SermonsUpcoming and Past
Past Sermons are listed by date.
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Sunday, February 16, 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister, Will Jernigan and Wes Miller, Annual Budget Drive Co-chairs
It’s a time these days when we need to be brave, when we need to step up to what our values call for from us and support each other in doing it. We begin our Annual Budget Drive celebrating the role that each of us in this congregation has in making that happen.
Sunday, February 9, 2020 , 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Acceptance & encouragement, what nice words! What could be hard about them? Today we’ll explore how our UU Third Principle can challenge us.
Click on this link for the pdf of this sermon.
Sunday, February 2, 2020, 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The strength of our faith, we have come to learn, depends on the part that each of us plays in it. Our two ministers will reflect on how all of us contribute to the resilience of this community.
Sunday, January 26, 2020, 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
OK, you Unitarian Universalists affirm the worth and dignity of every person. Now what? Our Second Principle begins our answer to that question.
Click on this link for a pdf version of this sermon.
Sunday, January 19, 2020, 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
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, “Every step toward the goal of justice requires the passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Let us explore ways of translating those concerns into purposeful action for justice in this new decade. Special guest, Womansong, will be providing music for our multigenerational service next Sunday
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.
Click on this pdf to sermon text.
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.
 Life Lines by Forrest Church, p 98
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
 Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural, Age, Juana Bordas, p18
 God, Improv and the Art of Living, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, p 180
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
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?
Sunday, June 16, 2019
Three generations of one family reflect on their experience of what fatherhood has been and is.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
Join us on an exploration of how we experience beauty and the awe that it inspires, if we pay attention. Awe can help us see things in new ways, but can there be a dark side to awe?
Sunday, June 2, 2019, 10am (single service)
Dr. Leslie Downs, Music Director
Performed by the UUCA Choir, All Ages Choir, The Sandburgers, Tabitha Judy, vocalist, Stephanie Quinn, violin,Mandy Guilfoyle, cello, Morgen Cobb, percussion, and Dr. Leslie Downs, Music Director.
11:30am UUCA Annual Meeting
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
As the biblical story of Adam and Eve shows, all people are curious about what it means to be a sexual being, but our hypersexualized society and the shaming that often comes from how people read that story makes it hard to talk about. Come hear how this is an important reason why Our Whole Lives (OWL) is an integral part of Faith Development for all ages at UUCA.
Sunday, May 19, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Unitarianism was a heady church of high pulpits in the early 1800s. But something happened to it as it spread westward: it became more open, less stuffy, sowing the seeds for a renewal that would launch the faith into the 20th century.
Sunday, May 12, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Beauty, strength, resiliency – our Flower Ceremony celebrates each of those traits within us that contribute to our own flowering, or awakening. Bring a flower for the ritual.
Sunday, May 5, 2019
Coming of Age Youths
All church year, our ninth-graders have been working with their teachers and mentors to address the question, “To what do I give my heart?” or “What do I believe?” Come experience the results of this challenge.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Grief is part of everyone’s experience and how we make room for it in our lives contributes to our sense of personal wholeness. This Sunday we will explore the experience of grief through poetry and story.
Sunday, April 21, 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister and Rev.Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
One of the greatest gifts that we as human beings have is to bless the life of another. We can find in the Easter story the capacity we each have to bring about renewal, rebirth, transformation in ourselves and others through the blessings we give.
Sunday, April 14, 9:15 & 11:15am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing humankind is learning to orient ourselves to how climate change is altering our planet in the most profound ways. This Earth Day we consider how we as a community can lean into the work of both repairing and preparing for the consequences of those changes.
Sunday, April 7, 2019
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
“Are you all there?’ It’s a question we get asked when we’re staring into space, disengaged from our surroundings. Sometimes we go for some time feeling split between an inner self of experience and an outer self that we show to the world. This week we’ll explore how it is to live “all there,” present and whole.
Sunday, March 31, 2019
Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith Development
Join us Sunday as we reflect on immigration, the importance of language and the opportunities for religious communities to affirm the value of diversity by welcoming the “aliens” among us.
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 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.
Adaptability & Life Transitions
Good morning. It is good to be with you today. I’m starting to recognize some of your faces and remember some of your names. I look forward to getting to know you better as I serve this congregation in partnership with Rev. Mark, our staff, and our lay leadership. I’m thrilled to have a portfolio that emphasizes the importance of faith development for all ages, throughout all the transitions in our lives and when we gather to worship.
I will approach my work with you with this definition of ministry in mind. The author is unknown.
“Ministry is the act of ministering to.
It is the way we are mindful and nurturing of each other.
Ministry is not something only ordained ministers do.
When we care with someone, when we stand with them through struggle, when we help them learn and grow,
we are engaging in ministry.
When we offer programs that engage the heart, the mind or the spirit we are engaging in ministry.”
I eagerly anticipate engaging in ministry with you and watching your ministry to each other and the larger community unfold.
I know you will miss Rev. Lisa and her ministry with you. Change is challenging and as I begin my work with you I hope to gain your trust and respect. I do not promise you perfection, none of us can do that. But I do promise commitment to supporting faith development at UUCA and providing leadership for the programs in my portfolio: pastoral care, lifespan faith development, and Wednesday Thing. I’m a Zumba fan (Zumba is a dance workout to Latin and Hip Hop tunes that was started by a fellow Colombian) so I see our relationship like a dance. Sometimes it will flow nicely. Other times we may step on each other’s toes or miss a step. But we will always have a chance to try again and learn together as we transition into a new ministry.
This is new for me, too. I was accepted into UU fellowship in April, graduated from seminary in May, was welcomed into UU ministry at General Assembly in June, moved to Asheville in July and started my work with you August 1. As all that was happening my partner Steve and I prepared to sell our house in Vero Beach, FL and find a home here. I also had to say goodbye to the congregation I served as the religious educator for 17 years, as well as to my friends, my parents who live down the street from our former house and the beach. But, it isn’t really goodbye. In Spanish, we say “hasta luego” ….until later. I know I will be back to visit. It will be different because Asheville is now my new home and you are the religious community that I am eager and excited to serve. From what I have experienced so far, I sense much possibility for the ministry we will do together.
During time of transition, we will be challenged to grow and learn together. Struggling through situations, welcomed or not, requires our willingness to question our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
Can we change the way we think about a situation?
Can we look at evidence, examine facts, and maybe even change our mind about a conviction or belief we have held a long time that is not supported by the evidence? Learning and growth require the willingness to engage new ideas and perspectives. Being open to change is what allows us to adapt to circumstances in our lives and the ever-changing world around us. 
My move here has been challenging but I knew what I was in for. And I’m glad to be here! I made a move many years ago when that wasn’t the case. It was before the internet, so I couldn’t Google everything and really learn about this new place. In 1993, my partner’s job took us to Brazil. Our family moved to Bahia, one of the poorest states in Brazil, with an infant and a toddler. We lived in the town of Cruz das Almas where there was water every third day, limited access to medical care, no air conditioning as well as rampant inflation: food prices increased daily. These are only a few of the many details our young family had to deal with. I was tempted to either feel sorry for myself (which I admit I did for a brief period of time), complain to my partner or even blame him for putting us in this situation …or I could have found a way of making the best of it. I decided to do the latter and by the time the three years were over…I didn’t want to leave.
You may have heard the saying: “You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” Those years in Brazil taught me to adjust my sails. I learned that we have it within us to transcend many of the hardships and losses we face if we are willing to embrace change rather than fight it; if we are willing to adapt and be transformed.
From the moment of birth, we experience change. We leave the comfort and warmth of the womb to enter a sterile, cold, harshly lit hospital room
We nurse and are weaned.
We start school.
Our parents may divorce.
We move to another neighborhood, state or country.
A parent dies.
A young adult leaves for college.
A spouse is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
And the list goes on.
Each change requires a transition and maybe even the acknowledgement that there has been a loss. We often think of loss and grief as responses to death or catastrophic events in our lives. But sometimes it’s unfair situations, big disappointments, life milestones, serious heartaches or the reality of aging- and confronting one’s mortality, that leads to significant transitions in our lives. Acknowledging the sense of loss, they produce can be cathartic.
Furthermore, life transitions often involve a change in how we define ourselves. There is a shedding of a previous identity, a new way of seeing ourselves regardless of whether the situation is happy or sad. What identities have you embraced throughout your life? I know I am making a shift from being an intern and a seminarian to being Rev Claudia: it’s both awesome and intimidating….
In our story today, Pete the Cat just went with the flow, and in the end “it was all good.” It isn’t really always “all good.” However, we can choose how we deal with transitions and the feelings of loss, anger and even despair they may engender. Not all of us are as mellow as Pete the Cat. And that’s OK. We’re all different. We each need practices and friends we can turn to when events in our lives and around us feel overwhelming. And when they occur it is good to know we are part of a caring community.
The earlier reading by Beth Casebolt highlighted the transitions we experience throughout our lives and reminds us of the role our faith community can have in helping us move through them. There are many opportunities of fulfilling that role by ministering to each other as a pastoral visitor, a facilitator for our children or youth program, a Coming of Age mentor, a worship leader, retreat organizer and so on.
Remember, we are doing ministry when ‘When we care with someone, when we stand with them through struggle, when we help them learn and grow….
When we offer programs that engage the heart, the mind or the spirit we are engaging in ministry.”
I hope my ministry with you will support you in deepening your spirituality and commitment to the ministry that your talents and gifts call forth. This is a time of transition and also a time of tremendous possibility.
May we find ways to minister to each other and remain engaged in the task
Of transforming not only ourselves but our community and beyond.
May it be so.
 How to Cope with Transitions and Change by Dr. Cheryl McDonald, http://healthpsychology.org/how-to-cope-with-transition-and-change/
When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress them. You shall treat them as a citizen among you; you shall love them as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
“Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again
There are moments of moral clarity that arrive at times like a ringing bell that resonates deep within us. I had one this past week as I was reading through news reports online about the latest development in the travesty of US immigration agents separating undocumented immigrant parents from children as they are captured crossing our border – more than 2,000 families, according to the latest count.
This week, though, a federal judge ordered that the families be reunited. Amid all the statistics and quotes from officials was a video of one family’s story.
The reporter followed a Guatemalan woman whose 9-year-old daughter and 17-year son were taken. She told how a uniformed officer at the border entered a room where she, already separated from her son, sat with her daughter and other women.
She said that as the officer approaching her he demanded, “Let go of her, Let go of her” and pulled the girl from her arms. She said she felt sure that she would never see her again. The children were later taken to a shelter in Michigan, but thankfully their father was already in the US. He had come two years before and applied for asylum, and they were released to his custody. The mother said she had come to the US seeking asylum after criminal groups in Guatemala threatened her son.
For 40 days she lived in immigration limbo, but, working with an advocate, she was able to find
her husband and children and be reunited with them. The reporter filmed the reunion at an airport, the family running into each other’s arms, the mother clasping her children:
“My love,” she said, “I missed you. I couldn’t do anything. I felt so cowardly, Forgive me.”
I am grateful that never in my life have I faced something as terrifying as this, but I don’t have to work hard to imagine how I might feel, how devastated I would feel. And I wish I could say to that mother, to all the mothers and fathers whose children were taken:
“You have no cause to seek anyone’s forgiveness. To the contrary: forgive me, forgive us, forgive this country that we have so lost our way, become so deluded and confused that we permit officers empowered by our laws to rip apart families in the name of something so paltry as a line drawn on a map.”
But, of course, we remember that all of this Is about a lot more than a line on a map, and there lies the rub for us all.
To put it bluntly, it is about a culture of dominance that has prevailed in this country
from the day of its founding, a culture constructed to privilege and protect a select group of people: people whose skin is white and whose assets are ample.
Langston Hughes, writing at the height of the Great Depression, captured the sense of it.
We Americans, he said, grow up with the dream of a country that is, in his words, “a great strong land of love” where no one “is crushed by one above,” where “opportunity is real, and life is free.”
But that America, he said, “never was America to me.” Not he, the African-American man, nor, in his words, “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, the red man driven from the land, the immigrant clutching hope.” All of them, he wrote, “finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
Those words had a particular resonance in the 30s, but they still sting today. In this nation of immense wealth and influence, people are still marginalized, stigmatized and oppressed, the same people who Langston Hughes named, people whose color, whose language, whose ethnicity varies from the predominant white culture.
And, of course, when it comes to immigration we find the same pattern repeated again. For with all the talk of ours being a nation of immigrants the welcome America offers has always been limited. It begins, of course, with slavery, which brought millions of Africans here against their will, but it continued with exclusion and oppression of Asians, mostly Chinese and Japanese, and with our treatment of our neighbors in Mexico, who were sought out for work in mines and fields but never welcome as permanent citizens.
Immigration reform in 1965 changed things dramatically. Old quotas were eliminated and immigration was expanded but one important group was targeted fornew, severe restrictions: Mexicans.
Before the law changed, the US allowed 450,000 Mexican men into the US each year on guestworker visas. After the law changed, the guestworker program ended, but only 20,000 Mexicans a year could receive resident visas. Those who came without visas were deemed, for the first time, illegal immigrants.
This set up a dynamic that persists today: hundreds of thousands of people with work histories and family connections here that go back decades are nonetheless deemed “illegals.”
In time, racism and xenophobia have done their work, painting them as dangerous, or in our president’s words “animals.” driving public policy to “get tough,” with harsh penalties and even imprisonment not just for those who violate the law but now also for those who merely lack citizenship papers.
All of this offers a frightening parallel to a trend that Michelle Alexander described a decade ago as “The New Jim Crow.” Despite the gains of the rise of the Civil Rights movement, she said, staggering numbers of African-American men were targeted in the war on drugs, many of them apprehended and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, after which their criminal records made them largely ineligible to participate in civil society. Alexander argued that these trends had led to the emergence of a caste system that still devastates the lives of African-Americans and communities around the country.
With the criminalizing of so much of the immigration system, we stand at the brink of a new emerging caste system that could equally devastate immigrant communities. And, once again, it is not all immigrants, but non-white immigrants who feel the brunt of this. We fool ourselves if we fail to discern the blatant racial dimension to this state of affairs.
So, if anyone should ask you why congregations like ours are inserting ourselves into the immigration debate with our decision to offer sanctuary, you can tell them that this is about far more than debating 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 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.
The passage you heard earlier from Leviticus is one of the most powerful injunctions in the Bible on how people new to a community are to be treated. It comes from a section in the Hebrew scriptures known as the holiness code, which gives many instructions on living a righteous life, on what it is to be just and humane.
“When a foreigner resides with you in your land,
You shall not oppress them.
You shall treat them as a citizen among you;
You shall love them as yourself.”
The right path, it suggests, is not something we walk alone. We encounter others, not just family but people strange to us. And when we meet them, the holy center within us, the way to wholeness and integrity, urges us to attend to them, to treat them as part of our tribe, our circle, and even more, to love them, to love them even as we love ourselves.
To love them.
This is no small task. For in loving another we are always stepping outside of our comfort zones. We make ourselves vulnerable to them. We open our hearts, our dearest, tenderest selves, and prepare to be changed.
Why do such a thing? We do it, not because it is a nice thing to do. We do it because it is what we need to do, all of us, because people of all communities belong together, involved in each other’s lives because this is the only way to wholeness, the only way to live our ethical duty, to be fully present, awake, and alive.
We’ve had a chance to rehearse this in the last several months as we’ve welcomed our guest, La Mariposa, into this community. It’s been hard, I know. While her case grinds through the system, we’ve had to be careful about what we share and who she interacts with.
Sanctuary is a challenging commitment, and it follows no clear path. It’s been immensely rewarding, though, in ways I never anticipated. We have come to learn about the struggles she faces and the quandaries of this byzantine system. But all of us involved have also come to experience the joy of getting to know and, dare I say, love her.
We’re learning the amazing truth that when you create space to hold the integrity of another person, it opens both of you. It is space that is hard to find in these conflicted times, but it can be made.
And so it’s been intriguing as I’ve been following the sanctuary movement to learn of a new concept that’s emerging within it called “sanctuary everywhere.” How would it be if we applied the principles of sanctuary – collaborating to create safe space for people and communities that are threatened – more widely?
There are other places where this is happening. Wherever we come to know others and make common cause to accompany them in their journey to liberation we are creating sanctuary.
Friends, I invite you to make this our work. to make it central to the ministry of this congregation. Let us be agents of this sanctuary, sanctuary for our immigrant siblings seeking dignity and a place in this country, sanctuary for our African-American siblings seeking justice and peace in a culture centered in whiteness, sanctuary for so many people marginalized for their identities in so many ways.
And in doing this let us remember that sanctuary is not always making physical space. It is also about making space in our hearts, our minds, our consciousness.
At our last General Assembly, I was introduced to a way of framing this work that crystalized it for me. They are words attributed to Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist from Australia, “If you have come here to help me,” she said, “you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
I affirm that my liberation, my own awakening is not something I can achieve on my own. It is bound up with that of all people, my siblings of all colors, all ethnicities, all identities. From this perspective, we see that all that divides us now is just froth and foolishness, fabricated fear and delusion.
This year I will be inviting you to join me as we center our work, our thoughts, our love in how to make ourselves agents of this new way. It will challenge us to reframe our thinking, to open ourselves to new learning, to listen with humility and compassion, to act when we are called to act and to organize ourselves in a way that will put our gifts in the service of transformation.
In coming weeks, you will hear more about how our congregation is engaged in this work and how you can participate. But don’t let this inhibit your imagination. What are we missing? What vision, what inspiration can you bring to this that will open all of us?
We Unitarian Universalists have long been good helpers to the work of the liberation of others. Let us now take the next step that helps us see that it is our liberation that is at stake as well.
How might we be agents for the beloved community writ large, for an America that never was, that yet will be?
Early in her novel Gilead Marilynne Robinson imagines her protagonist, the Rev. John Ames, an elderly minister writing a letter to his 7-year-old son, recalling an episode from early in his youth. Ames tells of how he and some friends came upon one of their cats with a litter of kittens and decided that they needed to be baptized.
It was a unique experience, he says, to feel the warm little brows beneath the palm of his hand. “Everyone has petted a cat,” Robinson writes,” but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.”
For years, Ames reflects, “we would wonder what, from a cosmic perspective, we had done to them.” “It seems to me a real question,” he says. “There is a reality in blessing.“ It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, And there is power in that.”
I’m aware that among us there are different ideas about the nature and power of blessing. Some of us came of age in religious traditions where a blessing is viewed as something given by a person of some authority that, as Robinson’s John Ames suggests, has some “cosmic effect,” that through that act changes us in some way.
As we enter into this discussion, then, it is important for me to be clear on how I’d like us to understand what it is to bless and be blessed. And this passage from Gilead points to it. As Robinson’s now-mature Ames observes, looking back on that childhood episode with the kittens, “there is a reality in blessing. . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it.”
What is important about a blessing is not who confers it or whatever status that person may have but the intention of the one conferring it and the openness of the other to receive it. As Rachel Naomi Remen puts it in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” “A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth and strengthen what is whole in each other.”
In that sense I want to argue that the act of blessing connects with our Unitarian Universalist values, as one of the most effective ways I can think of to practice our First Principle, where we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When we confer a blessing on another person, we give that person nothing more than she or he already has. But in doing so, we, the givers, can call attention to something that we, the receivers, may lose sight of: that there is a beauty, a wonder, a sacredness to each of us that is ours: no greater or less than anyone else, but ours, and yet not ours alone but something that we find in the web of relationship.
Remen puts it this way: “Those who bless and serve life find a place of belonging and strength, a refuge from living in ways that are meaningless and empty and lonely. Blessing life moves us closer to each other and our authentic selves.”
Remen, a cancer doctor, was acquainted with the language of blessing through her experience with her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi. He was someone who she knew as a wise and gentle man, generous with words of care. But she says she learned from relatives that as a young rabbi in Europe he was a proud and demanding scholar who brooked no challenge or contradiction. His tradition was full of blessings but his ministry was focused on teachings with strict interpretations. His softening came later in life when, as she puts it, “the letter of the law” became “far less precious than the spirit,” and the spirit was something that resided in each of us.
On this Father’s Day, it occurs to me that many of us have had similar experiences with important men in our lives. We may even in one way or another have been those men: proud, demanding, stingy with praise, cards close to the vest when it came to our feelings. The models are many in our culture for that sort of behavior. And men are instructed in it from early in life. It is often only later as a parent or mentor we learn that the greatest gift we have to give is not our teaching but our blessing.
As an example, I think of a supervisor I once had in the middle of my newspaper career when I was an editorial writer. The shift from being a reporter was challenging, since reporting demanded that I take no side while editorial writing required that I write to persuade. It was work that required not just good research and capable writing but a strong ethical center: to call it fairly without fear or favor.
It was the guidance of my editor that showed me the way. The integrity that he modeled for me – day in, day out – despite pressure from some heavy hitters was a blessing that stays with me still.
Leo Dangel’s poem “Passing the Orange,” which we heard earlier, seems to me to embody a blessing of sorts, too. The men, those farmers in their overalls, are communicating something in that awkward game at a school Halloween night party. It was not some special skill – Who trains to pass an orange neck to neck? – but their capacity to make of themselves a team that confers the blessing. In this moment of meeting, these men affirm not only that they’re good sports but what it is to work together.
It’s a curious thing that often we are not even aware of our impact on others and the blessings that result. My editor was not seeking to make an impression on me or anyone else. He was simply living out what his own center taught him. He was, as Remen puts it, serving life by his actions. “The way we live day to day,” she said, “simply may not reflect back to us our power to influence life or the web of relations that connects us. Life responds to us anyway.”
Every one of us in this room affects each other in ways we can’t begin to fathom. What effect that is – whether it enlivens or discourages – depends on the intention we bring. The key, she says, is “taking life personally, letting the lives that touch yours touch you.”I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re not always sure what will happen if we let others touch us. We’re not sure if they’ll accept us, or how we feel about accepting them. Some even regard being touched as a form of weakness.
So, perhaps we begin with a blessing. Barbara Brown Taylor is a capable guide. Begin with something simple. She chooses a stick. What will you choose? The key is paying attention. What can you say about this thing? What do you notice? What makes it unique? How does it fit in this grand world of ours? What might it teach you? A little silly? Maybe. Give it a try.
Then cast your eyes around this room. Focus your thoughts on some other person. It could be someone you know or someone you don’t Bring that person to mind. What would you like that person to know? How might you send hope his or her way? What blessing do you have to give? How might you strengthen the life around and within them?
Does any of this make any difference? Well, it’s up to you. The next time you meet the person you blessed it’s a good bet you’ll think a little differently about them. You might even share your blessing. And who knows what might come of that? Meanwhile, the connections you have made will deepen and a new flower of compassion will bloom within you.
This talk of blessing reminds me of an episode at the end of my father’s life. Years before, when his father died, he sent letters to me and my four siblings telling us a little bit about the difficulties that he had had with his father. It had long been plain to us that the two of them had a strained relationship. And he confirmed that, adding that in the days before his father died he had tried to draw him out a little, to have the kinds of conversations they hadn’t had before. But as you might imagine he found it no easier than it had been in the years before. He wrote us that he was sad about that and he hoped that things would go better with us.
i’d like to say that they did and that he and we did undertake to improve our relationships, but in truth that not much changed. Throughout our childhood years he’d been a psychiatrist in private practice, working 60 hours or more a week. So, he wasn’t around much for us to know him, and in our adult years we’d gotten busy ourselves and had scattered across the country. He wasn’t much of a phone talker and visits were brief and full of interactions with grandchildren. His death in a hospice in Naples, Florida, in the middle of a roaring hurricane in 2005 certainly made for a dramatic ending, though.
After the memorial service, I was surprised when my sister handed out envelopes to each of the siblings that our father had left behind, one for each us, with our names written in our father’s hand. What on earth could this be, I wondered?I looked for a quiet place and opened my envelope. Inside was one sheet of paper with three words that my father had written on it:I love you, it said; that was it.
In that earlier letter about his own father, my father had written that while he knew we didn’t talk much he felt sure we knew that he loved us. It was nice to say that, but in fact, it wasn’t necessarily true. It’s not enough to assume that another knows how you feel. You have to tell them. I am grateful to have as the last communication I ever received from him words that banished any doubt about that. In doing that I now see that he left me a blessing, one that only he could give, one that changed me and still leaves me smiling.
So, don’t hesitate, my friends. Cast your blessings widely. And don’t doubt the power that they can have. For each person you meet – it could for the first or four thousandth time – magine the blessing you might give. It doesn’t have to be some grand declaration, but just some word or gesture that connects directly with who they are.
Don’t fret about whether you’ll get it right. A blessing is a no-lose proposition. Try it once, then do it again and again and again. In this way, we have the capacity to make our very lives blessings to each other, not by being extraordinary but by being fully ourselves and by being fully present to every person we meet. Truly, as Barbara Brown Taylor put it, a miracle enough to stagger the stars.
From The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron
“When I was about six years old I received a teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved, and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”
Right there, I received this pithy instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
West Wind #2 by Mary Oliver
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
Each time Bill Murray’s Phil Connors wakes to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” blaring on his clock radio in the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day” we viewers feel the tension tighten. How will Murray’s character respond this time as he wakes in the time loop he seems caught in, doomed to relive over and over one of the silliest days on the calendar?
Given what we know of him as the film begins, his evolution follows a predictable arc. A self-important prima donna, he moves with each awakening from befuddlement to outrage to full-throated hedonism: gorging himself with food, swiping money from an armored truck, honing pick-up lines for the women who suit his fancy. But no matter how he satisfies his pleasure in these one-day sprees, everything is wiped away the next morning.
And so the film takes a darker turn, as he makes his way through creative ways to do himself in. But each time he wakes again until he declares to his co-worker that he must be a god. Of course, he’s not a god. What he is, is stuck: stuck in self-absorption, in self-pity, in this narrative that tells him that he must be a victim of the universe.
The Jungian analyst James Hollis says that he often begins workshops he leads around the world with the question, “Where are you stuck?” It’s interesting, he says, that never in those workshops does anyone ask him to define what he means by “stuck.” Even translated to other languages, everyone jumps in and starts writing in their journals, suggesting, he says, “that the concept of stuckness is quite close to the surface in our lives.”
How about you? Where are you stuck? What is holding you back from the life you would like to live? The answer is not always as simple as it may seem. That’s because often what’s bedeviling us is not the stuckness that presents itself. For example, all the ways we get stuck around food usually speak to deeper hungers in our lives – longing for love, for attention, for reliable presence.
So, when we try to deal, say, with cravings or binge eating we stumble again and again because we haven’t addressed our deeper anxiety. As Hollis puts it, “under each stuck place there is a wire, so to speak, that reaches down into the archaic field and activates a field of energy of which we are largely unaware, but has the power to reinforce whatever is holding the line against change.”
The result can be something like the experience that Pema Chodron described, where we are marching around with our fists balled up kicking at anything we find, furious at a world that will not treat us as we feel we deserve.
It reminds me of one of the early Star Trek movies. Do you remember? In it, Earth is threatened by an alien force inside a massive energy cloud. But that force, which calls itself “V-ger”, turns out to be the remnant of a Voyager probe sent centuries before that had been upgraded by aliens who sought to help the probe complete its mission by returning to Earth. Once the Star Trek crew figures out how to complete the code so “V-ger” can send its information, it is appeased.
How often do we turn ourselves into V-gers raging or withdrawing over perceived slights and inattention that activate our deep anxieties? It’s hard, Hollis says, because these anxieties can be grounded in what he calls perceived existential threats, such as fear of being overwhelmed and being abandoned.
Early in life, he said, we experience what he calls “our relative powerlessness in a large and potentially invasive world.” So, it’s little wonder that in time we develop strategies to assert some control in our closest relationships. Likewise, he says, to avoid abandonment, we may focus our energy on achievement to assure ourselves that we are needed, or at least that we receive ample praise.
We concoct strategies to protect ourselves, and they serve us for a time. But they’re rickety, fragile, and reactive. As Pema Chodron puts it, “we let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid.” And in time our defenses suffer damage. So, we get out the paper and twine and patch them up. The result isn’t pretty, but we stick with them because we figure that’s all we’ve got. But it’s not. We have another capacity – deeper, wiser, kinder – that only needs to be activated.
It shows us that many of the scripts that guided us in times of stress are remnants, rear guard actions from our youth or childhood. We can honor them: they offered what service they could at a times of difficulty. But as we’ve grown we’ve become more resilient, and we see that the emotional hazards that we feared are not quite so fearful. They are, in fact, invitations to grow, to be kinder, more open.
“Sometimes,” Pema Chodron teaches, “this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. “But under the hardness of that armor there is a tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved.”
James Hollis makes a similar point. “Sometimes we have to go there, the place of fear, in order to grow up, to recover our lives from all the assembled defenses, of which denial, repetition and rationalization are the accomplices. “Only in those moments when we take life on, when we move through the archaic field of anxiety, when we drive through the blockage, do we get a larger life and get unstuck.”
Phil Connors seems to get that, too. When he’s had enough of self-indulgence, he turns his attention to his fellow travelers in Punxsutawney: saving a boy falling out of a tree, a diner choking on his meal. He learns to play the piano and becomes the life of Groundhog Day parties. He uses what he learns about the residents to counsel and console them.
Along with Murray’s love interest in the film, played by Andie McDowell, we are astonished at the person that Phil Connors has become. In the space of a day, this first-class jerk has become one heck of a decent human being – except, as we know, it took more than a day, maybe 10,000 days or more.
And it’s true that it can feel like we need a lifetime to climb over all the detritus in our past, the old scripts that haunt us and still carry enough energy to divert us from living in tune with our true selves.
It seems to me that this is the challenge that Mary Oliver’s poem “West Wind #2” addresses. She speaks as one tempered by experience, one who at some point in her life did, as she puts it, leap into a boat and begin rowing. And it is plain from the context that she was not rowing with a destination in mind: she was rowing away, and not away from a clear threat but from some threat she anticipated, an imagined pain or fear she hoped to escape.
It’s the context that breaks our heart, for it’s plain that what she was running from was something that in fact could save her, something whose power, thankfully, was strong enough to interrupt her impulse to escape, that gave her the insight to write this compelling poem. And that power, she is clear, is something that opened her eyes to a larger life, something she can only think to call love.
“There is life without love,” she says, and you don’t want to go there. Whatever your fear, your insecurity, your self-doubts, you will regret running from it, hardening your heart against its call. Stuck as you may be in the armor you thought would protect you, you must give it up. Lift the oars from the water and rest. Take a moment to heed what she calls your heart’s “little intelligence,”that inner wisdom that awaits us. And then go . . . go.
Not toward some comforting, warm embrace but right back at what you sought to flee, that tumult of uncertainty and risk. Such is life lived with love, full of bumps and bruises and no guarantees, where we learn what Pema Chordon calls “the tenderness of genuine sadness.” Something that, she says, “can humble us when we are indifferent and soften us when we are unkind. It awakes us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference.”
Our heart’s awakening, and our own true home.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
“Gate 4-A” by Naomi Shihab Nye https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwDXJ50U22o
Years ago, our family flew to France to spend some time with Debbie’s mother, who was fulfilling a life-long dream by living a few years in Paris. While there we also traveled to visit with an exchange student who had stayed with us the previous summer. This young woman spoke English well, and we had enjoyed getting to know her. She was delighted to welcome us to her home but said her parents didn’t speak quite as well.
So, we boned up a bit on French before leaving. Also, it helped that our daughter Anna, who had been attending a French immersion school in Milwaukee, was with us. With her help and our halting phrases and pantomime, we got by reasonably well with them.
One evening, though, they invited us to a great treat – a dinner party with a number of their neighbors and friends. Not being familiar with European customs, we were a little daunted that the party didn’t start until around 9 p.m., but the food was delightful, and the neighbors were friendly.
Friendly, but not especially fluent in English. I remember smiling and stumbling along on my phrases – Anna had gone to bed, so we didn’t have her to rely on. But it wasn’t long after those initial, polite inquiries that friends turned to each other, and the pace of speaking sped up. I have this vivid recollection of suddenly feeling lost. We are verbal beings, and language is what we use to navigate the world in the presence of others.
To have that capacity suddenly pulled away is disorienting, even frightening. So, how interesting that the writers of the Bible should center this story we’re examining today, one more story where early humans are slapped down for getting too big for their britches, on language. It can’t help but raise the question, what is this story really about anyway?
The story comes in the Bible after God makes his covenant with Noah, promising never again to make a flood to destroy every living creature, and urging his sons to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth.”
Following comes one of those passages of genealogy, listing several generations of children born to Noah’s sons, who are said to be spreading out across the earth. But then comes the Babel story, and suddenly they are no longer spreading out: they have come together, gathered on a plain where they intend to build a great city topped by a massive tower “with its top in the heavens.”
The purpose of this city and its tower? To “make a name for ourselves.” Curious, especially given that in the entire Babel story none of the human actors is named. Who is building this tower? We’re not told. We only know that they fear that without it, “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.” And where would they get that idea? Well, didn’t God just charge them all to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth”? And why would that be such a fearful thing? So many interesting questions.
I have to admit that I had never before been inclined to spend much time with this story. I think that like a lot of readers I saw it as one of those “just-so” stories about the origin of languages. But I was intrigued recently to read a different treatment of the story by a contemporary writer, Rabbi Shai Held. Held argued that the story holds within it, not an act of punishment by a jealous God, but a blessing.
To understand that perspective we need to go back to how the story begins. Remember the opening passage? “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” So, language is central from the start.
OK, and they’re all together, so everything’s good, kumbaya, right? Not exactly. What does this unity give them? Does everyone get to plant his own vine and fig tree? No. Their first decision is, “Come let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” Tough building materials for a big job: a huge city with a massive tower that soars into the heavens.
But why? To what end? We’re not told, but the text gives us a hint. The phrase “make a name for ourselves” has a strong scent of hubris to it. These folks think they’re pretty darned important, and if they’re scattered across the Earth their power will be diluted and dissolved. You get the sense that the point of building the city is to concentrate that power, and the purpose of the tower, rather than contending with God, is to keep an eye on the populace. Instead of city of peace, it sounds more like something out of 1984.
When we get to God’s response in the story, we see a sense of exasperation: What kind of mess are they into now? If this is their attitude, there’s going to be no end to the misery they make. It’s not as if this building project is going to endanger him. I mean, really? He’s more concerned about the terrible trajectory that this holds for humankind, more specifically a turn toward totalitarian control.
And the uniformity of language is part of this picture. Just as in 1984, language can be an effective tool of oppression. It can shape people’s perceptions and be used to control or even erase individual expression.
Add to this the unprecedented anonymity of all the human actors. No other Biblical story fails to name a single actor. Even the quotes are anonymous. Clearly, there is a message here.
Anonymity, of course, feeds control. If individual identity is not recognized, the only identity that matters is of those in power and the name that they make for themselves. It’s a pattern as old as humankind and one we recognize from the rise of one totalitarian state after another in the last couple hundred years. We arguably even see it in some contemporaries who seem to care little about anything but building moments to themselves and seeing their name plastered across everything they own.
So, what is God to do about this? He’s pretty fed up, but he already promised no more divine catastrophes. But language – hmm, there’s an idea. The text doesn’t give much of a clue about what God may have done to the language, except to say that he “confused it.”
We could play with this a little and imagine all the incomprehensible sounds that might emerge from the mouths of these speakers. As with my experience in France, it surely would be disorienting.
And also, as God intended, it would have disrupted the building project. You can’t direct a massive building project without a common language. It’s likely that it would have prompted people as they scattered to the four corners of the Earth to tend to each other and create communities to survive.
And here is where Rabbi Held sees the story’s message. “Our story,” he writes, “is not about some primordial human unity being lost in the mists of time, but, on the contrary, about an active attempt to undo the divine plan for diversity that has already begun to come to fruition.” The Babel story, he says, “ends with God’s reversing an unhealthy, monolithic movement toward homogeneity with a reaffirmation of the blessings of cultural linguistic, and geographical diversity.”
As troublesome as we human beings can be, our diversity, our uniqueness, and individual genius is part of what makes each one of us blessings to the world. Indeed, Held argues, this is “a large part of what God treasures about each of us.”
We live today at a time when it is becoming harder and harder for that learning to surface. The totalitarian impulse is at work in this country and around the world, crushing countless numbers of people made anonymous in their suffering and their deaths.
Scenes like the one that Naomi Shihab Nye painted rarely receive a response as compassionate as hers was. People marginalized by language, race, ethnicity or gender identity find themselves dismissed, threatened and even assaulted.
And the result is pretty darn brutal, as we’ve discovered where people with black and brown bodies are subject to unending violence and oppression. A good example is the sweep of the immigrant community in western North Carolina, as officers with US immigration authorities, ICE, grabbed people on the street and detained them for deportation.
From any public policy perspective, these practices are pointless, ineffective and damaging to our country. But even worse they tear apart families, disrupt communities and visit on people terrible pain and grief. We can be agents of another way, a way of compassion, appreciation, and care But it’s not always easy and there can be a risk.
We begin by giving up the anonymity that our culture offers up as the default mode in interacting with others. You’ve been in airports, right? Part of the flood of humanity that pours through huge corridors on the way to our distant gates. We may we observe physical differences among our fellow passengers, but we keep our eyes focused forward, our ears buds playing the songs of our choice.
When I read Nye’s poem, I wonder how many of us quietly cringed at Nye’s decision to reply to the gate announcement? As she says, finding ourselves in such a situation “one pauses these days.” And for good reason. There are some crazy things going on, and, hey, I’m just trying to get from here to there.
But, she is in the gate already, and as the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother she is sensitized to the troubles that people like this distraught woman can face. And, yes, she knows a few halting phrases of Arabic, so sure.
The connection is immediate and, as it turns out, the woman’s problems are really no big deal. But Nye, relieved and a bit charmed doesn’t stop there. She calls the woman’s son to reassure him that his mom is OK, and then, why not call her own dad, and let’s toss in a few Palestinian poet friends as well.
With each step as the circle widens something incredible happens at that airline gate. Others get drawn in, share stories, pass around cookies and juice. An aura begins to grow. People who were strangers a few minutes before are holding hands. Looking around, Nye observes, “this is the world that I want to live in. The shared world.”
Me, too. I want to find that place where the cone of anonymity and separation that we use to shelter ourselves from each other is discarded and an aura of compassion prevails, where we understand without question that we are all worthy beings deserving of care and concern, bound together in a common journey.
Because, let’s face it, each of us has had our moment at the airline gate when things fell apart and we’ve run out of resources, struggling to make our place, to find our way. As Meg Barnhouse puts it, nobody does not know about sorrow, about loneliness, about cruelty, and it’s brought us to our knees.
It’s at that moment that we put aside the walls or towers we’ve built for protection and look for mercy in the arms of those willing to offer their hands, where the differences that once divided us become the powdered sugar that we wear as a badge of compassion, of hope.
Such a thing, Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “can still happen anywhere” and give us confidence, in the words of the 14th-century anchorite Julian of Norwich, that all will be well.
From “Cages” by Jane Kenyon
And the body, what about the body?
Sometimes it is my favorite child,
uncivilized as those spider monkeys loose in the trees overhead.
They leap, and cling with their strong
tails, they steal food from the cages—little bandits.
If Chaucer could see them,
he would change “lecherous as a sparrow”
to “lecherous as a monkey.”
And sometimes my body disgusts me.
filling and emptying it disgusts me.
And when I feel that way
I treat it like a goose with its
legs tied together, stuffing it
until the liver is fat enough
to make a tin of pate.
Then I have to agree that the body
is a cloud before the soul’s eye.
This long struggle to be at home
in the body, this difficult friendship.
GITANJALI 69 by Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death,
in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
and my pride is from the life-throb of ages
dancing in my blood this moment.
BODY WORK – I
I had just started work as a ministerial intern at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, and my supervisor, the lead minister, the Rev. Michael Schuler announced that he intended to lead a class in the ancient Chinese practice of Qi Gong.
I had some experience with moves of Tai Chi from a UU summer camp our family attended, but I had never taken a class. And in the context of internship, where I expected I would be putting my seminary book learning, head stuff into practice, it seemed like a good focus for me.
Now, I’ve always had the sense of myself as a big guy. I shot up to nearly my current height in my early teens. And while I never participated much in athletics I had an image of myself as a strong person, capable. You know, the guy you ask to open the tight jar lid or to reach that box on the top shelf. I always liked that. It gave me a sense of confidence.
But let me tell you, there’s nothing like advancing years to chip away at that confidence. It began with a hip resurfacing six years ago, and now odd aches and pains, some so intense as to be disabling for a brief time. Suddenly, I’m not exactly sure what I can expect of this body.
It makes me think of the “difficult friendship” Jane Kenyon speaks of And from what I learn of other baby boomers in my age cohort I’m not alone in that kind of experience. The impact of all this, I’m coming to see, is not just physical, or emotional, but spiritual, too.
I’ve come to experience how the sense of my body contributes to my overall feeling of well being and the possibility of peace and contentment. It’s something that comes not of physical achievement – winning the tennis match, hiking at breakneck speed – but from learning to be in touch with and compassionate to this body.
The form of Qi Gong that Michael taught us in Madison is called the Japanese crane. It’s a beautiful form whose graceful gestures do evoke the sense of the crane with its poise and broad wings. But as with all Qi Gong forms its purpose is to point us not to the bird, but to ourselves.
Qi Gong literally translates from the Chinese as “cultivating life energy.” The exercises are intended to acquaint us with that energy, the Qi, and to move in such a way that we can access it. The Taoist notion is that this energy fuels our thoughts, our emotions, and our spiritual energy, too: that which helps us find understanding, enlightenment, a place of peace and of balance.
After coming to Asheville, I was grateful that Michael agreed to give the charge to the minister at my ordination. And I was delighted that in his remarks he couched his advice in the context of Qi Gong and Tai Chi. He argued that the subtle wisdom of these practices offers four lessons for our spiritual life:
First, never make a move without locating your center of gravity. In Qi Gong, if you move too quickly you can put yourself off balance. Similarly, when we are confronted with a need to change instead of rushing to reduce our sense of anxiety we need to get clear on our rootedness, where we find our health and grounding, and move from that.
Second, in Qi Gong moving from pose to pose is seamless, just as energy flows through our bodies. Similarly, our lives are most satisfying and effective when the different parts are connected and serve each other. This is what integrity looks like, and it feeds a sense of joy and purpose.
Third, while learning the basic forms may be easy, it takes time and practice to master them. This reminds us of the value of patience in our lives. We are all of us in this, these lives, for the long haul. No matter where we are on our journeys, there is so much more to learn, so much more to do. We simply need to open ourselves to them.
And fourth, don’t be grim about it. There is a basic ease in all of these forms that is essential to mastering them, room for the darkness of the yin, and lightness of the yang. Similarly, as our bodies, our lives evolve we move through changes, changes that invite us to take stock, but also to open new doors, learn new ways, and give ourselves more deeply to who we are.
BODY WORK – II
A little experience with practices like Qi Gong, Tai Chi, or Yoga serves as a reminder of how profoundly most Western religions are separated from the body. It begins with the way we frame religion as a set of beliefs and how we distinguish among them as competing intellectual propositions. Are we theists, atheists, agnostics, polytheists, mystics, pantheists, panentheists, and so on? And what is “right thinking,” or orthodoxy, about such things as scriptures and theology?
All this is the heritage of our Western culture that treats our brains as the pinnacle of our evolution and our bodies as these messy, unreliable vehicles that exist to haul them around. The more we learn about our bodies, though, the more we see how much that perspective misses.
When we say we have a “gut feeling” about something, it’s no metaphor. There is a network of neurons associated with our gastrointestinal system that is so extensive that some researchers refer to it as our “second brain.” We have no conscious awareness of what it communicates, but our central nervous system is paying attention. And we attend to it also, but not as thought: as feelings.
Our feelings embody all the ways that our bodies perceive and process things outside of what we take to be our primary senses, like sight and hearing. And not only that, there is evidence of a constant dialog between our mind and body, each informing and shaping the other. So that what we think of as consciousness is centered not just in the brain.It is an amalgamation of thoughts and feelings.
Our brains may be our pilots. But our bodies are navigating its path and guiding its decisions. And it may have a direct bearing on religion. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that we can see the influence of feelings in the core principles of some major religions. Look at the Buddha’s concern for the impact of suffering or Jesus’ emphasis on compassion and love.
Each are ways of being in the world that are centered not in our minds, but in our bodies. Suffering and love are not concepts of the mind. They are experiences of the body.
Several years ago religion professor S. Brent Plate wrote about all the ways that our spiritual lives are linked to our sensual ones. He explored how experience with physical objects like stones, drums, incense, crosses and bread shapes spiritual understanding in most of the world’s religions. What all this shows us, he said, is that “religion is rooted in the body.”
“There is no thinking without first sensing,” he said, “no minds without their entanglement in bodies, no intellectual religion without felt religion as it is lived in streets and homes, temples and theaters.”
At different times various folks have speculated about whether in time religion will fade away as a phenomenon of human culture. In our time, we certainly find many faiths losing ground. Yet, at the same time, we hear of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” as well as the emergence of informal house churches and other groups. Clearly, something in us yearns for deeper connection. Perhaps the challenge is to find meaningful ways to explore that with our bodies as well as our minds.
BODY WORK III
Let’s enter the closing portion of this service with a confession: we are a pretty darned heady faith. That’s not altogether a bad thing. We need our capable brains to help us investigate the world and sort out true and false. But the insights of our bodies deserve affirmation as well. How we do we do that, though? What would it look like?
I decided to play with the idea of how it would be if we took the 7 principles that join us as Unitarian Universalists – beautiful words that nonetheless center us in the mind – and considered how we might apply them to the body as well.
What if in saying that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person we explicitly included each body as well: large and small, able and not, every color, every gender, every manifestation of the human being, beautiful in itself, worthy in itself, needing no excuse, no explanation. How would it change us as a faith to say that?
Each body deserving justice, equity and compassion, equal treatment and equal consideration.
Acceptance of one another as we are and encouragement to come to terms with all the ways we may struggle with our physical beings and to invite each other into wholeness and health.
A free and responsible investigation of all the ways that we touch the world and the world touches us, and how it informs our lives.
The right to have our bodies treated with respect, where abuse of all kinds is anathema, so that never again will anyone have to say, “Me, too.”
The goal of world community that affirms, values and nurtures the broad diversity of humankind and upholds physical protection as a right.
Respect for all the ways that we are linked to life on this planet, human and otherwise, to which we owe the duty of care.
This is, I’ll grant you, a mere thought experiment – There I go again!
But I think it brings us little closer to the spirit that Rabindranath Tagore invites us to experience, the movement of our bodies “dancing in rhythmic measure” with all life,
all of us rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, of ebb and flow, such that we might come to know the life-throb of ages, the flow of life energy that moves through these bodies this and every moment.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
From the Fourth National Climate Assessment, US Global Change Research Program:
“Humanity’s effect on the Earth system, through the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels and widespread deforestation and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as through emissions of other greenhouse gases . . . is unprecedented. There is significant potential for humanity’s effort on the planet to result in unanticipated surprises and a broad consensus that the further and faster the Earth system is pushed toward warning, the greater risk of surprises. . . .
“The probability of such surprises – some of which may be abrupt and/or irreversible – increases at eh influence of human activities on the climate system increases.”
From Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
We are nature, long have we been absent, but now we return.
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded to the ground in the openings side by side
We browse, we are two among the wild herds,
We are two fishes swimming
We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scents around lanes mornings and evenings
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods
We are clouds driving overhead
We are seas mingling
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness
We have circled and circled
till we have arrived home, again.
It was an early summer afternoon a year ago when my wife, Debbie, and I were touring the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. I had seen dark clouds on the horizon, so I made sure to pack an umbrella for our walk.
Sure enough, on leaving some music venue we were greeted by an intense rain shower. We waited for a while, hoping the storm would let up, but, if anything, it intensified. We needed to get back to the apartment we had rented. So, we just decided to hoof it and hope we didn’t get too wet.
After walking a few blocks, though, we were startled by what we found. Reaching Market Street, a central east-west street that marked the site of a historic slave market, we found not pavement, but a river. This is no exaggeration. The murky brown water was moving fast and had climbed over the curb onto the sidewalk.
We watched as some daring folks tried wading across, walking in water that was knee-deep, and deeper in places. As the rain began to let up, we decided to chance it, and slowly slogged across. In a bedraggled state, we eventually made it back to the apartment.
Now, sudden rainstorms are nothing new for Charleston. But what we experienced was something that is. Sea levels in the area have risen so high that street sewers that empty into the river get quickly overwhelmed in a strong rain, and the water has no place to go other than the streets.
These events are now common, and storm surges from hurricanes like Irma last fall regularly flood almost the entire district. Charleston, together with other low-lying cities like Miami and New Orleans, are ground zero for a great storm that’s rising: a storm that promises not just wet feet for tourists but the transformation of our country, of the world.
It is pointless now to argue about the truth of climate change. It is an established fact, as is the role that we humans have played, are playing to bring it about. The question before us now, the ethical demand, is how we, the inheritors of this legacy, will turn this juggernaut that has enriched us in so many ways and yet also threatens our very existence.
As you heard James read from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published last fall, the urgency for action comes as much from what we don’t know as what we do. First, though, a few details.
The way that we humans are altering the climate, through the burning of fossil fuels and development that strips forests and other landscapes, the report says, “is unprecedented.” The result is that we are living in the warmest period in the history of modern civilization. Sixteen of the warmest years on record were the last 17 years.
But it’s not just average high temperatures that are the trouble. There are more extremes of temperature and precipitation – more heat waves and violent storms – that are playing havoc with agriculture, and damaging homes, cities, landscapes and infrastructure – things like the fire – flood cycle in California.
Also, the effects of warming vary dramatically. In the last 50 years, for example, average air temperatures in Alaska and the Arctic have risen twice as fast as average global temperatures. One result is that Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate, having thinned by 4 to 7 feet since the 1980s and is melting at least 15 more days per year. It also results in the melting of permafrost, which adds heat-trapping methane to the atmosphere. Even more, it is disrupting massive weather patterns, such as the path of the jet stream and El Nino events.
And, since most of the excess heat we create – 93% of it – is absorbed in the oceans, it warms the water. That’s a problem because warming water expands, creating a 5- to 10-fold increase in coastal flooding since 1960. Warmer water also absorbs increasing amounts of CO2, making the ocean more acidic. That, in turn, endangers shellfish and other sea life.
All of this is so new, the scientists tell us, we’re not entirely sure what it’s effects will be. But there is, they say, “significant potential” that “unanticipated surprises” await us, and that, likely, “the further and faster” that we are pushed toward warming, “the greater the risk of surprises.”
What kind of surprises? Among the possibilities, the report says, are “shifts in the Earth’s climate system.” This could mean such worries as collapse of polar ice sheets, changes in ocean currents, widespread heat, drought and wildfires. None of these changes are academic. They would result in inundated coastal cities, massive extinction of species, agricultural collapse and, with it, starvation, epidemic illness, and, likely, war. Yeah, pretty darn gloomy stuff!
The problem is that we humans are not especially adept at responding to hazards that loom in the distance. We like our emergencies smack in the face, up close and personal, where we can save the day with heroic action.
The problem is that factors driving climate change take many years to build up. What scientists are telling us is that waiting until the worst effects are upon us will make it too late for our responses to have much impact. Instead of reducing the impacts of climate change, we will be left merely to respond to them, and meanwhile, endure the enormous losses they bring.
Oddly, to remedy this, what they are asking for is something a little bit like faith. They are asking that policy makers and ordinary folks like us take the risk of trusting in the discipline of science that has brought humankind such bounty and act now to heed its warnings.
But we can’t expect that will be easy. It will require discomfort, sacrifice, and loss. Dialing back the fossil fuel economy and scaling back our heedless pace of development zero in on the engines of wealth of our time. And both those in charge and those who depend on those engines for their livelihoods will be loath to change. However earnest our pleas, however artful our science, we face a tough time turning the battleship of commerce.
But there is also a spark of hope: Many creative people are at work on technologies, spawning businesses and organizing communities in ways that help us live better in tune with the Earth’s living systems. We just need to be prepared for when the hard push-back comes. The current administration in Washington gives us a good picture of what that looks like.
Meanwhile, what is required of us, may be something like a Palm Sunday spirit: a willingness to enter challenging spaces – the marketplace of ideas, the halls of debate, heck, conversations with our neighbors – guided by our faith in a greater world and a greater love.
These are places where communicating our commitment to the web of life that embraces us, that sustains us, of which we are inescapably a part, is so important. So is our respect for human ingenuity that has helped us make sense of and make a home on Earth – in other words, science.
Think your words will make no difference? Don’t bet on it. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is married to an evangelical minister and spoke recently in Asheville, was asked recently what was the most important action that people concerned about climate change could take. She said: talk about it. Most people don’t, she added. Maybe you don’t want to pick a fight or start an argument. But, she said, “there are lots of positive ways to connect with people on things they already care about and why it matters to us and what we can do about it.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this work. For what’s at stake truly is our salvation and the salvation of the Earth as we know it. None of this work is new to us as Unitarian Universalists. Respect for the natural world has been central to us for centuries.
One example who my colleague Susan Ritchie points to is the work of UU theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer argued that interdependence is the condition of all life. And this interdependence, he said, is what gives rise to love. Love is sparked when we see how we are connected to another, and it grows as we see the unfolding interconnection of all things.
In time, we see that all of the ways that we have sought to insulate ourselves from the Web of life, to proclaim our uniqueness over and above it, have only done us damage.
With Walt Whitman, “we are nature”: joined with flowers and roots and foliage, with wild herds, fishes swimming, seas mingling, with snow and rain, with deserts and ice, with forests and plains. We have circled and circled till we have arrived home. And having arrived we are called to act. We are called to truly know the world and ourselves.
It is something, as Mary Oliver suggests, that we know we need. Little by little, she says, we let go of our fears, our misgivings. And we hear a new voice that we recognize as our own, one that keeps us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world determined to do the only thing we can do determined to save the only life, the only world that we can save.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
From “Trees: Reflections and Poems” by Herman Hesse
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. . . . In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity, but they do not lose themselves there. They struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a tree.”
From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
“Plant numbers are staggering: there are eight billion trees just within the protected forests of the western United States. The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred. As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them. Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.
So, humor me for a minute, and look out your window. What do you see? You probably see things that people make, like cars and buildings.
Now look again. Did you see something green? If you did, you saw one of the few things left in the world that people cannot make. . . . Perhaps you are lucky enough to see a tree. That tree was designed about three hundred million years ago. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf. There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It’s pretty impressive
Now focus your gaze on just one leaf. People don’t know how to make a leaf, but they know how to destroy one. In the last 10 years, we’ve cut down more than 50 billion trees. One-third of the Earth’s land used to be covered in forest. Every 10 years we cut down about 1% of this total forest, never to be regrown. That represents a land area about the size of France. One France after another for decades has been wiped from the globe. That’s more than one trillion leaves that are ripped from their source of nourishment every single day. And it seems like nobody cares. But we should care. We should care for the same basic reason that we are always bound to care: because someone died who didn’t have to.”
Something’s happening? Can you feel it? You can sure see it, though it’s not always obvious. In some places it appears as just a faint haze, in others, it’s an explosion of color that knocks your socks off. But wherever you look, there’s something going on: something opening, emerging, awakening.
It’s nothing new, in fact, it’s millions of years older than our very species. And yet each year it is fresh and vital and alive. The biblical prophet Isaiah captured its spirit: “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; The mountains, the hills before you shall burst into song
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
It is our way as humans to interpret the world through our own organs and appendages. So, it’s no surprise that we feel we must metaphorically append hands to the branches of trees to imagine how they might express joy. But at this time of year, it’s plain to see that they have no need of them. Take a look at the branch tips of the tree of your choice and watch how living tissue in the form of flowers or leaves emerges extravagantly from their tough winter cover. And tell me that isn’t something very much like joy.
The rising of the sap! It’s a capacity that I must admit I almost envy: Imagine looking forward to this moment each year when your being is suffused with new energy arising from your very rootedness in life. How would that feel? Would you not also seek out that capacity within to put forth new life, new hope, new being?
As Hope Jahren puts it, we all live among plants but many of us don’t really see them. They are ornaments to our living space or a source of raw materials for our many projects. But there are times of year – emergent spring being one – when they are in our faces demanding attention. So, let us take advantage of this moment to let go of our focus on the human for a bit and turn our thoughts, our senses, our respect to one group of our fellow beings: the trees.
Living in Asheville we are blessed with such awesome beauty and variety when it comes to trees. And even this, we know, is but a shadow of what we once had: before lumber workers cleared our forests, denuding mountainsides, losing many layers of topsoil, before pests that we humans introduced extirpated towering chestnut groves, and even now are infecting elm, hemlock, beech. And still, trees return, finding niches amid the crags to sink their roots and seek out the sun.
Many of us find our fascination sparked by favorite trees. I can think of a few: the larch planted by our porch with its soft green needles that flame bronze before cascading to the ground in autumn; the Russian elm towering some 70 feet over our yard, home to families of woodpeckers, and especially in spring the cherry outside the window of my home office that someday soon will erupt into pinkish white blossoms.
Yet, our fascination with individuals can mean that we literally fail to see the forest for the trees. David George Haskell, an acclaimed botanist at the University of the South in Tennessee, spent time tracking trees in locations around the world, and he found a common theme at each location.
Virginia Woolf, he said, had it right when she wrote that real life is the common life, not the “little separate lives which we live as individuals.” For trees, this means their survival depends on relationship – with other trees that they communicate with through roots but even more important a whole ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, insects and more.
Electrical and chemical signals are generated that nourish and protect roots as they grow, that discourage diseases and diffuse sunlight on leaves. It isn’t a stretch, Haskell says, to say forests “think,” so complex are the many connections among the organisms that contribute to the health of the whole.
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, pushes the metaphor even further, speaking of the “hidden life of trees.” Trees, he argues, are fundamentally “social beings.” They have been shown to communicate in ways that we arguably could call scent, taste, and sound.
Beeches, spruce, and oak, he says, register pain when a caterpillar munches their leaves, then emit a compound that makes the leaves distasteful. Elms and pines can defect the saliva of harmful insects, then emit pheromones that attract other insects that devour the pest.
The salicylic acid in willows, precursor of aspirin, works the same way to discourage insect attackers.
Wohlleben describes what others have called a “wood-wide web” of roots and fungus filaments that links trees via electrical signals that while pokey compared to computers – moving only about one-third an inch per second – is incredibly dense, with one teaspoon of forest soil containing many miles of filaments.
What all these connections help accomplish are ways for trees to take care of each other. The rugged individualist ethic that echoes among humans has no place among plants.
For trees, it begins in their relationship to fungi. The threads of fungi that nourish the tree are in intimate partnership with it. They actually grow into the soft root hairs, creating a partnership that neither can leave.
This is how the tree connects with the web of life that sustains it and how the fungus finds a source of food. That network assures that the tree will endure, even if it is damaged or invaded by pests because the web can direct nutrients from other trees to help the weaker tree survive.
We, too, get drawn into this web, though in ways that are a little less obvious. Forests are huge shapers of our weather and climate. Simply by their presence trees shape landscapes. As Wohlleben tells it, for every square yard of forest there are 27 square yards of leaves or needles of trees, and all of that greenery captures a lot of rainfall. Some of it is absorbed by leaves, some filters down to roots, and some is evaporated back into the air. All those processes keep much of the water in the forest, rather than running off the land.
And the tons water vapor that results – whether evaporated from the surface of leaves or transpired from the trees themselves – create clouds that release rain in neighboring areas. So, clearcutting forests not only disturbs the immediate area, it also changes weather patterns, leaving widespread areas much drier and subject to wide temperature swings. There are other benefits, too. Cities plant trees for more than just aesthetic pleasure. Trees draw out soot and other pollutants from the air. Living in well-planted neighborhoods we find that we can breathe easier than in treeless ones.
More importantly, forests are also among the most efficient collectors of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Over the course of its life, the average tree collects about 22 tons of carbon dioxide in its trunks, branches, and roots. Some of it returns to the air when the tree dies, but most is locked up in in the ecosystem, as creatures munch it into smaller and smaller pieces that filter down into the soil, forming humus, and, if it is left alone long enough, coal.
Today, though, Wohlleben says, very little coal is being formed. With the rapid clearing of forests, fallen trees don’t get to rot, and disturbed humus is heated up and consumed, sending more carbon dioxide into the air. The filling of swamps closes off another carbon sink.
As beneficial as trees are, you’d think we’d do more to protect them. Sadly, the trajectory is not good. David Haskell took a look at data from the Landsat satellite, which has been tracking the Earths vegetation and terrain. He found that the area of land covered by forests is plunging. From 2000 to 2012, he said, 2.3 million square kilometers of forest were lost and only 800,000 regrow.
In the Boreal area – the Northern temperate forests where we live – losses outstripped gains by more than 2 to 1. These regions are also warming faster than elsewhere and experiencing more frequent fires. All this turns these forests from one of the most important carbon sinks – where carbon is absorbed and stored – to carbon sources that add carbon to the atmosphere. Warming also stresses trees by disrupting their leafing patterns, and milder weather allows pests to thrive.
Here’s where we humans might reenter the story: What are we to make of all this? What does it call for from us? It’s plain that global trends on which we have some influence are radically influencing what is happening to life on Earth. Changing conditions, of course, are nothing new. Earth’s climate and the distribution of life have evolved in many ways over time. And Darwin’s theories tell us that life will respond: some things will prosper, others will disappear depending on how well adapted they are to new conditions.
One response to all this might be: so be it! We’ll just see how it comes out. We’ll lose the hemlocks, but maybe the maples will come on. And what if one of the species on the chopping block is us? Rising sea levels, advancing deserts, resistant superbugs. Any number of trends could spell big trouble.
No, we need to find a better approach. David Haskell suggests we explore an ethic he calls “unselfing.” Essentially, it means centering our concern not in our individual interest but in the context of relationship. It’s an approach that, he says, “breaks the barrier between humans and the rest of life’s community.” And, Haskell argues, it rests in an appreciation of beauty.
Beauty, he says, is not something ephemeral. Consider that mathematicians use beauty as a guide. The best equations are those that are simple and elegant, and that points to beauty as a guidepost for truth. It is not a quality we impose on something; it is something that is inherent to it.
And it’s something, Haskell says, that scientists recognize, too. “Someone who listens to a prairie, a city, a forest for decades can tell when the place loses its coherence, its rhythms. Through sustained attention, beauty and ugliness, in their intermingled complexity, become heard.” So, he argues, “if some form of objective moral truth about life’s ecology exists and transcends our nervous chatter, it is located within the relationships that constitute the network of life.”
Once we attend to relationship – the relationship among different beings, between them and us, our thinking becomes “unselfed,” our gaze focused no longer inward but outward. And it leads to an ethic of belonging, a sense that we are part of a larger reality, which is the true context of our lives.
This is the spirit that calls people like Emerson to declare: “Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest person extort its secret or lose curiosity by finding out all its perfection.” Beauty speaks to us; it calls to us.
So, as David Haskell puts it, “We unself into birds, trees, parasitic worms, and sooner or later soil: beyond species and individuals, we open up to the community from which we are made.” And what better time than spring to do so: to unself into bark and bud, into flower and root, all these fellow beings linked with us in the thin veneer of life that we occupy on this rocky planet hurtling through space.