Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Some years ago, the story goes, there was worrying among members of the council of New College, of Oxford, England about the state of their buildings. It seems that an inspector had been poking around the ancient oak beams of the roof of the dining hall and discovered that they were full of beetles. Despite its name, New College was actually one of the oldest colleges of Oxford, founded in 1379, and truly an architectural marvel. But as with all things it had deteriorated with time. And now that they looked at the massive roof beams council members were dismayed: Where on earth would they find beams of that caliber in today’s marketplace?
Adapted from “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are Powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? . . . .
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. Not just some of us; everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
At this point, one of the Junior Fellows hesitantly raised his hand and suggested that there might actually be some oaks on the college’s own lands that could serve the purpose. The college, after all, was endowed with many acres of forest, where college fellows loved to walk and cogitate. But, oh, cutting the forest? Really? Certainly there would be a great hue and cry if the Council went after those venerable old oaks. So, they consulted the college forester and cautiously raised with him what they admitted was this wild idea.
Appearing before the council, the forester smiled and said, “Well, sirs. We was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.” It seems that when the college was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted specifically to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because, as anyone at the time knew, oaks always get beetly in the end.
Apparently the warning had been passed down from one forester to the next over the next 500 years: “Do what you need to tend to the forest, but don’t cut those oaks. They’re for the College Hall.” And so, the story goes, the council had the materials they needed for the repair job.
I don’t know that we have any oaks planted as part of the project we are dedicating today, but the story makes a point that is worth our considering: the institutions we build to give flesh to our hopes and dreams require tending, vision and care.
As we dedicated this beautiful expansion and updating of our main building earlier, you heard a bit of the story of this congregation told through the evolution of our physical space. It’s an inspiring tale – how we grew from a handful of people meeting in rented rooms at the YMCA to hundreds now gathered in this distinctive, innovative and welcoming space, planted at a crossroads in our community.
We are known in our neighborhood and the Asheville area for this remarkable building that serves, as Jane suggested, as a kind of commons for our congregation and, increasingly, for the community at large. Now that we have broadcast our name so prominently and offer accessible plazas to our building front and rear I’m betting that more will come. So, when they come, how will they know us?
Back in the 1950s and early 60s many people coming to this congregation were liberal-minded folks seeking refuge from a conservative religious culture. As the congregation grew and we found space for ourselves, first in a large home in West Asheville and then at this spot at Edwin and Charlotte, we took the risk of making ourselves more visible, particularly in venturing more deeply into social justice advocacy, though in many ways we remained an outlier in the community.
When the boom times in Asheville came, beginning in the 1980s, we boomed, too. With Asheville’s population increase the cultural dynamics started to change, so that instead of being an outlier we were more in tune with the increasingly progressive sensibilities of the community.
Rather than a refuge, we became a gathering place for liberal-minded newcomers, many of them moving from UU congregations elsewhere or unchurched and looking for a community that supported freedom of belief. And so our congregation came to focus on offering connections to these newcomers: Cultivating a sense of community, a place for socializing became an important focus of our life together. It is a dynamic that remains strong with us today.
But now as we dedicate this beautiful space with our arms stretched wide in welcome it is given to us to articulate the vision that will lead us from here. In keeping with our theme this month, what ought we to expect of this gathered community and each other in the work ahead of us? What seedlings shall we plant for when our beams get beetly?
Because, friends, the challenges are not far off and the thriving of this congregation will depend on our meeting them. It is fine to be a gathering place of liberal-minded people, but to what end is our gathering? It is good that we proclaim freedom of thought and conviction, but what is that freedom is for? It is laudable to affirm love, justice, compassion, equity and acceptance, but again – to what end?
I was listening the other day to some talking head bemoan the latest mass shooting – I forget now which one; they all seem to blend together – and he saying that we need to find ways to “harden” our schools or malls or whatever to better protect them.
And I wanted to shout: No, no, no! For the past 14 years our nation has been on a tear of hardening, and what has it brought us? An accelerating toll of death, whether it be domestic shooting rampages, servicewomen and men dying in undeclared wars, or a galloping suicide toll. We have hardened unemployment rules and any provision serving the poor, hardened suspicions across races and nationalities, hardened restrictions on the voting franchise, hardened political discourse beyond the possibility of conversation.
All this hardening has made us no safer, no freer than we were. Instead, all it has given us is a bleak harvest of fear. Even more, it has taught us that there is no safe harbor, no refuge, no garden that we can retreat to while the mad world goes on. We are stuck in the middle of it.
And, ironically, this may be greatest gift that this crisis has to give us. Because finally we are forced to come to terms with the truth that we are in this together – in it with Syrian refugees, with Parisian restaurant goers, with Los Angeles health workers, with Nigerian schoolgirls, with Ukrainian grandmothers, with Charleston churchgoers.
It is in this muddle, in this mess that we reside, and it is there that where we are called, and called to act. It was the great minister William Sloane Coffin who said, “Human unity is not something we are called to create, only to recognize and make manifest.”
In a time like this, what is needed is less hardening and more opening, more awakening. How shall we be agents of that work?
Because, folks, the truth is that for all beautiful words that flow from religious texts and the pulpits of churches – including those of our tradition – religious institutions are often slow to take the next step and live into them. We mistake the nature of faith and presume it has something with words we recite, when in fact what it has to do with is trust, and trust isn’t something we just decide on. It’s something that grows in our hearts.
Faith is not something we have; it’s something we do. It may begin as a surmise, but it grows stronger and deepens as we act on it. In our case, I want to argue that our tradition is founded on more than freedom of belief. At its center, I find the radical surmise that every human being has inherent worth and dignity simply in and of her and himself and that living into that presumption could save us all.
Not only that but we are linked in ways deeper than we can know to every living thing to every atom, every star, every beetle, every oak and that in that relationship lies the greatest hope we can know.
For me, these are not some convenient intellectual suppositions: they embody a truth in which I deeply trust that has grown in me to the point that it bolsters me amid despair and disappointment.
As we look ahead to our future, I would direct us as a gathered community to Marianne Williamson’s words that you heard earlier. I wonder sometimes if what keeps us from living more deeply into the mission we proclaim is an unspoken fear of the consequences of claiming the power we as a community actually have in our hands.
The religious life is full of lofty notions of what the world will be like someday when our idyllic notions come true, when the beloved community is made real. But how about if we began living into it now? What would that look like?
To spur your reflection, let me offer a piece of this song:
Close your eyes, have no fear.
The monster’s gone, he’s on the run and your daddy’s here.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful – beautiful boy!
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful – beautiful boy!”
It’s the first verse of one of the last songs John Lennon ever wrote, done in tribute to his son, Sean, who was around 5 at the time.
For a song writer whose lyrics often had an ironical edge, this one is remarkable for its sweetness and simplicity. It’s said to have been a time when, after leading a tumultuous life, Lennon was settling down, finally: letting go of the star machine and enjoying family life. So, maybe it’s just an older father’s celebration of his young son, but there’s something else that draws me to it, the chorus, especially, I find magical, almost chant-like:
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful – beautiful boy!”
It touches a feeling that any parent has had at some point, looking at your child in wonder. But others know it, too. Maybe it’s a partner, a parent, or a dear friend who is the focus of your gaze. Isn’t there a moment when you look and simply think to yourself – “beautiful, beautiful”? It’s not an aesthetic judgment; it’s a judgment of love.
Because, it’s true: there is wonder and beauty in each of us. Unfortunately, it’s not what we attend to, as a rule. We’re busy with the affairs of the day, affairs that often have us pushing past these “beautiful” people to get some task accomplished. As Jennifer said, Lennon takes note of it in the third verse of his song:
Before you cross the street, take my hand,
Life is what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.
It’s not long before we start “hardening” our assessment of others, before we start seeing in other people obstacles, strangers, aliens, and worse.
But we don’t have to go there. We can instead take the time to see in the other the beauty that is there. As a community we could invite each other and our neighbors to do the same and in doing so let down our guard and build connections across barriers. Pretty soon the commons we create in our space magnifies and grows.
Who knows what a grove this would grow, but wouldn’t it be a blessing?