though, said she didn’t care. She was mortified and would never trust anyone again. What should Brown say? What would you say?
Brown explained to her daughter that trust wasn’t something that you turned on and off. It was something more like the marble jar, where we added and subtracted trust based on our experience. One of our goals in life, she said, is to find “marble jar friends,” people who we find, as a rule, will add marbles to our jar, who we can depend on to be honest, caring and fair.
“As a rule” because we all mess up now and again. But “marble jar friends” are people who are willing to be vulnerable to us and reach out to us, apologize for the injury they do. In further research, Brown said she was interested to find that often it was not the big events but small things that had the most impact on building trust.
She recounted a story from the psychologist John Gottman. He told of one night when he was reading in bed when he got up for a moment just to go to the bathroom. On the way, he walked by his wife, who looked sad. As it is with us sometimes, his first impulse was to walk by. After all, he was anxious to get back to his book. But he didn’t. Instead, he sat next to her and asked, “What’s going on with you, babe?”
It is in such moments, Brown said, that trust is built. And it reminds us how vital trust is in our lives. We’ve all known moments when like Brown’s daughter we’re ready to declare that we’ll never trust again. But in truth that is never an option.
Trust is essential to our wellbeing, and we will always find somewhere to place it, even if sometimes that trust has not been earned. Indeed, it is the source of much grief that we extend our trust to unreliable sources, to people who abuse it or disregard it. One of the great lessons of growing up Is learning how and when to give our trust and learning to heal and grow when it has been betrayed.
The lessons of trust in relationships apply equally to a deeper sense of trust that underlies how we are present to and find meaning in the world. This is trust at the center of what we call faith. Faith is a word that we often struggle with because it is interpreted in different ways. Years ago, the theologian Paul Tillich described faith as a “restlessness of the heart,” a drive within us triggered by, in his words, “our awareness of the infinite” of which we are a part, but which, he said, we do not own “like a possession.”
Like trust, faith is integral to our experience as human beings. It has at its heart in a yearning for authenticity, for connection, for at-homeness in the universe. Whether or not or however we articulate it, faith manifests itself in our lives in our decisions about how we interact with each other and the natural world. Like trust, it grows and deepens as we grow and evolve, and equally, it can bring us grief when we struggle with betrayal and loss.
One historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, has argued that faith can cause us grief when it becomes equated with beliefs that are framed as intellectual propositions, dogma that separates us from our experience. Apparently, at some point in our history in the West religious leaders concluded that the heart was not reliable, that only rigorous intellectual argument could ground faith. Yet, this move, he said, removed faith from its original source.
Faith, he argued, is not an intellectual proposition but an emotional almost visceral affirmation. “The religious life,” he wrote, “begins with faith, and faith is finding within that life something to which one gives one’s heart.” And we give our hearts only to that which seems to us adequate or promising; in short, that which we trust. Whatever we humans may affirm intellectually, he said, we are ultimately guided, driven by that in which we trust, that in which we have faith.
I make my spiritual home in this religious tradition because is a place where, when you enter, we do not tell us you what faith is, supplying you with unchallengeable propositions about the nature of the world, the divine and all the rest. Instead, we ask you where your heart rests and invite you to deepen and grow your spirit with us, as together we work to understand what is called of each of us in our brief lives to help bring about hope, justice, and peace.
It operates in a sense as a kind of “marble jar” theology. where the faith that each of us brings evolves in each other’s company, where we process experiences that test and shape what seems true to us, then offer our hearts to each other, finding in that vulnerability the possibility of awakening to deeper truth.
In our lives, we experience epiphanies as well as disappointments and losses, and each of these changes us, often in ways we could not anticipate. And at times those experiences cause us to let go of once-powerful convictions or ways of looking at the world that no longer serve us.
In time, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, “we learn to trust our own deepest experiences” while being held in a community of trust. “No matter what we encounter in life,” she says, “it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again.”
In time, like an ever-filling marble jar, trust grows and deepens. As it does our awareness widens, and our awareness is imbued, is colored with meaning. This is how we go about building our heart’s true resting place, a place where even amid the storms of life we have a bedrock trust we can turn to.
James Fowler, who we heard from earlier, proposed some years ago that there were identifiable steps, six different stages, that people moved through on the way to a fulfilling faith. We begin with the faith of childhood, he said, where we essentially receive what is given, and then, as we grow, we have opportunities to widen and deepen our faith, moving toward what he calls a universalizing faith of the widest possible focus. But, of course, advancing age doesn’t assure us of achieving spiritual maturity. There are any number of reasons why any of us can get stuck at one stage along the way.
As Fowler put it, if we are to be companions on the globe we are in need of “good faith,” faith sufficiently inclusive to binding ourselves as a human community to each other. Our faith, he said, “must name and face that deep-going tendency in us to make ourselves and the extensions of ourselves central in the world.”
We must somehow link ourselves “to communities of shared memory and shared hope with which we join in symbolizing our human condition and in enacting the vision that can animate and give new life.” This requires on our part humility, curiosity, and grace, to listen and know we have much to learn, to make common cause in gratitude, trusting in the truth of our common destiny.
I have pondered throughout preparing this sermon over how I might articulate what my own sense of trust has evolved to at this point in my life, how I might frame the conviction that underlies my own hopes, where, in the end, my heart rests.
As I have told you before, I begin with a trust in the natural world, this glorious, surprising Earth, with no need for intervention from afar. And when I look for the foundation of my hope, what guides me, transforms me, awakens me, I find it in something that I intuit but cannot prove, yet which consoles me and emboldens me even in the most frightening times. I’m not even sure these are the right words, but let me try.
It is that there is present in each of us and among us a profound and generous love of which we are capable, and that in that love is the hope of the world. This is, as I said, nothing I can prove. I only know that my heart sings when I act in its behalf, when I let go of my fears, shame, or uncertainties and admit it without reservation into my life.
It is a trust that offers no certainty that I won’t be hurt or disappointed. Indeed, the vulnerability it demands of me, assures that my heart will be broken, and not just once but over and over again, but never irreparably, and each time opened to new wisdom.
I cannot know where it will take me from here, but my heart rests in the conviction that if I can keep it in my sights – and I don’t always succeed at that – it will serve me, those I know and love and the world and bring about some small measure of peace in the brief time I have left in this life.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
Ministry on the frontier and in our denomination was challenging enough in the 1800s. The resilience and perseverance of women ministers like Rev. Bartlett Crane despite being shunned by the Boston patriarchy are even more remarkable and heartbreaking. What can we learn for today from pioneer women ministers who were nurturing families, making church more welcoming and promoting engagement beyond the walls of the church?
Sunday, January 20, 2019
Rev. Claudia Jimenez
Join us as we honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and reflect on how we can put our values into action. As Rev. King said, we have to be maladjusted to injustice. It is not enough to celebrate accomplishments of the past or be indignant about continued racism, inequity and oppression. Let us explore ways of engaging purposeful action for justice.
January 13, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
“All around us life is dying and life is being born,” writes Howard Thurman. “Such is the growing edge.” It’s his way of reminding us that it is in possibility, not certainty that life awakes within us.
For six weeks, 14 UUCA members, with 8 to 10 average weekly attendance, learned amazing stories about our own Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist history. Our origins go back to the earliest days of Christianity but would eventually find Christianity only one of many important religions. Our religious ancestors played significant roles–and many lost their lives–in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. We learned of how much of our history is intertwined with the history of our nation. We were astonished at how forward thinking our faith leaders were in social justice moments in our nation. And we watched with some concern the events of the walkout at our own General Assembly in 1969 by our Black Affairs Council. We then read with some heightened interest and even greater concern the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed’s article “The Black Hole in the White UU Psyche.” Our history is one we can be proud of AND learn from!!!
Would you like to learn a little UU history? Come to The Wednesday Thing program on January 30, at 7:00 as we play The Storyline, the UU History Card Game!
In photo: Clara Barton, Rev. Olympia Brown, Viola Liuzza, Francis David, Rev. Hosea Ballou, Rev. William Ellery Channing
Sunday, January 6, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We take Emily Dickenson as our guide today, opening the New Year to the thought of what possibility gives us: possibilities we entertain, possibilities we make.
Sunday, December 23, 2018
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The delicious pause that we experience at solstice when the sun seems to rest in its seasonal journey across the sky can be a welcome moment to glory in stillness, in possibility, in hope.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Rather than being a problem separating science and religion, mystery may be the key that joins them.
There was no service today due to snow.
Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
Like another story quite familiar to us, this one begins with a fall. But in this case, the fall is no metaphor.
Hurtling downward, Skywoman tumbled through space. Clutching nothing more than a handful of seeds that she grasped from the Celestial tree as she fell, she plummeted through the dark until surprisingly she felt the warm embrace of feathers. Geese resting on the primordial sea had seen her coming and flown up to catch her and break her fall. But they couldn’t hold her for very long. So, they called for a council of the animals.
The great turtle announced that he could hold her. So, they set her on his back and talked about what to do next. They agreed that Skywoman would need some land to live on. So, the swimming animals took turns diving to the bottom of the ocean to find some land. One by one the strong swimmers tried – otter, beaver sturgeon – but none succeeded. In the end, it was little muskrat, weakest of all, who dived and returned with a handful of mud.
Skywoman took the mud, spread it on the turtle’s shell and she began to sing and dance in gratitude and celebration. As her feet moved the land grew and grew, and on the land she planted the seeds from the Celestial tree that grew into grasses, flowers, and trees. And so the world began.
When we invite memory into our spiritual lives, we can never be exactly sure where it will take us. For memory is embodied in stories that live in and through us, and shape us in ways we can’t always anticipate. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to consider this Iroquois origin story as an alternative way of looking at our human relatedness to the Earth.
It is far different from the story centered in our culture, which tells of another woman banished from the garden, made to wander in the wilderness with her mate and instructed to subdue the Earth to survive. The story points to how our culture remembers the Earth, a threatening place to be brought under heel.
Kimmerer is a fascinating guide to this story life underlying our attitude toward the natural world. An enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she is also a distinguished botanist and professor of environmental biology. So, while she understands and teaches the narrative of science that measures and describes the natural world, she also carries from childhood a different sensibility, one that gave her, as she put it, a “natural inclination to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.” Others have had this insight. Two decades ago Thomas Berry argued that “If the Earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the Earth and its inhabitants, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat.” It was why he urged that we cultivate a sense of what he called re-enchantment with the Earth, a view that puts us in relation to the community of life.
Kimmerer, though, takes this a step further, introducing us to what she calls “a grammar of animacy,” and it takes us back to a way of thinking about the world centered in relationships.
It’s something that she said came to her as she was struggling to learn the language of her people. English, the language she was raised in, is centered in nouns. It’s concerned principally with things – dogs, trees, mountains, clouds – while Potawatomi is centered in verbs – actions, activities. In fact, 70% of Potawatomi words are verbs, compared with 30% of English words.
Apart from it making her a little crazy to think about learning the rules to use those verbs – tenses and forms – this understanding also opened something to her. Looking through a dictionary that someone created, she was astonished to find words that translated into English as something like “to be a Saturday,” “to be red,” “to be a bay.”
At first, she was puzzled. It sounded so cumbersome. But then it occurred to her that speaking of the world as a place of action gave it a new vitality. “When bay is a noun,” she wrote, “it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained. The verb to be a bay releases the water from bondage. To be a bay holds the wonder that for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and mergansers. Because it could do otherwise – become a stream or a waterfall and there are verbs for that, too.”
In a sense, this way of speaking animates the landscape. What we see when we look out is not a static vista but a world that is active and alive. That is why, Kimmerer says, many indigenous people use the same words to address the world as they use for family. Because, she says, as they see it, “they are family.” Plants and animals, yes, but also mountains, water, places. They are animate. They have their ways. And they are worthy of attention, of respect.
It’s a little disorienting to think about, yet how many of us have found ourselves chatting to chickadees at our birdfeeders or staring admiringly at the magnificent white oak we pass on the way to work? Our language classifies them as “its,” but there is something inside us that accords them something more: some animacy, some care and respect.
This is the spirit that inhabits Mary Oliver’s poem that we heard earlier about the surprising welcome that she discovered spending the night in the woods. And it’s telling that she frames what she experiences not as a discovery but as a reunion of sorts. “I thought the earth remembered me,” she writes.
Removed from all that sheltered her – “nothing between me and the white fire of the stars” – she found herself attuned to whole kingdoms of life who by their presence held the space, while, as she puts it, she was “grappling with a luminous doom” that by morning had left her, in her words, something better.
Many of us here can testify to that kind of healing, to finding on forest paths or mountain peaks a connection to a deeper rhythm that settles our souls, a rhythm that moves not so much in us as through us, that tells we are home, in enduring relationship that connects us with all life that has been and will be.
It is a comforting way to imagine our relation to the world. And still, in this Thanksgiving season, the fact remains that the links in that relationship are frayed. Fires in California and waves of hurricanes battering the Gulf Coast testify to all the ways that we humans are out of sync with those deep rhythms.
Here in Asheville, activists joined by clergy from the Creation Care Alliance have maintained a fast on Pack Square to bring attention to the threat of climate change. I joined them on Friday and offered words of blessing for their work. About a dozen or so were gathered. Here’s what I said:
Given the state of the world, I begin with words of confession and lamentation. We confess today that we humans have failed the Earth. Blessed with ingenious minds and clever hands capable of healing and hope, repair and renewal, we are instead doing terrible damage: extirpating species, poisoning the water and air, disrupting climate patterns.
We see the effects in forests ablaze, coastal cities inundated, and all the ways that the Web of life is being torn to tatters. Amid all this, we lament our hubris, our apathy, our willful blindness and denial.
This is reason to disrupt the quiet patterns of our lives to remind ourselves of the work before us, work that will require relinquishment and sacrifice of all us, as symbolized in our fast today, work to put ourselves in right relationship with all life, with the very Earth itself.
We see hope in that spark of compassion that resides in each of us, that we give many names, that of the spirit, of God, the holy. We see the dawning of a new possibility, a new way of being that defines itself not standing apart, but woven together in relationship, that finds kindred in all things.
Bless this work, this hope, this determination to repair what has been rent asunder, to reclaim our original blessing in harmony with all things, united as one people in care of the Earth.
Of course, even with all the damage we see, Earth’s systems surprise us with their resiliency. How else to respond than with gratitude? So, as we enter this Thanksgiving season let me introduce you to words that come from indigenous tradition, words that encompass this larger perspective and help us experience a worldview that embraces animacy in its fullest form and ties all together as one.
It is the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Six Nations who centuries ago joined to make a confederacy of peace. These words begin every gathering of those people. They establish the place where they begin and tell of the relationships embedded in our living, in the community of being in which we all participate.
We close with these words:
From “Across That Bridge” by John Lewis
During the Civil Rights Movement, our struggle was not about politics. It was about seeing a philosophy made manifest in our society that recognized the inextricable connection we have to each other. Those ideals represent what is eternally real and they are still true today, though they have receded from the forefront of American imagination.
Yes, the election of Obama represent(ed) a significant step, but it (was) not an ending. It was not even a beginning; it (was) one important act on a continuum of change. It (was) a major down payment on the fulfillment of a dream. It (was) another milestone on one nation’s road to freedom.
But we must accept one central truth and responsibility as participants in a democracy. Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society. The work of love, peace, and justice will always be necessary, until their realism and their imperative take hold of our imagination, crowds out any dream of hatred or revenge, and fills us our existence with their power.”
Start Close in By David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first thing close in,
the step you don’t want to take.
Start with the ground you know,
the pale ground beneath your feet,
your own way of starting the conversation.
Start with your own question,
give up on other people’s questions,
don’t let them smother something simple.
To find another’s voice,
follow your own voice,
wait until that voice
becomes a private ear
listening to another.
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow someone else’s heroics, be humble
start close in,
don’t mistake that other for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first thing
the step you don’t want to take.
I had the inestimable privilege to meet John Lewis several years ago. It was during our UU General Assembly, and the occasion was the honoring of our own Clark Olsen with the UU Distinguished Service Award.
As Clark’s minister and the person who had nominated him for the honor I was given a seat at a small luncheon held in Clark’s honor, and Lewis was there. He was gracious and kind. He warmly congratulated Clark as a “brother” in the Civil Rights movement, and, as in the reading you heard, he spoke of the work yet to be done in the movement. We nodded and applauded him.
John Lewis’ words came back to me as I struggled to frame how we as religious people might respond to this time just a couple of days before a pivotal election. It feels like a unique moment of challenge: the frightening rise of nationalism and the demonizing of immigrants and refugees in this country and other nations, and here at home watching our government abandon generations of commitments to the environment and the poor, to voting rights and civil rights, while turning a blind eye to a gathering storm of climate change that threatens our long-term future as a species.
All these issues and more are before us in this election. So, if you haven’t yet, I urge you to vote, exercise your franchise, your share in the decision-making responsibility that is core to our form of government. Democracy is like a muscle: to endure it must be exercised. And the wider it is exercised, the stronger it will be.
Still, as important as this election is, it also feels like there’s something deeper at stake. We know, after all, that elections only accomplish so much. And all signs are that however, this one turns out it’s going to leave a lot unsettled, leaving many of us saying, “OK, now what?”
Our worship theme of Memory this month gave me a place to start. John Lewis, who famously was nearly killed at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, marching for equal voting rights, has made a point throughout his life of saying that the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s were but the initial skirmishes in a deeper struggle.
“Freedom,” he wrote, “is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” Pushing memory back a little further, it’s a theme we see resonating across the last century. Liberation movements across the globe – not only in the American South but in India, Poland, South Africa, the Philippines and more – had at their core commitments to the broadest possible freedom for the broadest possible populace over against those who used power to try to limit it. They were movements that found success by widening the effectiveness of participatory democracy and using it to develop campaigns that had broad support of an informed and inspired populace that forced oppressive government to change.
Power seeking to block this movement took the form of repression in some places and violence in others. We see the same pattern emerging now. Violence begins in words, images or Internet memes, but gets translated into assault and even assassination by fearful and unstable followers of public figures.
Those figures may deny their complicity. But as we saw in the shootings in Pittsburgh, the community’s outpouring of grief and support defied the denials and shifted the narrative, leaving those behind the verbal assaults isolated and defensive.
There’s no question, though, that it can get discouraging. Assaultive words, lies, and misrepresentation push people to respond in kind. The latest pushback came against Michelle Obama’s famous line in the last presidential campaign – “When they go low, we go high.”
One frustrated politician responded, “When they go low, we kick them.” I appreciate what leads to that sentiment, but I can’t help but return to John Lewis’ words: “I have been rejected, hatred, oppressed, beaten, jailed, and have almost died only to live another day,” he wrote.
“I have witnessed betrayal, corruption, bombing, lunacy, conspiracy, and even assassination – and I have still kept marching on. And despite every attempt to keep me down, I have not been shaken.”
Lewis is very clear on the source of his equanimity. “I doubt that professors who teach history of the (Civil Rights) movement today would say that if you boiled down our intent into our all-encompassing residual word the remaining essences would be love,” he wrote. “But I am here to tell you that among those of us who were in the heart of the movement who fully imbibed the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence who accepted it not simply as a tactic but as a way of authentically living our lives – our sole purpose was, in fact, love.
“We would settle for the proceeds of justice and equal rights, but the force guiding our involvement was the desire to redeem the souls of our brothers and sisters who were beguiled by the illusion of superiority, taken in and distorted by their false god that they were willing to destroy any contradiction of that faith. If we were pawns of an unjust system, they were also so complicit in their own degradation that they justified wrong as a service to the right.”
In the end, he says, “Our implacability grounded in love was ultimately what disarmed the weapons of fear and thwarted intentions of our violators to annihilate us.”
This language of the Civil Rights movement is something that we have not heard for some time. And, given that John Lewis is one of the last survivors of the generation of prophetic leaders who guided that work, we may not hear it much longer. And yet it awes and humbles me to bring it to you today.
Once we’re done with this election, we’ll have work to do. It is work that goes beyond partisan politics, beyond this current electoral cycle. It is, frankly, spiritual work, work that challenges us to get in touch with our values and invites us to live as if they guided our lives.
In some quarters this has been framed as learning to be more civil, willing to hear different points of view. That’s certainly a dimension of it. Niceness helps. But that only opens the door a crack.
I’m intrigued by radio host Krista Tippett’s observation after interviewing Lewis that, in her words, “at every turn, I hear the word ‘love’ surfacing as a longing for common life.” And behind it, she said, is something like deep grief.
“There’s a bewilderment in the American air,” she added. “We don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors – to address the ways in which our well-being may be oblivious to theirs or harming theirs. We don’t know how to reach out or what to say if we did. But we don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to live this way.”
Me neither. I’m the first to admit that my blood boils at much of what is emerging in this election season. But, I recognize within me the same fear and grief, a sense that we are tumbling toward some rough and unforgiving way of life together.
But, of course, the truth remains, however hard it is to hear, that how we respond, how we behave is our choice. John Lewis reminds us of that, and he doesn’t sugar-coat the consequences of that understanding. Peace, love and justice are not just nice ideas. They are ways of being, practices we must weave into our lives. And they take time to make an impact.
So, we must be, using Lewis’ term, “implacable” in applying them. That means giving up our self-righteousness anger, our own demonizing narratives and paying attention to the work that will bring us to our goal.
“Love, muscular and resilient, does not always seem reasonable, much less doable, in our most damaged and charged civic space,” says Krista Tippett. And yet, it is our way forward.
It occurs to me that if we insert love into the narrative it opens up new space. It defines, for example, the difference between nationalism, devotion to our nation’s interests, and patriotism, devotion to our nation’s values.
Nationalism is grounded in covetous clutching, in a me-first, zero-sum calculation, that selfishly puts our interests above all others. Patriotism, on the other hand, is centered in a vision of common concern. It is expansive, compassionate, hopeful.
We hear its terms in the poem by Langston Hughes that was at the center of our choir’s anthem. Written in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, “Freedom’s Plow” tells his reading of our nation’s ethos. It begins with an image of people who start with nothing but their own hands, in his words, “empty and clean,” who together came to build what he called “a community of hands.”
Free hands, slave hands, indentured hands, adventurous hands, guarding in their hearts one powerful word: freedom And finding it, he says, in the dream of a nation: “not one man’s dream alone, but a community dream,” “not my world alone, but your world and my world, belonging to all the hands who build.”
Echoing in words of our founding, “All are created equal.” “None is good enough to govern another without their consent.” Stumbling at times, bloodied by war, faultily put into practice, nonetheless ,freedom has come.
Always the trying to say, “together we are building our land, a dream nourished in common.” “Who is America?” Hughes asks. “You and me. We are America.”
And driving the poem throughout is the image from the old slave song: keep your hand on the plow! “The plow plowed a new furrow,” Hughes wrote, “across the field of history, and into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, for all America, for all the world. May its branches spread and shelter grow until all races and all peoples know its shade. Keep your hands on the plow! Hold on!”
At the time it was published, Hughes’ poem has such a hit that it was broadcast to a nationwide radio audience. Seventy-five years later, have we become so jaded that his stirring words no longer move us? We struggle at times with what patriotism calls for from us. We watch with disappointment and even alarm what the government sometimes does in our name. But on the brink of Election Day we are reminded of the blessing of freedom that we assume as our right – a right that is still poorly realized and constantly under assault but that still powers the dreams, the hopes, the ambitions of all our people in their beautiful diversity.
And now what? In Langston’s Hughes words, we get back to the plow, breaking up the fallow hard pan of hatred, selfishness, and oppression, starting close in with that first scary step, the step we fear to take that we know, still, to be ours, back to the furrows of our callings and our communities, back to our families and neighborhoods, back to the work of love.
This weekend we mark the half-year point in our journey of sanctuary with our beloved guest, La Mariposa. With temperatures turning downward and the leaves changing color, we remember another hinge in the year last April when she arrived one evening frightened and disoriented, abandoning her home and livelihood of many years leaving the embrace of her family for a single room in the company of strangers.
Not a one of us knew what to expect. Would federal agents appear on our doorstep? Would protesters or news media gather round? Would this complex and chancy structure of volunteers that we had cobbled together to protect and support her hold up? That it has held up, and not only held up but, with the exception of a bump or two, flourished beautifully is evidence of something that was not immediately clear at the time, that sanctuary is more than the work of justice, it is work of the heart.
We could hardly be blamed for missing that when we began last spring, living as we are at a time when our national conversation around immigrants and immigration is more divisive than at any time since the turn of the 20th century. And we should note that this state of affairs has little to do with immigrants themselves, but instead is a result of the divisive state of our politics.
Despite the fact that the pace of immigrants entering this country has actually slowed in recent years, that the vast majority of immigrants – documented or not – are working, abide by our laws and pay our taxes, certain noted politicians have declared that their presence here is a crisis. And so, they ratchet up the penalties for them being here, criminalizing their very presence, unceremoniously grabbing them when they enter stores or government buildings, and warehousing those they seize in private prisons. The result has been to terrorize and disrupt immigrant communities.
When we consider who in the U.S. doesn’t have official status, we’re talking about around 11 million people, a number that has remained steady for the past 10 years, and about 350,000 in North Carolina, where they make up 5% of our labor force. And that share is significant, especially in key industries like agriculture, construction, and hospitality. In particular, North Carolina farmers, construction firms and restaurants have warned they would suffer without the undocumented workers they employ.
And for all the noise surrounding “illegal” immigrants, polls in North Carolina show that roughly three-quarters of respondents are fine with them being here and have no interest in local police assisting the federal government in arresting them, as long as they have committed no crimes.
Clearly, immigration is a problem. Our laws are a rat’s nest of confusion, and those seeking to navigate them, who already are struggling with the language, find little guidance to make their way through. But the immigrants are not the problem. They are people much like the forebears of every person in this room who sought peace, freedom and a better life in this country. Most of those people were blessed to find a country, a community that would make room for them. How is it that we have become so frightened, so divided, so deluded that we have turned away from the impulse to hospitality that is our true nature, that call from our hearts to know and be known?
We shouldn’t belittle the extraordinary leap of hope and faith that immigrating to another country involves, no less traveling to a place where your language, skin color, or ethnicity makes you a minority. And yet, how amazing it is how many people thrive, and how rich they make life for the rest of us. This is a learning that the so-called “immigration debate” loses sight of, but that we in the harbor of sanctuary have been blessed to relearn. By taking the risk to open our doors and open our hearts we have reminded ourselves of what true hospitality calls for from us.
Last July I told you that if anyone should ask you why our congregation is inserting itself into the immigration controversy with our decision to offer sanctuary, you can tell them that this is about far more than quibbling over the fine points of government policy.
It is about our unerring commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is about our determination to offer compassion and to be advocates and allies to people suffering oppression. It is about our commitment to uproot and dismantle the structures of white supremacy and build the foundations of a beloved community centered in justice and love.
That is to say, it is work of the heart. The question before us is where that work takes us now. We and the 17 other congregations who are our partners will continue to support our guest as her case wends through the court system, hoping that those authorities will see the justice of her bid for citizenship.
But meanwhile, the immigrant community here suffers. Federal immigration agents continue their sweep of the area, indiscriminately snatching up people and holding them at a private prison in rural Georgia, where around 1,700 men are now housed.
Federal officials acknowledge that they can’t hope to arrest and imprison all undocumented immigrants. Instead, they have instituted a policy to encourage what they call “self-deportation,” that intends to make undocumented people so frightened that they will choose to return to the countries of their origin. From all signs, few people are “self-deporting” – there are, after all, powerful reasons that brought them here in the first place – but many have changed how they live. They avoid going out for shopping, even doctor appointments, and they steer clear of any contact with government, whether it be vaccinations for their children or choosing not to report incidents of domestic violence or abuse. How might we be neighbors to these people? How might our commitment to sanctuary lead us into deeper engagement with this community in our midst?
The Mexican-American poet Luis Alberto Urrea paints a picture of the immigrant’s journey in his poem “Codex Luna.” Here is an excerpt:
“My moon pulled a different darkness across the sky.
My unknown sisters tucked in the barbed embrace of the border fence saw a different face in the moon.
Theirs was a Luna Tochtli, a Rabbit moon – moon of running, fear, hiding.
My moon was origami floating in a water cup. Their moon was a panicked eye.
Headlights froze them, twin moonbeams ran them down, tufts of their dreams tangled in thickets of border tumbleweeds.
My sisters brought undocumented scents to sweeten the valleys. Their perfume settled on roadsides, misted over bloodstain, rattlesnake, boot print, guard dog, flashlight: illegal exhalations. Behind them, hunger. Before them, night.
I did not need to run. I had a paper moon. Stamped and certified. Gave us the all clear to walk, work, die on the ground our ancestors had forgotten. My moon rose over tidy houses.
She ran all her life. She ran to stay ahead of charging darkness, galloping hunger. She worked the light of the moon in her small hands the color of earth, she molded moonglow into trinkets traded for coins the color of sun.
Somehow, she came to rest in my house. She slept, her hair black across my pillow, spilling toward the earth, her fingers curled, her breath making small melodies of breezes and tides.
Then they woke her. They tucked her in the back seat of a car, smuggled her under blankets through trucks up freeways.
I sank my face into the imprint she left.
I smelled her mother in a kitchen of clay pots, and cilantro on her hands.
It was all there: hibiscus tea, a river. First grade, the chalk dust sneezes. Village church, incense. Laundry day. Tamale day, and the aunts with their crow voice laughter.
The meat, the masa, the raisins, the cinnamon.
Just an illegal drudge in crepuscular rain. If you see her, protect her, revere her, my unknown sister, light candles in her honor, you travelers. She is the mother of my race. “
The work of the heart is not always easy or clear, yet it calls for us to be honest and brave, to be compassionate and clear thinking. And it carries us beyond the slogans, the memes, the talking points. It invites to see the holy in each other, the possibility we each hold in this fragile time and space together.
So, what might hope look like for you? Maybe something fragile and insubstantial, like a big
soap bubble reflecting rainbow colors. Or maybe a comfy blanket you turn to when you’re cold,
or perhaps a finely tooled steel brace that helps you stand you’re feeling weak or uncertain.
I chose this occasion, when I want to introduce you to the esteemed Universalist preacher,
teacher, and prophet Clarence Russell Skinner, to play with the idea of hope because I think
that of all our forebears he offers us a singular challenge to come to terms with it.
Even though it’s been barely 70 years since his death, Skinner is not widely known among us.
Largely, I think that is because he died a good decade before the 1961 union of our two
movements – Unitarianism and Universalism. And with that union came a kind of reset in the
minds of many. History, in a sense, began in 1961.
Also, it’s true that at the time of the union the Universalists were by far the smaller
denomination and in many ways the Unitarians took charge. So, at least at first, Universalists
took a back seat and so did much of their narrative. In the years since that’s changed and we’re
investigating more and more of our Universalist past.
As it happens, this is an auspicious time of year to talk about Universalism, since years ago
this was when many Universalist churches used to celebrate the founding of their movement.
They called it John Murray Day, in honor the anniversary of the arrival of this founder
on American shores on September 30, 1770. So, for some years now I have chosen this time of
year to offer a sermon centered on some Universalist figure who I think highlights an important
part of that heritage.
From the time of his birth in 1881, Clarence Russell Skinner seemed destined for a public life.
His father was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, several extended family members were
actors, and all were thoroughly Universalist. In fact, among his forebears going back three
generations, he counted three Universalist ministers.
Skinner himself leaned toward acting in college – St. Lawrence University, a Universalist school.
Instead, on graduating he was hired by a Universalist church, the Church of Divine Paternity in
New York City. Without a day in seminary, he began work as assistant minister. A couple of
years later he was ordained to the ministry and called to his first church in Mt. Vernon, New
The education that made the most difference to Skinner while serving the Mt. Vernon
congregation was not so much what he learned in the parish, but what he learned
in his outreach work in the settlement houses of New York City. While he had grown up in New
York, this was a side of the city that he hadn’t experienced: crowded, filthy tenements rife with
crime, vice, and corruption. And it lit a fire of outrage in him that never went out.
This also happened to be the time and place of the birth of the Social Gospel movement,
mostly Protestant clergy who argued for making improvement of social conditions the work of
the church. Skinner signed on with gusto and organized a meeting of New York ministers to
advance it called the Church Peace Union.
Skinner’s powerful preaching spurred growth at Mt. Vernon and in 1910 he left for a larger
church, Grace Universalist Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. There he organized the first church
forum in New England, inviting speakers of many disciplines – religion, politics, economics –
to address the topics of the day, and it drew enthusiastic audiences that filled the hall.
This young man, barely six years in the ministry, also helped form the Universalist Service
Commission, predecessor of our UU Service Committee, to identify social need and offer aid.
Then, barely four years later, never having attended seminary, Skinner was appointed to a new
position of Professor of Applied Christianity at Crane Theological School at Tufts University,
the premier training ground for Universalist ministers.
How to explain this astonishing rise? Well, Skinner was an impressive presence. Though people
found him introverted in person, he caught fire in the pulpit and in his writings. But also, the
Universalist Church was changing, looking outward in a way it hadn’t done in the past,
and for those leaders who promoted that trend, Skinner’s was just the kind of voice they were
But the Universalists may have ended up getting more than they bargained for when at the
start of World War I Skinner announced that he was a pacifist and opposed the war.
It was, as you might imagine, a minority position. In fact, outrage spilled across the
But Skinner’s defenders managed to protect him, even after he gave a speech in Boston’s
Fanueil Hall saying admiring things about socialism. Skinner was never really a socialist, but a
religious activist who had this grand vision of a united world community. And what other religion
is better equipped to hold such a vision, he argued, than Universalism? His own faith had a
mystic bent, a sense of what he called “a creative power” at the center of all things that called
us to universal sympathy.
In 1917 it was Skinner who wrote a Declaration of Social Principles adopted by the
denomination laying out the many ills facing the word and calling for:
– An economic order to give each person an equal share
– A social order assuring equal rights to all
– A moral order in which all law and action shall be “an expression of the moral order of
– And a spiritual order arising from efforts of all people to build a beloved community.
In 1920 Skinner founded a new institution to help make his vision real, the Community Church
of Boston. It was modeled after a similar church that Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes,
another pacifist, had started in New York City. In fact, he and Holmes collaborated in creating it.
It was actually more of a speaking forum, with lectures followed by questions, comments and
discussion. But it gained a strong following, with weekly attendance in rented halls eventually
totaling more than 1,200. And no wonder, given that its speakers included such luminaries as
Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Margaret Sanger, and it wrestled with topics like Sacco
and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro case and the Republican revolt in Spain.
Like Holmes’ church, Skinner’s Community Church had no denominational ties. And that wasn’t
especially a surprise, for while Universalists had long been generally progressive
most were not social activists.
Skinner was well aware this, and it frustrated him. In 1924 in the face of rebuffs for his views
Skinner aired his feelings in a widely circulated poem: “In Times of Disillusion.” In it he
acknowledged all the ways that people’s dreams were disappointed but insisted, “I still
proclaim the Vision Splendid, till it strikes God-fire in old and broken hearts, and urges on the
world to consummate its dream. God’s unsurrendered – so am I! Therefore, I will live and
communicate with hope. I light the candle and – I dream.”
The truth was, though, that many Universalist congregations at the time were small, country
churches struggling to get by. The population shift to the cities had cleared out many rural
areas, and as the Depression set in many of those Universalist churches were crushed and
Skinner, though, persisted. At Crane School, he was named dean in 1933. He was said to be
inspirational and engaging as a teacher and enrollment at the school grew, even as the
denomination shrank. Skinner also devoted more time to write such books as “Liberalism Faces
the Future” and “A Religion for Greatness.”
World War II was a difficult time for a pacifist like Skinner, but his greater trouble was a bout
with colon cancer. That brought about his retirement from Crane in 1945. He had surgery for
the cancer, but never really recovered, and he died in 1949 at the age of 68.
This returns us now to the question of hope and what Clarence Russell Skinner might have to
teach us. Let’s begin by turning back to the quote from Skinner that I read earlier: “We are so
made that we simply cannot escape the necessity of reaching upward and outward toward
something greater than ourselves,” he said. “Whatever the unseen and distant goals, we have
never lived a dreamless life, content to adjust our whole being to things as they are.”
No, he said, there is a fire, a hunger within us that brings forth what Skinner called “a radiant
hope.” Religious life of the past failed us, he said, because it demanded of people “submissive
belief” in ordained truths instead of kindling in people what he called “creative faith,” our
innate ability to find in the world, in ourselves the spark that guides us to unity and the source
of our wellbeing.
He called for cultivating what he called “unsurrendered persons” willing to join the
“adventure” of discovering what is called of us to bring about the world of those great
Universalist visions. The seeds of those visions, he insisted, are present in the people, in the
world around us. What was needed, he said, was the courage to own them and move them
It is a heartening perspective, but we also need to acknowledge that Skinner’s “onward and
upward” rhetoric can feel a bit dated today. In the 70 years since his death, we’ve learned more
about what depravity humans are capable of than we would care to know.
Is “radiant hope” a sensible orientation the world? Well, perhaps not, if that hope is grounded
in unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others to accomplish unprecedented, heroic feats to
change the world. Please! We have enough to beat ourselves up about. Perhaps not, if that
hope arises from a fantastical vision that hovers like that soap bubble I mentioned earlier but
finds no way to connect to the day-to-day world we inhabit.
No, I think Skinner invites us to a different way, one centered in his confidence in every
person’s capacity to find serenity and courage, to act from a heart held by love aware of and
grateful for the gift of life that each of us has been given.
Some years ago, in an essay referencing Skinner, the UU theologian Rebecca Parker noted how
many people struggle through disappointment to find some source of trust, of hope. And she
told the story of one terrible moment when she reached that place.
Much in her life had gone wrong. So, in despair, she decided she just needed to end it. She told
of leaving her apartment with determined steps, her face wet with tears, walking toward a lake
in a park near her home planning to walk into it.
Entering the park, she was surprised to see a number of dark objects blocking her way. She
didn’t remember them being there before. And as she got closer she noticed something else:
There were people moving among the objects.
Suddenly, she realized what she was seeing: telescopes. It was a meeting of the Seattle
Astronomy Club. Its members just happened to have set up their equipment that night because
the unpredictable skies were clear.
A little disoriented but still determined, Parker made her way through the group, until one
enthusiast, who assumed she had come to look at the stars, spoke to her. “Here, let me show
you,” he said and began to explain what he had focused his telescope on. Brushing her tears
away she peered in, and “there it was,” she said. “I could see it. A red-orange, spiral galaxy.”
And that was it. “I could not bring myself to continue my journey,” she said. “In a world where
people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars I could not end my life.”
What was it Mary Oliver said? “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely The world offers itself
to your imagination.”
“Step into the center,” Marta Valentin invites us. “Come in from the margins. I will hold you
there. Don’t look back, or around. Feel my arms. The water is rising. I will hold you as you
tremble. I will warm you.”
The blessing of radiant hope is that it lives within each of us, and we are each other’s agents of
awakening. “In the tiny space where I end and you begin,” Marta said, “hope lives.”
Hope is that lifeline we each carry the possibility we see in ourselves and each other, the grace
we extend and receive. Let us be keepers and givers of such hope.