Upcoming and Past

Upcoming Sermons

Rising From Our Grief

Sunday, November 1, 2020 9am Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister Gratitude is the balm that soothes weary souls. This Sunday we’ll explore how.

Now What?

Sunday, November 8, 11am Live ZOOM Service Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister  This live service will be a moment to take stock of how our lives have been changed by this most consequential election.

What IS an Anti-Racist Congregation?

Sunday, November 15, 2020 11am Live ZOOM Service Rev. Claudia Jiménez, Minister of Faith Development Our Board of Trustees has set UUCA on a path to be an anti-racist congregation. This move is grounded in our UU faith, literally requiring us to act for justice.  But what does it mean to be...

Moving Towards Gratitude

Sunday, November 22, 2020 11am Live ZOOM Service Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister and Jane Bramham Gratitude is the balm that soothes weary souls. This Sunday we’ll explore how.

Past Sermons are listed by date. 

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And Now What? (audio & text)



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
and focused,
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
close in,
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.


The Heart of Sanctuary (text only)

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.



What Hope Looks LIke (audio & text)

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
looking for.
    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

the universe.”
– 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.

Transitions and Possibilities (audio & text)

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. [1]

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.

[1] How to Cope with Transitions and Change by Dr. Cheryl McDonald,

Sanctuary Everywhere (audio & text)


Leviticus 19:33-34

  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


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?

To Bless and Be Blessed (audio & text)


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.


Getting Unstuck (audio & text)


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
toward it.


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.




Delight in Difference (audio & text)


Genesis 11

  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


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.

Body Work (Audio & text)


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.



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.


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.


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.


A Great Storm Rising (audio & text)

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.


Rising of the Sap (audio & text)

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.

Sermon: Weighing Worth: The Spirituality of Money (audio & text )


From The Generosity Path by Mark Ewert

“You have to make a lot of choices in life; at a certain point, you have to decide what is really important and then really get behind it. It is beyond, it would be nice; it is more like, What is the holdup? Why aren’t you doing something? That voice has gotten louder and louder over time.”

“Your Gifts” by Rebecca Parker

Your gifts

whatever you discover them to be

can be used to bless or curse the world,

The mind’s power,

            The strength of the hands,

                        The reach of the heart,

the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting.

Any of these can draw down the prison door

            hoard bread

            abandon the poor,

            obscure what is holy

            comply with injustice

                        or withhold love.

You must answer this questions:

What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.


            How’s it going for you? Could you use a few bucks, some dead presidents in your wallet? You know what I mean: some bread, a little cabbage, a few clams. We could all use a little moolah, dough, scratch, some of that lucre.

            Does anybody have any doubt what I’m talking about? Yeah, money. O, money, money, money, you make me crazy. How many of us have sung that song? The income and the outgo, getting and spending, here one day, gone the next.

            I could go on, but you get the picture. Part of why all these tropes about money hang around in our culture, I think, is that so many of us are uncomfortable talking about it in the cold, sober light of day.

            Instead, a blend of shame and romance prevails, and when we finally sit down to the “serious talk” about where money comes from and how we use it, our eyes glaze over. Oh, so complicated, we say, or maybe just boring.

There are many practical reasons for attending to our use of money. The decisions we make, after all, can go a long way determining if we achieve what we want in life.

But there are spiritual ones as well. What money means to us and how we use it speak to what we truly care about, what matters in our lives. And stumbling along in fear, denial, fantasy, or shame over money only keeps us from the kind of peace and joy that come from living truly, from bringing our values to life. Not for nothing does the Bible say, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

            But please don’t take this as another wagging finger. It’s the rare person who doesn’t struggle and fret over money: not just how much we have but what we do with it. It’s a struggle that I remain in myself, and, like most of us, it goes back to my childhood.

When I was growing up, money was one of the things that we never talked about. My father had a good job and was proud of being “the provider,” and part of that was keeping money talk to himself. We never really talked much about what things cost, how my parents made spending decisions, or what they were doing to plan for the future.

That meant that when the time came for me to launch into the working world I didn’t have much idea about how to manage money but instead sort of stumbled along as best I could. My wife, Debbie, on the other hand, grew up in a household where money was frequently discussed, but among parents who, while successful, had childhoods that were shaped by their families’ struggles in the Depression.

So, in building a household it took us some time to negotiate spending and saving practices. And we were tested, especially in the early years, getting by on my humble salary as a beginning newspaper reporter while Debbie was at home caring for infant daughters. In time, though, things got better as Debbie returned to work part-time and my salary edged higher.

As we moved out of what felt like a hand-to-mouth existence we had the space to begin thinking about putting money aside and devoting at least some to causes greater than ourselves.

At the time, we were relatively new members of a tiny Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Charleston, West Virginia. Annual budget drives were haphazard things where church leaders made general announcements about the congregation’s needs and waited to see what came in. The response, as you can imagine, was: not much.

One year one of our members decided that wasn’t good enough, and she persuaded the leadership that members should be visited and asked to give.

I vividly remember her visit to our home. Elaine was her name, and her pitch was clear: there were maybe 50 households in our fellowship, she said, and we depended on each other. Debbie and I both held leadership positions at the time, and, while Elaine thanked us for the time we gave, she said for the congregation to endure it depended on all of us giving money, too, and not just a token but an amount that was significant to us.

It was for me the beginning of a dawning awareness. We grow up in a busy world with so much we take for granted, so much we can avail ourselves of, from the streets we drive on to families that we depend on. It’s not until adulthood, often, that we get any sense that we have the power to shape that world.

Our choices help determine what prospers and what fails, what endures and what dies away. Yes, the world is big and our resources are small, but they’re not nothing.

Money is a funny thing. At the simplest level, it’s nothing especially complicated: just a medium of exchange – a way of getting things we want from others in exchange for giving things we have.

We can do this by bartering, but that can get complicated. Money makes it easier. Because it’s not just things that have value. We ourselves are money-makers. We can create value by offering others our toil or our talent. Indeed, for most of us, that’s where the lion’s share of our money comes from.

But, of course, just like the things we want, our toil and talent are not inexhaustible resources. They are the expending of our own life energy, something that is not only finite, as our lives are finite, but also deeply precious to us. It is our time on earth, the use to which we put our muscles, our brains, our passions, our love.

What was it that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote about Alexander Hamilton, that he wrote like he was “running out of time”? We are all running out of time. The question before us is how we will spend it and the money it makes for us.

Knowing this, we could hardly be blamed for hunkering down and holding tight to as much money as we can. But as any financial advisor will tell you, that’s also the best way to reduce its value.

 Stuff your mattress with greenbacks, and inflation will gobble them up in time. For, money has no absolute value. It has meaning only in the marketplace.

Now, of course, it’s also true that we don’t want to use it all. There are many sober investments that we can and should make to ensure that some of our money lasts and even grows. We want a cushion against hard times, and things like funds for retirement, children’s college accounts and something to pass on to the future. But still, the fact remains that spend we must. But how?

Well, here things get interesting, don’t they? There’s something intoxicating about money in our pocket, and our consumerist economy knows that in fact feeds on it. An extraordinary amount of energy is spent every day tempting and titillating us in the most creative ways. And, let’s face it, we as a society respond with gusto in our spending.

Is that a bad thing? Well, in principle, no. Why not enjoy some of the pleasures and comforts that come with a vibrant economy? The challenge is setting limits because, after all, our funds have limits. Money spent on pleasure is money taken away from more pedestrian but practical needs as well as all the work underway to bring about a better world.

And even more, devotion to pleasure can easily take us down a road to pure selfishness and such grief as addiction and crippling debt, not to speak of environmental destruction and ultimately the breakdown of community.

But let’s be clear that for all the talk of the root of all evil, the problem here is not money itself. Money, remember, is neutral, merely a medium of exchange. The problem is what we choose to make money mean.

            If our money is our precious life energy acting in the world, then it is an extension of our being: our passion, our love, our strength, our hope at work. Squander it and we waste the very power we have to give our lives meaning, to have made a difference, to have mattered at all in our brief stay in this life.

How, then, shall we use it, this vessel of our life energy?

            Use it to change the world. Use it to bring into being that which couldn’t be without you, that scintilla of possibility that you might blow into flame. The choice is ours each time we open our wallets or pull out our credit cards. We are sending our life energy into the world. We can’t entirely foresee what effect we will have, but we might just help bring a new world into being.

            I’ve thought of that first canvass visit that I received in West Virginia many times, of how it invited me to see that I might have a hand in shaping the world. And in that tiny fellowship, it was never clearer how important my small part might be, and how it is incumbent on each of us to nurture visions of hope into being.

             Mark Ewert, who you heard me quote earlier and once was a consultant to this congregation, speaks of this as cultivating a practice of generosity. This is different than occasionally responding to appeals from organizations that you support. It is making giving a foundation stone to your financial life. What it means, he says, “is holding the intention to be giving in any way that you can.”

In practice, he says, it “requires you to open your heart and hands in a way that activates your belief in enough, or at least helps you act as if you believe there is enough for you.”

            This is hard for many of us, he says, since “nearly everyone has an underlying belief in scarcity or adequacy, regardless of their wealth or poverty.” But a practice of giving opens us to the network of social support that sustains the world and helps us see how we, too, are supported.

            So, the inner voice that prompts to give us is no longer, as he quotes one interviewee, “it would be nice,” but instead something more like “what is the holdup, what aren’t you doing something?”

            We open our annual budget drive, friends, hoping that the voice you will hear inside in response to our request for your financial commitment will sound something like that, that you might help us build what Mark Ewert calls “a community of generosity,” one that uses its energies and resources to leverage change far greater than we could accomplish individually.

            It is a matter of viewing our financial resources as one of the many gifts we have to bring to the world, gifts that, as Rebecca Parker remarks, can be used for good or ill, a blessing or a curse.

            May it be our part to use our gifts to bless the world.



Sermon: Is It Always About Race (audio and text)


Words of James Baldwin from “I am Not your Negro”

 “I am an American. My life was on the streets of NYC, and one of the most terrible things was to discover what means to be black in the world. You watch as you get older the corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you, too young to have done anything. And you realize that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have right to be here, you have attacked power structure of the western world. Forget the negro problem. What we ought to look at is how brother is murdering brother, knowing that he is his brother.

“The real problem is not whether you are willing to look at your life be responsible for it and change it. It is that the American people are unable to realize that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bones, created by them, my blood, my father’s blood is in that soil.”

ONE LOVE by Hope Johnson

WE are one,

 A diverse group

 Of proudly kindred spirits

Here, not by coincidence —

 But because we choose to journey – together

We are active, proactive

 We care, deeply

We live our love, as best we can

 We ARE one

 Working, Eating, Laughing,

 Playing, Singing, Sharing, Rejoicing, Storytelling.

 Getting to know each other,

 Taking risks

 Opening up.

 Questioning, Seeking, Searching…

 Trying to understand…


 Making our Mistakes

 Paying Attention…

Asking our Question


 Living our Answers

 Learning to love our neighbors

 Learning to love ourselves

 Apologizing, with humility Forgiving, with humility

 Being forgiven, through Grace.

 Creating the Beloved Community – Together

We are ONE.


            Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tells the story in her essay “The Weight” of how she made up her mind to visit the house where the writer James Baldwin spent his last days in France.

Actually, it was a friend’s idea, she writes. He said that he knew from a trip to France where the house was in the sunny Cote d’Azur region. They could see the house, then walk up the road to the hotel that Baldwin frequented and have some drinks – make a day of it. It was, she acknowledged, a bit of a lark. After all, she says, she was just beginning to make a bit of money from her writing and her finances were precarious.

Also, she said, while she liked Baldwin, it was, “in a divested way.” He was, after all, a literary lion in the African-American community. But she found him off-putting, in her words: “the strangely accented, ponderous way he spoke in interviews. . .  the bored, above-it-all figure that white people revered because he could stay collected while the streets boiled.” And his decision to escape to France and avoid the fate that many black Americans of his generations suffered. But, since she was in London anyway on another assignment, it would be an easy trip. She decided to go.

On the train ride to Provence, she found her thoughts begin to shift to the first time she bumped up against Baldwin. She had been hired as an intern at what she describes as “one of the nation’s oldest magazines.” Shortly after arriving, she was informed that she was believed to be the first black intern that the magazine had hired. Instead of assuring her, that news, she said, made her feel “like an oddity,” making her wonder if she was hired for her talent or as “merely” as a product of affirmative action.

After a few weeks, when she was the only intern asked to do physical labor – reorganize the magazine’s archives – she fretted over whether to object to that. She was rewarded, though, when searching through old index cards to discover one noting a payment to Baldwin in 1965 for one of his most famous essays. It reminded her that Baldwin was one of the few who had escaped the tangle of America’s racism and written himself into the canon of great literature.

She got to Baldwin’s former home, and from the outside, she writes, it looked “ethereal.” She could imagine his garden, the dining room where he hosted the likes of Josephine Baker, a house full of life and books.

What she found inside was something different: a shambles overgrown with vines, empty of furniture with missing doors and smashed windows, though still with a kitchen featuring an orange sink and purple shelves, but posted with notices from a company tasked with tearing the house down. It was, she said, the first time she fully understood the weight the Baldwin carried.

Ghansah’s essay is one of nearly 20 collected in a book published last year called “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race.” And each of them speaks to the challenge that they feel Baldwin’s book, “The Fire Next Time,” published more than 50 years ago, offers today.

We come to an interesting moment these days in this nation’s struggles for racial reconciliation. We are nearing the close of the half-century celebrations of the great Civil Rights victories of the 60s – the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham protests, the Selma march, concluding on a somber note this coming April when we mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Memphis motel.

 So, perhaps it’s appropriate that this should be James Baldwin’s time. A man very much aligned with the great struggles of the Civil Rights era, yet outside them. An artful writer whose style appealed more to literary societies than the streets. A gay man who enjoyed the cadences of Biblical preachers but was not a believer. An ex-patriot who made his residence in France in his 20s, yet returned regularly to the U.S. for literary tours, where he was a reliably provocative media presence.

Now, 30 years after his death at the Provencal home that Ghansah visited, his voice has returned to us in a stunning documentary by Raoul Peck called “I Am Not Your Negro.” Peck splices together video of Baldwin’s appearances with interviewers like Dick Cavett with footage from both Civil Rights marches and recent racial conflicts, such as the protests at Ferguson, Missouri, narrated by the actor Samuel Jackson speaking Baldwin’s words.

It’s a haunting and disturbing film, not least because Baldwin’s laments about race in America sound so contemporary. But also because the film is premised on a proposal Baldwin made for a book that he never ended up writing. That book was to include sketches of three great Civil Rights leaders whom he knew – Medger Evers, Malcolm X , and King – all of whom were born after him, yet died a good 20 years before he did.

It is in a sense both eulogy and manifesto, the case he sought to make for the work before us all. “There are days,” he tells interviewer Dick Cavett in the movie, “when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is, how you’re going to reconcile yourself to a situation here, and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified by the moral apathy, the death of the heart, that is happening in my country. These people don’t even think I’m human. They have become in themselves moral monsters.”

It echoes the perspective that Baldwin offered in The Fire Next Time, in a piece written as a letter to his nephew, James, named after him. Black people, he told his nephew, as they get older watch “the corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you, too young to have done anything. And you realize that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the power structure of the western world. Forget the negro problem: what we ought to look at is how brother is murdering brother, knowing that he is his brother.”

I find it remarkable how Baldwin’s argument connects with some of the most prophetic voices today. Last Thursday, Michelle Alexander came to UNC-A to be interviewed before hundreds at the Kimmel Arena on her take on next steps in this struggle.

In the years after King died, she said, the movement took a turn toward what she called “professional civil rights advocacy,” where organizers worked to become “political insiders who were focused on advocacy and lobbying,” but failed to take note of a backlash that was brewing. Now, she said, “we’re moving from an understanding of civil rights as a political and legal concern to a profound moral and spiritual crisis facing this nation.”

It’s no surprise that Alexander closed her celebrated book, The New Jim Crow, with an extended quotation from The Fire Next Time:

 “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” Baldwin writes, “and for which I and history will never forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

And still, Baldwin urges his nephew to remember that each of thr people who write him off, “are your brothers – your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

His words echo those I heard just the next day, Friday, in a similar community interview with Patrice Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. She told a gathering of about 200 at Rainbow Community that she worried a bit about where this powerful movement she helped launch goes next.

“Too many people,” she said, “are being discarded. We need to understand how to be in community and not let the toxicity of these times infect us.”

The work of the movement, Khan-Cullors said, is to find out how to cultivate not just resistance, but also what she called “community care.”

We are only beginning to understand what community care might look like in this context. As each of these prophetic voices attest, it is centered on a conviction in radical equality, radical inclusion, radical compassion: radical in the sense that they admit no qualifiers: equality, except for; inclusion, except for; compassion, except for.

We must all of us be all in. And to make that happen requires, as Hope Johnson suggests in the reading you heard earlier, that we understand all the dimensions of the seemingly simple phrase: We are one.

To begin with, she says, “we” is not a haphazard noun; it doesn’t happen by coincidence. “We” is created, acknowledged, accepted. When I draw another person into a “we” I intentionally assert that the two of us are Iinked in some important way, we are involved in each other and so at least potentially of concern to each other. As Hope puts it, we two diverse souls with our individual natures, individual thoughts, individual histories join as “proudly kindred spirits.

What we make of that moment of shared interest, shared destiny is for us to decide. It can be cultivated and deepened, or it can be squandered and ignored. But it is there before us – a choice to reach out, to align ourselves with another, to explore what we share.

We ARE: As two people joined as “we” there is so much we might share – working, eating, laughing, playing, telling and hearing stories. And, who knows, maybe taking the risk to trust, opening up, trying to understand, struggling, making mistakes, apologizing, forgiving, being forgiven, learning to love our neighbors, learning to love ourselves.

What was it that James Baldwin said? “We will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, we will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos . . . steeples, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the act of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”

It is a charge as old as Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life that you and your children may live.”

            So, what will it take us to choose life? Us choosing life, choosing a way that might bring about the flourishing of every soul, each of us wildly diverse in so many ways, yet at our core indivisible, one.

            Baldwin was skeptical that we were capable of such a turn. “I am tired,” he told Cavett in one of those interviews. “I don’t know how it will come about. I know no matter how it comes about it will be bloody, it will be hard. I believe we can do something with this country that’s never been done before. We don’t need numbers; we need passion.”

            And the question before us now is whether we are willing to bring passion to that work. For himself, Baldwin said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human live is an academic matter. So, I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive because I have survived. But the future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of this country. And it’s up to the American people whether or not they’re going to face, deal with and embrace this stranger who they have maligned for so long.”

            Up to us to decide if we are ready to affirm with full heart and no exceptions: we are one.


Sermon: None Shall Be Compelled-A Celebration of Torda (audio only)



Edict of Religious Toleration, decreed at the Diet of Torda, January 6, 1568:

“His Majesty, our Lord, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it.

And if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.

 Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.”

“The Edge is Where I Want to Be” Lisa Martinovic


Ours is a young religious tradition. We date the founding of the two movements that joined to make us who we are today –Unitarianism and Universalism – just 200 years ago in colonial New England. Yet, from our earliest days scholars and historians have located tendrils of the faith we live now in exemplars who paved the way for liberal religion, who posed questions that challenged orthodoxy, who declared the primacy, the natural right of all people to free faith, centered in what their own yearning hearts and their own searching minds declare.

It is, as you might imagine, a tumultuous story with no common through-line. Looking at the history of religion in the West, what we see tends to be one faction or another striving to establish a prevailing orthodoxy. Free faith has few advocates. Yet, here and there it emerges: a brief light that opens a path and offers an example for those who follow.

Today, at the start of a new year, we turn to one story, one of the oldest we know, where for a moment the possibility of free faith raised its head. We go back to a time and place that have been largely ignored by the history books, a small province in Eastern Europe in the 16th century that we know as Transylvania, in present-day Romania.

Though outside the mainstream of European culture, it was a geopolitical hot spot at the time, where the Muslim Ottoman Empire was vying for influence with the Holy Roman Empire. So, both politically and religiously the whole region was boiling with controversy for several centuries. But that controversy together with periodic warfare and shifting religious factions also set the stage in the middle of the century for an unprecedented experiment in religious tolerance.

The stage was set in 1540 with a royal succession –  the death of Transylvania’s king, John Zapolya, two weeks after the birth of his son, John Sigismund. It was a time of shifting loyalties and Zapolya was worried that at his death the Hapsburg empire would seek to take over the country.

So, he had asked Suleiman, the Ottoman Sultan, to watch over his wife, Queen Isabella, and son, and to protect his country’s independence. At Zaploya’s death, Then the two-year-old Sigsmund was named king,  Queen Isabella served as his regent, and Suleiman’s protection preserved the tiny nation’s brief independence of Catholic rule.

Religiously, it was a time of great turmoil. Lutheran and Calvinist reformers were pushing out Catholics, and Greek Orthodox expanded their presence. Amid this, Isabella and her son found solace in a friend, Giorgio Biandrata, an Italian physician who brought news of a newly emerging religious reform movement, one that rejected the doctrine of the trinity and declared that God is one. He called it Unitarian.

Hoping to avoid conflict over religion, Queen Isabella decreed in 1557 that every person may maintain whatever religious faith they wish without offense to any. The Queen died two years later, leaving the throne to her 19-year-old son John Sigismund.

Despite her decree, though, disputes heated up among contesting religious sects. So, in January 1568 John Sigismund called an assembly called the Diet of Torda where he issued the edict that you heard James read earlier.

 Though it never circulated far from Transylvania, it still stands as one of the most remarkable documents in the contentious history of religion in Europe:the first decree of religious tolerance.

It proclaims room for preachers of whatever stripe to make their case without being threatened or reviled. But even more amazing is what it says about the listeners: having heard the preachers speak members of the congregation can judge for themselves  if they like it.

If so, “well.” “If not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied.”

To our modern ears, these words are unsurprising. Well, of course, right? It’s easy to miss how revolutionary they were. After all, religious coercion at the time was widespread. The purpose of preaching was not to persuade or argue. It was to lay out what its speaker believed to be God’s holy truth. Often, to dispute or argue with the preacher was to risk personal ruin, even torture.

But John Sigismund said, no. Our souls will never be satisfied by a faith that is forced down our throats. Freedom is at the heart of a true and vital faith.

And 450 years later we UUs celebrate this edict because it marks a nascent moment when principles at the center of our liberal faith were established in this out-of-the-way kingdom. For John Sigismund didn’t just invent this notion. I told you that he was influenced early in life by this doctor friend of his mother’s, Giorgio Biandrata. Biandrata, in turn, was part of a network of humanist and liberal religious thinkers ranging from Italy to Poland.

Perhaps his most important contact was with a spiritually restless, one-time Catholic priest named David Ferenc, or Francis David. David was a brilliant preacher and scholar who had been converted to Lutheranism and then Calvinism, serving at different times for as bishop of both faiths. Eventually he shifted to a Unitarian perspective, and Biandrata arranged for him to be appointed court preacher under Sigismund.

To get a flavor of David’s influence, here are a few famous quotes from his work:

“Salvation must be accomplished on this Earth.” “The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.” “Conscience will not be quieted  by anything other than truth and justice.”

David’s urging led Sigismund to call the Diet of Torda, and a year after the Edict was decreed Sigismund declared himself a Unitarian, making him the first – and only – Unitarian king. By all accounts, the first few years after the decree was a rich and prosperous time in Transylvania. The range of religions that found protection under Sigismund’s decree is astonishing: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Unitarian as well as  Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims.

But even more it gave birth to a new religious movement first under Francis David’s leadership then as an independent network of churches. Sadly, two years after Sigismund’s conversion he died in an accident under clouded circumstances. His successor was Catholic who had no interest in David’s experimental theology. David lost favor, was charged with heresy and died in prison.

The Unitarian Church of Transylvania, though, endured and still does in the hill country of Romania, despite many campaigns of persecution over the years. It still maintains more than 100 parishes and tens of thousands of worshippers.

So, ancient history, right? Uplifting story, inspiring people – Yay! But I want to suggest that there’s more than that for us here. The anesthetizing distance of history tends to push all the struggles of times past far away. “Yeah, it certainly was amazing what they endured,” and then we move on.

 Well, hold on a moment. We don’t have to dig too deep into the circumstances surrounding the Diet of Torda to see some eerie parallels and sobering lessons for our own time.

Like the hill country people of 16th century Transylvania, we live at time of turmoil and transition.  It’s different for us, of course. We have less cause to fear being persecuted for our religious beliefs. More troubling are global trends that are dividing people not so much by faith but by income, by class, by race, by ethnicity, by nationality, by gender.

And it’s not just the fact of these splits that is the trouble but the way that they contribute to and reinforce a culture of privilege and entitlement, a kind of Darwinian grab game that serves those that get and leaves the rest in the dust.

And religion? Where is religion today in the midst of this? Well, it’s hard to say. Forms of religion certainly exist. We can count the edifices and total up the clergy. But it’s plain that as a force religion is shrinking: its numbers are declining and its influence is waning. We liberals are not exempt. We, too, are struggling.

So, what are we to make of all this? Lisa Martinovic’s poem that you heard earlier is one that I shared with you some years ago, but it seems all the more apropos as we enter this new year.

What’s ailing us? I think she’s right: We’ve moved away from the edge. It’s not that we’re not troubled by the state of the world, but we so enjoy being cozened by comfort  or the aspiration for comfort that we turn aside. Faced with the ache of compelling moral crises, we compromise, dither, deny and delay.

We may not frame it that way,  but “the great mushy middle”, as she calls it, has come to feel like a pretty OK place, where homogenized culture is piped into our homes, heck, into our ear buds or the watches on our wrists, where the gig economy gives us just enough to get by. There’s not much security there, but it’s safe enough, warm enough to survive for a while.

Yet, let’s face it, it’s hardly a place where our souls are satisfied. And here is the message of Torda for our time: It matters that our souls are satisfied.

The pursuit of pleasure is nice, but it doesn’t satisfy our souls.

Walling our lives off among people who agree with us,

who look like us, sound like us, feel like us may feel safe,

but it doesn’t satisfy our souls.

Of course, it’s true that once we venture outside of our cocoon, take off our virtual reality visors we’re on uncertain terrain: we’re on the edge. And, as Lisa Martinovic reminds us, the edge is a place where “There are no disguises, everybody is naked, all bets are off, and the game’s not rigged.”

Yeah, it’s uncomfortable: “Your heart’s pounding, you’re shaking, you’re scared because everything is initiation.” At yet it is there that our souls, that beautiful wholeness, that profound integrity at the center of our beings comes alive.

Somewhere, somehow there needs to be someone who speaks up for the soul, who honors it, not just in ourselves but in every person, and who commits to creating the conditions that can bring out its flourishing.

This is the work of religion, our religion, that cherishes freedom because it is the condition by which people come to life so that they might celebrate the wonder, the beauty, the inherent worth of our original blessedness and join in the creation of beloved community.

And here’s the thing. It doesn’t happen in some safe hideaway: it happens on the edge. Seeking to shelter ourselves from change doesn’t mean that the change isn’t coming. It’s here. Now.

So, friends, let us take this time of resolutions to rededicate ourselves to the lessons our forebears teach: that even in a time of turmoil it matters that we take the risk to act, to affirm and live into a hopeful faith that gathers us in gratitude and points us toward the work of reclaiming human dignity and compassion. Join me, won’t you?

Let go of your misgivings, whatever is holding you back, and run, don’t walk, to the edge.


Sermon: There is Hope in Resistance (audio and text)

READING         “The Legacy of Caring” by Thandeka

Despair is my private pain
    Born from what I have failed to say
        failed to do
        failed to overcome.
Be still my inner self
    let me rise to you
    let me reach down into your pain
    and soothe you.
I turn to you
    to renew my life
I turn to the world
    the streets of the city
         the worn tapestries of
             brokerage firms
             crack dealers
             private estates
             personal things in the bag lady’s cart
        rage and pain in the faces that turn from me
         afraid of their own inner worlds.
This common world I love anew
    as the lifeblood of generations
           who refused to surrender their humanity
           in an inhumane world
           courses through my veins.
From within this world
    my despair is transformed to hope
    and I begin anew
    the legacy of caring.


Resistance. What’s that about? I think we all have an idea. I push, you push back, right? You get in my way. You refuse to comply.

It’s a power dynamic, but subtler than outright opposition, at least at first, isn’t it? Often that’s because the party doing the resisting is at some disadvantage to the one they oppose. The other may be bigger, stronger, better funded, and deeply ensconced in a system constructed to keep them right where they are, calling the shots at the top of the heap.

And once perched there, it is their way, a la the Borg of Star Trek, to flaunt their power and warn us that “resistance is futile.” And yet, as movements of liberation have learned across the ages, in truth it hardly ever is. Resistance accomplished with persistence, fueled by integrity and compassion, done with creativity and grit can undo the Borgs and the bullies, however fearsome they may seem to be.

To enter a conversation today about how that might be I’m inviting us to enter a great old story celebrated right now by our Jewish neighbors. It has its own cautions and challenges but also important lessons for the path of resistance.

It takes us back some 2,200 years to a tumultuous time for the Jewish people when they had to endure a succession of foreign despots with different designs on Palestine. And as you can imagine, as each arrived he found the Jews inconveniently opposed to his program. Each designed his own strategy to get around this. Some oppressed them, others sought to co-opt Jewish leaders and had some success, though many still opposed them.

The most radical program came from a Syrian named Antiochus Epiphanes, who in 168 BC  sent soldiers to take over Jerusalem.  Many Jews chafed at  the increasing restrictions on Jewish practices that Antiochus ordered,  culminating with widespread killings and the installation of Greek idols in the temple.

In response, a clan of Jewish priests known as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, then withdrew from Jerusalem and planned a revolt. In time, the revolt devolved into a civil war that took in not only the Maccabees and the soldiers, but also  Jews who had adopted Greek practices. After a series of battles, the Maccabees prevailed.

On returning to Jerusalem, they discovered the Temple to be in shambles. The first book of Maccabees, an apocryphal scripture that was never included in the Jewish Bible, describes in detail how the Temple was restored. It was then that leaders declared that an eight-day festival of “Hanukkah,” which translates from Hebrew simply as “dedication,” should be held to purify and consecrate the temple.

The bit about oil found in a vessel that was enough to keep the flame on the menorah burning for a day lasting the full eight days of the festival is a nice bit of theater attributed to creative rabbis some seven centuries after the event. Still, it nicely turns the focus of the story away from a bloody civil war and back toward a more profound message that resistance can pay off, and even more that oppressed peoples have a right to self-determination, or, as our choir just reminded us, a right to freedom to be who they are.

It’s a message that’s especially fitting at this time when so many people in different settings are struggling for freedom and self-determination but also seeing some fruits of resistance.

I think, for example, of the recent senatorial election in Alabama. Much has been said about the political ramifications of this shift, which are huge. But as I watched election returns last week my thoughts turned to the celebrations that I attended two years ago of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights march on Selma.

I remember at the time being deeply moved, standing on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, site of the bloody 1965 attack on civil rights workers, packed in with a racially diverse crowd laughing and singing freedom songs. But there was a wistfulness there, too. To be honest, there’s not much to modern-day Selma.

 Yes, its leadership is African-American, but economically it’s a shell of what it once was, as are many communities with African-American majorities in Alabama. Yes, freedom came with the Voting Rights Act, but only freedom of a sort. Political and economic leadership still lies mostly in the hands of whites, and blacks continue to suffer.

 But as the election returns rolled in last Tuesday, it became clear that black voters in numbers unprecedented in Alabama history were turning the election away from one man, a candidate of the white power structure who pined for a pre-Civil War U.S., and toward another a man,  a candidate of the insurgents, who had successfully prosecuted men who in 1963 bombed a Birmingham church, killing four black girls, one of the defining outrages of the Civil Rights era.

And it seemed a bit of cosmic justice that it was Dallas County, home of Selma, that pushed that ex-prosecutor over the top in that Senate race. Not exactly the victory of the Maccabees, perhaps, since among other things we can’t know how all this will play out in the long run. But for a moment it offers us a window into the power of resistance, of how even against long odds people can make a change.

And from here I want to point to one more movement of resistance that is roiling our nation. It may not have reached its Maccabees moment yet, but with the momentum, it’s gathered so far there is reason to hope. I speak of the campaign against sexual harassment and abuse.

I like the way that Time magazine frames those who have brought the issue before us in its latest “Person of the Year” issue: The Silence Breakers.

Like every campaign for freedom, it is about standing up to people in power. Yet, this one is complicated even further since it’s centered on sex, our most intimate selves, something private and close. Perpetrators learned to use that wish for privacy as a weapon to warn their victims with Bork-like assurance that “resistance is futile.”

It took brave women willing to break the silence,  to offer their own stories and risk ridicule, to report the stories of others and risk professional ruin,  in order for the story to be told.

The fall-out has been both encouraging and dispiriting. Encouraging in that breaking the logjam of silence has encouraged many women to tell their own stories, opening paths to healing and renewal. New Internet memes – “I believe them” and “Me, too” – have helped amplify the campaign and give confidence to those taking the risk of telling their stories.       

The campaign has also dislodged some notorious abusers from positions of power or authority. It’s encouraged men to take stock of their behavior and opened conversations around practices in offices and other organizational settings.

It’s been dispiriting, though, to see some abusers simply take shelter in denial. And while high profile cases make the news, many more stay in the shadows,  where unchanged power dynamics put women who voice allegations of abuse at a risk they can’t afford. The work of silence breaking remains, and for those of us, women and men, committed to changing the dynamic, we are challenged to find ways to raise the notion of resistance to another level.     

In an essay in Time, the novelist Gillian Flynn writes that as much as she admires  the courageous women who raised their voices, in her words, “I don’t feel triumphant,  I feel humiliated and angry.”

Along with the stories bravery and perseverance,  she writes, this campaign has also surfaced  a toxic Internet culture of shaming and degradation  and all the boys club abuses that are baked into corporate culture

 “Threats to women abound,” Flynn writes. “We are underrepresented everywhere, underpaid by everyone and underestimated all over.”

All of this comes home to her, she says, when she looks at her children her 3-year-old daughter, who she describes as “fearless, vibrant,” and perhaps even more her “sweet” 7-year-old son.

How to assure that they are neither, in her words, “crushed by this world” nor drawn in one way or another into the cycle of abuse swimming around them? It begins, she says, with how we choose to raise them.

“My son,” she writes, “recently asked me,  ‘Why aren’t there any shirts that say BOY POWER?’”

“I could have talked about male entitlement,” she says, “and the male gaze, the wage gap and Weinstein. But I thought: If the myriad GIRL POWER shirts are meant to encourage female strength and confidence, a BOY POWER shirt might make  male empathy and respect dynamic. There were no BOY POWER shirts,  so I had to DIY (do-it-yourself) an iron-on. Now, there’s at least one.”

Resistance has many dimensions. It is in part naming and working to remove signs of oppression wherever we can. It is also work to reframe the ways that we are with each other, owning the stumbles we make, but holding in view like a polestar the truth at the center of our beings: our and each other’s incalculable inherent worth and our and each other’s right to be who we are.

It is the holy flame we each carry that even when dimmed by circumstance endures.

Like Thandeka, we may mourn and despair all that we have failed to say, to do, to overcome, but still within there is a source of renewal and strength,  that invites us into new hope, entering the legacy of caring.


Sermon: Digging Back In (audio & text)


 From “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe

 “Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time under the hoof of the beast above broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life like April.”

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

 Side by side, their faces blurred,   

The earl and countess lie in stone,   

Their proper habits vaguely shown   

As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,   

And that faint hint of the absurd—   

The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque    

Hardly involves the eye, until

It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still   

Clasped empty in the other; and   

One sees, with a sharp tender shock,   

His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.   

Such faithfulness in effigy

Was just a detail friends would see:

A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace   

Thrown off in helping to prolong   

The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in

Their supine stationary voyage

The air would change to soundless damage,   

Turn the old tenantry away;

How soon succeeding eyes begin

To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths   

Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light

Each summer thronged the glass. A bright   

Litter of birdcalls strewed the same

Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths   

The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.   

Now, helpless in the hollow of   

An unarmorial age, a trough

Of smoke in slow suspended skeins   

Above their scrap of history,   

Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into   

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be   

Their final blazon, and to prove   

Our almost-instinct almost true:   

What will survive of us is love.


             A year after the last presidential election we can hardly be blamed for feeling a bit like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber at the start of his famous novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Arriving in the early 1920s in “Libya Hill,” the home of his boyhood (a thinly veiled reference to a place you know well), Webber discovers a boom going on.

Real estate speculation is making many people rich but not compassionate; in fact, the opposite. Everyone seems to be out for the main chance, corporate chieftains are martinets who seek to create needs, not satisfy them, and, as one reviewer put it, “salesmanship is the enemy of truth.”

What’s more, Webber discovers himself to be persona non grata for an earlier novel he wrote that exposed embarrassing secrets of his family and friends. Eventually, circumstances lead him to high-tail it out of town.

Soon afterward, the town finds its comeuppance with the arrival of the Great Depression, which wipes out much of the elusive wealth accumulated in previous years. And Webber takes off to Europe to sulk and brood. //

With the stock market last week soaring to new heights while tax legislation is moving through Congress that promises to enrich the wealthy, multiply the nation’s ballooning debt and punish lower-income Americans, the picture Wolfe drew nearly a century ago is beginning to feel eerily familiar.

Add to that the culture of lying and deceit that is settling in in the halls of power in this country, and the perfidy and flagrant violation of trust of powerful men who blithely dismiss, diminish or deny well-documented allegations of assault and abuse, and we can hardly be blamed for, like George Webber, wanting to check out.

All the more reason, then, that we attend to the message that Wolfe offers to close his novel. Webber later discovers in Europe the same ills that led him to leave his home town, and on returning finds cause for hope. As the nation began to emerge from the Depression, its leaders wanted to cling to the past, Wolfe writes, “but they were wrong. They did not know that you can’t go home again. America had come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else.”

As he put it in the excerpt you heard earlier, “pain and death will always be the same,” and still there is a force within us “growing like a flower . . . coming into life like April.”

We are well aware of all the forces of division at work now, centered as they are in fear and the scape-goating of vulnerable people, and we can see them fueling movements toward separatism here and abroad.

All this is alarming and also nothing new. As historians point out, the last century offers chapter and verse on how easy it is for separatism to take root and how it can lead to monstrous evil. But here’s the caveat: can, but needn’t. There is nothing inevitable about any of this, and there are lessons for us in how we might nudge history in a different direction by digging back in and recommitting to values of compassion and hope.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote about some of these learnings in a slim book entitled Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century. Here are a few:

Do not obey in advance. We want to be good people and give our leaders the benefit of the doubt. But, Snyder says, we need to be wary of he calls “anticipatory obedience,” where we compromise our principles at a new leader’s bidding. What feels like a gesture of respect can end up being interpreted as a greenlight for leaders to do whatever they want.

Defend institutions. It is easy to criticize our fallible institutions, Snyder says, but it’s worth remembering that they were created to preserve our freedom and dignity, and if they are to do that they need our help. They do not protect themselves.

 “The mistake,” he says, “is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” They can, and they do.

Take responsibility for the face of the world. “The symbols of today,” he says, “enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swasticas and other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”

Stand out. As Snyder puts it, “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.” And that doesn’t necessarily means standing alone. Part of what we here exist to do is to help you find in community the hope, the faith, the courage to live into and proclaim your values.

Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Steer clear of rhetoric. Demand facts. As Snyder puts it, “it is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.”

Make eye contact and small talk, and not just with your buddies. “This is not just polite,” he says. “It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand who you should and should not trust.”

Be as courageous as you can. We each have our own limits to what we can do, yet even a little courage offered at the right time can have a stronger influence on events than we expect.

Learning the lessons of history is good practice. It teaches us the danger behind what Dictionary.Com declared as the word of year for 2017 – complicit: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or wrongful act.” Perhaps it’s a sign of a turning at work now that the Web site reported that there had been multiple spikes in the number of people looking up that word this year. speculated that this may be, “Because of noteworthy stories of those who have refused to be complicit in the face of oppression and wrongdoing.”

In the face of this, some of us will find our way to brave public acts. Others of us will be involved in what Matthew Fox called “the small work in the Great Work.”

 It is rising each day and putting our hearts and the little bit of genius that we are blessed with to work for what my colleague Victoria Safford calls “the larger Life and larger Love that some call holy, some call God, some call History, and others call simply larger than themselves.”

In her essay, “The Small Work and The Great Work,” Safford tells of a conversation she had with a woman who is a psychiatrist at a college health clinic. “We were sitting once not long after a student she had known, and counseled, committed suicide in a dormitory,” she wrote. “My friend the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally but deeply, fully – as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.”

“At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow, or making a new covenant. She spoke of her vocation, and of yours and mine.

“She said, ‘You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do – what I am called to do – is plant myself at the gates of Hope.

“Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love.’”

In one way or another, we all stand at those gates, bringing what gifts we have, beckoning and urging. It is, says Victoria Safford, “a sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle.”

It is the place in Seamus Heaney’s poem where “hope and history rhyme,” where we give up the denial that leaves us saying, “Oh, I’m sure everything will be all right,” as well as the frantic despair that tells us that the world is going to hell so we might as well let it implode.

Thomas Wolfe was right: we can’t go home again. The 0ld scripts that gave us comfort are outdated and need to be rethought, but the principles, the values that underlie them do not. They are soil from which something new must struggle to be reborn.

Meanwhile, those of us called to a larger life, a larger love, don’t have the luxury of waiting for that birth. We must be its midwives. There is no manual for how we’re going to do this. We’re all amateurs here. But we have the tools we need. Staying in touch. Listening, Learning. Honing the tools of democracy. Honoring the worth and integrity of every human being. Marshalling the power of our collective trust in common knowledge. Standing at the gates of hope. Being as courageous as we can. And when the time comes, when the moment is right: to push!

It is said that Philip Larkin was uncomfortable with the fuss that was made of his poem, “An Arundel Tomb,” especially its famous final line – “What will survive of us is love.” He felt that readers who pulled the words out of the context of the poem mistook his intent. If you recall, Larkin’s poem finds irony in those words being the lasting legacy of this couple, since he suspects that they didn’t choose them, in fact probably never saw them, that they were likely added by the sculptor to fill out a phrase of Latin on the base.

“Time,” he says, “has transfigured them into untruth. The stone finality they hardly meant has come to be their final blazon, and to prove our almost-instinct almost true.”

His words – “almost-instinct, almost true” – tip the reader off to Larkin’s wariness that we take the sentimentality of that phrase too seriously.

And it’s true. Sugary sweet sentiment can so easily distract us from complicated truths that are harder to hear and yet crucial to our understanding. When the music swells and the happy talk starts, we need to be careful of how far we are carried along.

Still, it’s interesting to reflect that when a gravestone marking Larkin’s death was added to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in 2016 the final words of “An Arundel Tomb” were inscribed there.

I wonder what Larkin would have thought of that. Was this a “stone finality that he hardly meant?” I don’t think so. I think it’s a fitting epitaph, for I think he was referring not to some mawkish sentimentality but to the deepest, strongest, most hopeful part of each of us, the love that casts out fear, the love that awakens us to the meaning of our lives.

In the end, I think he was right: when we add up the successes, the failures, the joys, the foibles of our brief lives, all that will have mattered is how we gave ourselves to love. When we look for a source of hope, we will find it in love. When we are called to rise from defeat or to find a way forward after loss, we will find it in the embrace of love. When we look for the strength finally to push, we will discover it in love.

Our task, then, is not to check out, not to let ourselves be discouraged, but to dig back in, to reaffirm the truths our hearts proclaim and find in them the hope that carries us on. Let us make of that our epitaph.

Sermon: Centering the Soul (audio and text)


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 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 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.

From “Haggia Sophia” by Thomas Merton

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all. Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out of me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility, This is at once my own being, my own nature. . . .”

So, when did it you first experience it?
For me, I think back to a time when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in a newly-built, ranch-style home on a half-acre that had been carved out of a one-time farmer’s field that was overgrown with second-growth woods.
Those woods, scraggly and unimpressive as they may have been, were for me a refuge. The oldest of five children born in seven years to busy parents, I longed for space to get away to where my thoughts could be my own. And the woods were that for me.
In years past I’ve reflected that that early experience bred in me what has been a life-long love of the woods and my predilection even now during hard times to set out for a forest path, the wilder the better, to find solace and perspective.
But in preparing for this service, on reading over Merton’s words and Tagore’s words and those of the writer and educator Parker Palmer, which I’ll share later, I’ve come to understand my early experiences from a different vantage. I’ve come to see that it was in those nondescript woods I not only encountered nature; I also first became acquainted with what I could alternately refer to as my center, my self, my soul.
Something rings in me when I hear Thomas Merton’s words describing it: a hidden wholeness, an inexhaustible source of sweetness and purity, an invisible fecundity, a silence that is the fount of action and joy.
I couldn’t have fathomed this way of framing it when I was younger, and yet these words resonate with the way that I remember that it felt. Wholeness, for sure. But, oh, if I could only have learned then to affirm it as a source of sweetness and integrity, as the very birthplace of whatever gifts, whatever small genius I may have to offer the world, the origin of joy and the foundation of whatever meaningful and compassionate action it is mine to accomplish in this brief life.

Instead, sad to say, as years went by doubts I came to learn often overshadowed that early insight, that early intuition. But, I also can look back on moments where it shone through, where bit by bit I came into who I was at heart. I’ve now reached the time in my life when I think I’m more attuned to my true self than I ever was before, though I’ve still got a lot more learning to do.
We’re in territory here that every religious tradition that I know of touches on. My colleague Victoria Safford describes it as “the part of you that is most uniquely you, deeper than mind, more durable even than your will – and holy if you like that word, or sacred. It is the essence of identity, radiant with dignity and worth.”
The Irish priest John O’Donohue writes, “There is a voice within you that no one, not even you, has ever heard – the music of your own spirit. It takes a long time to sift through the more superficial voices on your own gift in order to enter into the deep significance and tonality of your Otherness. When you speak from that deep, inner voice, you are really speaking from the unique tabernacle of your own presence.”
Christians call it the soul. Buddhists call it original nature. Jews call it the spark of the divine. Hindus call it Atman. Humanists call it identity and integrity. Each of those names carries different descriptors and radically different theologies, yet they each also point to a universal experience of true identity that is fundamentally ours.
And for all of them, coming to know and affirm this part of ourselves is central to the religious life because in a basic way this gives us a sense of agency and purpose. Knowing who we are teaches us that we are not flotsam and jetsam being blown across the world. We are beings with worth and integrity, as well as, in Merton’s words, sweetness and beauty, capable of meaningful action and joy.
So, how is it that so often it seems that instead we are stuck in the mire of doubt and despair, doing damage to each other and the earth?

I’ve long been drawn to Parker Palmer’s way of framing all this. We begin with the notion that we are each born with a true self, what Matthew Fox calls an “original blessing.” The problem is, Parker says, that “from the moment of birth onward, the soul or true self is assailed by deforming forces from without and within.” That is to say, not only do other people impinge on us, but we can create our own demons in how we respond. So, many of us take on lives of what Palmer calls “self-impersonation,” identities that we create to respond to the circumstances we face but have little to do with who are.
In time, we may even lose touch with the true self we sought to protect. And when that happens, he said, we are at risk of losing our moral compass, that sense of identity that grounds us.
“I have met too many people,” Palmer writes, “who suffer from an empty self. They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be – an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others.”
It is the kind of attitude that looks like self-centeredness but actually has its origin in no sense of self at all. What may appear as a selfish act, Parker says, is actually an effort to fill the emptiness we feel inside, often in ways that harm us or bring grief to others.
We don’t necessarily do it intentionally, but because we have lost connection with our own inner integrity we allow ourselves to be co-opted into someone else’s scheme, a scheme that offers no true benefits for us but profits the other in any number of ways.
Others of us may be aware of an inner true self but shelter it from others around us. So, we live a divided life, split between the constructed self that we show to the larger world and the hidden identity we keep to ourselves.
We may get by, even succeed materially living like that, but inside we never lose sight of the lie at the center of how we live our lives. And that lie works on us, often breeding anxiety, self-loathing, or just numbness. It makes for a precarious existence. So, how do we recover our true self, that hidden wholeness that is our birthright?

Palmer argues that we must find or create safe space for our true self to show itself. This is not as easy as may sound. Our true self has experienced enough wounds to be wary. It may be hidden away, but it is not soft or weak. Instead, he says, it is more like a wild animal, and like a wild animal it is “tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy and self-sufficient.”
I love this image because it invites us to see our true self as a source of strength and courage. It is something, he says, that knows how to survive in hard places, but it is also shy, seeking safety in the dense underbrush. It won’t be flushed out, or badgered or harangued into showing itself.
Palmer tells the story of his own history with depression, which he came to see as centered in a lost sense of self. The experience, he says, left him in a “deadly darkness,” where “the faculties that I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered.”
All the same, he said, “from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
Inner work can help acquaint us with our true self, but we can never fully come into ourselves by ourselves. We need engagement with a community.
Unfortunately, community is not always a safe place. As Parker Palmer puts it, “community in our culture too often means a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. In spaces ranging from congregations to classrooms, we preach and teach, assert and argue, claim and proclaim, admonish and advise, and generally behave in ways that drive everything original and wild into hiding.”
In these circumstances, he says, “the intellect, emotions, will, and ego may emerge, but not the soul: we scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationship, goodwill, and hope.”
What we need, he argues, is a context that respects the solitude of our individual selves while affirming our deep connection to one another.

In such a setting, he says, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather it means never living apart from one’s self.” While community, he says, “does not mean necessarily living face-to-face with others; rather it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other.”
Creating that sort of context requires that communities like ours develop a kind of discipline, discipline that counteracts a prevailing culture that measures the worth of people by what they produce, by their gender, their race, and the dozen other ways we judge one another as we compete for glory and gain.
The discipline that we need, says Parker Palmer, is one that is centered in cultivating the soul, the true self, the hidden wholeness within each of us, and elevating it from a shy presence we seek in the forest to a teacher.
To do this, he has offered the model of what he calls circles of trust. These are places where people gather in small numbers and listen to each other without judgment, without seeking to instruct or fix, offering each other simply open and honest questions and providing space for the soul, the true self to appear.
It’s a model very much like our covenant and theme groups – places where the only business before us is that we each invite each other’s true self to be present and help each other into deeper awareness of what our lives call for from us.
With that grounding we are ready to engage in the tough work of building a life, of being a compassionate presence, of organizing for change.
I look back to those early days in the woods and I find my dawning awareness that I was a being with my own integrity. It was an awareness that Tagore’s words speak to so powerfully.
“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.” I am not separated from the vast buzz and beauty around me. I move in it and it moves in me.
“It is the same life that shoots in joy through the numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.” Wherever I look I see other co-equal beings, each of us, “rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, of ebb and flow,” each of us “made glorious by the touch of this world of life.”
I am not better or worse, greater or lesser. My hope, my destiny is wrapped up with it all.
It was a perspective that invited me out of myself, invited me to see in the eyes of others a similar spark, to see a similar union that links us all.
“Who are you,” says Victoria Safford, “is a complicated question. Who are you? And whose? And why, and how, and who says so? Who gets to say? The soul is a spark deep within, inviolate, your own, and you stoke that fire with new vitality your whole life long, shining your bright flame and warming your hands at the hearts of strangers and lovers and everyone else.”
May our work here invite us each to know and affirm our true selves and those of our companions that in community we might awaken to the joy of life, the beauty of relationship and duty to all of the living.

Sermon: Who Is In My Circle? A Service of Remembrance and Hope

Some of the hardest work in our lives is deciding where we draw the circle of our concern. We begin with our family, sure, but how much wider? This season of turning reminds us that for people who were dear to us, even when they die they stay with us in important ways. Our newly formed Covenant of UU Pagans will help us celebrate.
But, who else do we include? Later this Sunday, our congregation will vote on whether to offer sanctuary to people in Asheville facing what they consider unfair deportation from their homes and families. So, who’s in our circle?

Sermon: Othering (audio & text)


Genesis 18:1-8

The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.


             A year after the June 2016 shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Omar Delgado, a police officer from a neighboring community who was one of the first responders at the scene, told USA Today that the scene that greeted him when he arrived at that tragedy still stays fixed in his mind.

             In a room that only minutes before had been a full-out party, the only sound he heard as he entered was cell phones scattered across the floor ringing incessantly.

             “I knew it was a loved one trying to reach that person, and they were never going to pick up that phone again,” he said. “It was horrific.”

             Officer Delgado was among 25 people associated with the Pulse shooting who were profiled by an organization called Dear World, which travels the world photographing people associated with conflict or disaster. You can find it on the Web.

Each subject is depicted with a message written in black marker on some part of his or her body. One survivor of the shooting wrote on his arms “nowhere left to hide.” The mother of one who died had written on her chest, “I went to the bedroom and he wasn’t there.” Officer Delgado had written on his arm, “I wish I could have answered their phones.”

             Unlike most of the events that Dear World documents, though, the Orlando shooting was not a military conflict or natural disaster. It was a hate crime.

             At about 2 a.m. on June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard who had expressed hatred for gays, entered Pulse, a gay nightclub packed with patrons, and opened fire with a pistol and semi-automatic assault rifle. His three-hour rampage left 49 dead and 53 injured.

             Mateen struck on what the bar had advertised as Latin Night. So, many of those injured or killed were part of a gay Latinx culture in the Orlando area that had been particularly marginalized. The incident sent shockwaves through many communities, but perhaps most powerfully it illuminated how splintered our society has become and how fragile and dangerous life can be for those of us who are deemed by someone else to be other.

Other. Different. Unlike. And, therefore, feared, held in suspicion, even despised.

              The passage Nancy read earlier from Genesis suggests how long such suspicion has plagued us. Altogether, the stories in the Hebrew Bible associated with Abraham, a chief patriarch of Jewish tradition, are few. But key among them is this brief tale of hospitality.

             It comes just after Abraham and his first son, Ishmael, have been circumcised and so received the sign of the covenant between them and God. Shortly afterward, Abraham is surprised to see three men whom he doesn’t recognize appear at his tent. He makes no inquiry of them – Who are you? Where did you come from? Anything like that.

             Instead, he bows and asks them: Won’t you take some rest and let me feed you? And then he sets off to ordering the food and waits until they have consumed them before troubling them any further.

             Soon after he learns some miraculous news – his wife, Sarah, quite old and thought to be barren, will give birth to a child. And it becomes clear that these are not just any guests but angels who have arrived with much to tell him.

             What miraculous news might visitors, people who are unfamiliar, others unlike us whom we chance to meet, have to give us about who we are and what the world, the future holds for us? It’s a question we don’t seem much to entertain these days. We’re more inclined to seek out the familiar, people who remind us of ourselves or other people we know. The rest, well, they can take care of themselves.

             In sum, we appear to be suffering from a failure of empathy, and perhaps, as some people suggest, empathy’s tragic flaw. Now, that’s kind of hard to hear, right? We’re raised to be empathetic. We tell our children to be slow to judge another person. Try walking a mile in his or her shoes. See? He/she is a lot like us after all.

And, you know, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing, but in the long run it may not be enough. Here’s why: The fact is that there are people we’re going to have an awful hard time learning to empathize with. They are so different from us that we really can’t see wrapping our heads around their situation. In fact, we’re more likely to fantasize a bit about how we think things are for them, imagining a life for them that has nothing to do with their real world. It may persuade us that we understand them when we really don’t.

The Nasruddin tale is a good example. He arrives at the wealthy man’s feast wishing he had time to change his soiled clothes, but figuring that his host would be more troubled if he arrived late. No, better to honor his hospitality and be prompt. But he arrives and find that his host and the guests can’t see past his soiled clothes. He is shunned and ignored.

Embarrassed he goes back home and changes into his finest clothes, which prompt a generous welcome from his host and the others. So, he concludes it is his clothes, not him, that was wanted at the party and blithely stuffs his pockets.

The story makes an obvious point about human vanity, but it also offers a subtler lesson about the tyranny of visual cues that we use to decide how to relate to one another.

The writer Sarah Sentilles says that for years she taught art and learned how indelible visual impressions can be. “Labeling someone as either like you or not like you, as friend or enemy,” she says, “hangs on perception, and perception is warped by the lenses through which you’ve been trained to look at the world.”

These lenses teach us how to identify an “other,” so that in the end, she says, “otherness is made, not found. It is learned, imagined, and imposed.” In that way, it works against empathy. We may try to empathize with someone who seems different from us, thinking “I know he’s strange, but give them a chance.” Meanwhile, perceptual cues inside of us that we’re not even conscious of may be shouting, “No, no: scary!”

What would happen, she says, if on encountering someone different from ourselves we didn’t just turn on the empathy script – “OK, now she’s a person just like you. Find out what you share.”

Instead, in her words, “what if we were to let confrontation with otherness, with difference, give us pause? What if encountering someone I don’t understand raised questions about my limited view, about the lenses through which I’ve been trained to see the world, about the agendas driving how difference is demonized?”

That’s a pretty different script, right?

 The truth is we do others a far greater honor if we enter into relationship expecting that the person we meet will exceed our understanding of them. We do, of course, seek out common interests, but how about if we also came to enjoy, perhaps even treasure the richness and qualities in that person beyond our own experience and understanding.

To my mind, it is one way that we realize our first Unitarian Universalist principle – affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. What gives each person worth and dignity is not the qualities that we share or that we happen to like about them, but each person’s inherent beauty and genius, that which makes that person unique, irreplaceable, unlike any person who has ever lived. It is that which we seek to know and cherish in each other.

As the philosopher Judith Butler puts it, this understanding affects our ethical stance. Ethical awareness, she says, “surfaces not when we think we know the most about each other, but when we have the courage to recognize the limits of what we know.”

That brings us back to our choir’s uplifting anthem. Do you remember it? “Safe Places for the Heart”? This piece wasn’t just written in a vacuum. It was written as a response to the Pulse nightclub massacre.

“My heart will be a home for you, where in the window of our dreams the cause of right comes shining through, where every word is kind, where every spoken word is kind, where outstretched arms embrace diversity and open affirming minds encourage others to be free, striving for equality, respecting each one’s dignity to love who we were born to be.”

The song invites us to take stock of how we regard this or any highly marginalized group of people. And I offer it up this Sunday when we reflect on giving and receiving forgiveness because I think it pushes us. At least, it pushes me.

“Outstretched arms embrace diversity and open affirming minds encourage others to be free.” Hmm. Really? I don’t know. I don’t want to load on you, but for myself, I have to admit that there are certainly folks for whom my empathy gets strained. I feel badly, yes, but outstretched arms? You know, not so much.

Each year I invite us into the litany of atonement we just experienced not as a mere exercise, but to invite us all to reflect. For myself, remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference? Yup. Letting my fears make me rigid and inaccessible? Yup.

So, what do we do with that? Well, to begin with we confess it and admit the sorrow that it gives us to do so. Then we go about the work of repair, forgiving ourselves for coming up short in our own expectations, which gives us the courage to forgive others their own trespasses, and then look to begin again. Not from a position of judgment or feigned superiority, but from curiosity, humility, wonder: from love.

It is a place where we pause and reflect. It can be hard to enter into relationship with people different from us. We can embarrass ourselves and make mistakes.

Parker Palmer tells the story he heard from the director of a Jewish Community who hired a gentile woman to act as a receptionist. The director said they instructed her that when she answered the phone she was to say, “Jewish Community Center – Shalom.”

You remember shalom.

He said he happened to be listening when the woman took her first call and said, “Jewish Community Center – Shazam!”

And so we laugh, “Oh, boy, did I mess up. I’ve got a lot to learn.” And we turn up our curiosity. What more do I need to know here?

Because beneath the sweet words of an anthem like the one the choir sang is the acquaintance with something terrible and cruel. “When stares despise the way we love, our eyes will speak of deeper grace ‘cause love keeps truth within its sight.”

That deeper grace, deeper truth is a unity beneath all difference, a unity that does not make us all the same but makes us all worthy. Behind the rituals of atonement is the prayer that through this practice we may in time change how we respond to those we deem to be others in our midst. That we learn to be slower to judgment and quicker to self-examination, less rigid, more curious. So that having abandoned the illusion of separateness we may forgive ourselves and each other, and begin again in love.


Sermon: Practice, Practice (audio and text)


You Reading This, Be Ready  by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

From “What They Dreamed by Ours to Do” by Rebecca Parker

(When our congregations were asked what their dreams are for the UU movement, a strong majority said their highest hope was “to become a visible and influential force for good in the world.” How do we do that?)

“We do not need more money, although money always helps . . . . We do not need more people, though it would be good to have them . . . . To be an influential force good, what we need to do is establish more strongly in our congregational life the practices that embody loving, just, and sustainable community. We need to be what we want to see and make visible an alternative to the forms of oppression, alienation, and injustice alive in our time.”


            Each summer I make a point of signing up for a wheel-based pottery class at a local pottery studio. Pottery is something I’ve enjoyed playing with on and off since college, and Asheville is such a great center for ceramics that I often meet the most impressive artists in those studios.

            I have no great ambitions for myself. My talents are quite modest, but I enjoy the process. I love working with clay, the way it feels, the way it responds to how you shape it.

I remember how frustrated I was the first few times I tried to center the clay, the way it would wobble-wobble-wobble, and it seemed to take forever using all my might before I could wrestle it into the center of the wheel.

These days centering is no big deal, even five or six pounds of clay for some larger bowls that I’ve made. It’s not that I’m any stronger. It’s just that I have a better sense of what I’m doing. I don’t fight the clay; I work with it. I’ve learned where, when and how to apply pressure to get the result I want. And that just comes with practice.

 Practice gives me more than just facility. It gives me a sense of and a fondness for the material I’m working with and the beauty it makes possible. In time, I’ve found I get a deeper sense of the artistic possibilities in shaping clay. I come to admire artists for what they were able to accomplish, which opens new possibilities for my own work.

I’ve made a few pieces – some I’m even proud of. It’s always fun to see what comes out of the kiln. But to be honest it is not so much the product as the process that draws me. I look forward to each class as a way to explore a new dimension of this work, to challenge myself to try out more difficult forms. Inevitably at some point, I bump into limits of my understanding or ability and get frustrated. But then there’s an instructor or classmate who offers a tip, and I’m back at it.

It’s a process that I expect many of you recognize who have ever tried your hands at any skill, from playing the clarinet to baking a pie, to planting a flourishing garden: Something calls you to a particular art or skill. So, you seek out instruction and find that, at first, you’re awkward and uncertain. If you’re like me, you may even get impatient with how slow the learning seems to come.

But then, before you realize it, the clay in your hands, the piano keys beneath your fingers, the mountain slope under your skies, is something you begin to know, and even love.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the old saw goes? Practice, practice.

            This fall your Board of Trustees is leading you in a process to help us discern what we as a congregation are called to do. It’s a challenging time to be asking this question, with so much that is important to us in play.

But, we have a pretty good idea of where we begin. As Unitarian Universalists, we are joined with more than 1,000 other congregations across this country by our seven principles, commitments to affirm such things as the inherent worth and dignity of all, justice and compassion, acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth, the right of conscience and a goal of world community, as well as a free and responsible search for meaning and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at them or if this is new to you, I invite you to find a time to look them over in the first pages on our gray hymnal. Take a look, too, at what we consider to be the primary sources that we draw from as a religious tradition.

Beyond these principles, we as a congregation have identified core values that we believe guide us in our work: connection, inspiration, compassion & justice.

We also gather here under our covenant – words that affirm commitments we make to care for and support each other, to celebrate our diversity but also to attend openly to differences and to create healing by listening and speaking in the spirit of love.

These are words we recite at congregational meetings and upon welcoming newcomers into our congregation, yet we are still challenged by Rebecca Parker’s observation that, “Covenant is brought into being through practice. Our verbal promises are just the frosting on the cake.”

The question remains, then, what shall we do? How will we devote our limited resources of time, talent, and money to accomplish what best serves our hopes for the world, this community and each other?

In the next several weeks there will be opportunities for you to participate in this conversation. The Board has recruited UUCA members to facilitate conversations at 11 meetings on different days and times in the next several weeks to address this question.

I sat with them in their training yesterday, and I think you’ll find the process illuminating. You can sign up today in Sandburg Hall after the service, and I hope you will. It’s a unique chance to help guide where we are going as a congregation. I’ll be fascinated to learn what comes of it.

But I’ve chosen this topic as you embark on that journey to urge that in answering that question you consider how you might frame your answers in the context of practice.

Why practice? Well, to begin with, practice gives us work for the long haul. We exist as a congregation not to accomplish a specific end by a specific point in time but to be agents of transformation. And transformation is hard. It requires that we pace ourselves and develop strategies that keep us focused even in hardship, disappointment, and loss.

My model for this work is John Lewis, one of the last surviving leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He is famous for saying that, in the end, the Civil Rights Movement was not about achieving specific political ends but, in his words, “about seeing a philosophy made manifest in our society that recognized the inextricable connection we have to each other.”

Seen from that perspective, he said, each of the acts of the movement – the victories and the defeats – were only steps along the way. Writing in 2012, Lewis added, “Yes, the election of Barak Obama represents a significant step, but it is not an ending. It I not even a beginning; it is one important act in a continuum of change. . . . It is another milestone on the nation’s road to freedom.”

“We must accept one central truth and responsibility as participants in a democracy,” he said “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 and even more fair, more just society.”

Freedom, in other words, is a practice. So, the question returns to us: What practices will keep us centered, hopeful, united and strong as we move, bit by bit, toward our goal?

A focus on practice reminds us that some of the hardest work in creating the change we want to see is changing ourselves. Remember, when learning a new skill, it’s a little rocky at first. We make mistakes and get frustrated. And even then, the best-laid plans go easily astray. We get distracted. We get busy. We want to do better, but it all seems like too much.

Remembering that lasting change can’t be accomplished overnight, we begin with the small steps. What can we do today, right now that might take us at least a tiny step along the way? This past week our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper offered a few ideas at our Wednesday Thing.

Feeling grumpy? How about filling a Gratitude Jar with prompts that remind you how much you have cause to be grateful for? Are folks in your house a little over the edge right now? How about digging into the family Calm Down Box or the Boredom Jar? Maybe it’s a game, a book of poetry, a packet of tea, or just a blankie. Surely there’s something there that can dial down the level of stress or craziness in your house at that moment.

While some were filling boxes or jars, I led others in silent meditation, and Bruce Larson gathered others still to talk about peacemaking. All of these are simple things to do, but they become powerful when we make them personal practices, activities that we rely on to center and ground us, that reminds us to focus on what connects us with others, on living into the people we want to be.

Rebecca Parker in our reading captures the sense of it: “To be an influential force for good,” she said, “what we need to do is establish more strongly in our congregational life the practices that embody loving, just and sustainable community.”

Practices also offer us a way to stay true to what matters to us even when we reach the end of our rope when we have no clue of the next step to take. Chris Lattimore Howard writing in Christian Century magazine recalled a night early in his chaplaincy training where he and his supervisory were dashing from crisis to crisis with barely a moment to think.

At one point, Howard says, he flippantly said to his supervisor, “Man, this is out of control.” The chaplain, he said, stopped and turned to him, saying, “Not being in control is part of the discipline.”

So it is for us. There is much that we will encounter that will surprise us or knock us off our equilibrium. So, we need to develop practices that can keep us grounded and focused and true to who we are and aspire to be.

How do the promises of our covenant become practices? How do our values focus our work? How do our principles guide our hands and feet? How does all of this link us to the larger work of transforming the world? Each generation pressed by both the outrages and the radiant possibilities of its time confronts such questions. How shall we respond? What halting skills do we cultivate such that we may be fully present to our age, struggling at first with the wobble-wobble-wobble of awkward uncertainty until we get the hang of the work until we learn where to apply the pressure with true skill so that we truly be a blessing to the world?

The opportunity is before us. As William Stafford reminded us, what can anyone give you greater than now, starting here right in this room, when you turn around?


Sermon: You Who Loves Lovers, This is Your Home, Welcome! (audio & text)


The Most Alive Moment   by Rumi

The most living moment comes when
those who love each other meet each

other’s eyes and in what flows
between them then. To see your face

in a crowd of others, or alone on a
frightening street, I weep for that.

Our tears improve the earth. The
time you scolded me, your gratitude

your laughing, always your qualities
increase the soul. Seeing you is a

wine that does not muddle or numb.
We sit inside the cypress shadow

where amazement and clear thought
twine their slow growth into us.


                In a bizarre way, it seems hardly surprising that in these days when our national conversation is being conducted via Twitter blasts and playground name-calling, where hate is elevated to “just another perspective” and our leaders carelessly bandy about the prospects of nuclear war, where we find ourselves worrying whether, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “the best all lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” we have hurricanes queued up across the Atlantic like kids waiting for a Ferris wheel ride, each one competing with the last for superlatives that we hardly have words for – most rain ever, greatest intensity ever measured.

What next? We want to ask.

            Residents of Florida, Texas, or the Carolinas have places to evacuate to, knowing that, however bad the damage, they can return to rebuild. The rest of us, though, face an even more daunting rebuilding campaign suffused with deep uncertainty about whether it can even be done.

            I heard a radio interview last week with Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose upcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power, examines the impact of Barak Obama’s presidency in light of the 19th century Reconstruction Era. The picture that Coates painted of the world today in that interview was pretty bleak, especially in its impact on African-Americans and other marginalized people. Finally, the interviewer broke in and asked what he saw as signs of hope. Surely there must be something he can point to. Coates stammered a bit and replied, “No. . . .  Not really”

                But then he clarified what he meant. Clearly, people need to get on with their lives, he said. People will find a way in the world. Parents will raise children. But that great liberal optimism that has hung around since the 60s, the notion that peace and brotherhood are just a good social program or two away, has no currency with him.

                The African-American experience, he said, tells a different story. It says that white supremacy is so deeply marbled in American society that it may never be exterminated. It is something that he figures that his children and his children’s children, and so on will have to struggle with. As Coates wrote in an earlier book, Between the World and Me, lamenting to his son, “I’m sorry that I cannot make it OK. I’m sorry that I cannot save you.”

But then he was quick to add – “but not that sorry.” Perhaps, he said, that very vulnerability that so worries him brings his son closer to the meaning of life, the true vulnerability that encumbers us all but that those of us sheltered by privilege are less able to discern.

Sadly, what may be most distinctive about this era is that those of us with white skin and Eurocentric names are finally coming to understand at a gut level the distress that people of color have known for generations.

In part, what has sheltered us is the illusion of agency, the old notion that we are masters of our fate, captains of our voyages, who can grab what we want, and to heck with the rest. It is a notion that is in high ascendance as I speak.

What it is in essence is the first of many walls we build between ourselves and others, not just between us and the marginalized but between us and every other person we encounter. It a diminished way to live, and even worse it tolls great danger ahead the possibility of communal being.

We experience it in the despair we see emerging in everything from opioid addiction to soaring suicide rates, across all races and cultures, though centered right now in the majority whites. We could post Narcan on every street corner, but the fixes we need go deeper than that. We need a reaffirmation of the very basis of what joins us all, deeper than race or culture, than nation or economic status, than religion or ethnicity, than gender identity, age, body type, health capacity, physical ability, than every way we humans have found to wall ourselves off from one another.

For a Sufi like Rumi, the point of religious practice was to experience the divine, to know that mysterious essence that he believed resides within and enlivens all things, including ourselves. Rumi’s poetry often refers to this essence as love, and not some tame or chaste love, but a love that sounds intoxicating, even erotic. Yet, the language he uses here is metaphor, intended to refer not so much to actual lovers but to invite listeners to awaken to a rhythm that is moving in their lives. As he says in one poem, “We rarely hear the music, but we are dancing to it nonetheless.

Embracing that rhythm gives us a new vantage on the world. In the poem that Louise read earlier, Rumi imagines two who have caught that rhythm meeting on a city street. The image is almost like something from a Hollywood movie where eyes meet and the music swells and the two lovers run to each other’s arms.

In Rumi’s imagining, though, the scene is different. The point is not a physical embrace but a spiritual one. The experience of one seeing the other, he says, “is a wine that does not muddle or numb.” Instead, it awakens. It is what he calls “the most living moment” because in that moment the two are utterly vulnerable to each other, experiencing each other’s qualities in a way that Rumi says, “increase the soul.”

The title of this service comes from another of Rumi’s poems called “The Music Master.” “You that love lovers, this is your home,” he declares. It sounds almost nonsensical at first blush, though perhaps you have a little better sense of it now, especially in light of its closing couplet: “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”

The separation we experience from one another is an illusion, a lie. Yes, we are distinguishable beings, but the deeper truth, as the choir’s anthem declared, is that “We are one.”

“When we walk, when we sleep, when we rise, when we laugh, when we sing, when we cry, when we run. We are one.”

And what does that verse that composer Brian Tate found in the Book of Deuteronomy say will come of that discovery? We shall love one another with all our hearts and our souls and our might.

We may pull back from Deuteronomy’s or Rumi’s words: Excessive, just too much. But are they really any stranger, any more excessive than the Christian scripture in the Book of Matthew? “You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your energy, But I say to you, Love your neighbor and pray for those who persecute you.” A peculiar thing, this love stuff!

Thomas Merton told the story in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander about an experience he had one day in 1958 while running errands for his monastery in Louisville, Kentucky. Merton turned the corner at Fourth and Walnut streets, when, as he put it, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

It was, he said, “like waking from a dream of separateness, and of spurious self-isolation. . . .”

So, back on the street again. What’s that about? I can tell you I’ve been to that street corner in Louisville, and there is nothing particularly distinctive about it, other than the plaque describing Merton’s epiphany. But, of course, there didn’t need to be. The place was not the point. The interaction was.

For a moment, Merton dropped out of the bubble of his own self-consciousness and woke to a deeper consciousness of those before him. “It was,” he said, “as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality.” If only, he said, “we could see each other that way all the time.”

If only. So, what does testimony like Merton’s do to you? Do you roll your eyes, say, “Wow, that’s freaky”? I could hardly blame you. It is, once again, kind of over the top, and Merton himself frames it within his own Catholic theology.

All that notwithstanding, I have to admit that it has stuck with me. And I think that’s likely because in some inexpressible way it speaks to experiences of my own – perhaps you, too – when I have felt in some way lifted and connected with others, even strangers who at least for that moment became precious to me, when I was lifted out of the bubble of my own self-consciousness and experienced the beauty and wonder of others in all their fullness.

It sounds grander than it was. There was no angel breaking in. It came instead with a settling of my mind and heart, a letting go and taking up. And, yes, it does not go too far to call it love, though I know that that’s a word I have to be careful of.

I like the way that Carter Hayward frames it. Love, she says, “is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.” It is, she says, “a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.”

Love as a choice. It’s so contrary to how we imagine this sort of thing. We think that love comes welling up out of nowhere, comes over us, changes everything. But, just as with Rumi, we’re talking about something different here. We’re talking about what Rumi described as “wine that does not muddle or numb,” love that serves the purpose not of intoxication or sensual thrill but of “increasing the soul.”

Increasing the soul and releasing the self, releasing fear and shame that grow like a carapace that covers the vulnerability that makes it possible for us to connect in the first place, and then taking the risk to magnify ourselves in wider and wider encounter.

You that love lovers, who embrace the vulnerability of this moment and the strength of human integrity to meet it, who assume risk as real and see no certain result, yet who choose all the same to be converted to humanity, to be present to others whatever their story, whatever their struggle without pretense or guile, this is your home.

May it be our part to succeed so well at this work that we, too, may look at strangers on the street with conviction that they are ours and we theirs. And may it be that a spirit of respect and care, of healing and wholeness will so suffuse this place that it radiates out to help heal this wounded world.


Shall We Be Sanctuary

It was last March that we at UUCA hosted a gathering of hundreds of people who took part in a peaceful march in Asheville in support of undocumented immigrants and in protest of accelerating arrests and deportations that were tearing apart people’s lives. Ever since then many of our members have been in conversation about what part we as a congregation might play in this increasing justice concern.

Last spring a group of our members expressed interest in UUCA joining congregations of different faith traditions across the country in providing physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Our Board of Trustees asked those members to research all that making such a commitment might entail and what consequences we might face by taking such an action. The members came together as a Sanctuary Working Group and spent the summer researching those questions, holding Town Hall Meetings and making contacts with immigration advocates and people in the Latinx community as well as members of other churches interested in sanctuary.

Last Tuesday the board reviewed what the Sanctuary Working Group had to report as well as further information that staff had discovered and agreed to convene a congregational meeting at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 29 where the congregation would be asked to decide if we would provide sanctuary on our campus.

It is an immense step for us to consider, and I’m grateful to the Sanctuary Working Group and my colleague Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper for doing so much to vet the many complex dimensions of this decision. You will be hearing and reading more about what this decision would mean, its impact on us as a congregation, and what it calls for from us. For now let me share these initial details with you:

  • We expect that any guests we keep in sanctuary would be housed at 23 Edwin. We expect they would occupy an upstairs bedroom and have access to the kitchen and shower downstairs. We have learned from others who have done this that we would not have to segregate space for them. We could share the space, so we would not have to make major changes to the building or interrupt regular church operations, including maintaining offices upstairs and holding meetings downstairs.
  • We would not intentionally violate any laws. We would announce publicly the presence of our guests and, since we would consider this use of the building a form of practicing our faith, we would not violate our zoning as a church. Our insurance agent has assured us this action would have no impact on our insurance.
  • While our community would be called on to assist a person or family in sanctuary, other congregations committed to sanctuary work are volunteering help to reduce the impact on our congregation. By the time of the vote, you will learn more about the nature of the help that has been offered.

Of course, most of these are just logistical considerations. The deeper question for each of us to consider is, “Is this what we are called to do?” Commitment to sanctuary means more than just offering space. It means orienting our social justice work toward building a culture of sanctuary in this part of the world, affirming that these endangered immigrants and other marginalized people are our neighbors who have claim on our attention, on our commitment to justice, on our love, that part of our work as a congregation is to contribute to the building of places of hope and peace.

And wouldn’t you know it, this question comes at a time of great synergy when our Board of Trustees is inviting us to reflect on how we live our values. In the next month or so you’ll have a chance to join facilitated conversations to help us discern what the values that we identified last fall as core to our work as a congregation call us to in the world. Look for the LOV (Living Our Values) announcements and make sure to find a time to join the conversation in one group or another.

Once they gather your thinking on that, the Board will use your thoughts to refocus our Mission Statement and the Ends that drive our work as a congregation. On October 29, before we vote on the sanctuary proposal you will hear what conclusions the board has come to.

This is challenging work at a challenging time, but it is good work, our work, exactly what we should be doing. As the mystic Howard Thurman put it:

How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts

 for the still moment and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes,

A fresh sense of order in our living.

Rev. Mark Wwrd, Lead Minister


Sermon: Reflections of a Mother’s Son (Text and audio)

            Gathered around a bed at Brooks Howell home last May, two of my siblings, a hospice nurse, my wife, Debbie, and I watched as my mother’s breathing slowed and then finally stopped. Her passing was quiet and peaceful – a good death in many ways. But for most of us in that room it was a door opening into untraveled territory.

We all know that we will lose our parents someday. Still, when the moment comes that we do – first one, then the other – there is something unreal about the experience. As complicated as our relationships with them inevitably are, our parents loom as a huge influence in our lives. They are after all the origin of our being.

The psychologist Alexander Levy argues that the moment when the last of our parents dies is a unique time. From the beginning of our lives, he says, an important part of how we identify ourselves to others and even ourselves is as somebody’s child. It gives us an anchor to family, to a heritage, a context.

That heritage doesn’t change when we lose our last living parent, but our relation to it does. It moves, in a sense to the history books, away from living parents. Yes, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and so on are there, but it’s different. We feel, he said, something like an orphan.

On one level that sounds silly. We think of orphans as children. As adults, all of us have spent many years building our own identities that are separate from our parents. At the same, he said, parents often are like figures in the rearview mirror, providing a glimpse of where and who we’ve been as we head into the unknown. What happens when there’s no one in the rearview mirror?

Levy says he was caught up short when, after the death of his last parent, he reflected that, “there is no longer anyone who would ever again claim me as their child.” No one was living who knew his story, who had been present at his birth, who walked with him on his first day at school, who celebrated his successes and consoled his failures.

In my mother’s last months as she drifted into dementia she sometimes struggled to recognize me, but she almost always eventually did. And when she did, her face would break out into a beautiful smile, and she would announce my name and say, “I always said if I ever had a son, I would name him Mark.” I’ll never hear those words again.

So, there is a grief at such a passing that is profound and unlike any other. And yet, Levy observes, that grief also teaches us something about ourselves. For grief is not something that comes from outside us. It is our heart’s response to a loss. As Levy puts it, “the source of grief’s breath-taking energy comes from within ourselves.”

It also alerts us to our own impermanence and so urges us to focus the time we have on what matters for us. It reminds us how precious the people we love are in our lives. In an important way, Levy says, “when the second parent dies, the rest of adulthood begins.”

 So, in the wake of our parents’ passing we struggle to come to terms with who they were and in the light of their lives who we are: what there is to celebrate, what there is to mourn, what to take stock of and what to let go of, and how to find a way forward into the days that remain for us.

I entered the story of my mother’s life when she was 25 years old, barely a year into marriage with a 27-year-old psychiatry resident. She had grown up the oldest child of a Boston newspaper man, though wounded by the death of her mother at age 5. A patient and loving stepmother, though, came in later and kept the family together. Cynthia excelled in school and ended up in college with a BA in English.

My birth was only the start for this couple. It was the time of the baby boom generation, and my parents boomed with the rest of them, giving birth to a total of five children in seven years. For my mother, this busy household with a psychiatrist husband working 60 to 70 hours a week left her time to be little more than a homemaker.

But as we made our way into school, she began looking for professional opportunities of her own. Given her background, teaching was a natural choice. A master’s in teaching led her to teaching in private schools in the area, but it still wasn’t quite the right fit.

Our family had been active in the Unitarian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, since moving to the area, and my mother was deeply involved. When the position of Religious Education Director came up, she saw the opening she had been looking for and got the job. It was a rich time for us and the church. My mother was not only an excellent writer and speaker, but she had the soul of an artist, and so she brought wonderful creativity to that work.

Before long she felt the tug to take it further, and so seminary beckoned. Tied down with a busy family, she couldn’t travel far, so she chose the nearest seminary she could find. That turned out to be a conservative Dutch Reformed school that was not exactly crazy about women students, no less Unitarian Universalists.

Undaunted, she dove in, outing herself in her papers as, in her words, “a humanist agnostic,” “a feminist of the 1981 Betty Friedan school” and “the heretic of the class.” I was long gone to college by this time, and only heard about most of it second hand. But not long after I was called to this church I received a package from my mother containing a paper from seminary she had written 20 years before on the conservative theologian Karl Barth.

I couldn’t help noticing, as I think she hoped I would, that it was peppered with positive comments from the professor and an “A” at the end with the remark, “Marvelous paper. You’re really in the thick of it, aren’t you?” And she clearly was.

I’m sad to say that I didn’t really know my mother as a minister. During the 14 years of her ministry, before she retired in 1999, Debbie and I were half a continent away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, raising a family of our own. But I know a bit about her impact from what I’ve since learned from her colleagues, especially women.

She was part of a wedge of women ministers entering our movement in the 1980s who struggled against a patriarchy that was deeply imbedded in our movement. My mother had several brief ministries in the metro New York area, but also was frequently tapped as a consultant for conflicted congregations and as a mentor for many women colleagues trying to find their way.

As a writer and preacher, she made her mark with her deft use of poetry and her own creative spirit. In one sermon late in her life she told of attending the ordination of her niece, a Presbyterian, and being confronted by a man who insisted, “You Unitarians aren’t religious; you don’t believe in God.” She writes that she tried to feel him out on what he meant by God, and he would have none of it. Finally, she responded that, well, perhaps we didn’t believe in God as he understood it, “but we believe in Glory, Grandeur and Gentleness.”

Glory, she said: that which “takes the human potential and holds it high and wide for all to celebrate and amaze.” Grandeur, the greatness of the world, the cosmos, which “none of us own but all of us share in its expansiveness.” And Gentleness, that in us which treasures precious moments, connections among loved ones and friends, which takes time to know textures, and beauty, that upholds compassion and care.

In that context she told the story of her uncle Nat. “In the winter of my sixth year,” she says, “I searched the heavens for my recently dead mother and for God, whatever that was, as my maternal grandmother had instructed me. ‘Your mother is in heaven with God.’

“It became difficult to trust well-meaning adults with their non-answers.  ‘How sad your mother has passed away.’  Passed away? Where? How? My father, whom I did trust, was wrapped in grief and work.  His silent hugs saved my young soul.”

The next summer, she says, “I was taken to see Uncle Nat, a family physician.  He took my hand, looked me in the eyes.  ‘I know you are sad because your mother died.  But I know that what she would want is for you to grow up to be a big strong girl.  What you need is a strawberry ice cream cone and jumping in the hay in your grandfather’s barn.’

“Who was Uncle Nat?  Someone who named my pain and offered a prescription to jump start my life.  My pain was serious, but so was my life.  He found the balance that made sense to me. Death is the gnaw of nothing, an unexplained void to children and adult. Whatever the cause, whatever the abruptness, death needs the honor of truth.”

            It was her way to lean into, rather than outright reject, traditional religious language. When we explore what the word gets at, she felt, perhaps we find it not as alien as we had at first.

And perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in her love of cummings’ sonnet. As she read that poem, the God who is thanked is not some distant being, removed from the world. It is both subsumed in and embracing all that is, everything “which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

And yet in the poem there is something transcendental, if not transcendent that she feels cummings, the son of a Unitarian minister, points to here, a quality of beauty and wonder of simple yesness that we are called to see.

My mother used to tell of how when I was an infant and she and my father were in their first apartment she posted pictures of Van Gogh paintings on the wall and pointed them out to me, “Look.”

Perhaps Mary Oliver, one of my mother’s favorite poets, put it best, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.”

That was certainly how she felt, and that perspective may be her greatest legacy to me. Don’t just glide through life: open your eyes, open your ears, open your mind: Look! And don’t just look: you are a part of this, too. Bring your own creativity, your own vision, your own genius and play! And play we have, my siblings and I, and I am grateful for the urging she gave us.

But of course, as with any family, it wasn’t all just play with us. While my mother could be endearing and attentive, she could also be dismissive and self-absorbed. We do our loved ones and ourselves no good insisting on canonization or nothing at death. We each have struggled in our own ways. Part of living and loving is finding ways to give each other some slack.

As we were sitting around my mother’s bed at Brooks Howell, I remembered that hospice, which was overseeing her care, recommends that at death we find a way to say four phrases to our loved ones that we all want to hear, words of assurance and care.

So, trying to remember the phrases, I spoke them to my mother: “Thank you. I love you. I forgive you . . . .” and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the last one. I looked to the hospice nurse for help and she reminded me, “Please forgive me.”

I chuckled to myself: But of course! We are so ready to be magnanimous to our dying loved ones, assuring them of our love, our gratitude, our forgiveness, but even then it can be hard to own the role that we have played in whatever may have divided us. So, yes, I leaned over to my mother’s ear and said, “please forgive me.”

I can’t know what she heard. It was very near the end. But I found some peace in saying it, in acknowledging the mutuality of our love even at the brink of the mystery.

So, life as an orphan has proven to be an odd thing, as I’m sure many of you know who have experienced it. My mother has appeared in some dreams – always much younger than she was – not as someone I engage with, just a character in the scene.

Maybe her presence there will evolve. We’ll see. As Alexander Levy predicted, I see the world a little differently: less concerned about the expectations of others, more determined to be true to who I am, deeply appreciating the ones I love, and even more grateful for the life I have.

I find myself less worried about my achievements and more drawn, where I can, to be an agent of compassion and hope. With my last parent gone and the reality of my own death looming before me with unsettling clarity I have come to realize that I can’t know what the impact of all I have done will be. So, how will I use this “breath-taking energy” that Levy says I have awakened to now? My hope is that somehow I will be a gift to the world, to the embodied mass of humankind. It seems to me that if I could be a link in the chain of love that passes from one generation to the next, it will have been enough.

Sermon: Self Evident Truths (audio and text)



“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”


Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?


I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!


I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.


Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.


O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”


The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.


O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,


O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!


For about a decade, Danielle Allen paid her dues as a young history scholar putting undergraduates through their paces at the University of Chicago. Many of them were among the nation’s most elite students – brilliant, high-achieving young people, as she puts it – “rolling in from their dorm room beds with tousled hair right into class.”

But she also served another, very different population – adult students, many of them, she said, “without jobs, or working two jobs or stuck in dead-end part-time jobs,” juggling children’s schedules, daycare and the city bus service. These folks should have arrived for classes bone-tired, but instead, she said, they “pulsed with energy.”

The two groups met in the same classroom – though at different times – and read the same books, ranging from the Greek Antigone to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. In each circle, she said, “we were making worlds: naming life’s constitutive events, clarifying our principles, and testing against one another’s wits our accounts of what was happening around us.”

But, for her, Allen said, the most transformative experience she had in that class was with what she called her “life-tested night students” studying not some classic work of history or literature, but the Declaration of Independence.

Not a one of them had ever read it or had any notion that it had anything to do with them. Instead, as she put it, “It represented institutions and power, everything that solidified a world that had, as life turned out, delivered them so much grief, so much to overcome.”

The experience, she said, changed her own perspective on this celebrated document. Most people read the Declaration as a cry for freedom, for liberation – it is, after all, a call for independence. But Allen says that if you read it closely you discover something more. Underpinning that call is a new claim about the source of legitimate government centered in the notion of what Allen calls “political equality.”

What makes the Declaration important, she concluded, is not simply its historic role in the birth of this country but its enduring and deeply relevant vision of how and why democracy works. And it’s a vision that she fears we are losing.

I wonder if she’s right. Cased in glass like an artifact of ancient times, quoted in sound bite snippets taken out of context, the Declaration is honored more than it is read. That was certainly true of me until I stumbled on Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration, which got me thinking about this.

Danielle Allen speaks from a unique perspective, an African-American scholar of mixed parentage: on one side, Midwestern, progressive whites, on the other Caribbean blacks who included in their number one-time slaves and Baptist preachers. As it happens, she says, the Declaration was something that figured strongly in her family, even as the subject of debates at the dinner table. It made no difference that it was drawn up by white men of property who never intended that it extend to people like them, her family regarded the Declaration as part of their patrimony.

Allen’s night class renewed her interest in the Declaration less as a historical document than as a goad to people to engage in public life. “I wanted to bring it to life for them,” she said, “as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision makers. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

So, in this contentious time when so many of us feel that democracy is disappointing them, just ahead of our annual celebration of Independence Day, I thought it would be worth our accepting Allen’s invitation to reflect more deeply on this great argument for democratic power that is part of our patrimony, too.

Allen wants us to focus on the notion of equality that we find in the Declaration.  Asked where to locate equality in the Declaration of Independence, we’re inclined to go right to the start of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Boom! There you go.

  1. Except, Allen points out, the sentence doesn’t end there, so the thought isn’t quite complete. It goes on: “that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, the framers aren’t saying we’re all the same – clearly we’re not – but we are equal in being born with certain rights. Everybody gets them. It just comes with the package.

OK, I get it: we’re equal in all having certain rights and . . . Wait! The sentence isn’t finished yet. It goes on: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

What? Are you kidding? No, really that’s it. That full passage from the Declaration that you heard Jennifer read earlier is actually one sentence. The Declaration is not exactly beach reading. That last phrase is important, though, because it addresses a lingering concern.

Yes, we are each born wanting, needing to live, to be free and to do that which fulfills us. But we are given no guarantee that we will get all or any of that. Lots of people don’t. So, how do we convert these wishes and needs into rights? The short answer is by something else that the framers argued is also part of the make-up of every person, as natural as breathing, something Allen sums up as “politics,” or, as the Declaration says, the institution of governments.

People secure what they consider their rights, making it possible for them to live as they want to live, by means of organizing themselves. As fed up as we get sometimes at how government performs, it is essential to securing our rights. And not just any form of government will do. To be legitimate, it must be, the founders declared, “derived from the consent of the governed.”

This is all wrapped up with the earlier part, another “self-evident truth.” So, you see that great long sentence is not just laying out a few observations before it gets to the important stuff, i.e. “listen, king. We’re done with you.” It is summarizing a philosophy of government, one that they claim is grounded in nature, in the world as it is.

This is what gives them the confidence to say that if people are being ruled in a way that fails to respect those rights – as they claimed King George had – then they have the natural right to alter or overthrow that government and set up another that provides for their safety and happiness. It’s worth noting that the Declaration celebrates independence not as an end in itself but as a means to creating another form of governance that better serves the people.

Danielle Allen points out that for all the struggles the founders were enduring at the time the argument at the center of the Declaration is a remarkably sunny one: that every one of us is a competent judge of our needs and what brings us happiness, and that through conversation and negotiation that respects our mutual needs and wants we are capable of building a government that serves us all.

Pie in the sky? Maybe: 241 years later the goal is still far off, and, some would say, moving further. And certainly, not all agree with this perspective. Monarchists, despots, racists, misogynists – anyone who holds themselves as better than others, who claims the right to decide others’ destiny. Sadly, the world and our own politics is populated with a distressing number of such folks, who even while demeaning government seek to secure its power and blessings for themselves.

There are many like the adults who showed up for Allen’s night classes who see little in the Declaration that has anything to say to them, people for whom flowery talk of “equality” is just so much palaver. For these people, Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let American be America again, written in 1936, is as relevant now as it was then.

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breath.

 And then in parentheses:

(There’s never been equality for me.

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Who is speaking here? Hughes offers us litany:

The poor white, fooled and pushed apart

The Negros bearing slavery’s scars,

 The red man driven from the land,

The immigrant clutching hope.

 And many more as well.

I am the people, he says, humble, hungry, mean.

 But a Declaration of Independence? Really?

The free? Who said the free?

Not me, Surely not me. . . .

O, let America be America again

The land that never has been yet

And yet must be – the land where every man is free.

 This brings us to a key point for Danielle Allen, probably the most controversial argument in her book. We read the Declaration as making a case for freedom, and there’s no question that it does. But Allen argues that when you look closely, you find that, in her words, “equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.”

So, let’s stop a moment and reflect on that. We’ve already acknowledged that freedom to live as we want is important, one of the founders’ “inalienable rights.” Yet, the Declaration also suggests that in order to be converted from a want into a right it needs to be secured by a government in which all have equal ownership.

As Danielle Allen puts it, “Equality is the foundation of freedom because from a commitment to equality emerges the people itself – we, the people – with the power both to create a shared world in which all can flourish and to defend it from encroachers.”

And so from this we learn, or have to be reminded, that democratic power does not live in institutions; it belongs to the people. Always does, always has. But oddly we are so often ready to cede that power to others, people stronger, richer, craftier, more bellicose. And suddenly “democratic” power simply becomes another form of oppression. The question before us, then, is how we reclaim that power for ourselves and each other.

I’m persuaded by Danielle Allen that we would serve ourselves better if we would deemphasize freedom for a bit and look for ways to raise up equality, a principal at the heart of our faith, one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Commitment to equality, seeing each person as of equal value, equal worth, is a fundamental building stone to creating the Beloved Community. It is the beating heart that welcomes all, that comforts all, that holds us in mutual embrace. It is the fragile hope that called to our forebears, that calls to now, the means by which we diverse and sometimes disputatious people might some day be one.

May we be agents to help make it so.


Service: Self-Evident Truths

Sunday, June 25, 2017 10am
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

Readings:  US Declaration of Independence and “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes

For about a decade, Danielle Allen paid her dues as a young history scholar putting undergraduates through their paces at the University of Chicago. Many of them were among the nation’s most elite students – brilliant, high-achieving young people, as she puts it – “rolling in from their dorm room beds with tousled hair right into class.”

But she also served another, very different population – adult students, many of them, she said, “without jobs, or working two jobs or stuck in dead-end part-time jobs,” juggling children’s schedules, daycare and the city bus service. These folks should have arrived for classes bone-tired, but instead, she said, they “pulsed with energy.”

The two groups met in the same classroom – though at different times – and read the same books, ranging from the Greek Antigone to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. In each circle, she said, “we were making worlds: naming life’s constitutive events, clarifying our principles, and testing against one another’s wits our accounts of what was happening around us. But, for her, Allen said, the most transformative experience she had in that class was with what she called her “life-tested night students” studying not some classic work of history or literature, but the Declaration of Independence.

Not a one of them had ever read it or had any notion that it had anything to do with them. Instead, as she put it, “It represented institutions and power, everything that solidified a world that had, as life turned out, delivered them so much grief, so much to overcome.” The experience, she said, changed her own perspective on this celebrated document. Most people read the Declaration as a cry for freedom, for liberation – it is, after all, a call for independence. But Allen says that if you read it closely you discover something more. Underpinning that call is a new claim about the source of legitimate government centered in the notion of what Allen calls “political equality.” What makes the Declaration important, she concluded, is not simply its historic role in the birth of this country but its enduring and deeply relevant vision of how and why democracy works. And it’s a vision that she fears we are losing.

I wonder if she’s right. Cased in glass like an artifact of ancient times, quoted in sound bite snippets taken out of context, the Declaration is honored more than it is read. That was certainly true of me until I stumbled on Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration, which got me thinking about this.

Danielle Allen speaks from a unique perspective, an African-American scholar of mixed parentage: on one side, Midwestern, progressive whites, on the other Caribbean blacks who included in their number one-time slaves and Baptist preachers. As it happens, she says, the Declaration was something that figured strongly in her family, even as the subject of debates at the dinner table. It made no difference that it was drawn up by white men of property who never intended that it should extend to people like them, her family regarded the Declaration as part of their patrimony.

Allen’s night class renewed her interest in the Declaration less as a historical document than as a goad to people to engage in public life. “I wanted to bring it to life for them,” she said, “as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision-makers. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

So, in this contentious time when so many of us feel that democracy is disappointing them, just ahead of our annual celebration of Independence Day, I thought it would be worth our accepting Allen’s invitation to reflect more deeply on this great argument for democratic power that is part of our patrimony, too.

Allen wants us to focus on the notion of equality that we find in the Declaration.  Asked where to locate equality in the Declaration of Independence, we’re inclined to go right to the start of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Boom! There you go.

Except, Allen points out, the sentence doesn’t end there, so the thought isn’t quite complete. It goes on: “that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, the framers aren’t saying we’re all the same – clearly we’re not – but we are equal in being born with certain rights. Everybody gets them. It just comes with the package.

OK, I get it: we’re equal in all having certain rights and . . . Wait! The sentence isn’t finished yet. It goes on: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

What? Are you kidding? No, really that’s it. That full passage from the Declaration that you heard Jennifer read earlier is actually one sentence. The Declaration is not exactly beach reading. That last phrase is important, though, because it addresses a lingering concern.

Yes, we are each born wanting, needing to live, to be free and to do that which fulfills us. But we are given no guarantee that we will get all or any of that. Lots of people don’t. So, how do we convert these wishes and needs into rights? The short answer is by something else that the framers argued is also part of the make-up of every person, as natural as breathing, something Allen sums up as “politics,” or, as the Declaration says, the institution of governments.

People secure what they consider their rights, making it possible for them to live as they want to live, by means of organizing themselves. As fed up as we get sometimes at how government performs, it is essential to securing our rights. And not just any form of government will do. To be legitimate, it must be, the founders declared, “derived from the consent of the governed.”

This is all wrapped up with the earlier part, another “self-evident truth.” So, you see that great long sentence is not just laying out a few observations before it gets to the important stuff, i.e. “Listen, king. We’re done with you.” It is summarizing a philosophy of government, one that they claim is grounded in nature, in the world as it is.

This is what gives them the confidence to say that if people are being ruled in a way that fails to respect those rights – as they claimed King George had – then they have the natural right to alter or overthrow that government and set up another that provides for their safety and happiness. It’s worth noting that the Declaration celebrates independence not as an end in itself but as a means to creating another form of governance that better serves the people.

Danielle Allen points out that for all the struggles the founders were enduring at the time, the argument at the center of the Declaration is a remarkably sunny one: that every one of us is a competent judge of our needs and what brings us happiness, and that through conversation and negotiation that respects our mutual needs and wants we are capable of building a government that serves us all.

Pie in the sky? Maybe: 241 years later the goal is still far off, and, some would say, moving further. And certainly, not all agree with this perspective. Monarchists, despots, racists, misogynists – anyone who holds themselves as better than others, who claims the right to decide others’ destiny. Sadly, the world and our own politics is populated with a distressing number of such folks, who even while demeaning government seek to secure its power and blessings for themselves.

There are many like the adults who showed up for Allen’s night classes who see little in the Declaration that has anything to say to them, people for whom flowery talk of “equality” is just so much palaver. For these people, Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let American be America Again,” written in 1936, is as relevant now as it was then.

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breath.

And then in parentheses:
(There’s never been equality for me.
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Who is speaking here? Hughes offers us litany:

The poor white, fooled and pushed apart
The Negros bearing slavery’s scars,
The red man driven from the land,
The immigrant clutching hope.

And many more as well.

I am the people, he says, humble, hungry, mean.

 But a Declaration of Independence? Really?

The free? Who said the free?
Not me, Surely not me. . . .
O, let America be America again
The land that never has been yet
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.

This brings us to a key point for Danielle Allen, probably the most controversial argument in her book. We read the Declaration as making a case for freedom, and there’s no question that it does. But Allen argues that when you look closely, you find that, in her words, “equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.”

So, let’s stop a moment and reflect on that. We’ve already acknowledged that freedom to live as we want is important, one of the founders’ “inalienable rights.” Yet, the Declaration also suggests that in order to be converted from a want into a right it needs to be secured by a government in which all have equal ownership. As Danielle Allen puts it, “Equality is the foundation of freedom because from a commitment to equality emerges the people itself – we, the people – with the power both to create a shared world in which all can flourish and to defend it from encroachers.”

And so from this we learn, or have to be reminded, that democratic power does not live in institutions; it belongs to the people. Always does, always has. But oddly we are so often ready to cede that power to others, people stronger, richer, craftier, more bellicose. And suddenly “democratic” power simply becomes another form of oppression. The question before us, then, is how we reclaim that power for ourselves and each other.

I’m persuaded by Danielle Allen that we would serve ourselves better if we would deemphasize freedom for a bit and look for ways to raise up equality, a principal at the heart of our faith, one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Commitment to equality, seeing each person as of equal value, equal worth, is a fundamental building stone to creating the Beloved Community. It is the beating heart that welcomes all, that comforts all, that holds us in mutual embrace. It is the fragile hope that called to our forebears, that calls to us now, the means by which we diverse and sometimes disputatious people might some day be one.

May we be agents to help make it so.

Sermon: Flesh, Blood, Breath, Bones, and Stories (text & audio)

Flesh, Blood, Breath, Bones and Stories

“Messenger,” by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird——
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over; how it is
that we live forever.

The Gospel of John 1:1-5, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, . . . full of grace and truth.
We meet and know each other as bodies: tall, lanky, short, squat, round, lean, and average (whatever average is) bodies; bodies with tattoos and piercings, with scars or sciatica, and with acne or arthritis; stooped and aging bodies, svelte and athletic bodies, sick and dying bodies; bodies in remission and recovery; worn and weary bodies; and—a few—rested and energized bodies.
We don’t just have bodies; we are bodies—more than bodies, of course, but never less. We are bodies and spirits—not either, but both. Marcus Aurelius said too little for the body when he wrote: “You are a soul carrying around a corpse.” We’re not pearls waiting to be freed from our uncomfortable oysters or ghosts trapped in irrelevant machines or souls imprisoned in oppressive bodies.
We can’t neatly separate our bodies and spirits; they are not divisible without remainder. They are seamlessly woven together, which is why it’s difficult to do so-called “spiritual” things—like being patient, compassionate and centered—when our stomachs growl, our feet hurt, our heads throb, we haven’t slept enough, haven’t eaten well, or haven’t had our morning coffee. When we’re weary, hungry and thirsty, it’s harder to love well, to think clearly, and to feel truly.
Humans are body and spirit, brains and minds, hearts and love. We need respiration and crave inspiration. We can’t exist without the circulation of blood, and we can’t live without the connection of relationships. We are biology and biography; what people see is our skin and what we want them to know are our stories.
We’re embodied spirits. Emotional or spiritual experiences are somehow and always physical: they fire across the synapses of our brains and register somewhere in our bodies. Anxiety shallows our breathing and speeds up our hearts. Fear churns in our stomachs. Loss sends tears running down our cheeks. Wonder widens our eyes. Desire burns and twitches in our loins. Joy lightens our steps. Confidence straightens our spines. Hope lifts our heads.
The great gifts of laughter and song are magic conjured from body and spirit. We giggle, snicker, chuckle, and guffaw; and, when we do, our shoulders dance and our faces open up. Sometimes the laughter erupts from the middle of who we are—a “belly laugh,” we call it—and the delight can be so great and uncontrollable that we find ourselves down on the floor, slapping the ground. Norman Cousins called laughter “internal jogging,” and it surely is one of the healthiest things we do.
Singing blends poetry and breath, doxology and diaphragm, thanks and throat, praise and vocal chords, lament and lungs, longing and larynx. Singing embraces and involves the whole person: thinking and feeling, the brain and the body. Literary critic George Steiner considered music to be evidence for God, a sign of the divine among us. It gives voice—physical and psychic voice—to life’s deepest, highest, darkest, brightest, and holiest dimensions.
One of today’s readings is from the majestic prologue to the Gospel of John. It’s a song, a hymn, about Jesus which offers us a powerful metaphor for perceiving the extraordinary in the ordinary, the mysterious in the mundane, and the divine in the daily: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, a glory filled with grace and truth.”
Sometimes this metaphor is called “the incarnation,” which is what my grandfather called a “high-dollar word” for a startling claim. Incarnation comes from the Latin words in carne and means “in meat.” The claim is that in the meat and the muscle, the blood and the bones, of a human body, the body of Jesus of Nazareth, we may perceive the grace and truth of God.
I don’t think of the incarnation as something which happened once and exclusively in Jesus; instead, I am sure that incarnation keeps happening to everyone, everywhere, and “every-when.” Feminist theologian Wendy Farley wrote, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, “The incarnation manifests the power of the human body to bear the divine” (106).
Like all the other great teachers to whom we look for guidance and hope, Jesus lived within the limits and possibilities of a fully human—that is, an irreducibly physical—life. Mary cuddled away the night-chill by holding him in her tender embrace. When Joseph held him close to his cheek, Jesus felt the comfort of a father’s rough, soft beard. Jesus cried when he was hungry or thirsty or wet. He laughed when Mary tickled his feet and shouted with glee when Joseph tossed him in the air. He fell and skinned his knees when he was learning to walk. He hit his thumb with a hammer in Joseph’s carpenter shop, and it really hurt. When he became a teenager, he felt stabs of desire. He had headaches and stomachaches, caught colds, and sweated through the heat of fevers; and in his death, he knew excruciating, torturing pain.
One truth among many that the incarnation offers us is this: what happens to us, to our bodies, matters—matters to us and, I believe, to God.
In many ways, ethics is about how we treat bodies, our own and the bodies of others. Catholic priest and controversial activist Daniel Berrigan was exactly right when he said, at the height of the Vietnam war: “It all comes down to this: Whose flesh are you touching and why? Whose flesh are you recoiling from and why? Whose flesh are you burning and why?” (in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 45)
Food matters: Who has enough to eat and who doesn’t? Why are there food deserts in poor urban areas—places where there are more liquor stores, payday loan centers, and fast food restaurants than there are grocery stores?
The condition of the soil from which food grows matters, as do the welfare of the farmers who grow it and of the migrant workers who harvest it.
It matters that people struggle with food: some substitute it for love and can’t get enough of it, even when they’ve had far-too-much, and others obsessively control how much food they consume because they feel consumed by emotions which they cannot control.
It matters when our bodies become broken and we struggle with disease and injury, and it matters that everyone has good and affordable healthcare (By the way, we all have a preexisting condition; it is called mortality.
It matters how the homeless are sheltered and that we work for decent and affordable permanent housing.
It matters that we create jobs which don’t demean human dignity and don’t treat the bodies of laborers as disposable cogs in a sweatshop machine.
It matters how police and prison officials treat all bodies, including black and brown bodies.
It also matters, and these are signs of grace: when we relax beside a warm fire on a cold night, when strong and tender hands massage away the knotted tension of stress from our shoulders, and when a welcoming embrace assures that we belong.
It matters that we find joy in a dancer’s flowing beauty, in a painter’s luminous canvas, in the three-point shot that ties a game at the buzzer and sends it into overtime, in the perfect spiral pass to a sprinting split-end, in the powerful strokes and swiftly gliding body of a swimmer, and in the bursting speed of a runner. I often think of the well-known words of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, “God made me fast and, when I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”
Bodies matter; they are where we meet glory, feel grace, and encounter truth. And, our bodies tell stories: lines and furrows of worry in our faces, downcast gazes, slumped shoulders, springing steps, shuffling feet, clenched fists, and out-stretched arms. Journalist Dana Jennings (New York Times) wrote:
“Our scars tell stories . . . [I]n their railroad-track-like appearance, my scars remind me of the startling journeys that my body has taken — often enough to the hospital or the emergency room.
Jennings said that he’s most intrigued by childhood scars that he can’t remember how he got:
The one on my right eyebrow, for example, and a couple of ancient pockmarks and starbursts on my knees. I’m not shocked by them. To be honest, I wonder why there aren’t more. I had a full and active boyhood, one that raged with scabs and scrapes, mashed and bloody knees, bumps and lumps, gashes and slashes, cats’ claws and dogs’ teeth, jagged glass, ragged steel, knots, knobs and shiners. Which raises this question: How do any of us get out of childhood alive?
There are acne scars from his teenage years and surgical scars, too: to repair a blown-out knee, to remove most of his colon, and to treat prostate cancer. “. . . [M]y scars. . . are what they are, born of accident and necessity. . . . More than anything, I relish the stories they tell (“Cases: Our Scars Tell the Stories of our Lives” July 20, 2009, NY Times).
Your body is holy and a gift of the divine. Cherish it and care for it. And let your scars tell their stories.
Though its wounds are mostly invisible, for the last three years, I’ve been dealing with Multiple Myeloma, a treatable but incurable cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
I’ve sustained many losses. I’ve had to surrender my illusions of independence and to relinquish a vocation which had been central to my identity for more than three decades.
I’ve experienced “chemo-brain” which caused me to be occasionally disoriented and confused, to have difficulty remembering the names of people whom I know well, and to put dirty socks in the recycle bin instead of the clothes hamper. From time to time, I’ve dealt with searing pain, endured fearfully sleepless nights, had a severely compromised immune system, and, twice, have come to the edge of death.
I’ve never been good at accepting limits, but now it has become necessary for me to learn. There are things I’ve always done which I can no longer reliably do. I know what it means to feel that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In ways I have not experienced since I was a child, I have had to learn to accept help—and not just to accept it, but to ask for it.
Until lately, I’ve known next to nothing about how to care for myself—or to let myself be cared for—when my strength wanes. I haven’t known much about compassion for my own weaknesses. When I say, “I can’t,” I feel embarrassed and ashamed.
Illness is revising the story my life tells; it is teaching me what I’ve been clever enough, resourceful enough, and prideful enough to ignore before now: I am not God. I’m not even an exceptional human being, since there are no exceptions to, or exemptions from, limitation, including the final limit of death.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that
Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning (An Altar in the World, 38)

Our bodies are always giving birth; my body’s story has conceived and delivered unexpected wonder. Wonder shares a common root with wound. A wound is an opening in the body: to be wounded is to be cut, pierced, or torn open. Wonder is an opening in perception: something cuts away our customary assumptions, pierces our illusions, and tears open our minds and hearts.
To call something wonderful—full of wonder—is to say that it has opened us in ways we’ve not been open before and given us the opportunity to be filled with unexpected awareness and unimagined grace. This is, as Mary Oliver said, gratitude,

to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy

Sermon: What is Required ll (audio and text)


IT is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.

There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.

My sister! (‘tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done, 10
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.

Edward will come with you;–and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.

No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar:
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year. 20

Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
–It is the hour of feeling.

One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.

Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey: 30
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.

And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.

Then come, my Sister! come, I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.


Oh, I will be the gladdest thing under the sun! Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem (text of the choir’s anthem) captures that moment of rising joy when we feel so deeply connected to the world around us, to the very pulse of life moving within us.
It’s a moment when we are not observers to the beauty before us: we are of it. We can touch a hundred flowers and have no need to pick a one, for they are, as it were, extensions of ourselves – the cliffs, the clouds, the wind, the grass, all of it. In that moment, we are unutterably home.
We hear it there in Wordsworth’s poem, too. His evoking of a fine day in March, in his words, “each minute sweeter than before.” The birds, the fields, the mountains all contribute to what he calls “a blessing in the air.”

And then he carries it to another level, writing,

“and from the blessed power that rolls
about, below, above,
we’ll frame the measure of our souls:
they shall be turned to love.”
Love, he says earlier, “now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
It is the hour of feeling.”

It is the kind of passage that has gotten poets like Wordsworth dismissed as romantics who are distracted with idylls in a world beset with serious problems. But Wordsworth anticipates his critics: “one moment now,” he says, “may give us more than years of toiling reason; our minds shall drink at every pore the spirit of the season.”
Instead of distraction, he says, the blessing we get from the blithe air offers the very sustenance we most need: not just pleasure in the day but a spur to a morally centered and spiritually fulfilling life.
What does the Unitarian heritage of our tradition call us to do and to be? What does it say is required of us if we would live well, if we would live rightly, if we would live wholeheartedly and at peace?
I want to take this Easter Sunday to explore these questions, completing a conversation that I began last fall, asking the same question from the perspective of our Universalist heritage: In this tumultuous time, how do these rich heritages speak to us now?
What I want to avoid in this conversation is archaic theological debates, many of them so hot as to be subjects of front-page stories in New England newspapers 200 years ago, that now count as little more than historical curiosities. Rather, it seems to me the place to go is to explore some of what those who guided our movement were struggling with and how it speaks to us now.
So, I start with one of the most fascinating of our Unitarian forebears: William Ellery Channing. Slight and sickly as a boy, he was raised from early in his life with an eye to ministry. But Channing had an experience early in his life that turned him against the harsh Calvinism of his family. He told of traveling with his father to hear a fiery sermon on how all people were cursed by their sins to an eternity in hell. Leaving the hall, his father pronounced the words, “Sound doctrine.”
Hearing that, Channing expected that soon they would fall to their and beg repentance. Instead, on the way home his father whistled a happy tune and, when they’d arrived, had their usual family dinner, after which his father repaired to the living room where he propped up his feet and picked up the evening newspaper. It was plain to him, Channing said, that however his father praised the preacher’s doctrine, he didn’t believe it. It was for him the first of many reminders always to test with his mind and heart what the preacher proclaimed.
It was to be a hallmark of Channing later as a leading Unitarian preacher, when he argued for applying reason to religious inquiry and for centering the work of religion in cultivating what he called “character.” And it’s here that Wordsworth enters the picture.
Channing was devoted to Wordsworth’s poetry and made it one of the chief goals of a sabbatical visit to Britain early in his ministry to visit the poet. The two are said to have enjoyed each other’s company wandering along Lake Windermere, but even more they discovered that they shared a similar perspective on the source of religious awakening. At the heart of it was the conviction that the natural world, rather than depraved as the preachers said, was a premier source of insight into the nature of the good. Channing was especially taken with Wordsworth’s poem that we heard, “To My Sister,” often reading it out loud to friends, for it sums up that perspective so nicely. The wondrous beauty of the world, Wordsworth says, turns us from our contemplation of our narrow selves to an expansive sense of love – love within and love beyond – connecting us with all people and all things.
Channing envisioned this inner sense of love as bit of divinity within each of us, a spark of truth and goodness that it is our work to cultivate. Less effusive than Wordsworth, he called it our “disinterested benevolence,” something similar to what Martin Luther King Jr later called “agape.”

That is why freedom and independence of mind are so crucial in religious life, he felt. We need room to act on that sense of benevolence, to attune our lives to its call. Channing felt that we exert our true nature, what he called “our majestic sway,” when we act on behalf of this sense of benevolence. So, he said, our work is to learn the disciplines of “Self-Culture” that help us do that. And from his perspective, the “self” we should culture was not the seat of our pedestrian wants and needs but this deeper self where we were to find our true guide.
It was a philosophy that influenced many reform movements of the early 19th Century that were led by Unitarians, including universal public education, temperance laws, ministry to the poor and ultimately support for the abolition of slavery.
It is also a big part of what informs a fundamental optimism that has characterized our movement from its earliest days, a faith and trust in people to find their way and meet their needs with their own gifts.
With Wordsworth, he felt that following this call, “may give us more than years of toiling reason,” as long as it fuels a sense of duty that causes us act.
So, what does our Unitarian tradition call us to be and do? Well, a strong thread that stretches to our beginnings as a movement urges us to treasure the beauty and wonder of the world, to find what is holy in it and in us and each other, to see ourselves as empowered to act for our own, our fellows’ and the world’s benefit, for freedom and equality.
It is an inspiring ethic that in time has helped accomplish much good. But we also have to acknowledge that this approach also can lead us to omit or at least downplay another kind of experience. You might call it the Easter experience: coping with failure, pain, loss, defeat, death.
It’s something that I can tell you I experienced in a small way the past couple of nights as I’ve been tossing in bed, popping Ibuprofens and attempting exercises, neither of which seem to be making much impact on pain shooting down my leg.
Beside the pain itself I wrestled with a sense of disappointment with myself and my body, a sense of isolation that has kept me out of family plans when our youngest daughter is visiting from out of town, and embarrassment at the prospect of standing before you on Easter Sunday before I leave on sabbatical clutching a cane. It’s not what I want, and, I have to admit, it put me in a pretty sour mood.
Here’s where I have to acknowledge that these are the kinds of things that historically Unitarians haven’t always given a lot of attention to. In this beautiful world, we empowered, cultured, actualized folks sometimes run out of options, bad things happen, and we’re running on empty. What then?
This brings to mind another of our forebears: Norbert Fabian Capek. Capek was born in the late 19th Century in Bohemia, trained to become a Baptist minister and converted to Unitarianism on a trip to the U.S. In the 1920s he returned to Eastern Europe, where he settled in Prague and started a Unitarian church that grew quickly, eventually becoming the largest Unitarian congregation in the world with a membership of some 3,000.
Capek was one of those sunny, indefatigable people, full of energy and optimism. His preaching drew a diverse crowd to his church – former Catholics, Protestants and Jews – which was exciting but also a potential source of conflict. Capek felt he needed to create a ritual that might help bring the worshipping community together.
So, he came up with a simple idea: one Sunday he would invite each congregant to bring a flower to the service – it could be from someone’s garden or just from the roadside – and all those flowers would be gathered in a common bouquet, each representing that person’s decision of her or his own free will to be a part of the group.
The bouquet of all those flowers would represent the gathered community and would be celebrated as such. Then, at the close of the service, each person present would take a flower home, symbolizing that those present accepted each other as belonging to the community and recognizing that for the community to endure, each must give and receive.
The ceremony was a hit and spread widely among Unitarian churches in Eastern Europe. But before long the rise of Nazi Germany put a chill on the Unitarians’ organizing. And shortly after Czechoslovakia was invaded, the Gestapo broke into Capek’s home, confiscated his books and arrested him and his daughter for treason.
In the end, it went for him as it did for so many in that time. He filed court appeals, and even won them, but it made no difference. Eventually the Gestapo sent him and his daughter to the Dachau concentration camp, where in October 1942 they were gassed to death.
It’s hard to imagine what a crushing moment that must have been for the Czechoslovak church, not to mention the wave of fear it must have sent through its members.
But here’s the interesting thing: throughout Capek’s imprisonment and death, the Unitarians kept meeting, and the flower ceremony remained a central touchstone for their communities, even when liberal churches were dangerous place to be seen. Later, Capek’s wife, Maya, who had escaped to the U.S., became a Unitarian minister here and spread the practice of the Flower Ceremony among U.S. congregations.
Capek had told his congregation that he felt that each person was born with an inner yearning for harmony, for connection. In the flower ceremony, with all the blooms gathered in a common bouquet there was a bold affirmation that each was fully accepted, whatever their flaws, their failures.
So, we have drawn an interesting circle of sorts here from Wordsworth’s fields of flowers to Capek’s bouquet, and the imagery speaks to a unified truth beneath them both – if we look, we can find a fundamental value, beauty, integrity in every living thing, in every one of us – sometimes ailing, sometimes well, sometimes grieving, sometimes bathed in gladness.
We know that there is a goodness within us that is capable of flowering, of realizing and expressing the beauty that is at its core, while we can also foresee a time when that flower will fade and die. And that’s OK: that is the way of things.
What the Flower Ceremony reminds us of is that those blossoms are not the end of the story, that it is not as individual blossoms that our beauty is best realized, but in a bouquet. And the bouquet carries us back to Wordsworth’s imagery in the fields around Grasmere, for our blossoms depend on soil and rain and pollinators and all of it, a grand interdependent web.
Capek was right to point to harmony – interdependence tuned in a way that all are served – as a goal that all living things seek. For it is not in individuals, but by being woven into a web that life has its best hope of enduring. It is in a sense the locus of the Easter miracle, how we awaken to the truth that our disappointments, our losses, our failures, even death itself is not the end of things.

We arise from and contribute to the proliferation of a vast fabric of life that carries us with it, even as we go. What is required of us is if we would live well, if we would live rightly, if we would live wholeheartedly and at peace is that we honor and acknowledge it.
It is a source of hope in trying times, a prompt to remind us of our larger connections and larger duty, reborn again and again when we roll away the stone of sorry and self-pity, of grief and disappointment and open our eyes to the grace of living and of life.

Sermon: Catching Fire


From Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”


         Annie Dillard offers a good reminder of what is at stake in worship, if we take what we are doing here seriously. If we take it as our task to name and shape that which is of worth, then we should be prepared to be challenged. Our purpose in gathering, after all, is not to hear a pleasant talk and edifying music. We come to wrestle with the deepest and gnarliest concerns that are pressing on our hearts and minds.

 So, I guess I should have expected when we chose the theme of Transformation for worship and small group ministry for the month of April that I would be invited into transformation myself. I offer that by way of explaining why I have decided to abandon the focus I intended for this sermon and instead turn my attention to a troubling concern that has arisen in our movement just in the past few days.

 It centers on one of the most frustrating, befuddling concerns that lie before us as Unitarian Universalists – race. And this time it’s not an incident somewhere out there, but right in our own backyard. Let me set the stage.

 It began as a concern raised about a hiring decision. Unitarian Universalist congregations across the United States are organized into five regions, each staffed with people who work with congregations when they need help or are in transition. We are part of the Southern Region, which stretches from Texas to Virginia. Some months ago, the person serving in the lead position in the Southern Region, our region, announced that he would be retiring at the end of June. So, a search was announced for his replacement.

About a week ago the UUA announced that a new regional lead had been hired for our district. He is a minister with some 16 years experience and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees. But the same day the hire was announced a group of 121 ministers and other religious professionals issued a letter saying that they were troubled by one important attribute of this person: he is white. (I was not one of the signers. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the controversy or the letter.)

Why should that be a concern? Well, the signers noted, every other regional lead is also white, as is every person who has ever held that job. Not only that, but so are 10 of the UUA’s 11 department heads. They urged that the UUA to examine its hiring practices, warning that as loudly as we Unitarian Universalists criticize white supremacy, we risk perpetuating it in its hiring practices.

As it happened, the news of this hiring also made its way to an annual conference of UU religious professionals of color called Finding Our Way Home. This group has been exploring ways of supporting ethnic minority UU professionals. There, one of the attendees, a woman who is Chicana Latina and is also a member of the UUA Board, announced that she was a finalist for the regional lead job, but had been told that she was not hired because she was not “the right fit for the team.”

An organizing collective calling itself Black Lives of UU also urged examination of the UUA’s hiring practices. It noted that at the Finding Our Way conference, when UUA President Peter Morales was asked why so many high-level positions were white replied that the UUA needs more qualified minority candidates “in the pipeline.”

What exactly counts as “the right fit,” they asked, and why is it that so often that those deemed “qualified” for higher levels positions are so often white, male, heterosexual clergy? Soon the controversy began to spread across social media. All three candidates for UUA president issued statements calling the controversy “a crisis.”

Morales responded with a letter acknowledging that, as he put it, “we are not where we ought to be in the diversity of staff” but also arguing that the complaints failed to note how much progress had been made in improving the diversity of UUA staff. He also argued that the controversy was a distraction from, in his words, “the larger issue,” which is the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our congregations.

Morales said he was disturbed to see UUA staff treated as, in his words, “the other.” He accepted that staff should be held accountable, but, in his words, “I wish I were seeing more humility and less self-righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria.” He added in an interview that he was bothered that critics described the UUA as a “white supremacist organization.” “If you call us that,” he said, “what do you call the Aryan nation?”

Among the flood of replies on social media were letters from two groups of clergy, one white and the other those of color. The white group repeated their concern with the hiring process and criticizing Morales for seeking to discredit and shame his critics with words like “hysterical” and “self-righteous” while seeking to deflect and diminish their critique.

The ministers of color, who included senior ministers and a former UUA president, said the controversy points to pervasive patterns of behavior at the UUA that, in their words, “favor those who look and act like the majority white culture within Unitarian Universalism while creating disadvantages for those who do not.” This pattern, they said, particularly affects high level positions and is “endemic and fundamentally systemic. It is also heart-breaking.”

The next day, this past Friday, Morales submitted his resignation as UUA President effective the next day, Saturday. He apologized for responding to the criticism in a way that made a bad situation worse, saying, “It is clear to me that I am not the right person to lead our Association as we work together to create the processes and structures that will address our shortcomings and build the diverse staff we all want.”

To place this event in context, this is the first time in the 56 years that the UUA has existed that its president has resigned. That alone could argue for my breaking in and making it a subject of worship. But what makes it worthy of a service centered on transformation is the tough knot at the center of it: white supremacy.

It’s a disease that sits at the center of American society, and, we might as well confess it here, remains deeply entrenched in our faith tradition. And, yes, heart-breaking is the word for it. How can it be after all this time, after all the proud social justice work we’ve accomplished we are still caught up in this? The fact is we are.

And it’s something that at some level I think we all know. We’re quick to deny it when the charge is made because we’re ashamed to acknowledge it. I hear that shame in Peter’s Morales dismissal of the charge that it applies to us. The Aryan Nation, maybe, but us? Well, white supremacy isn’t just Klan sheets and burning crosses. It’s all the ways that white people like me and many of us seek to control the narrative and retain the privileges that keep whites in charge.

Confronted we’ll dismiss, deny and change the subject, or we’ll just pick up our marbles and go home. It’s easy. We have the power and privilege to decide whether to play. We’re the ones in charge. As much as I sympathize with the heart-break that Peter feels, I wish he’d had the courage to stay in the game through just the last three months of his term to help us work through this and prepare for where we go next.

I was talking last week in preparation for the sermon I thought I would give today with our member Eleanor Lane. I was interested to know a little bit about the experience of transformation that she had with UUCA members Susan Steffe and Beth Weegar in the “Mother Read” program they were participating in at Hillcrest Apartments.

You heard them tell their stories last year about the challenge of that work, how hard it was at first to be accepted. The women they worked with were suspicious at first of their motives. It would have been easy to walk away. But they stuck it out and showed up until they were not just accepted but treated as friends. Success story. Yay!

But here’s the thing, Eleanor told me: even after they made the connections, the work continued: mistaken assumptions, cultural misunderstandings, on and on.

But still Eleanor, Susan and Beth have kept at it, and what’s made it possible, in fact not just possible but joyful is the relationships they’ve made. These are not just connections of convenience: these are people, mothers and their families, who they care about. And it’s changed our members’ lives. Now, the experience is giving them the confidence to do more, to bring in other groups to help and try different projects. In all of it, Eleanor said, “the relationship is primary.”

This is the work that our association of congregations is just beginning: the building of significant relationships of trust with people of color. The Black Lives of UU organization I mentioned earlier is structured to provide networking and connections for people of color who are drawn to our faith tradition. A program track at our General Assembly will support their work.

Meanwhile, organizational leadership at the UUA is moving forward. My hope is that breaking open this dynamic will spur some creative thinking, remembering, as UUA presidential candidate Jean Pupke put it in a video she posted online, “The systems of white supremacy and oppression are persistent.” It will take time to sort out all the threads and learn how to listen with open hearts when concerns are raised.

And let us not miss the chance to appraise our own performance as individuals and as a congregation. In the last year here, we at UUCA have tightened our own hiring policies to require that racial and ethnic diversity be a consideration in every hiring decision we make. And we are continually reviewing how we invite and welcome a broad diversity of people into this congregation. I welcome your thoughts on how to improve what we do.

But I think that more than anything what persuaded me to bring this topic before you today was reflecting on my own response to this controversy. I need to acknowledge that my first response was not exactly sympathetic. When I got the first inklings on social media, the response I felt in my gut was that it was a lot of to-do about something of little consequence. Oh, sure, it looks bad, but how bad is it?

The more I listened, though, I shifted. Sure, this hiring decision wasn’t an egregious abuse. I don’t know the person chosen for the Southern Region lead, but he seems a decent sort and probably would perform well in the position. But can we really be so blind to the outrageous history of oppression in this country, a history that we as a movement despair of and pledge to change, not to at least consider for a moment the ways in which we are complicit in it?

Perhaps circumstances are such that for this particular position there are no minority candidates who possess the requisite skills, and once again we white people must tell people of color, “You’re close, but just not quite there yet,” though I doubt it and my colleagues of color say it is not so.

But the outsize response of Peter Morales to the critique he received turned the tide for me. For in it – in the fear, the outrage, the dismissal – I saw the trademark tenacity of white supremacy hard at work: ironic in this case in a man of Latino heritage. And I saw my own complicity as well.

For all the anti-racism trainings I’ve taken, for all the ways I’ve sought to reach out to people of color, for all the ways I am trying to organize my life to be anti-racist, I didn’t see it – at least not at first. I had to await my own little moment of transformation, that “Oh . . . right!” moment, you know?

 The song the choir sang earlier, “Down to the River to Pray,” is not exactly resonant with our tradition. It imagines a baptism that doesn’t fit our theology at all, but the spirit it conveys speaks to what I believe is a universal need: to find a way when we fall short to confess our own fallibility, vulnerability, and transgression.

I am taken with the way Les positioned the choir to sing it: first members standing individually facing forward, then facing each other and turning to face us all. Let’s be honest, the prospect of confession doesn’t thrill any of us, but if we support each other in the work it makes it a little easier. We must first come to terms with the truth that we haven’t measured up. Then, we turn to those in our acquaintance who we feel can hear our confession without judgment. Having been assured, we are then ready to confess it to the world.

Friends, let me acknowledge to you that I have fallen short in this work, fallen short of my own expectations, fallen short of what you might rightly expect of me. But I am open to being changed. I am open to learning, and to recognizing that this learning does not happen once. It is something that I will be repeating, that I will be working at as long as I go on.

Like the king in our story I can pay attention. I can learn to be available to the present moment, to the fellows who are with me and to act for the good.

I am grateful to have your companionship in this work in this community of memory and hope, where we hold each other accountable while we hold each other in love. We have a lot to do, and we can only do it if we can create the space to tell the truth, to hear the truth and accept each other when we have missed the mark. Let us be about it.



Sermon: Recovering We (audio and text)


From Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer
“If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we – you and I – became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.”

From “A Model of Christian charity” by John Winthrop
“We must be knit together in this work as one . . . . We must entertain each other in . . . affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”


I’ve been struggling to name what is eating at me these days, what is gnawing in the pit of my stomach, disturbing my sleep, lying beneath my perplexity and confusion, beneath occasional fits of anger and bouts of depression that leave me feeling frustrated, isolated, alone.
It’s not just the political turmoil we’re living with. It feels like something deeper, something I am missing, even mourning, yet without being able to put a finger on it. It has been painful enough that, to be honest, I usually pushed it out of my consciousness. But in those moments when I felt my spirits lift and open a bit, I cast about, wondering, and in time I settled on what seems to be the absence of one small word in our lives these days: We.
We, the first person plural pronoun: simple word, right? But such a powerful one, too. In a world where first person singular I goes about distinguishing, separating, first person plural We wraps us up in a blanket, tosses a lasso around us, bunches us together heedlessly, like it or not.

But these days when it seems so many are working overtime to claim distinction, privilege, prerogative, superiority of some, inferiority of others, the voice of We is being pushed aside, lost in the cacophony. Or, what is worse, it is being conscripted in the fight as a tool to make invidious comparisons among peoples, with certain We’s held to be superior in all kinds of imagined ways to other ones. Such madness!
And here, I believe, is why: It is a fundamental truth that every I, no matter what its qualities, has a basic integrity to it. It is itself and that is enough. Similarly, every We is grounded in an ultimate We that encompasses its kind and all kinds. I and We are, in a sense, two peas in a pod, two ways of looking at the world, neither superior to the other – I am myself and I am part of something larger to which I am intimately connected. It is this perspective that I feel is increasingly absent from our lives together and that we are badly in need of recovering.
Earlier you heard the words of John Winthrop, now nearly five centuries old, that helped set the stage for how the early Puritan colonies would gather in those first New England colonies. There are many ways in which Winthrop’s vision was flawed: he laid out a heavily patriarchal government by wealthy landowners dominating subservient poor.
And yet, underlying it all is a powerful We. All members, of both high and low station, must resolve to be, in his words, “knit together . . . in affection.” They must be willing to share – “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities” – and treat each other with “meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.” And, he says:
“We must delight in each other,
make others’ conditions our own,
rejoice together,
mourn together,
labor, and suffer together”
always having before us a vision of being
“members of the same body.”
It is language that is both archaic and breathtakingly relevant. When was the last time you were present with someone outside your family who you considered you might “delight in,” whose conditions you made your own, people with whom you rejoiced, mourned, labored and suffered? Winthrop is not arguing for some exclusive community sheltered from the world. Instead, he proposes, a model for the world, a “city on a hill” that accepts the judgment of all people, of the most high on how faithfully it lives its mission.
Now, we know from history that the reality of Puritan life rarely reflected such ideals, but their presence and prominence in the community served as a reminder of its larger goals, of the mission to which it saw itself called. These ideals also underlay an ethos that pervaded our emerging nation, even with its disparities and inequalities.
Yes, the founders of our nation were elitist in many ways, and yet the frame they offered for the nation was one whose authority was grounded in, as they named it, “We, the people”: a broad and glorious We that recognized no distinctions.
Even though, yes, many distinctions were made, are made in how our nation allocates its resources, the principle that We the people – that means everyone – have a claim on them echoes in the halls of government even in the turmoil of today.
Yet, as Parker Palmer reminds us, those words have come to ring hollow, like a tired slogan, leaving us in danger of coming to a place where, he says, “we – you and I – become so fearful of one another, of our differences and of the future that we unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.”
What I find most helpful about Palmer’s perspective is how he diagnoses the cause of the disruption that we’ve experienced and how we might go about repairing it. Where he suggests we begin this inquiry is in the heart, and it’s important to distinguish how he uses that word. Let go, he says, of the idea of the heart being the seat of our feelings, and instead imagine it as the place where, in his words, “we learn to think the world together” and find the courage to act.
Think of it as the center of our integrity, where we pull together our images of self and the world and make some sense of who we are and how we fit. Sad to say, given the state of the world, it’s a place that experiences some significant disruptions that come in the form of such things as loss, failure, defeat, betrayal and death. When those things happen, we experience something that we call “heartbreak.”
This is something worth attending to, Parker Palmer says, because, in his words, “nothing that happens in the human heart has more power, for better or worse, than heartbreak.” We can see how this could be. If we take what we call our heart to be the center of our integrity, then any injury done to it affects us deeply. Something in us is shattered. There’s no avoiding it: It happens to all of us. What is left is for us to decide how to respond.
Some come to dwell on an injury as something that disfigures them irreparably – “Look at this wound! Poor me!” This pity-seeking, though, takes us only so far. We can get stuck in it and so become unavailable to ourselves and others or unable to appreciate their suffering as on a par with our own, breeding in us anger, resentment and isolation.
Others seek to shrug off the impact of any injury. And, yeah, I’m pretty much talking about men here. We’re socialized to take the blows and keep on fighting. “Didn’t touch me,” right? Now, it’s true that in the midst of a fight we do need to keep our wits about us and not get distracted by the blows we receive. But really, guys, there is little in our lives that needs to be elevated to a fight. And what’s worse, the fight culture, militarism, does terrible damage over time to our lives, our relationships, our community.

Another possibility, Parker Palmer says, is that we consider that when we experience loss of some kind we find that our hearts are not broken apart but broken open. That can be hard to hear. It almost seems to diminish what we feel – “Can’t you see I’m in pain? How can this be anything but a total shattering!”
OK, I get that. But look at you. You’re still here, the same loveable, awesome you, and you’ve learned a few things. You’ve learned perhaps that you imbued a relationship with more faith than it deserved, or the sad truth that everyone we love we will lose eventually. That’s hard stuff, and the pain you feel is real, and important. I’m so sorry.
And once we sit with that for a while, breathe a bit, we do notice that despite our pain one day still follows another. We are able to go on, not forgetting our injury, but finding a context for it, adjusting our lives to accommodate it.
That experience, Parker says, teaches us the practice of learning “to hold our own and the world’s pain.” We come to recognize suffering in others, which in turn opens us to greater compassion and deeper empathy.
This is, in essence, the central We of our lives. Suffering, as the Buddhists say, is universal, but it is also the source of some of our deepest bonds. When we are lonely, weary, and fed up, We offers the counsel we need: none of us is bullet-proof, but all of us are fundamentally redeemable and whole.
It’s the message that I know I need to hear these days as I struggle with my own broken-heartedness, my feelings that all the ways that it seemed that we in this country were bridging divides, letting go of ancient hatreds, affirming our intimate link to the Earth are crumbling around me. And I’ve had enough experience of heartbreak to recognize it in the world around me, including those with whom I most strongly disagree. I’m compelled now to see that if I am going to make peace with this I need to find a way to extend my compassion to them, to look for the kind of We that might make room for both of us.
This is not Pollyannaish happy talk. I don’t intend to compromise my principles. But I accept that, as Parker Palmer puts it, our heart demands that we find a way to live appreciating what he calls “the tragic gap” between the world as it is and the world as we wish it to be. And that requires that we find ways to act creatively in that gap, that we each enter with a clear sense of and appreciation for our own voice and agency while working to build community that can support us and help us enact the change we seek.
Because I do believe in the power, the ultimate truth, the bald fact of We. Every way that we seek to separate people into sheep and goats or raise ourselves above others only diminishes us all. Because we are each other’s back scratchers, knit together as one.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia in this conflictual time that led me recently to click on a file I’d stored away on my computer a couple of months ago: Barak Obama’s farewell address. We can debate the pluses and minuses of his eight-year presidency, but perhaps the greatest gift that he has given us in his public life is the affirmation of We.
In the speech, he told of how he learned from his earliest days as a community organizer that, in his words, “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” We may believe that the rights proclaimed by the founders are self-evident, he said, but they “have never been self-executing. We the People, through the instrument of our democracy, (are charged to) form a more perfect union,” given “the imperative to strive together to achieve a common, a greater good.”
There is much in our laws that much change if we are to live into that charge, he said, “but laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.” Each of us has her or his blind spots, those sensitive wounds where our hearts don’t feel quite ready to go. Still, he said, “we have to pay attention and listen.”
I hear in those words the echo of John Winthrop – whatever you may think of your neighbor, I charge you to delight in her and in him. See them as the precious beings they are, and you are as well. Know that we can only succeed in this perilous adventure of life together, no less fraught today than it was in 1630, if we will make other’s conditions our own, if we will share our hearts – mourn together, rejoice together, suffer together as members of the same body.
Obama closed his speech with his signature line dating from his earliest campaign speeches, the one he borrowed from the United Farm Workers, “Si, se puede”: “Yes, we can.” But I read it a little differently than I had in the past. This time I focused on the second word.
Yes, We can. As endangered as it feels, We holds our strength and our hope as a people, as a species. It remains an undeniable fact that as crazy as we make each other, with all the wrong of which, sadly, we are capable, the first person plural binds us up, one with the other. Our challenge is to live into that truth.

Sermon: On Kindness


ON KINDNESS by Naomi Shihab Nye      

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


Not many poems have a story behind them, but the one by Naomi Shihab Nye that you just heard does. In an interview with the radio host Krista Tippet, Nye recalled that the poem came to her years ago as the result of an incident in Colombia while she and her husband were on their honeymoon.

            The two had planned to take three months to travel across South America, when at the end of their first week they were on a bus at the beginning of their journey and they were robbed of everything they had. Someone else who was on the bus with them, but who they didn’t know, was killed. He’s the Indian in the poem.

            It was, as you can imagine, a terribly traumatizing event. The two, being young adults just starting to make their way in the world in a foreign country where they knew no one, were stunned, not knowing where to turn. As Nye puts it, “we didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything.” What should they do? Where should they go? Who should they talk to?

            As Nye tells it they were just standing along the side of a road, when a man approached them. “I guess he could see the disarray in our faces,” she said. “He was simply kind and just looked at us. ‘What happened to you?’” he asked in Spanish. And they recounted their story.

            “He looked so sad,” Nye recalled. And after listening for a while he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened.” And then he went on his way.

            After a few minutes, Nye and her husband came up with a plan: he would hitch-hike back to a larger city and see if they could get their traveler’s checks reinstated – remember travel’s checks? Nye would stay somewhere and await his return.

            So, off her husband headed, and Nye, feeling in a bit of a panic, sat down in a plaza, where, as she tells it, this poem came to her: “before you know what kindness really is you must lose things . . . .”

            Does this resonate with you? Who of us hasn’t had the experience where the simple gesture of a stranger made a difference in our lives?

            It’s a story that echoes much of what we hear in the Good Samaritan story from the Gospel of Luke that James read earlier. It’s interesting, though, to reflect on some of the ways that Nye’s experience differs from the Lukan story.

             For example, we have in Nye’s story no parade of functionaries of high station passing by, though it’s a good bet that the man who stopped and talked with the couple was not the first who passed them. His stopping was certainly notable to Nye and her husband.

            But also in the Good Samaritan story Jesus takes note of all these wonderful things that the passing Samaritan did for the poor beleaguered robbery victim that he found by the side of the road: he bandaged the man’s wounds and poured oil and wine on them. Then he placed the man on his own animal, likely a donkey or some such, brought him to an inn and cared for him for a day, and then the next day went to the innkeeper and gave him money and said, “Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

            Wow! What a guy, right? I mean, talk about hospitality. I don’t think there’s a soul who doesn’t come away from that story with a sense of deep admiration. And . . . perhaps also a twinge of guilt. Because, after all, most of us have had occasion to do another person a good turn in one way or another, but there are few whose “neighborliness,” which is what this parable addresses, has been quite so bounteous. Yeah, we did well, but did we do all we could have? Do we measure up to this kind of standard?

            I was surprised to discover a narrative something like that in myself in hearing Nye’s story of her encounter with the helpful man. I even printed out a transcript of her interview with Krista Tippet to double-check: OK, he said how sorry he was, uh-huh, and then he did what? Surely he must have done something more. Maybe he led them to a café and bought them a drink? Or directed them to a government office to get a new passport? Or . . .

            No. After looking sad and saying how sorry he was, Nye says, he went on. That’s it. He left the picture. Huh!

            And here’s the other interesting side of that interchange: at that moment, the man’s simple acknowledgement, Nye said, was all that she and her husband needed. And she remembered it as a moment of kindness.

            She didn’t need him turning himself inside out to make everything right for them, because nobody could do that. It was going to take some work to set things right. But meanwhile to know that someone recognized their humanity and offered his sympathies made all the difference.

            In hearing the Good Samaritan story it’s easy to get caught up in all that the Samaritan did to help the man – to be honest, I suspect that Jesus laid it on a bit thick so no one would mistake his message. But the truly revolutionary part was this brief passage: “and when he saw the man he was moved with pity.” Confronted with a stranger, a foreigner no less, the man didn’t avert his eyes or shrink from him. He listened to his heart and had pity.

            In the rest of that interview with Krista Tippet, I learned something interesting about Nye. The daughter of a Palestinian man and an American woman of German heritage, she had grown up in, of all places, Ferguson, Missouri. In the time of her childhood, Nye said, Ferguson was a sleepy little bedroom community for St. Louis, a place of big trees where kids rode their bikes all over the place and everyone felt safe. To think of it now as a place, in her words, “representing injustice” in the imaginations of many Americans is shocking, she said.

            It was also a place, she wrote elsewhere, where her father, an Arab, ran for the school board and won, and she got a summer job picking berries alongside black boys. But with the school desegregation battles of the late 1960s blacks were marginalized and separated from whites.

            And in time tensions in that community led to an incident in August 2014 when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot to death an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown Jr., accused of stealing a box of cigars from a convenience store. So much of what surrounded that incident was terrible and tragic, but perhaps nothing speaks more powerfully to how Michael Brown’s humanity was dismissed than the fact that his dead body lay on the pavement of Canfield Drive for four hours before it was retrieved.

            It sounds almost like a mockery to call such an act “unkind.” But perhaps less so if we understand kindness in the context of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem and the parable of the Good Samaritan as the first and most basic act of recognizing another’s humanity.

Kindness is not fixing everything and making it right. It is looking directly into the eyes of another and seeing their worth and value as a sibling on this earth, seeing another as akin to oneself. It is, heaven help us, looking at the terribly brutalized body of another and showing respect, at the very least saying, “I am very sorry. I am very, very sorry that this happened.”

Back over this past Valentine’s Day, Debbie and I took a trip to Atlanta. We used it as a time to do the tourist kind of things, trips to museums, historical sites and the like. Among the sights we saw in the complex of museums celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was the church where King’s father and then King himself were pastors. The building has long since been converted to a museum and the congregation now worships at an immense new building across the street.

In the sanctuary, the museum was playing a recording of King speaking. On entering I sat and listened for a while, wondering if I’d recognize which sermon it was. Before long I did. It was the last sermon that Martin Luther King ever gave, the day before he was shot to death.

 It was a tempestuous night in Memphis, kind of like the crazy weather we’ve had here this week, when King delivered the sermon in April 1968. He had come to march in support of striking sanitation workers, but had planned to have his lieutenants handle the rally planned that night at a local church. Word came, though, that the crowd begged form him to come. So, he went and, off the top of his head, preached on one of the most powerful sermons of his life, based some of his favorite personal stories and Bible verses – among them that of the Good Samaritan.

In the sermon, King recalled a trip that he and his wife, Coretta, took to Israel years before, when they rented a car that took them on the road from Jerico to Jerusalem, where the Good Samaritan story is set.

 It is, he said, “a wild meandering road . . . really conducive to ambushing.” So, he could understand how the priest and the Levite in the story could have been wary of stopping to help the man beset by thieves. As they considered, King said, the first question in their minds likely was “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But, he said, “then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” It certainly could put him at risk, he said, but it was part of what he called “a dangerous unselfishness” to which the Samaritan was called.

 King offered this parable as reason to stand with the striking sanitation workers, but later he expanded his theme in the kinds of words he’d never used before, saying he was unsure how long he would live, that he’d been told of threats from, in his words, “some of our sick white brothers.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, “but it really doesn’t matter now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

How do you know if you’ve been to the mountaintop? I don’t believe that King is referring to some kind of moment of ecstasy here. Instead, I think he meant an experience of affinity with another so deep, so thorough that it washes over you and makes you forget your own mean ego.

It is a moment something like what Naomi Shihbab Nye describes when she says you must look upon others who are suffering and know it could be you.

And so, she says, “before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you can see the size of the cloth. Then, it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”

I often think that what keeps us from the acts of kindness to which our hearts call us is not just the risk they can entail but also a fear of embracing the sorrow that is woven with them. In extending kindness to another we make ourselves vulnerable to sorrow and loss and disappointment.

It can be scary, it’s true, but that’s part of what communities like ours exist to do, to encourage each other to take a risk, to experience “a dangerous unselfishness,” and see that, as King put it, our fears, our misgivings really don’t matter because we’ve had a glimpse of living where our hearts are undivided from our deeds, and it is good. It may not be life eternal, as the Biblical parable promises, but it surely is the experience of life abundant: life fulfilling and undivided, centered in courage and compassion.

Still, though, we demur: that’s fine for others, but not me. I’m not up to that. And yet, reflect: if taking a few minutes to walk down the street and write a few words in chalk on a sidewalk can do this, what more are we capable of achieving? How else might we reach out so as to give others hope and assurance?

Behind that fearful demeanor that we adopt is a rich abundance of wisdom, hope, compassion that are ready to be mined. And kindness, I want to argue, is the shovel or maybe sometimes the jack hammer that we need to open it up. And it is worth it. It is worth taking the chance of encountering sorrow and pain because with even the smallest gesture of compassion sometimes we can make a difference in the lives of others and our own, that we may be filled with loving kindness and be peaceful, whole, and at ease.


Sermon: Living With Integrity on a ‘Post-Truth’ Time


From “1984” by George Orwell

“Doublethink lies at the very heart of (the state), since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”

If Love Be There         by Robert T. Weston

This day,

Setting aside all that divides me from others;

This day,

Remembering that the world is beautiful

To him or her who is willing that it be so

And that into the open, eager heart

The beauty enters in

If love be there;

This day

I will make a part of the song of life

There may be grief, but if there be love it will be overcome.

There may be pain, but it can be borne with dignity and courage;

There may be difficulty, but it can be turned to strength.

Remembering that the word is beautiful

If I will let it be so for others who I meet,

This day

I will make a part of the song of life.


         All this talk these days of “alternative facts” carries me back to a previous life when for 25 years I worked for daily newspapers. The press, I can assure you, was no more popular among political leaders than it is now. The difference was that back then when you caught some politician in a lie it generally elicited some measure of shame along with the predictable ranting and raving. And I must admit that it’s true: for many reporters there was nothing sweeter than a front-page story of yours catching a politician literally or metaphorically with his or her pants down.

               But of course the standard went both ways. There was no wiggle room on even the smallest details of your writing. Every reporter can recount interchanges with tyrannical editors who insisted on checking and double-checking every detail of a story. The poet David Tucker, a former city editor in Newark, New Jersey, sums it up in his poem, “City Editor Looking for News,” which begins:

What did Nick the Crumb say before he died?

What noise did his fist make when he begged Little Pete not to whack him with a power saw?

 Did it go thub like a biscuit against a wall or sklack like a seashell cracking open?

 Did he say his mother’s name?

Has anybody even talked to his friggin’ mother?

 Is she broke or sick or abandoned?

 Is she dying of a broken heart?

Do I have to think of these things all by myself?”

You get the picture. The gold standard in the business was the City News Bureau of Chicago, a cooperative news service that served all of Chicago’s dailies. Its motto was: “Your mother says she loves you? Check it out!”

But the City News Bureau closed in 1999 and with it went much reporting at that kind of granular level of detail. There remain a few newspapers with high standards. (Full disclosure, I am a daily subscriber to the New York time, and I consider it one of them.) But on balance many newspapers, with ad revenue tanking, couldn’t staff it, and much that has replaced it and them is an echo chamber of blogs, partisan politicking, and entertainment chatter.

Our new president is one of the most successful purveyors of that medium. From early in his career as a real estate developer he was charmed by the celebrity culture and insinuated himself into it.

In that culture, he learned that facts can be convenient things to use when they are to your advantage, but also convenient to ignore, deny, or repackage when they don’t. And, as far as he was concerned, exaggeration hurt nobody: biggest, best, greatest, whatever. Who was going to disprove you, or for that matter take the time to? Meanwhile, the dollars rolled in. Tony Schwartz, the co-author of his best-seller, “The Art of the Deal,” recalls Donald Trump coining the notion of “truthful hyperbole,” to describe his approach, calling it “an innocent form of exaggeration” and “a very effective form of promotion.”

So, is it any wonder that Susan Glasser, a former editor of “Politico,” reports that when she assigned a team of reporters to listen to every single word from Trump’s mouth during last year’s primary season, in her words, “he offered a lie, half-truth, or outright exaggeration approximately once every five minutes for an entire week.” By the general election season, she said, “Trump had progressed to fibs of various magnitudes just about once every three minutes.”

Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that days after the November election, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that it had chosen “post-truth” as the word of the year, offering as a definition:  “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Of course, lying in politics is nothing new, and rightful accusations can be made on both sides of the aisle. Yet, from my vantage we are experiencing something new in Mr. Trump’s practices. The fact is that there is something qualitatively different between bloviating about the Miss Universe contest and misrepresenting the influence of Russia hackers on the US election. Once elevated to the level of national policy lying becomes something more like propaganda.

 It can seem extreme to compare the Trump administration’s practices to those of dictators across history and around the world, even to those that George Orwell describes in “1984.” And yet, the echoes here are eerie.

Orwell invented the notion of what he called “doublethink” to describe the practice of knowingly deceiving others while maintaining a pose of “complete honesty,” denying reality while also secretly taking account of the reality that you’re denying. His protagonist, Winston Smith, worked in the Ministry of Truth (the state’s propaganda office), where he recomposed the record of history, creating, you might say, “alternative facts,” to fit the regime’s ideology.

OK, I really don’t want to carry this too far, but it is at least worth taking a moment for us to affirm that real facts matter. You know: truth, veracity, the real deal, the whole story. And that lying, falsifying, misrepresenting, dissembling is bad for us, a poison, really, that eats away at everything we care about.

There’s a reason why we as a religious people covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It’s because we believe that our spiritual wholeness depends on confronting the real facts of our lives and the world we live in. We believe we can live free, awakened, and aware; we can be loving, compassionate, and kind; we can live into who we are and use our gifts to help save the world only in the presence of the truth. And from that truth we derive meaning.

 This brings me back to the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of “post truth.” The term describes circumstances where appeals are made, not to facts, but “to emotion and personal belief.” For an ex-journalist like me, the most puzzling thing about Trump’s dissembling is that it doesn’t seem to matter to many people. And that makes me scratch my head: how could that be? How can it not matter that the president isn’t telling the truth?

What appears to be going on becomes clearer on listening to Trump’s speeches, which are offered not as arguments based on facts but as sales pitches centered on emotion. What he likes is “great, the best” and what he doesn’t is “bad, nasty, the worst.” He offers no evidence for those judgments because there is no apparent thought behind them. They are merely impulsive eruptions. All that he offers in support of them is his brand: “I’ve made lots of money, I own golf resorts, office towers and gaudy hotels – Believe me!”

It’s not the first time anyone has made such a pitch, but at a time when our culture measures success by the accumulation of goods it has powerful effect. “This guy’s hauling it in. He must know what he’s talking about.” Right? There’s no question he’s an accomplished salesman, but in just the first month or so of his administration the growing list of his blunders and misadventures make clear how troublesome that judgment can be. Governing, it turns out, is a radically different business than real estate development.

 So, here we are at this precarious time. How are we to respond in a way that is centered in integrity, in a way of living that is grounded in what is true and what is right? Several years ago I heard a presentation at a minister’s conference that stuck with me. The speaker argued that over the last century different memes embodying cultural ideas or practices have tended to prevail at the time.

For example, she said, in the 1960s the predominant mode of thinking centered on the notion of rights – who had them and how they would be protected. It was a powerful driver of all kinds of things, she said, but in time its importance faded to be replaced in the 1980s by a different idea, the rising notion that people shouldn’t look to others to make their way in the world, that we are responsible for our own destiny. She identified this with an acronym she gave as “Y-O-Y-O, YOYO” or “you’re on your own.”

She argued, however, that in this new century that old notion is beginning to fade and a new meme is rising that acknowledges more directly our interdependence on each other. It’s the recognition that while we are responsible for our individual lives, we can’t get by on our own. She described this with the acronym, “W-I-T-T, WITT” or “we’re in this together.”

I think that Donald Trump notwithstanding, WITT is the acronym of our age. It embodies the recognition that we are fundamentally bound to each other and the Earth across races, ethnicities, gender identities, economic status and nationality. Every person matters.

Our work, then, involves building ties to know each other better and exploring how to empower all people to live with purpose and meaning. It means widening our circles of concern to embrace all people, including those who today are marginalized. It is a powerful center of meaning grounded in the truth of the unity of humankind.

But it is challenging, too. It requires adapting ourselves to difference, stepping outside the echo chambers of the narrow silos of our lives. We do this through the choices we make in how we conduct our lives, about how we spend our time, who we associate with. Giving ourselves to this work is not easy, let’s be honest.

 Easy is living our quiet lives in our quiet circles. Hard is putting ourselves in places we’ve never been in the company of people different from us. It isn’t comfortable, and yet it puts us in touch with something so remarkable and compelling that it can astonish us when we first experience it. Annie Dillard describes it as the substrate that underlies everything else in our lives: “our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.” The simplest word for it is love: an elemental truth so basic, so vital that it eludes our conscious minds, as Rumi puts it, like the water that fish swim in.

But it’s not enough just to name it: it must be summoned, it must be activated if we would know it. As the writer Scott Peck put it years ago, “love is as love does.” It is an act of will. “We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Choosing to love is speaking out when we see others demeaned, reaching out to neighbors when they are threatened, listening when another is in pain.

I’m afraid it’s a long slog ahead for us, folks. What’s going on in Washington stands to disrupt all of our lives for years to come and in many ways we can’t yet fathom.

That means we must learn to pace ourselves: attend to the good that’s in our power to affect and pay attention. Read your newspapers, stay informed, and look for ways to widen your circles.

               And let us say a blessing for the complexities of this world, all the imponderables that unhorse our prejudices and preconceptions, that force us to shake our heads and look again. Our human brains evolved to locate patterns and construct scenarios that distill complicated circumstances to a few simple elements. It’s a great boon to us, but it also gets us into trouble time and again when the messy world with all of its inconvenient truths trips us up.

               And so, thankfully, it forces us amid all our hubris to admit to a little humility. Ah, humility, that not-so-gentle reminder that to be human is to be fallible, requiring us to be open to correction, to learn tolerance, forbearance, and so be open to grace.

               We are reminded, as Robert Weston put it, that there will be grief and pain in our lives and those of our fellows, but they can be endured and even overcome if love be there. And in bringing that love, we, too, might make a part of the song of life.


Sermon: Back to Work (Audio and Text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


From “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress” by Frederic Douglass

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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 the American imagination.

“Yes, the election of Obama represents a significant step, but it is not an ending. It is not even a beginning; it is one important act on a continuum of change. It is a major down payment on the fulfillment of a dream. It is 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 him on a distant plateau where we 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.”


            You know how it is over the Christmas season – there you are in some store or other, moving down your shopping list when your eyes light on something that isn’t on anybody’s list, not even yours, but you know suddenly that you need it. That’s how John Lewis’ magnificent new graphic novel trilogy, “March,” ended up in my hands at the check-out counter at Malaprops. It didn’t hurt that this copy had been signed by the author.

            Lewis is a fascinating member of the roll of Civil Rights leaders from the 50s and 60s. He was never one of the stirring orators, never drew much attention to himself.

After serving as a key player in the battles that won the most significant Civil Rights legislation, he found his niche in Congress representing Georgia’s 5th district, essentially comprising Atlanta, which he’s served for the past 30 years. In that time, though, he’s won a reputation as one of the most consistent and insistent voices for justice and healing in this nation’s struggles over race.

Each year I make a point of using this moment when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life is celebrated to invite us to reflect on the work of building racial justice to which we too are called. This year, though, I want to take a little different tack. Instead of dwelling on King’s inspiring words, I want to use this opportunity to direct us to what John Lewis has to teach us about the power of deeds.

 And the reason for that is plain: in recent years as we’ve been celebrating a half century of Civil Rights victories – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and more – we’ve also watched as piece by piece the laws enacting these achievements are being dismantled. What had seemed towering ramparts against injustice are being revealed as fragile waystations that need shoring up and in some cases even reenvisioning to fully serve the cause of justice.

In other words, we need to get back to work. We can no longer rest on the laurels of our predecessors. It’s not enough to celebrate King’s “dream.” We need to reflect on and rededicate ourselves to the work of this generation. And John Lewis, I want to suggest, offers us a bridge, with a foot in the Civil Rights generation and an eye to a future that might someday serve us all.

What is so powerful about Lewis’ trilogy is that it carries us in the most dramatic way back to the great moments of the Civil Rights campaigns, not as iconic events in an inevitable march toward victory but as chancy gambles full of risk and uncertainty. The graphic format cuts through the mass of words that surround this story and centers on the action. That makes his work more the blueprint of a movement than a standard history centered on its soaring rhetoric. He walks us through one decision point after another, and doesn’t hesitate to air the dirty laundry of conflict and division along the way.

 Lewis doesn’t spare himself either. He introduces himself as the boy who had a soft spot for the chickens on his parent’s tenant farm: giving each a name, preaching to them as they settled down at night, then pouting as one by one they were hauled off for the family dinner.

But he says it was a trip to integrated Buffalo, New York with an uncle who was a teacher that opened his eyes to a different side of the world. Returning to the dilapidated segregated school he attended back home left him sad until he got word in high school that the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public schools. Surely, things would change! Not so fast, his family cautioned. But the Montgomery bus boycott the next year suggested something different.

The trilogy then guides us over the next 10 years through advance and retreat, victories and losses from the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins to the integrated buses of Freedom Riders headed into Alabama and Mississippi to the tumult of the 1964 election and ultimately the Selma voting rights campaign.

And at each step of the way, we see, come new twists that add new challenges. Lewis’ own turn from the ministry to the movement alienates family members back home. Back at Nashville, sit-ins that were first ignored later provoke beatings, abuse and eventually jail time.

In one chilling series of panels, he tells of sitting-in at a restaurant where staff turned off the lights, locked the doors, and turned on a fumigator with Lewis and another man still inside. In others, he recalls the bombing of a freedom rider bus the day after he had left it and many other beatings and bombings of that campaign.

In the end, though, violence is not at the center of these books; it is on the periphery. The through line of this tale is how a deeply interlinked and growing cadre of people negotiated one obstacle after another, enlisting the aid of authorities where they could, challenging them where they couldn’t.

It doesn’t diminish the tragedies along the way, and Lewis faithfully recounts many of them, from Emmett Till and Medger Evers to Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and the four girls at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. But he gives equal place to achievements gained and the hearts that were won, including among them Bobby Kennedy, who Lewis later was to work for, and Lyndon Johnson.

“March” draws attention to the often grinding dailyness of the campaign and the patience, forbearance and determination required of its participants. It’s easy to forget, for example, that a year and half of meeting and organizing preceded the Nashville student sit-ins of 1959, or that the Selma voting rights campaign had been underway for two years before Bloody Sunday in March 1965.

Lewis’ experience being savagely beaten by police while leading 525 marchers across the Edmund Pettis Bridge on that spring day bookends his trilogy. It was, he said, when he came closer than ever to dying in the service of the movement. And he writes that “there was something in that day that touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.”

Still, it brought about perhaps the movement’s greatest victory, The Voting Rights Act. And to make the point of how significant that achievement was, throughout “March” he interjects scenes from the inauguration of Barak Obama, where Lewis himself was giving a place of honor.

Of course, we live at a different time today. We in North Carolina are among several mostly Southern states that have seen the protections of the Voting Rights Act chipped away so that many minority voters are losing their voice, and gerrymandered voting districts are preventing them from gaining it back. And this is only the opening wedge of attacks on a host of legal protections that are looming in the months ahead. How ironic that amid all of this yesterday John Lewis found himself the latest target of the incoming president’s Twitter feed

This makes the words that John Lewis has to offer us all the more important to heed. As you heard earlier, he tells us in a book reflecting on the lessons of his historic march, in his words, “Across that Bridge”: “We must accept one central truth and responsibility in a democracy: Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched on a distant plateau where we finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must to its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

So, what might our part be? Mulling over this, I reflected on an address I heard a couple of years ago at an annual minister’s meeting. The speaker was Marshall Ganz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard who got his start in the Civil Rights campaign and later worked for the United Farm Workers in California.

The subject we asked him to address was: How can we be leaders amid change? Ganz answered that question by inviting us to consider the famous questions of Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish leader from the 1st century BCE: If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?

Here’s how he teased out learnings from these questions. First, if I am not for myself, who is for me? To achieve social change, we need to be clear on who we are and what our own values are and be able to communicate them. The Civil Rights movement established this early with its commitment to non-violence and the worth, the equality of all and our inextricable interconnection. Even amid setbacks and division there was no doubt what they stood for.

Second, if I am for myself alone, what am I? We need to recognize that we live not as atoms, but in relationship. As Ganz put it, the first principle in organizing is not, what is my issue, but who are my people? With whom are we in relationship? In building relationships, people find a reason to work together. It’s how we make the whole greater than the parts. Through relationships, he said, we transform communities into constituencies, into people who stand together.

In Across That Bridge, John Lewis shows how this principle emerged in the 60s. “The Civil Rights Movement was more than a struggle over legal rights,” he said. “It was a spiritual movement . . . to confront the erroneous belief that some of us are more valuable and important than others. They did not fight or debate about this. They did not threaten or mock. They did not malign or degrade their opponents. They simply took action based on the transcendent unity” of all.

And, finally: If not now, when? This implies, he said, that learning proceeds from action. It sounds contradictory, almost like saying leap before you look. Yet, Ganz said, the fact is that it is in acting that we learn what is effective. In the 1950s before they began regular sit-ins the Nashville student group tested what the response of luncheon counters would be. Once they observed it, they knew how to craft their campaign.

Creating change, he said, requires that we convey a sense of urgency, a feeling that the problem that faces us cannot wait. It must be addressed by action, and now.

People need to be motivated to move out of the inertia of the day-to-day rhythms of our lives and act. And when we act, we can’t expect it to be on the basis of certainty, but on the basis of hope. And by hope, he said, he didn’t mean vague good feelings, but how the philosopher Maimonides framed it: as belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable. Let me repeat that: hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.

John Lewis and the other Nashville students could not be sure that their sit-ins would persuade city leaders to end the segregation of lunch counters. It was probable that they would fail, and they did, at least at first. The tipping point came from the dissonance they created, their own humble presence and outsize response of their abusers.

Ganz noted what he considered a troubling trend in our culture. We are, he said, “imbibing a steady diet of exit,” a response to the dissonance we find in the world not by taking action but by checking out. We experience it in the choices we make about where we live, who we socialize with, how we structure our Facebook feeds.

We constrict ourselves to echo chambers with narrower and narrower amplitudes. And in these happy little silos we grow increasingly disconnected from others outside of them and with it oblivious to the deterioration of the social capital that joins us as communities, as states, as a nation.

A couple of years ago many of us in this congregation took time to read together and discuss Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. She made the point that the phenomenon of mass incarceration was devastating a generation of young, black men. But she also argued that it was also a symptom of a larger and more frightening trend: giving up on, dismissing anyone unlucky enough to be marginalized in America – low-income whites and blacks, as well as those struggling with mental illness, disability and chronic health problems.

At a time when the ties between and among us are fraying, the topic of the conversation, she said, “should be how us can come to include all of us,” how we reimagine the Civil Rights movement’s goal of “a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love.” As James Taylor put it, ties between us, all men and woman, living on the Earth.

But we fool ourselves if we think this will come about through hope as happy feelings. Frederick Douglass understood this better than any of us ever will: human liberty and justice are won as the result of earnest struggle – exacting, enduring, determined and resolute – for without struggle there can be no progress.

This is the work to which we are called, we who proclaim the truth and supremacy of justice, compassion and love, we who insist we will widen our circle til it includes, embraces all the living, we committed to acting for hope, for that seeming improbable possibility that lies on the edge of our consciousness, of the world as one and its people free.

If not now, friends, when?


I close with the chorus from a song written by Bernice Johnson Reagon that was based on the words of Ella Baker, who with John Lewis was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a towering figure in the Civil Rights movement.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”



Buddha Belly-A Theology of Joy (audio only)

December 12, 2016

Rev. Rebekah Montgomery Guest Minister
In this sermon, we welcome the infectious joy that comes from deep within. In the
midst of challenges and despair, we find hope. In the midst of strife, we find ways to harness and radiate joy. Come and get your Buddha Belly on!
Rev. Rebekah Montgomery is Assistant Minister of the UU Congregation of Rockville, Md. As well as a commissioned chaplain of the U.S. Army. She grew up a Unitarian Universalist, at the Rockville congregation focuses her work on Adult Faith Formation, Small Group Ministry and Membership and has done a tour of duty with the Army in Afghanistan.


Sermon: Wading In Mystery (audio and text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Certainty is a good thing, but it can also bedevil us, since in the end there is so much in the world and in our lives that we can’t be certain about. We explore what it might mean – at least now and then – to allow ourselves to wade in the mystery.



From The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

I’ve had a lot of trouble with the universe. It began soon after I was told about it in physics class. I was perhaps 20, and I went on a camping trip, where I found myself in a sleeping bag looking up into the crisp Colorado night. Before I could look around for Orion and 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.

  • All the stars that I see are part of but one galaxy.
  • There are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with perhaps 100 billion stars in each one.
  • Each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again.
  • Our Sun, too, will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its own heat-death.

The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. I wept into my pillow, the long, slow tears of adolescent despair. . . A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out in the cosmos. So, I did my best not to think about it.

But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal. I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don’t have to seek a point; in any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery:

The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing, of where the laws of physics came from, of why the universe seems so strange. Mystery. Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category. . . .

(I’ve come to see that) mystery can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.

 Shoveling Snow With Buddha – by Billy Collins


Last October my wife, Debbie, and I set off on a hiking vacation out West. We spent four days in Zion National Park, a stretch of spectacular canyons in southern Utah. On our first day, we took on one of its most famous hikes, an area called The Narrows. It is essentially a long slot canyon – stretching some four to five miles – that follows a sinuous path that is anywhere from 20 yards to 20 feet wide, bordered by sheer canyon walls on each side that tower to around 1,000 feet.

It is so narrow that some points never receive direct sun, and so twisty that you never get a clear vantage of where the trail is going. But what makes the trail especially challenging is that there is at all times a river running through it, which means that if you are going to hike it, you have to wade.

And this is no small feat, because the water is moving at a fairly fast clip, which makes it challenging to keep your footing, and the stream bed is covered with stones and boulders of various shapes and sizes – our guide called it “like walking on bowling balls.” Oh, and did I mention the temperature of the water? 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

The folks at Zion, though, have figured out how to help intrepid hikers make their way up this channel. You can rent waders that pull up to your waist with neoprene socks and sturdy hiking shoes plus hiking poles. Altogether it keeps you pretty comfortable, provided you can stay upright: thankfully we did.

The first few steps into the stream were a little disorienting. I’ve done enough canoeing to be comfortable wading into a stream, but I found something inside me rebelling as I plodded upstream. Because, of course, you can’t really get a firm sense of your footing or any clear idea of what’s ahead, and the coldness of the water is unsettling. I heard an inner voice asking, “What am I doing here?”

But in time I let that go. We found a rhythm in our slow stride, using the poles to steady ourselves and learning to avoid especially rapid or deep parts of the stream. And even though the riffling of the water obscured our view of the bottom, we gained a sense of how to negotiate our steps. In time we even gained the confidence on occasion to turn our gaze up to the amazing rock formations above us. Weird, alien, and yet so compelling.

Later I wondered about that fearful inner voice that I heard at the start of the hike, and I recognized it as that part of me that wants always to be fully oriented and in charge. We’re wary to enter situations that we don’t understand, and, of course, that can be sensible and wise. But it’s also true that we often have a mistaken notion about just how much we do understand or how much control we actually have.

I’ve never had a spiritual crisis quite like the one that Ursula Goodenough speaks of, though I remember a similar unsettled feeling looking up at the stars on learning something about the age of the universe, the distance of those points of light, and our place on the third rock of a middling star out toward the edge of a fairly average-size galaxy, itself one of uncountable millions dotting the sky.

Part of it is the old story of coming to terms with the ordinary insignificance of our own identities, our own lives in the grand scheme of things, and also the fact of our own deaths that await us on some unknowable day far too soon in the future, no matter how distant that day may be.

I think Ursula Goodenough would acknowledge that wrapped up within that feeling of terror that she described was also a hefty helping of self-pity and with it the fear that not only the universe, with its exploding stars and accelerating galaxies that in time will zip out of our sight, is pointless, but that perhaps our lives may be as well.

It is one of those sobering moments that many of us confront at some point in one of those dark nights of the soul, whether we’re looking at a sky full of stars or just wrapped up in the covers of our beds. Is there any “cosmic” meaning to any of this? We can fret about this for some time, circling back to the question time and again before at some point our mind turns on the question itself: why am I asking this anyway? What exactly do I gain from this inquiry?

Well, meaning, purpose . . . That’s important, right?

Sure, but how would it change things if you had an answer?

Well, I guess everything would just seem more . . . meaningful.


And, I don’t know, then I could feel more confident that I’m organizing my life the right way.

OK, perhaps that’s so. But here’s the thing: we humans have been at this for some time. We’ve come up with all sorts of inventive notions of what this cosmic purpose may be, and each of them eventually turns up a chink somewhere where we find ourselves wandering into wishful thinking or logical inconsistencies.

Now, we can have at it again, or work at solving the problems of some particular system, or stay on the search for the one who we think might have solved all the complexities. Or, Ursula Goodenough suggests, we can choose to step away and stop asking the question.

The more we learn about the world, she says – and as an accomplished scientist she knows a fair amount about what we know of the world – nature comes to “take its place as a strange and wonderful given.”

That is to say, we come to see it as something that requires no particular explanation for its existence: it just is, and that’s enough. For her, she says, this realization was an epiphany. She didn’t need to answer the big questions that were bedeviling her. Instead, she says “I lie on my back, under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me.”

And instead of being gripped by anxiety, she says, she is filled with wonder and awe. As she puts it, “the gasp can terrify, or the gasp can emancipate.”

In her case, Goodenough says, it freed her. She came to realize that she doesn’t need a sense of some cosmic purpose to feel awe. It is simply the product of her experience. That doesn’t mean that her busy mind stops processing all that she sees, but she views it through a different filter: not as something that has an ultimate point, but as, in her words, “the locus of mystery.”

Mystery is a word that can seem unsettling, but for her it simply meant letting go of the need to seek out an ultimate reason behind all things. Instead of working to find transcendent forces at work, she marvels at the enormous subtlety and complexity of the world as it is. And it is a source of wonder at every turn. Each thread we pull takes us deeper into it.

Instead of limiting our imagination or understanding, mystery invites us into more expansive awareness. It’s an awareness that to my mind leads us not away from religion but into it, religion that accepts the givenness of the world, a source of wonder and awe, religion that calls us to celebrate and to live attuned to the world’s rhythms, that invites us to appreciate each other and all life as an interdependent whole.

It’s a perspective that we see in this famous passage from Walt Whitman: I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars, and the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, . . . and the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven and the narrowest hinge in my mad puts to scorn all machinery, and the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any status, and a mouse is a miracle to stagger sextillions of infidels.

Each of us sorts out how to make our way in our lives in how we interface with the world of our experience and the circumstances of our upbringing. The result is a faith that orients us in our lives.

For her purposes, Goodenough says, she finds her faith in “the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty and my ability to apprehend it.”

“The continuation of life,” she says, “reaches around , grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle  that requires no further justification, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose” other than continuation itself.

Each of us comes to frame our own sense of where our heart rests in our astonishing encounters with the world around us.

But there is something to be said for stepping away from the purpose puzzles, for ceasing to worry about the firmness of our footing and turning our gaze to the weird and wonderful world around us as we wade with uncertain steps into the mystery that is riffling around us and tugging at our knees.

Billy Collins’ imagined interchange with the Buddha offers one perspective on the question. There’s Collins with his non-stop commentary on the wonder of snow shoveling, the stark beauty of that winter day, all the lessons it teaches on the brilliance of sunlight interrupted by the barking of snow geese high overhead.

And there’s the Buddha, silently with single-minded energy throwing himself into the work, “as if it were the purpose of existence.”

And, perhaps at that moment it is: his presence, his attention to that moment, opening a window to life lived drinking in each sensation, each action, each awareness, needing no purpose other than its own completeness, as if a gesture in the dance of all things.


Sermon: Waking to the Work

Mark Ward, Lead Minister
With Election Day now in the rearview mirror, we are left with the truth that life goes on. What story shall we tell to guide us?


Matthew 13:1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.  And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”

Throw Yourself Like Seed  by Miguel de Unamuno

Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; 
Sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate 
That brushes your heel as it turns going by, 
The man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant. 

Now you are only giving food to that final pain 
Which is slowly winding you in the nets of death, 
But to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts 
Is the work; start there, turn to the work. 

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field, 
Don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death, 
And do not let the past weigh down your motion. 

Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself, 
For life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds; 
From your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

             My colleague Victoria Safford tells of a tense meeting at a congregation she was serving held about six months after the 9-11 attacks. The struggling Social Action Committee had called it simply as an occasion for people to share how they feeling in the aftermath of tragic event. But Safford said she was worried that that tender, risky work would quickly be overwhelmed by, in her words, “all those noisy Unitarian Universalist opinions”: all the articles they’d read, the Web sites they’d found, the NPR commentaries they’d heard.

            Thankfully, though, she says, the circle held. Instead of getting lost in the dry sands of rhetoric, they found a way to connect with each other and with something deep in themselves.

            Sorrow flowed into the room. Rage decades old made its appearance, and silence, as she puts it, “made its holy way.” The group was edging up to the shores of cynicism and despondency, when someone made an observation.

            “You know we cannot do this all at once. But every day offers every one of us little invitations for resistance, and you make your own responses.”

            He told of a story he’d read recently in Ian Frazier’s book On the Rez.  It tells of a time when the girl’s basketball team on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota traveled for an away game. When they stepped out to be announced, the team members were greeted with anti-Indian hostility: fans waved food stamps, yelled fake Indian war cries and called out epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.”

            The girls hesitated, uncertain what to do, until one of the team members, a 14-year-old freshman, surprised her teammates and silenced the crowd by stepping out and singing and dancing the Lakota shawl dance. Not only did she reverse the crowd’s hostility, but they even cheered and applauded. And of course, Frazier goes on to say, they won the game.

            We convened a gathering not unlike the one that Victoria Safford describes here this past Wednesday. We ate a potluck meal together, gathered for a brief vespers service, and took time to talk. Our purpose was not to debate or analyze the results of the 2016 election but to acknowledge the pain, confusion and surprise that many of us were feeling afterward, and to affirm that we are a loving community that remains centered in a hopeful vision for the world.

            Now, nearly a week later, the shock has at least numbed a bit and we are being urged to move on. After all, elections come and go; some candidates win, some lose. We’re grown-ups. We know that. We have seen Hillary Clinton graciously acknowledge her loss and wish Donald Trump, well. We’ve seen President Obama welcome a man with whom he traded some bitter words during the campaign to the White House and promise a smooth transition to the next administration. The gears of democracy appear to be working.

So, can’t we move on? Well, on one level, of course, we will. Life goes on, the government transition is already moving, and people will be attending to what the pending changes mean for what they care about. There’s work to do.

But on another level: no. As people of faith, before we go on we need to attend to what this election season has showed us about some of the deeper and more disturbing strains moving through our politics right now and how we are called to respond to them.

To begin with, what this election reveals about the level of misogyny that is not only present but viewed by many as acceptable in this country is horrifying. And here Donald Trump revealed himself to be a chief offender. It’s not just a matter of his frat boy antics at the beauty contests he sponsored, but his own history of sexually assault that he even brags about on TV. Add to it his repeated demeaning of women throughout the campaign, and is it any wonder women worry for their safety?

Nor does it end there, Hillary Clinton’s bid to break what she called “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” by seeking the presidency made plain the double standard that prevails for all women who attempt such feats: hated for their competency, demeaned for their ambition, held suspect for their success. Never before has this disparity in our national life been thrown into such sharp relief, and never was it more critical that all people, but especially men, denounce it and demand redress.

We are also left with raft of racism, homophobia and xenophobia from Trump or his supporters in either explicit language or code phrases that have fueled attacks and acts of discrimination during the campaign and since the election.

They leave millions afraid – immigrants fearful of expulsion, Muslims fearful of discrimination, GLBTQ people fearful of a loss of rights. So, sure, the government transition will go on. But we won’t forget to call out the oppression we plainly see or turn from the work to combat it.

We also but note an interesting dynamic that ran through the election from early on in both parties, a deep sense of frustration that many people feel about the state of their own lives and their inability to control their future. They struggle with economic stagnation, growing debt, social dislocations, and in this election their fury amounted to a kind of tsunami of grief, disappointment and complaint that washed out the structure of politics as we’ve known it in this country.

These were people who looked to the leadership in Washington of both parties and saw an entrenched, entitled class feathering its own nest, but doing little to change their lives. So, in walked brash and boisterous Donald Trump, promising to upset that cozy applecart and “make America great.”

This story is, of course, a trope as old as our republic – the outsider who pledges to turn things around as “a man of the people.” Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with history knows to be wary of such assurances, and what we see of the actions of Trump and his lieutenants so far shows us why. Still, that’s the work of politics, and as citizens it is our charge to attend to it, raise our voices and make our case for the nation’s future.

But how about us as a religious body? Where do we fit in? It’s here that I invite us to return to the parable of the sower that you heard earlier. The metaphor in this parable is pretty clear: if we want to be fed, we’re going to have to plant seed that will give us a crop. And we better be careful where we plant it: Scatter it on the path and birds will eat it up, toss it into poor soil and it won’t grow well, plant it near thorns and they’ll crowd it out, but scatter it in good soil and you’ll get a harvest.

Simple, right? As agricultural wisdom it’s kind of a no-brainer. But there’s something more here, a learning that isn’t as obvious. So, in a month when our worship theme is “Story,” let’s see what this simple story might offer us.

I think that one experience we have had of this election is that it leaves us hungry – hungry for connection, for integrity, for a life-giving way to be that serves us, each other and the world. Feeding that hunger is likely to take more than just scavenging in the landscape. We’re going to have to do something intentional to give us nourishment.

The parable suggests we’ll find it in seed, gathered from a good and trusted place. Then, we must find a fertile place in the world to plant it, then tend it, cultivate it and bring it to harvest. The story doesn’t indicate where we might find the seed, though I have an idea. Our UU tradition suggests that we don’t need to go searching for it. There is ample seed for this life-giving crop among us, and we locate it in our own experiences, in those moments of clarity that we each have had that tell us who we are.

These are moments that glow in our memory, but we don’t often grasp that within them are seeds of ever-renewing hope and possibility that can center and ground us.

And as it happens, we in this congregation are currently involved in a process of gathering that seed. Our Board of Trustees is inviting us to meet in groups where we share experiences of clarity that illuminate those values that are most important to us. We call them “Experiences of the Holy.”

We’ve had several of these hour-long gatherings so far, and there’s another one coming just after our 11:15 service today. I’ve attended a couple of these, and I have to say I find the experience amazing. To center down on our moments of clarity opens us. We clear away the clutter and can find the clearest, most hopeful part of ourselves.

In this process I have heard experiences of gratefulness, vulnerability, awe-inspiring beauty, compassion, and much more. Once done gathering these seeds, your board will sort through them to identify those that seem to hold the key values of the congregation and share them with you.

It will then be our work to give them good soil, plant them and see them flourish. Because the point of this process is not just to gather nice words; it is to help us nourish a life-giving way of being in the world. What we gather won’t be wholly original with us, but it will embody that which fuels the fires, which feeds the hunger in our own lives, and, we hope, take us deeper and root us more firmly in the soil of our being.

All the disruption surrounding this election is a reminder of how hard it is to stay grounded, of all the ways that despair and confusion can distract us from how we need to be. Let us take the time, then, to get clear on our center. Let us winnow and gather our strength and then, as Miguel de Unamuno urges, begin the work of bringing the values we proclaim into being and then throw ourselves into the fields of our endeavor.

Let us, like that Lakota girl on the Pine Ridge Reservation’s girls basketball team, employ the genius of our grounding and offer our shawl dance to the world.

I don’t know what shape this will take, but I know it won’t all come to fruition at once. It will take time and tending to accomplish with each of us dedicating ourselves to what Matthew Fox called “the small work in the Great Work.”

That means living by little acts love and giving ourselves to the challenging task of truth telling, being clear about who we are at our center, resisting and defying that which diminishes us, and beckoning each other to do the same.

We must be ready for disappointment, occasional failure and indignities, but if we are well rooted, if we have planted and tended well we will hold fast.

(And here I introduced and sang Holly Near’s song “I Am Willing”)

As we close, I turn once again to Marge Piercy’s words: Connections are made slowly, sometimes where we can’t see where they go. So we need to keep at it while living a life we can endure, a life that is loving and resilient and strong.

Then, after a long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Sermon: The Mightiest Word

Rev. Mark Ward
As we look ahead to the coming Election Day, our topic today builds on a line from the poem that Elizabeth Stevens wrote for Barak Obama’s inaugural seven years ago. Speaking to our General Assembly in June, interviewer Krista Tippet seized on that line as pointing to a central question that our nation faces. What could that word be and what story does it call us to?


“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander

From The Brothers Karamazov  by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. . . . It requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life. But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal, but, indeed, seem even farther from it than ever – at that very moment you will have achieved it.”


It was a blustery, sunshiny day with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark when Elizabeth Alexander walked up to the microphones on a podium constructed on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. Hatless and dressed in a warm, red coat, looking out on what may have been the largest audience ever to attend a presidential inauguration, she set about telling a story of our nation.

It was a story that unreeled far from the TV cameras and dignitaries present on that historic day in Washington, D.C., a story of ordinary people who, she said, “go about our business,”  business that had those people “walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.”

Her words echoed those of Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, a century before, when she spoke of people “stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a hole in a tire.” A woman and her son, she said, “wait for the bus, a farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, take out your pencils. Begin.”

But there was a different tone here: a wariness or perhaps just watchfulness that she perceives moving through the scene that Whitman never really picked up. “All about us is noise,” she said. “All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues.”

In this nation of immigrants, there are stories, she suggested, that each of us carries a part of, but that for some is a greater burden than others.

It’s not just the cacophony of busy people, but also thorns and brambles that catch at clothes and tear flesh, all of which speak of some stories told not in the light of day but whispered from one generation to the next, the legacy of hard loss and unrealized hope.

As an African American poet speaking at the inauguration of America’s first African American president, Alexander took hold of the opportunity to lay before the nation the historic achievement before them: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.” Military heroes, yes, but also, once again, ordinary people who perished in unmarked graves or were traded as chattel, yet who “laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices,” including among them the Capital building before which she stood.

But, the business of the day, Alexander told the crowd, was not recrimination, but praise. Praise “for the struggle” that it took to get there – for each hand-lettered sign of protest brought to a freedom march, for people determined to find “something better down the road,” for people who had the courage to “walk into that which we cannot see.”

What her poem offered in the end was a story of redemption – not individual redemption but the possibility of our nation’s redemption from a troubled past into a more hopeful future, where, she said, “anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

I have to say that as powerful as Alexander’s 2009 poem was, it had pretty much faded from my awareness until this last summer when I heard the radio interviewer Krista Tippett bring it up when she spoke at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. Tippett had just published a new book, Becoming Wise – An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and she told us she was struggling to come to grips with what she found to be disturbing trends in what she called “our common life” in this country.

Coping with a diversity of interests and identities has always been a challenge for us, but she says in her book that in our current struggles with divisions over race and class she sees something new, what she calls “a surfacing of grief.”

And that grief, she suggests, has come about as a result of the breakdown of cultural coping strategies. Tippett told us in Columbus that she remembered growing up in the 60s, when diversities of all kinds were stretching the social fabric, being taught the virtue of tolerance. It sounded good. Live and let live, right? But in fact, she said, tolerance was too small a word for what was needed at the time.

Tolerance, after all, connotes a kind of cerebral assent of allowing or enduring, putting up with each other. Fine, but in the end the problem with tolerance, she said, is that “it doesn’t invite us to understand, to be curious, to be open, to be moved, or surprised by another.”

Nowadays, in our public dialog not only does the notion of tolerance seem a sham, she says, but “we’ve begun to hold the question of hate in public life, creating a new legal category of crimes (hate crimes) to name the breakdown when tolerances gives out and the human condition at its worst rushes in.”

For those caught in the midst of this, it can be a source of despair, but for the rest of us simple bewilderment. As Tippett says, “we don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors.” If tolerance guides our interactions, there is always a distance between ourselves and the other. Now, now, leave them alone. That’s not our business.

Live and let live teaches us hands off. Rather than empathize with or extend our moral imagination to another, the operative guidance is, “Let it be.” And so, the crises that rip apart other people’s lives are starved of the living oxygen of real human drama and devolve into issues that become subject to debate and policy solutions.

And yet, Krista Tippett says, “we know in our hearts and minds that we are bigger and wilder and more precious than numbers, more complex than any economic outcome or political prescription can describe.”

And so, she says, it comes as a surprise that “at every turn, I hear the word love surfacing as a longing for common life, quietly but persistently and in unexpected places.”

Love? Really? In families, sure. In romantic partnerships, of course. But in our common life?

But here comes Elizabeth Alexander proclaiming from the steps of the U.S. Capital. It’s not really so strange, she says. “Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.” Can you not see a thread through all this?

Beyond marital, filial, national love, a deeper chord sounds of a love, that, she says, has no need to pre-empt grievance, that doesn’t rank one person’s claim as higher than another’s, that instead casts a widening pool of light.

“What if the mightiest word is love?” she says. Not the sweetest word or the happiest word, full of hearts and flowers. What if the word “love” names something elemental, akin to a force of nature, something that, in an interview with Tippett, Alexander called “sober” and “grave”? Such love, Alexander said, “can do more than tolerate dissent in difference. (It) can sit with it, take it in, listen to it, let it stand.” It is guided by a need not to conquer or subdue but to know and connect.

Even more, Tippett says, Alexander’s question “invites each of us out of our aloneness.” Tolerant, tolerable folks are like atoms, bouncing off each other but never engaging. Aspiration for love, she says, “sends us inside” to know and honor who we are, then “coaxes us out again to an encounter with the vastness of human identity.”

In a sense, none of this is new. As Krista Tippett points out, “spiritual geniuses have always called humanity to love.” And still we shy away. There are many reasons for it, but mostly it’s because we don’t get into the habit. And it’s scary, since to use our tender hearts we must come to know them. That means that we must open them, examine them, share them. We’re more inclined to protect them – they are so easily wounded, so easily hurt. Aggression, anger, control – they look so much stronger, even if in the end they only bring us to grief.

There is probably no person who understands this better than the Civil Rights leader John Lewis. Time and again he stood up to violent abuse while remaining nonviolent himself. People examining the movement, he says, puzzled over how he could endure all that, but his answer was simple.

Writing in his book, Across that Bridge, Lewis said that “if you boiled down our intent into one all-encompassing residual word the remaining essence would be love.” Lewis said he would read observers writings about how for this or that reason the campaign of non-violence was an effective tactic. But those observers, he said, missed the point. “It was for us a way of authentically living our lives,” he said.

It’s a way of being in the world that judges our effectiveness not by the results we achieve but by how true we are to our center. And that’s important because on that path achievements can sometimes be hard to come by.

I came upon a story by the writer Mark Yaconelli about his experience helping out at a small church across the street from a college in Oregon. The church had received a grant to start a new prayer service. He had written books on prayer and worked with youth and felt certain he could to it. He persuaded the minister to give him the job. Over the next month he made sure the service was publicized widely, he recruited musicians to play and women from the church to prepare a meal.

Three hours before the first service he came to set up the chapel. He lit up candles, arranged flowers, prepared the bulletins. Fifteen minutes before it started he positioned himself at the door with a broad smile, watching as groups of students walked up toward the church – and then kept walking. Not a soul showed up for the service.

What do you do if you throw a party and nobody comes? Worse, what if you had put your very heart into it, something you felt was a great gift to the world?

Yaconelli went through the service with the half dozen people from the church who were there. As per his agreement with the church he went on with the weekly service for the next nine months. Not a single student ever appeared, though eventually a few more church members began to show. And in time among these a deepening closeness grew. When his contract finally ended, several of those participants shared with him how that simple weekly service had changed their lives.

It was on reflecting on this experience that Yaconelli brought to mind those challenging words from Dostoyevsky that I shared with you earlier: A true act of love is tough and forbidding, requiring hard work and patience. And yet, as Dostoyevsky’s character, Father Zossima, puts it, it may be that at that point when you are most certain you have failed utterly you will find you have achieved it.

There’s no denying it: Love is a hard road. I think this especially as we look ahead to this coming Tuesday. It has been an election campaign full of the filthiest superlatives, and whatever its resolution – and I do have a rather strong preference – we have some serious repair work to do to rebuild our common life.

I think back to the day that Elizabeth Alexander delivered her poem and shake my head. Remember? Commentators speculated that, just maybe, the election of our first black president had turned the tide to a post-racial America. Sure there were issues among us, but perhaps we were ready to reach across the aisle, across the cross the color line, across all that divided us and find solutions. No, not really. Not yet.

Instead, it’s time to get back to work. We can mistake what love is about on a sunshiny day when hope is buoyant. We can wrongly assume that it’s about smiles and good feelings. Sure, it’s nice when we get them. But if love is to prevail it must be more than that. It must be a discipline. It must be, as John Lewis put it, “a way of authentically living our lives.”

It must be a way that we hold to even when nobody shows up, even on cloudy, rainy, stormy days. There will be moments when its demands on us are sober and grave, and yet we stick to it anyway because our hearts will allow no less, because it is the only way we are each invited out of our aloneness.

Once again we stand, as Elizabeth Alexander imagined us, “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,” called to “walk into that which we cannot see.”

Praise to the brave souls with open hearts who still see that anything can be made, any sentence begun as we walk forward together into that light.



Sermon: Who’s White Trash (text only)




             J.D. Vance says he knew when he was growing up in the coal country of Kentucky and a city in southern Ohio that life was a struggle for the people he was raised among.  In his recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, he tells of how his grandparents, the island of stability in his upbringing, scrambled to get by, while he saw little of his drug-addicted mother, and other family members careened through episodes of violence, joblessness, and abusive relationships.

            These were people he loved – and still does – but he says they were also people uninclined to foster big dreams, knowing full well they were not likely to be realized.

Vance writes, though, from the perspective of one who escaped that orbit, who found his way into college, then Yale Law School, and now to a position at a Silicon Valley investment firm. But his tale is not a riff on self-congratulation or some up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger myth. It is really a kind of lament for the sad straits in which a huge stratum of American culture finds itself.

He identifies this group, what he describes as his people, as millions of poor and working-class, white Americans of Scots-Irish descent, people scraping by who dispute the notion that many of us are learning to wrap our heads around, that white skin is a ticket to privileges that people of color in this country have no hope of achieving, because they have yet to experience anything like privilege in their own lives.

“To these folks,” Vance writes, “poverty is the family tradition – their ancestors were laborers in the Southern slave economy, share croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers in more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash.”

They are people, he says, with “an intense sense of loyalty” and “a fierce dedication to family and country” but who also remain innately suspicious of outsiders and people different from themselves.

There are historic reasons we can cite for why all that J.D Vance describes should be so – and I want to explore some of them today – but in this chaotic election year when political candidates seem intent to double-down on all that divides us, I also want to take a moment to step away from the fray.

  I want to invite us as people who covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person to open ourselves to complicated truths and reexamine some of our own preconceptions so that by careful, compassionate reflection we might in time help blaze a path to fully realizing a beloved community.

All ideas, it seems, have their zeitgeist, and this appears to be a year for “white trash.” In addition to J.D. Vance’s best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, we have Nancy Isenberg’s comprehensive study, White Trash – The 400-Year-Old Untold History of Class in America. The title clues you in to the theme.

As you heard in the reading earlier, Isenberg argues that this habit of categorizing some human beings as “waste people” is a direct result of what she calls a “relentless class system” operating across this nation’s history. What confuses this understanding, though, is a national myth from our founding days that, unlike the Europe that our forebears left behind, ours is a classless society.

It’s a free country. Anyone can get ahead, right? All it takes is grit and gusto. And yet, we live in a society with clear evidence of vast economic inequalities. That means, Isenberg tells us, that “rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control.”

That’s complicated, but it’s important. So, let me tease out what I hear her saying. If we claim that there are no real class divisions in America, then when we see signs of them anyway – like poverty – we must look for other reasons to explain them. And across our history, those explanations pretty much come down to two factors: sloth and breeding. That is to say, the poor are simply lazy – “shiftless” was the term that was widely applied – or they are genetically deficient.

So, let’s join Isenberg on some of the history behind all this. In her book, she carries us back to the time when the first settlements in America were planned. Leading planters in colonies like Jamestown, she notes, “had no illusion that they were creating a classless society.” Rather, they recruited the poor as indentured servants to work the land, an arrangement that essentially reduced them to “debt slaves.”

Indentured servants were also recruited to serve the Puritan colonies in New England. In both places, there was little economic mobility, and so even for those who completed their indenture, the only way up, often, was out, fleeing their bondage to make their own way, roaming and eventually settling in the countryside.

In much the South, Isenberg says, we see that trend most dramatically. A ruling planter class captured much of the land and took hold of the economy. Where land wasn’t as productive, though, a different ethos evolved. Eastern North Carolina, with its sandy forests and swamps, was one of those. It became a harbor for some of the refugees, making it, in her words, “what we might call the first white trash colony.”

Indeed, one official of the crown who toured the region dismissed it as what he called “Lubberland,” a place of “lazy, bog-trotting vagrants” resistant to any form of government. Why they resisted is plain:  government as they saw it largely served the interests of the wealthy, not their own.

As the frontier opened up and settlers encountered these country people, lore grew around them as either folksy sorts who welcomed weary travelers into their humble cabins, or as drunkards, brawlers and highwaymen.

As the Civil War approached, poor whites entered the debates over slavery, with northern abolitionists arguing that they were the victims of a slave economy that closed off the chance for them to advance.

Southern apologists, though, insisted that slavery elevated the status of poor whites by putting them over blacks, even if those whites complained that they had been drafted into a rich man’s war that the poor were called to fight.

After the war, the anger of poor whites at policies that they felt helped blacks but left them languishing built a deep resentment that fueled the growth of the Klan and support for Jim Crow laws that marginalized and disenfranchised blacks.

Meanwhile, the economic shackles that left many poor whites scraping by as tenant farmers remained essentially unchanged well into the 20th Century.

 For some time, the rag on the poor had been that they were simply deficient human beings, but after World War with the rise of the eugenics movement it took on a new edge.

As the notion gained currency that what were considered “unfit human traits” could be reduced with controlled breeding, reformers turned their eyes to the South, where lack of education funding and medical care left many illiterate and in poor health. Poor white women became the major target of a campaign to isolate, quarantine and sterilize people declared to “feebleminded” and “unfit for breeding.” In North Carolina alone, for example, from 1929 to 1974 some 7,600 people – men and women, white and black – were medically sterilized.

It wasn’t until Roosevelt’s New Deal, Isenberg says, that class divisions were recognized not as preordained or somehow the fault of the poor, but the result of concrete, mutable conditions that government could alter.

She points to James Agee’s famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as making a similar case. The poor, Agee insisted, “are not dull or slow-witted; they have merely internalized a kind of ‘anesthesia’ that numbs them the shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities.”

This takes our little tour of history takes us roughly to the 1950s and 1960s and the economic boom that did in many ways raise all boats. And along the way as conditions improved the label of red neck, white trash shifted from badge of shame to a cultural trope, with everything from the rise of Elvis Presley to the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gomer Pyle.”

Around here, the trope for mountain people is different – the hillbilly with his coon dog, rifle and still. But the pressures are no less real. Ours is a region that has never known much wealth, where land-poor people hold tight to steep mountain acres that bring them no income, and employment is hard to find.

In an interview from 1988, Jim Wayne Miller, author of the poem you heard earlier, said he worries about the effect that this economic instability is having on people in this area.

“Poverty, or the perception of poverty, is often a matter of discrepancy. It’s not a matter, inherently of what you have or don’t have, but what you have compared to someone else. . . . If I had a nightmare, it would be that we will never be able to talk about the last taboo in this country, which isn’t sex or death, but class. Class is the one thing we will not admit.”

And yet its influence continues to intensify. As J.D. Vance notes, recent years have been less kind than previous decades, resulting in increasing numbers of people being pulled into economic instability. As income equality grows, many are losing ground, and once again pundits are putting the onus on struggling people to get themselves out of their messes without any hope of a hand up. Some make it anyway, like Vance cobbling together a series of fortunate circumstances; many others crash and burn into long-term unemployment, broken families, addictions and suicides.

At the same time, Vance says, he sees growing cynicism that nothing anyone can do will make a difference. The feeling is, he says, “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs.”

Vance identifies himself as a conservative, but says the political right has done his people no favors by “fomenting the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers.”

“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives,” he says, “yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

And it’s plain how that old bait and switch strategy is affecting our politics. Simmering feelings of disillusion, disappointment and shame are being fanned into blind and feral hatred and rage. All that energy not only does terrible damage to our public life, but it conveniently distracts people from that apparent unmentionable in our politics: class.

Yet, there it is. As Nancy Isenberg puts it, “Class defines how real people live. They don’t live the myth. They don’t live the dream. Politics is always about more than what is stated . . . . Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues.”

So, friends, let’s stop fooling ourselves and name what we see, not as political partisans but as people committed to healing the brokenness of humankind, as people who find beauty and wonder, hope and possibility in every living soul.

Let us abandon the scorched earth of fearful speech and fevered imaginings, the sad hubris of wounded ego, of desperate, predatory disrespect.

A generation ago the New Dealers opened the door with the then-radical notion that class divisions were not preordained or somehow the fault of the poor, but the result of concrete, mutable conditions that people working together could alter. It remains no less true today.

Growing up in his “hillbilly” surroundings, Vance says, there were any number of occasions when because of his own poor decisions he skirted disaster. But he says he was blessed to have family and friends who stuck by him and saw him through.

It’s another reminder that none of us is self-made. Each of us struggles and stumbles and sometimes needs to be called back to the original wholeness that is our birthright.

As in the story that Joy told us earlier, even in bleak and scary times, we are called to see the beauty, the vital energy and aliveness that is present in the world. Even when our lives seem “weathered and old-fashioned,” in Jim Wayne Miller’s words, we have the capacity to leave the heaviness that dogs us behind, let it perish, let it topple like a stone chimney and instead let us live into the lightness that dwells within us like a song.


Sermon: The Hubris of Discovery (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward
There are scripts that run unquestioned through our cultural memory, and one of those is discovery: the idea that Europeans had dispensation to murder, oppress and uproot peoples in North America and elsewhere for their own benefit. What might be the consequences today of naming and relinquishing that mindset?



“next to of course god america i” By: e.e. cummings

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

“The Magic Lake” A Cherokee Story
There was a young Cherokee boy walking in the woods one day, and he saw droplets of blood upon the leaves. So, he began to follow the trail because he was concerned that somebody had been hurt. He followed the drops up the hillside and eventually came upon a small bear cub who had been wounded and was bleeding. The cub was climbing up the hill, so he followed it. As he watched, the cub would stumble and fall, but then get up again. He watched the bear make its way up the great mountain that the Cherokees call Shakonige, which is the Blue Mountain, also known as Clingman’s Dome.
Slowly the bear climbed ahead, and the boy followed him until they got to the top. It was hard to tell exactly where he was, though, because fog covered almost everything. Then, as the boy watched, he saw the bear cub jump into the fog. The boy couldn’t believe his eyes, and so he ran up to the spot, figuring the bear was gone. But then suddenly he saw the fog turn to water, and the cub began to swim.
When he came back to the shore, the bear got out of the water, and his injured leg was completely healed. The boy was very confused. But then he saw a duck swim into the water with a broken wing, and it made his wing well, Animals were coming from all directions, swimming in the water and being healed. The boy looked up to the Great Spirit and said, “I don’t understand.”
The Great Spirit said, “Go back and tell your sisters and brothers, the Cherokee, that if they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they too can come to the magic lake and be made well again.”

“By gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum. . .”
The language of ee cumming’s poem is a little dated – not surprising, as it was composed almost 100 years ago, in the 1920s. But we can still recognize the figure that he archly lampoons here: the blowhard politician whose speech is a kind of scrambled eggs of worn pieties and pseudo-patriotic gobbledygook. Indeed, in this tumultuous election year we don’t have to look far to find them. So, his poem is good for a chuckle and a weary shake of our heads.
But if we linger just a little longer we can see that cummings is also making a deeper and more penetrating point here. His object is to draw attention not just to the politicians spouting the pieties but to the pieties themselves: pieties, the poem suggests, that are in many ways no less foolish than the speaker himself.
We recognize these pieties, for they are not radically different today from what they were in cummings’ time. They celebrate a triumphalist view of American history that we all know from our high school textbooks. As he says: “land of pilgrims . . . in every language, even deaf and dumb” where the voice of liberty rings clear.
There it is in Katherine Lee Bates’s great civil hymn:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

I must confess that I was taught well. My patriotic heart still beats a little faster when I hear those words – such lovely images, such soul-stirring sentiment. There is, it is true, historic truth embedded in those verses, and yet . . . and yet so much else that remains unspoken or even acknowledged that is cause, not for celebration, but for mourning and atonement.

This month in our worship and small group ministry we turn to the discipline of healing. Healing is the process of recovery from a wound – physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual. It is not something we can impose or thrust on another; it is something we can only offer with humility and care. When we speak of healing, we begin with the presumption that the one in need of healing has the natural capacity to recover from injury, but is also likely to need time and some assistance to do so.

Today I invite us to consider what it would mean to be agents of healing of one of the oldest and deepest wounds of this nation, one that centuries after it was first inflicted continues to be aggravated even today, a wound summed up in the word, “discovery.”

We grew up being told of the “Age of Discovery,” a time roughly from the 15th to the 18th centuries when “courageous” Europeans set sail to establish routes to trade with other people in Africa, Asia and the Americas. But truth to tell, those sailors were interested in more than trading. Where they found valuable resources – precious metals, gems and so on – they also sought to seize foreign lands for their own.

In this enterprise, they received the blessing of the church. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V issued a proclamation, or papal bull, that authorized the king of Portugal, whose soldiers were colonizing West Africa, to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all . . . pagans and other enemies of Christ . . . (and) to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery. . . (and) to take away their possessions and property.”

After Columbus’s trip to Hispaniola in 1492, the Spanish court sought and received a similar papal bull that extended them the same privileges. Other European courts adopted this “Doctrine of Discovery” to support their own colonizing.

“Discovery”: What an exciting word! Isn’t that what goads so many of us in our work? To discover new things – “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” right? Who would ever have thought that it could become a shield for oppression, murder, enslavement, and even genocide? And yet it did.
Those plucky Pilgrims, among our religious forebears, paid little mind to the indigenous peoples who occupied the land they traveled to. To their eyes, they were looking upon pristine, virginal wilderness.

Remember from “America the Beautiful”?
O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness!

Nope. Sorry. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, that untamed wilderness was actually occupied by some 15 million people, the majority of whom were farmers who lived in towns. Also, by their actions it’s plain that it was not freedom that the settlers sought to spread across the country but dominion.

And Thomas Jefferson, he who proclaimed that it was self-evident that all are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was quick as secretary of state to claim the European Doctrine of Discovery as a way of denying Indian claims to their own lands and opening it up to settlers.

And later Chief Justice John Marshall declared in a Supreme Court decision that due to the European Doctrine of Discovery, Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations,” and would only be recognized as occupying their lands. Subsequent decisions designated Indian peoples as “domestic dependent nations” forever subject to the control of the federal government.

Those precedents not only remain in the law but in years since have been used repeatedly to appropriate Indian lands previously given by treaty and to remove Indians from their ancient homelands, as our neighbors, the Cherokee, experienced. They also were the basis of campaigns of violence against them, including moments that were nothing short of slaughter.

We can even see it in the current presidential campaign. When Donald Trump asserts that the US should have seized Iraqis oil wells when it drove out Saddam Hussein, he is making essentially an extended argument based on the Doctrine of Discovery. It’s the kind of “to the victor belong the spoils” philosophy often asserted by conquering nations but which in fact amounts to nothing short of a war crime.

In America, it is part of a legacy that has crippled and marginalized native peoples for generations. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book walks us through much of it. I recommend it to you if you’d like to pursue this further: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. It’s published by our own publishing house, Beacon Press.

And so we are left to wonder how to deal with all this now. As Dunbar-Ortiz points out, this notion that we as a nation or even we as individuals are privileged do to what we want, grab what we like and throw our weight around heedless of the consequences or of the impact on other people is collateral damage from the wound that the Doctrine of Discovery has inflicted.

Back in 1993 at the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas indigenous peoples argued that to recognize this history, the day now designated as Columbus Day, which comes tomorrow in our calendar, should instead be designated Indigenous Peoples Day.

Since then, there has been a growing movement seeking to bring attention to the experience of indigenous peoples. This year for the first time, the city of Phoenix will join Seattle and Minneapolis – all places with strong indigenous communities – in recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. So far, South Dakota is the only state to do so.

Back in 2014 Lakota activist Bill Means had this to say about why the celebration should be changed from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day: “We discovered Columbus, lost on our shores, sick, destitute, and wrapped in rags. We nourished him to health, and the rest is history. He represents the mascot of American colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. And so it is time that we change a myth of history.”

That’s not a bad idea: It’s time that we discard the myth of discovery, that we acknowledge the damage that our forebears inflicted on native peoples by the ravages of colonialism. And maybe it’s time that we open a conversation about who indigenous people really are – not exotic figures out of a mythic past, but people with a unique story and a unique place in this country.

In 2012 at our General Assembly the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a move that put us in the company with the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches. We also resolved to “expose the historical reality and impact” of the doctrine and eliminate it, wherever we might find it, even in our own policies and practices.

What that might look like is an interesting challenge for us each to consider. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz talks of how frustrated native peoples are that in recent years even as their history has been acknowledged, they find themselves lumped in as just one of many racial minorities who have suffered historic discrimination. All that, she says, ignores the many very real ways that they continue to be marginalized today.

She quotes Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien who talks of how Indians are written out of existence by what she calls “firsting and lasting.” Towns, she says, create monuments to what they call the “first settlement” or “first dwelling,” as if there had never been occupants in those places before Euro-Americans. Meanwhile, she says, a national narrative tells of “last Indians” or “last tribes”: the last of the Mohicans or the famous sculpture by James Earl Fraser of a mounted Indian slumped over his horse entitled “End of the Trail.”

Among the initiatives our own UUA resolution urges is that congregations make efforts to learn about native peoples in their local context, to develop relationships with them and awareness of their culture.

Several years ago as part of a class here on developing a “Sense of Place” I arranged a visit for our group to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where Education Director Barbara Duncan told us something of the struggles the Cherokee have faced and still face to claim their identity and sustain their culture.

The Qualla Boundary, the 56,000-acre reservation at Cherokee, North Carolina, provides a place where many in the Eastern Band of Cherokee make their home. But their heritage in this part of the world extends far beyond this narrow space. You can still see it in dozens of burial mounds scattered across this region as well as town sites, and sacred centers of years gone by. You get a sense of it from Cherokee tales that feature places that remain popular today, including what we know as Mount Mitchell, the Devil’s Courthouse, and, as you heard in our story, Clingman’s Dome.
Here, too, though, the Cherokee struggle with being perceived as a relic, rather than an active, evolving culture. To avoid that fate, they rely on the hope that some of the descendants of Europeans who colonized this land will relinquish the hubris of their heritage.

As Charlie indicated, hubris is the pride that blinds us, an overweening arrogance that insists on its way and will not be bothered with the facts or other people’s perspectives. What might it look like to discard outworn pieties and remove the blinders that the “discoverers” of this land left us and look with new eyes on this land and its people?

It could be a path toward healing, a path perhaps something like the one the Cherokee boy found when he followed the wounded cub up the mountainside, leading us to a place where, as the Great Spirit puts it, if we love all our brothers and sisters and if we love the animals of the earth we might just be made well again.

Sermon:Forgiveness: That Lonesome Road (audio & text )

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Again and again, we return to the hard work of forgiveness that forces us to confront our errors and inadequacies: no fun, but what relief to be freed of that burden, as the hymn reminds us, to be born and reborn again.



Is there a soul, I wonder, who hasn’t walked that lonesome road? You know what I mean. James Taylor is very clear. Standing in the wreckage of some intense argument that went a step or two too far, or having confronted or been confronted with some thoughtless act more egregious than just everyday cluelessness, we find ourselves suddenly facing a yawning gulf in what we had felt was a pretty sturdy relationship.
We probably feel this most intensely in romantic relationships, but hiccups like this happen in any significant relationship in our lives. Distracted, sad, our stomachs tied in what seems an undoable knot, we replay the event over and over in our minds: Did I have to say that? Did she have to say that? Did he have to do that? Did I have to respond that way?
We swing from self-righteous to sad and back: That wasn’t fair. I guess I wasn’t fair. Maybe this is the end. It can’t be the end. What am I going to do?
“If I had stopped to listen once or twice,
If I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes,
If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart
I’d not be on this road tonight.”
What we’re talking about here, Brene Brown says, is heartbreak – again the relationship need not be romantic, but it is one in which we feel invested, where we truly love another person. And when the break happens, we tumble inevitably into grief, which we feel as a sense of longing and loss.
Of course, we may not process our feelings that way at first. Singed with the pain of that break, we may turn instead to anger or dismissiveness. Fine: if X is going to be that way, to heck with him or her. It’s no skin off my nose.
As satisfying as such bluster may feel – for a moment – it gets us nowhere because it is frankly a denial of how we really feel – which is lousy. As Brene Brown puts it, “There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out of their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they’re choosing to live disappointed.”
There’s an odd narrative in our culture that paints the image of strength as person who presents themselves as essentially bullet proof, who takes a hit and keeps on going, who acknowledges no hurt, no pain. Brene Brown argues that the opposite is true, that someone who acknowledges no pain is not someone to look up to but someone to look out for. Because it means that that person has no clear sense of his or her feelings.
We celebrate these stories of people who fight back from adversity, but don’t acknowledge the emotional struggle it took to do that. And in doing that we misperceive what the process truly involves. “Heartbreak knocks the wind out of you,” she says, “and the feelings of loss and longing can make getting out of bed a monumental task.”
Rather than celebrate impervious resilience, Brown says, she holds up what she calls “bad-assery” in relationships. Come again? That’s right, bad-assery, she says, as in: “When I see people stand fully in their truth, or when I see someone fall down, get up and say, ‘Damn. That really hurt, but this is important to me and I’m going in again’ my gut reaction is, ‘What a badass!” Bad-ass, as in showing true courage and resilience, not slinking away into silence or self-pity.
People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth of their lives, she says, “are the real badasses.” They are the people, she adds, “who say ‘our family is really hurting. We could use your support.’ And the man who tells his son, ‘It’s OK to be sad. We all get sad. We just need to talk about it.’ And it’s the woman who says, ‘Our team dropped the ball. We need to stop blaming each other and talk about what happened so we can fix it and more forward.’”
It’s good, Brene Brown says, that there are people daring enough to take on the tough tasks of justice making and community building that we need. But among them, she adds: “We also need a critical mass of badasses.” These are people who when confronted with difficulty don’t put up false poses of invulnerability, but who instead “are willing to dare, fail, feel their way through tough emotions and try again.”
Of course, this is demanding stuff. And, as Brene Brown suggests, there aren’t a lot of models for this kind of work.
Where might we today find someone who could show us an example of courage and commitment, who acknowledges emotional pain and damage, but also shows strength in coming to terms with who they are and what matters, someone we might call a brave “badass” of forgiveness?
I’d like to offer one example you may find surprising: Beyonce. That’s right, Beyonce, the singer-songwriter, mega-millionaire, pop diva. The image we have of Beyonce is the superstar who serenaded Barak and Michelle Obama on the night of his election as president and who sells out arenas with her provocative, high-energy performances.

Earlier this year, though, she released an album with a very different vibe. The combined CD and hour-long DVD entitled “Lemonade” is a thinly veiled rendition of the stages of anger, grief and reconciliation that she endured after learning of the infidelities of her husband, the rapper Jay-Z. Beyonce has refused to discuss the situation publicly, but instead in this album she let her art tell her story, and it does.
It’s a surprisingly raw and vulnerable statement for an artist who projects an image of indomitable fierceness. Yet she does even more than that: she conjures up the weight that African-American women have had to carry for centuries, not only from disappointments in relationships but also from a society that diminishes and belittles them. She even gives a place of honor to images of mothers of African-American men who died in recent police shootings.
In one song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she intersperses clips from Malcolm X saying, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman, The most unprotected person in America is the black woman, The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
And yet, as if in response, she weaves in a clip from a video of the 90th birthday of Jay Z’s grandmother saying, “I’ve had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was given lemons and I made lemonade.”
She also quotes a recipe for lemonade from her own grandmother, telling her, “You spun gold out of this hard life. Conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live.”
As for Jay Z, well, the message is pretty clear: in tough language she tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s close to losing the best thing he ever had. “Who the … do you think you are? You ain’t married to no average …, boy.” And if the extent of her anger isn’t clear, in one song she walks down a street with a baseball bat, smashing shop windows and car windows, then hops into a monster truck that crushes them all.
But the stunning parts of the video come in the sections of “Redemption” and “Reconciliation” that close the piece. If there’s any question whether Beyonce is one of Brene Brown’s badasses willing to dare and fall and find her way through tough emotions, those doubts are removed here:
“Ten times out of nine, I know you’re lying
But nine times outta ten, I know you’re trying
So I’m trying to be fair
And you’re trying to be there and to care . . .
All the loving I’ve been giving goes unnoticed
It’s just floating in the air, lookie there
Are you aware you’re my lifeline, are you tryna kill me
If I wasn’t me, would you still feel me?
Cause you, you, you, you and me could move a mountain
You, you, you, you and me could calm a war down
You, you, you, you and me could make it rain now
You, you, you, you and me would stop this love drought
“Sandcastles,” which you heard earlier is the turning point. It is the moment in the video when Jay Z joins Beyonce, and in beautifully intimate images that strip away all the glitz of their show business lives we see simply two people finding peace and reconciliation in each other’s company.
And it’s not just syrupy sweet stuff. The lyrics cleverly point to the kinds of things we must relinquish if we are to find healing – pride, indignation, self-righteousness – and reestablish damaged relationships.
The title tells how crushing this process was. All that they had before, she said – their promises, their vows to each other – felt like sand castles washed away by the surf. She paints a dramatic scene of their initial break-up – “I made you cry when I walked away,” dishes smashed, photos torn from frames, his name and image scratched out and her final promise that, as she puts it, “I couldn’t stay.”
But in the end, she says, she realized that that was one promise she couldn’t keep. “Every promise don’t work out that way.”
So, as the next song proclaims,
“Forward, best foot just in case. . . .
We’re going to hold doors open for a while,
now we can be open for a while,
go sleep in your favorite spot just next to me.
The next two songs – “Freedom” and “All Night Long” – telegraph the relief and renewal that recommitment brought, freed from the chains of grief, and her decision that, “I found the truth beneath your lies.” The closing song shows us once again the sassy Beyonce, “I’m back by popular demand.”
It fascinates me to find a strong resonance of Mark Belletini’s “A Kol Nidrei” in Beyonce’s words. The Kol Nidrei is a verse spoken at Yom Kippur services whose purpose essentially is to annul all the vows that followers made in haste against each other in the preceding year. It invites its listeners into the work of clearing the decks so that we are ready to enter the new year freed of the baggage of the past year’s errors.
OK, Mark says, “let’s set it all down” without hesitation or resentment. All of it: “the disappointments, little and large, the frustrations.” And once we’ve named it all, let us relinquish it, let us open our closed fists filled with self-righteous anger and drop it, all of it, without regret, without reservation.

This is not something we do in the abstract, mouthing words given to us by others that we feel will somehow grant us absolution. This is the tough work of digging in and pulling out all that gnarly stuff, our stuff, stuff we’d rather not face yet which we know is dogging us, keeping us from giving ourselves fully to those we love, to that which fills our hearts. We’re stuck in it, so rather than nurse our griefs and grudges, we are called to release them.
We each know what that is for us. Mark Belletini names part of what’s haunting him:
The useless waiting – for what, what am I waiting for?
The obsession with things we cannot have
Comparing ourselves, to our detriment, with others
Cynical assumptions, unspoken anger, self-doubt, self-pity
Go ahead, add your own. They’re at the tip of your tongue.
Why on earth am I holding on to all that? Can’t we just let it all go? Let’s sink them like stones, let’s drop them like hot rocks into the cool silence. Can’t you just hear them? Ssss.
Never mind feeling sorry for yourself, as JT tells us. It doesn’t save you from your troubled mind. No, let it go. And when it’s gone, as Mark Belletini says, let’s lay back gently, and just float on the calm surface of our lives, these blessed lives that are such a gift. “And (then) let us open our eyes to this new-born world, ready for anything.”
That new awareness is the payoff, the release, the return, the freedom that our bad-ass journey of courage and resilience gives us: where I forgive myself, I forgive you, and we begin again in love.

Sermon:What is Required-Part 1 (audio & text)


Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is required of our religious movement to make it the change agent it hopes to be? Today, at the anniversary of the Universalist John Murray’s landing in the U.S. I will address how we might respond to this question in the context of our Universalist identity. Next spring I’ll focus on our Unitarian side.


Song    by Adrienne Rich  

From “The Persistence of Universalism,” an address by the Rev. Gordon McKeeman to the New York State Convention of Universalists on Oct. 4, 1980

“We live in a time when there are a great many scared people who do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world. They would like very much into fortress America, or fortress Christianity or to some other narrowed loyalties to which they can give themselves. . . .

“We ought to be pointing in people’s lives to the urgency within those lives to wholeness and that no person can ignore that inner urgency to his or her own wholeness, save at her or his peril.”


The week before last I spent a couple of days in the Habitat for Humanity building down near Biltmore Village in the company of about 45 people. It was a fascinating mix, ranging from people with high public profiles – Asheville’s Superintendent of Schools & members of the School Board, a state senator, a city councilwoman – and positions of responsibility – with Mission Hospital, the Asheville Housing Authority, the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department – but also high school students, community activists, social service providers, and others. Even more, it was unusually diverse for most gatherings in this town – young & old, black, white, Hispanic, and different gender identities.

And the topic before us was something that usually isn’t discussed in mixed gatherings like this one: Race. Not race in the abstract, but how notions about race had evolved over time and shaped our culture, our upbringings and our lives.

We were guided in this work by facilitators from a group called the Racial Equity Institute, based in Greensboro. The story they had to tell was hard to hear – how race emerged as a wedge to divide people in this country from the time of its first settlements, how it acted not only to discriminate against black people but also to confer advantages to white people. Affirmative action, we learned, is a practice that goes back to the founding of our Republic, but it was white people, not blacks, that it was designed to benefit.

We can see it as early as 18th century immigration laws, into Jim Crow legislation after the Civil War, even up to the Social Security Act, the G.I. Bill and federal housing legislation. So, is it any wonder that today we find an enormous disparity in wealth between blacks and whites in America? Yet, even now an invidious racism whispers that the gap is simply evidence is some inherent lack on the part of blacks, some inability to compete on a level playing field.

A point of the training was to demonstrate how the playing field for blacks in America is and has been anything but level – like starting a race well behind your competitors or walking in late to a Monopoly game where nearly every property has been purchased and every move you make diminishes your wealth.

Of course, for the participants this was no game. White people like me were invited to tally the advantages that they and their ancestors had unknowingly accrued, while black participants were left stunned – some, with tears in their eyes, unable to speak – to consider how much loss they and their ancestors had endured: loss measured not just in wealth but in wellbeing, in lives demeaned or cut short, even in their hopes for their own lives and those of their loved ones.

Organizers have invited participants to a potluck supper this coming week, which will be held here, at this church, to talk over what we learned in the training and where we will go with it. I am glad of the opportunity to continue the conversation, but I also worry.

Just this week in Tulsa and Charlotte we got another reminder of how close black people are to the boiling point in frustration over centuries of oppression that they see no signs of abating. We can debate the circumstances of this or that shooting and whether police officers were justified here or there in their actions. But the larger point is that by its actions, by its policies our society, our government shows over and over again that it counts black lives as cheap, and that is simply unendurable.

We in Asheville are not far from our own accounting, with the State Bureau of Investigation report on the police shooting this summer of Jai “Jerry” Williams due to arrive soon to the office of District Attorney Todd Williams. Whatever action the district attorney chooses, we in this town will have work to do.

Much concern has been expressed about whether there will be violence. Of course, no one wants injury and destruction, but it needs to be said that the work before us will need to be more than just keeping the peace. My colleague the Rev. Jay Leach found himself in the midst of chaos in Charlotte last week, and he summed up the state of affairs this way in a post on Facebook. He gave me permission to use this quote:

As disturbing as some of the images from last night are, I am more and more convinced that sending the message that we all need to be calm is the wrong thing to do. In fact, more of us need to stop being so calm, so accepting, so willing to ignore, so supportive of an unjust and unsustainable status quo. Things should change. Things must change. Until they do, until there is justice, there will be no peace.”

So, I wonder: Do you hear an echo of the quote from Gordon McKeeman that we heard earlier in Jay’s words? Listen again: “We live in a time,” McKeeman wrote, “when there are a great many scared people who do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world. . . . We ought to be pointing in people’s lives to the urgency within those lives to wholeness and that no person can ignore that inner urgency to his or her own wholeness, save at her or his own peril.”

It’s interesting that, like today, McKeeman was speaking in the time of a contentious national election – October 1980 – a moment when, again like today, fear was driving some people’s political agendas.

But he framed his thoughts a little differently. People, he said, “do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. . . . They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world.”

What he is pointing to here is the heart of Universalism. Remember that historically Universalism arose in the Christian tradition with the notion that all are saved. It is centered in a fairly simple theological proposition: A God whose nature is love would not consign his creatures to eternal damnation. Such an act it is contrary to the nature of love. And if we understand God as love, then it is contrary to God’s nature. And so, there must be no hell.

Even more, the old Universalists declared, it was God’s intent to bring every person to a happy end. And so, McKeeman says, Universalism became known as “The Gospel of God’s Success,” conveying the image that, as he put it, “the last unrepentant sinner would be dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable, at least, to resist the power and love of the Almighty.”

In time, though, the debate over heaven or hell faded and the focus shifted instead to the duty of the living and the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. In that context, it became less urgent that we consider how or even if we image the nature of God – something that lies beyond proof whatever side you argue – and turn to what we might consider to be the nature and consequences of love. What does love call us to in our lives? What does love require of us?

Universalists argued that theirs was not just a theological proposition, but a description of the world. As Gordon McKeeman put it, “running through life is the urgency to wholeness, to integration, to the putting together of scattered pieces of life. There is a universality of natural laws and there is, in parallel with it, a universality of the religious impulse, the desire for holiness or wholeness.”

We can find evidence for this, McKeeman says, when we look at the other side of the coin: “When we see people seeking to live out parochial, partial and insular assumptions, we discover people who create or perpetuate the tragic divisions of life, the costs of which in human misery, pain and suffering we continue to pay.”

There’s another word, an old word that sums up the agony that we experience in this condition, one that we might use to describe this state of affairs: Hell. So, maybe Hell does exist, but it isn’t something that was created for us; it’s something that we create for each other.

Why would we do that? Well, we get confused and distracted, selfish and afraid. We learned at the Racial Equity Institute training that in this country it was fear and greed that tended to drive white people each time they turned up the heat in the Hell they had created for black people, whether it be new restrictions on voting, or housing, or job opportunities.

The thing is that we live with the bizarre notion that while these people are enduring hell, we white people can go about our lives building our own little heavens. We tell ourselves that we live in the American dream, that anyone can accomplish anything with a little grit and determination. Of course, we’ve come to learn that this isn’t even true for most white people, that many people suffer and struggle against forces far stronger than they are.

But rather than question the myth, they bury themselves in shame, check out of the rat race and dive into addiction or despair. It’s a pretty desperate hell of its own.

Universalists warned us against this long ago. As Gordon McKeeman puts it, hell is about separation. We “set up little islands in the human experience” thinking we can make our own way independent of what’s going on with the rest of humankind. “And Universalism,” he points out, “says unequivocally, it cannot be done. You cannot have Hell for some people and Heaven for others.”

So, let’s be clear. The hells we create and the hells we occupy are not just the way of things. They come about by choices we and others make over time that create false divisions and that unfairly advantage some people over others, and until we stop privileging those policies and practices we will be powerless to alter them.

The solution is not to narrow our loyalties, to build walls and gates and find new and different ways to separate ourselves from others onto little islands of our own. The solution is to widen our loyalties, to enlarge our sense of who we are, remembering Edwin Markham’s old Universalist rhyme:

He drew a circle to shut me out – heretic, rebel, a thing to flout, but love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle and took him in.

How we do that is a big part of what about 70 members of this congregation were struggling with yesterday. We got together and invited each other to name those concerns and injustices that rankled us most. Then, we broke into groups to talk them over. It was big stuff – racism, climate change, immigrant rights, mental health and prison reform. Whew!

But this was no gripe session. It was gathering with an eye to action. So, this afternoon we’ll be meeting further to talk about what that action might look like. And you’re invited to attend. Whether or not you were part of the discussion on Saturday, your voice is welcome as we sort out how we as a congregation can be about widening that circle.

It is serendipitous that PBS chose this past week to air Ken Burns’ powerful documentary “Defying the Nazis” about the role of Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp in helping hundreds of Jewish and other refugees marked for death escape from occupied Europe. (And if you missed it you can still see it online at But it’s live only until October 6, so make a point of looking soon.)

The story I told earlier of Martha Sharp initiating a child refugee program is one of the most compelling examples of their work, but there was much more – escorting refugees on hazardous railway journeys, sheltering refugees in safe houses, fabricating travel documents. It was work that put their lives in danger repeatedly, but they kept at it, even though it meant long absences from their children and strains that eventually broke apart their marriage.

Little wonder that Waitstill Sharp reported that when the UUA president first approached him about the job, he was told that 17 ministers before him had rejected it.

So what is required of us? As Lisa Forehand said, it’s something we all struggle with. Because we know, or at least intuit, that answering that question will open an avenue to help us get a sense of the meaning of our lives.

Our tradition through both of its strains – Unitarian and Universalist – declares that the answer to this question is not something we can expect to be given; it is something we must find. And we begin that journey in our own hearts. As Lisa said, we “try to hear our calling and have the courage and audacity to answer.”

It is not required that we all be activists in the model of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, but it is also not sufficient that we coast on by either insulated in privilege or paralyzed by fear.

Like Adrienne Rich, we might take some time to examine our own loneliness, an existential truth that we each come to terms with at some point in our lives. What’s the use?  What am I? How could I possibly matter?

But she won’t leave us there. “If I’m lonely,” she says, “it must be the loneliness of waking first, of breathing dawns’ first cold breath on the city, of being the one awake in a house wrapped in sleep.” Not isolated, not defeated, but awake, aware.

“If I’m lonely,” she says, “it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore in the last red light of the year that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither ice nor mud nor winter light, but wood, with a gift for burning.”

The Universalists had a word for that burning. They called it love. Love calls to us, they said. It nags at us, pleads with us – heck, drags us kicking and screaming, and says, “Get out here. Your presence is required – your time, your talent, your treasure, your genius, your compassion are needed if we are ever going to end the despair and depravity of separation, if we are ever going to live into the wholeness of this world.”

Let us head love’s call.

Sermon: I See You (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The Way of Covenant is ultimately a different way of seeing, of envisioning the people and the world around us. We begin our fall worship season by inviting each other into this wider view of our faith tradition.


From ”Antiphonal Readings for Free Worship” arranged by L. Griswold Williams

Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine – Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

From  No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
The concept of “Ubuntu” is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu;” “Hey, so-and-so has Ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.”
We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.


We begin our fall worship season by raising up and celebrating one of the foundation stones for us as a congregation and for our religious movement. What is it that gathers as people of hope and faith? Covenant.

Now, there is a document that we call the covenant of this congregation, a document that lays out in some detail how we agree to be with each other here, the disciplines we agree to bring to our lives together: sharing, caring, welcoming the diversity of both people and perspectives that we find here, and offering healing and support where we differ.
It’s a good document and it serves us well. But today I want to explore a different dimension of that word: covenant, not as a noun but as a verb; covenant as practice. To do this, I want to begin by taking us way back to the Puritans, who founded some of the earliest churches in New England, a number of which later became and remain Unitarian.
The Puritans had a stern and forbidding reputation, and for good reason. Their Calvinist theology held that only a select elite preordained by God before the creation of the Universe were truly saved.

But as the writer, Sarah Vowell points out, beneath their harsh theology, these “wordy shipmates,” in her phrasing, perceived that something else must prevail if this community of their making was to endure. She quotes the founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, to that end:

We must delight in each other, he says,
and make each other’s conditions our own,
rejoice together, mourn together,
labor and suffer together,
always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work,
our community as members of the same body.”

It was not enough that they shared similar beliefs: the only way that this small band of settlers was going endure was if they made each other’s conditions their own. And not just that either: they needed to “delight in each other,” to find joy, each in the others. It’s not our conventional image of the staid Puritans, but it gives us a window into our topic today

Sarah Vowell says it was Winthrop’s words that gave her comfort in the days after the 9-11 attacks. She was living in New York at the time, she says. “When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what (Winthrop) said and finally understood what he meant.”

She says, “I watched citizens happily, patiently standing in a very long line,” and she marveled, having already experienced New Yorkers’ impatience at being kept waiting for anything. But in this line, she says, “they were giving blood.”

“We were breathing sooty air,” Vowell recalls. “The soot was composed of incinerated glass and steel, but also, we, knew, incinerated human flesh.” So, all the people there truly were, she says, “members of the same body.”

She and her friends were aching for some way to contribute, so when the TV news announced that rescuers needed toothpaste, they took off for the neighborhood deli. By the time she got there, Vowell said, most of the popular brands had been cleared out, so “at the rescue workers’ headquarters I sheepishly dropped off 14 tubes of Sensodyne, the tooth paste for sensitive teeth. “We were members of the same body, breathing the cremated lungs of the dead and hoping to clean the teeth of the living.”

Vowell was right: In important ways, those volunteers and first responders and everyone engaged in the rescue and recovery from that shattering loss were reliving a vision of mutual care and concern that first arrived on our shores nearly 400 years ago: they were engaged in the practice of covenant.

And the covenant the 9-11 rescuers were practicing was not an agreement that was enshrined anywhere. It was instead covenant of being that those people discerned in the moment before them. It was nothing that they needed to invent because they were already a part of it in the fullness of the world. They simply needed to recognize what called to them from the center of their own natures.

A similar point is made in the covenant I read earlier: Love is the doctrine of this church; the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. This was offered up by people not as a theological proposal but as a confession of how they understood the world and their relation to it. Love is the response that the world calls from us; the quest of truth is how we advance it; and service is how it is realized.

Desmond Tutu wrote the book you heard quoted earlier after serving on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission provided a forum for leaders of the deposed Apartheid state to confess the wrongs they had done and seek reconciliation. Its work was centered on the premise declared in the title of Tutu’s book: No Future Without Forgiveness.

The process, he writes, was seen as a “third way” between the prospects of trials for war crimes and blanket amnesty. It was a way, he wrote, that sought “to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and personhood of those who had so long been silenced.”

And what made it possible, Tutu says, was the African practice of Ubuntu. Earlier, you heard his description of Ubuntu: Not simply being caring, or generous, or compassionate but living in a way, he says, that sees “my humanity caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.” It is, he said, “the very essence of being human.”

A couple of decades ago when South Africa’s transition was in the news and Ubuntu was trending in news reports there was much speculation about whether there was an equivalent term in the West to describe this deep connection among peoples. Some suggested that perhaps “community spirit” would do. But really “covenant” is a closer match.

Like Ubuntu the practice of covenant draws us to one another in a way that points to our nature and our destiny: we are meant for each other, and we are completed through each other. This state of affairs is not something we choose; it is something we affirm and that the world invites us to give ourselves to.

There is something painfully ironic about observing such a close parallel at the heart of these two cultures – African & American – given our sad histories. But what we share, and that we share reinforces the notion that something universal is at play here.

At the same time, in our separate perspectives we each are in a position to offer wisdom to the other. The African offers an American culture riven with divisions of race and class a notion that kinship is a rock-bottom truth. Social harmony, Tutu says, is the heart of it all. “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another,” he says, whereas the truth is that “you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.” Anger, lust for revenge, resentment are corrosive to both social and individual happiness, since whatever I do to dehumanize another inexorably dehumanizes me.

Covenant, on the other hand, calls us to remember that our lives together are centered in promises. We are, as Martin Buber put it, the promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creature, and it is woven throughout our interactions with each other.

It can be as simple as when you and I make appointment – promise-making, I put it on my calendar – promise keeping, but then I space out and miss the appointment – promise-breaking. But I don’t blow it off. Our relationship calls me to get back in touch with you, offer my apology, seek to make amends and perhaps set a new date – promise-renewing.

The ways in which we fall out of covenant with each other, though, are not always as obvious. We affirm that every person has inherent worth and dignity and feel called to treat them with respect and care. It is a promise, of sorts, that undergirds our lives.

Yet, we come to learn that the privilege we have gained simply by virtue of an accident of birth serves to keep other people oppressed, feeling little sense of worth and dignity, of respect and care. It is a state of affairs that we had no hand in, and yet it is plain that our advantage comes at the expense of another.

Now, we can say that that’s just the way the world works: Some get and some don’t. And while that may be so, this situation also puts us deeply and irrevocably out of covenant with one another.

And that’s not a small thing. If it is true that we are meant for each other, that each of us is a person through other people, this imbalance, this broken promise will weigh on us until it is repaired.

There is no saying what that repair might look like, but for the sake of peace, our own and the world’s, we had best be about it. That is how it is in our lives together. We struggle, we stumble, we err, and still, we return. Covenant continually calls us back again and again to the day-to-day work that reminds us of and calls us to dedicate ourselves to the small disciplines that enact the truth of our wholeness and unity.

I read recently that 15 years after the 9-11 attacks a whole raft of books on the subject are coming out for young readers. Many authors apparently were reluctant at first to treat such a difficult subject, but now many of their readers have no personal memory of the event since they weren’t born yet.

So, what do they say? For those of us whose memories of that day are still quite sharp, there is a similar quandary. What learning can we take from that event, what wisdom can we offer from our experience? Mulling over this, it occurred to me that covenant might offer a lens to organize our thoughts.

As Sarah Vowell noted, for all the horrific images that were broadcast during that time, there were also heartening ones: blood donors, sandwich makers, clean-up crews. They couldn’t erase the damage done to our society or to our psyches by those assaults.

But each in her and his own way was living into the practice of covenant, the affirmation of a common bond into which each of us is born and which all of us are called to serve. Confronted with suffering, they looked into another’s eyes and said, “I see you.” “Sawubona.”

You matter. You are part of me, and I am part of you. You are important to me. I need you to survive.

Sermon: Walking the Path of Fear (audio and text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Maybe it’s because of this trying election year, but it seems that fear pervades our lives these days. So, how do we take stock of this state of affairs without getting stuck in it? We’ll explore that as we enter this month of Covenant.



Lost by David Wagoner
From The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
“I think about swimming with him into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be in the water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half dozen times at most during the two years we lived there, but it is what I remember. Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that.”


I had the oddest experience about a month or so ago. I woke in the middle of the night out of a dead sleep, sat up on the side of the bed and had no idea where I was. The dark was so deep that my eyes were useless to me and nothing seemed familiar. I rose cautiously and began to feel my way around.

In my confused mind, still partly wrapped in sleep, a kind of fear verging on panic began to arise. What place is this? How am I going to get out of here? Gradually, though, I seized onto something – it might have been a chair, a dresser, I don’t remember exactly what – but I was able to make a connection – Oh, this is our bedroom! The panic subsided and wearily I made my way back under the covers.

Fear is funny that way, isn’t it? How we can get so easily frightened sometimes by the silliest thing. We even like to play with each other that way: waiting around a corner and jumping out when a friend happens by: BOO!

Psychologists remind us that at its root the fear response is actually a good thing. It’s what we rely on to get out of physical danger. Our muscles need to be primed for action, so the blood quickly gets pumping. The thinking part of our brain essentially shuts down, since we may not have time to weigh the proper response, and instead the body’s old fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. I’ll bet we’ve all had moments where we’ve been grateful for such a response that saved us from some minor peril.

Of course, there are times when some of us like to have fun with that fear response. There is, after all, a kind of exhilaration that we feel in the moment when fear strikes. To me, that helps explain the popularity of the horror film genre. The first time the zombie pops out, it scares the bejesus out of us. But with each subsequent scare the intensity of the fright diminishes, but we still feel the rush of the quick hit of adrenaline. I have to say that such films are not my taste, but I get how they can be a draw.

But as a rule, fear is not a state in which we want to spend much time. It’s exhausting and disorienting. We don’t think clearly or respond compassionately when we’re afraid. We just want to find safety, whatever in the moment we might take that to be.

The truth is many of us don’t even really like to admit to scary experiences. We’d rather dismiss or deny them. In fact, we feel a little embarrassed by them. Even then, though, we don’t forget the emotional intensity around what happened.

Depending on the circumstances, that intensity can become the source of an internal narrative, a story that we tell ourselves that justifies our response, and the idea – “I was right to be scared” – somehow gets attached to the memory of that event. Even if overblown, exaggerated, or flat out fabricated, the memory is retained, and its intensity gives it the feeling of truth, whether it is in fact true or not.

In time, that memory can become one of the building blocks that we use in creating our world view. The problem is that the learning that we take from our experiences of fear is notoriously unreliable. That’s because, again, it comes from a time when we weren’t thinking straight, when our judgment was skewed, and yet at the same time we experienced intense emotion.

It can take a real effort of will to seek out and find the actual truth in the situation, like waking up from a nightmare with our pulse racing and needing to calm ourselves back down again: “It’s OK. It was just a dream.”

In our day to day lives, though, we may not immediately recognize when fear experiences are triggering us. In the moment, we may not be able to surface that fear, examine it and challenge it. After all, through most of our lives we come to rely on our emotional responses. If something doesn’t feel right, there must be a good reason for it, even if we can’t specifically say what that reason is.

It becomes even harder if we’re challenged. A fear-based experience is not something we can really cite in an argument with someone. It may even be something we don’t especially want to fess up to, but that doesn’t mean that in some way we still don’t cling to it as truth.

There is probably no better example of this than all the forms of prejudice – race, ethnicity, gender expression – that float through our culture. I think of that song, “You’ve Got to be Taught” from the musical “South Pacific.” The Unitarian lyricist Oscar Hammerstein suspected that his song written in 1949 on the source of racial prejudice would be controversial, and he was right.
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Because Hammerstein was pointing to one of the most intensely felt, fear-based fabrications that we live with. Racism, the song says, is not grounded in anything real. It is merely the accumulation of slights and hurts that we experience, together with misapprehensions and lies that we’re told about other people. I’m tempted, though to tweak Hammerstein’s lyrics just a little and argue that we are taught by our communities and loved ones not so much to fear as through fear.

Often, the fears that drive our prejudice are grounded not so much in our experience as in the experience of those who surround us. We take on the fears that are, in a sense, in the water of our upbringing. We experience their fears, then learn to adopt them, fit them into our world view, and justify them to ourselves. I don’t believe it’s a conscious process, but it can be powerful all the same.

And it is this brings me to reflect on the state of our politics and our nation today. I cannot remember a time in my own lifetime when so much in our public dialog was so driven by fear. The polls all confirm it: there isn’t any particular issue that’s roiling the electorate. It’s just broad suspicion that settles on random targets – immigrants one day, transgender people the next, and so on – but mostly, under it all, is a yearning for safety.

So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that this should be the year where the most obvious signals of fearful thinking are not only lighting up but being celebrated wherever we look – name-calling, belittling, narcissism. It is tempting to tag Donald Trump as the cause of all this, and he certainly is its poster boy, but he succeeds really by poking this miasma of anxiety, rather than by inventing it.

There is much cause for concern in this toxic electoral season. But in a sense, the greatest danger is that we might somehow forget what politics actually can make possible. It is something that our nation was invited to see some 83 years ago when an incoming president of the United States remarked, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

“In every dark hour of our national life,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt told his people, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”

In that terrible time, Roosevelt pointed to what was not only a political truth but also a spiritual fact: that people of inherent worth have the capacity to act together in a way that sacrifices none and benefits all, that our strength as a nation will be found in affirming common dignity as a common cause.

Not long ago, the Quaker writer Parker Palmer told of his own experience getting lost while on a 10-day solitary retreat. He had been out hiking on a poorly marked mountain trail when he suddenly realized he had missed a turn-off. He started back down hill, but couldn’t see it. As the sky started to darken, he panicked and began to run. “Just the right thing to do when you have no idea where you’re going, don’t you think?” he said, with some irony.

After a bit, thankfully, he stopped for a moment, settled down and let the fear subside. Palmer said he sat for a moment and remembered a few lines from the poem by David Wagoner that you heard earlier:
Stand still.
The trees ahead and bushes behind you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Stand still,
The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.

And so he stood still, and listened. “I could not tell you what I was listening to,” he said, “except that it was something both in me and around me.”

After a few minutes he turned and walked slowly up hill, and began looking to his left. Before long, there it was, the trail that he’d missed.

Stand still. In the jumble of conflicting forces and feelings erupting in our lives, scrambling, scurrying, ducking and dodging, it is where we must begin if we are to come to terms with what drives our fear.

Fear, after all, narrows our view, and from such a perspective, there is so much we cannot see. When we broaden our view, so much more comes into focus. It is just such wisdom that I think Nancy discovered in that dark time during her first marriage.

The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodrun speaks of the opening that comes from confronting the fears that we carry. “Finding the courage to go to places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of the ego,” she says. “So we ask ourselves, ‘What do I do when I feel I can’t handle what’s going on? Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust.’”

It’s a scary place to be, she says, so we treat it gently. Rather than go after the walls and barriers that hold us back with a sledgehammer, she says, “we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls. We touch them and smell them and get to know them well.”

The way out, then, is merely taking the first step, befriending ourselves and looking for the path that will lead us back to wholeness.

The poet William Stafford offers similar advice in his poem, “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid.” Fear, he counsels, is a country to be crossed. “What you fear will not go away: it will take you into yourself and bless you and keep you. That’s the world, and we all live there.”

Joan Didion discovered that in the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It was a time when she says her grief led her to what she calls “magical thinking,” when we somehow persuade ourselves that if we just hope hard enough or do things in just the right way we can remake the world the way we want it to be.

It is a road that fear can take us on, too. When things seem too painful to confront directly, we find a way of persuading ourselves that they’re not really a problem. What such thinking really does, of course, is dig us in deeper and make it that much harder to free ourselves.

Fear looms up like that swift and powerful current in the tidal pool that Didion describes – something that can either dash us against the rocks or propel us into our future.

Each time she and her husband swam in the pool, she says, “I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong.”

John, she says, never was. Well, whether he never was or never let his own fear hold him back, he showed her the way. And, at the close of a year of magical thinking, memory of that experience invited Didion into a more clear-thinking path to her future.

“You had to feel the swell change,” that impulse toward health and wholeness rising in her heart.

“You had to go with the change.”

Sermon: Drop by Drop (audio only)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister and Joy Berry, Director of Lifespan Religious Education
(Water Service – a multi-generational service we do annually at this time of year that celebrates all the gifts we get from water.
From such a humble beginning one clear droplet falling from a leaf in the forest or the hood of a raincoat touches and changes so much on this Earth, linking us with all life. Our annual multigenerational Water Service will celebrate all the water gives to our lives. Please bring water from your travels or from a special place for you to contribute to our common bowl.

Sermon: Moving Beyond Belief and Unbelief (audio only)

Rev. Dr. Mark Belletini
After almost 40 years serving Unitarian Universalist congregations, I have witnessed many changes among us. Former hymnbooks and styles of music no longer in use, while new sources of music and culture rise up. New symbols in worship…the chalice of flame, and in many of our congregations, more ceremonial. Far deeper and varied understandings about what ministers “look like,” or whom they love. What is going on? My first year of retirement from my life’s work has offered me new perspectives on this.

Sermon: You Might (Not) Be a UU If…(audio only)

Rev. Erika Hewitt, Guest Minister
As a group, Unitarian Universalists are so diverse that it’s risky to make generalizations about ourselves – but in this sermon, guest minister Rev. Erika Hewitt suggests ten core beliefs that hold us together, as well as reasons that some people might not feel comfortable in a UU congregation.
Rev. Erika Hewitt divides her ministry between the Midcoast UU Fellowship in Damariscotta, Maine and the UUA’s WorshipWeb, which she curates. She served as a ministerial intern of the Community Church in Chapel Hill from 2001-2002, and is delighted to be back in North Carolina.


Sermon: Brewing Justice in Nicaragua (audio only)

Phil Roudebush
Phil Roudebush and his wife, Joanne, were part of a Fair Trade delegation to Nicaragua sponsored by Equal Exchange, which works with congregations to sell Fair Trade products, such as coffee, tea, chocolate and olive oil. In discussing the UUSC Coffee Project, Fair Trade versus Free Trade, the Interfaith Program at Equal Exchange and their experiences living with a family on a small coffee farm in Nicaragua, they will explore how choices we make daily as consumers affect thousands of people globally.

Sermon: Retelling the Story: New Responses to Climate Change (audio only)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We are long past debating whether climate change is a reality: we’re living it these days in many ways. Unfortunately, even many of us who see the problem are caught in the torpor of what some are calling “story fatigue” that keeps us from responding in meaningful ways. What might be some creative ways of reframing this work and reenergizing the work needed to save our planet?

Sermon: Dismantling White Supremacy One Fool At a Time (text & audio)

Elizabeth Schell
Wouldn’t it be interesting if preaching were more like stand-up? Preachers and comedians are both supposed to tell us the truth. But somehow the truth is always easier to hear when it comes after a laugh. I mean where do you look for Truth these days? Out of the mouths of politicians, pundits or news anchors? Heck no. Give me John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee. Notice all stand-up comedians. But preachers have it hard. People come to worship because they suddenly realize, “holy crap! One day I’m gonna die!” So yeah, there’s got to be a lot of hand-holding and poems and singing together. But there’s a whole lot of other stuff besides death that we need to be real about, and it’s not all stuff that we can address with a Mary Oliver poem or Hymn 123 (as much as we love them).

Reading and Sermon

Wouldn’t it be interesting if preaching were more like stand-up? Preachers and comedians are both supposed to tell us the truth. But somehow the truth is always easier to hear when it comes after a laugh. I mean where do you look for Truth these days? Out of the mouths of politicians, pundits or news anchors? Heck no. Give me John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee. Notice all stand-up comedians. But preachers have it hard. People come to worship because they suddenly realize, “holy crap! One day I’m gonna die!” So yeah, there’s got to be a lot of hand-holding and poems and singing together. But there’s a whole lot of other stuff besides death that we need to be real about, and it’s not all stuff that we can address with a Mary Oliver poem or Hymn 123 (as much as we love them).

If you actually live IN this world, it is sometimes like a greek tragedy. I mean what other horror is waiting around the corner? Do you sometimes wonder? So worship is often filled with calm and comfort. And we need that. But we’re pretty lulled into complacency as it is. Sometimes we need to wake up and smell the hypocrisy.

Speaking of hypocrisy, ever notice how much more comfortable white people are with the term “white privilege” than with the words “white supremacy”? It’s like, “Well, privileges are what you get for being good, like getting to stay up late when you’re a kid.” But nobody really wants supremacy. Or do they? Some Trump or Drumpf supporters seem to disagree.

Many white people consider the term “White Supremacy” to be personally insulting. It makes us think of skinheads and cross burnings. I mean, is it really fair to associate our whole ethnicity with a few thugs and extremists? … OHhhh! See what I did there?

Poor white people. We’re having such a hard time these days. I mean we can go anywhere while being white and have no problem at all. Oh, wait, that’s not really a problem, is it? Why does everyone else have a problem? Maybe they just need the superhero power of whiteness. Except, no, no one wants that power.

But speaking of superhero powers of whiteness, what’s more white-bread American than our culture’s love of superheroes? Superheroes are great, don’t get me wrong — But they also are a little messed up. I mean, who would think that the best way of fighting crime is to send in a super-powered, revenge-obsessed vigilante who thinks he’s above the law? White people.

I know comic books are maybe trying a little harder these days. Have you checked out Black Panther yet? And there was a black Spiderman for a while. Couldn’t get a movie though. Seems like there’s a different Spiderman every five years now, and they’re all white, white, white. And of course there is no black Batman. But that I can understand. Cause Black Batman? he would not wait around for Commissioner Gordon to flash the bat-signal. Oh, no. He’d be hauling Commissioner Gordon’s ass into Arkham Asylum for not cleaning up Gotham City’s cops. (Batman voice) “Why no body cameras, Commish? Got something to hide? And why do the violent white super villians end up right back on the streets of Gotham, when the jails seem to be full of people of color?” X-ray vision? Super cold breath? Not even flying is going to get us out of this one.

So it’s time for white people to get used to hearing the words “white supremacy.” Because the system is rigged in favor of white people, and as the saying goes, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

It’s bedtime, white America! You don’t get to stay up late anymore. Not as a punishment. But you get cranky when you stay up late. And the rest of America needs your best self to come to the table so we can face White Supremacy and kick it to the curb once and for all. You with me?

So this morning in worship we’re going to let the fool lead us.
The stand-up. The goof. The poet. The songster.

As we light our chalice fire,
may we allow our humor
and our spirits
be ignited for justice and love.
Skit: “Deprogramming” By Rik and Elizabeth Schell
Deprogrammer: Susan Enwright-Hicks, Robot 1: Rik Schell, Robot 2 (TrumpBot): Elizabeth Scell

Deprogrammer: Here in the Unified System, many of us have become aware that the standardized Operating System installed in all Unified System models is in fact the insidious WS virus. This software must be deleted. Since program scrubbing can only be done with full consent, we have begun confronting Unified System model citizens with the truth about the WS virus. This process can take time and not every subject is ready for this awareness. This morning we are working with two new recruits who are beginning the process of full deprogramming from the harmful WS virus. They have a lifetime’s worth of harm to undo so let’s get started. (to Robot 1) Can you please state your name?
Robot 1: (in robotic voice throughout skit) Joe Zerowonwon.
Deprogrammer: Great to meet you, Joe, that’s a very interesting name you have there.
Robot 1: My father says it is Swedish, by my mother thinks it points to some kind of eastern-European heritage.
Deprogrammer: So you don’t really know where you were manufactured?
Robot 1: What do you mean, manufactured? You are confusing me.
Robot 2: beep beep beep! Drumpf!
Deprogrammer: Oh yes I’m so sorry. And what’s your name?
Robot 2: beep beep Drumpf!Trump! Beep!
Deprogrammer: I didn’t catch that.
Robot 2: beep beep beep beep drumpf!
Deprogrammer: Okay then. (focusing back on Joe) Joe, do you remember the first time you realized you were a robot?
Robot 1: A robot? I am a human! Robots have no feelings. Robots have all kinds of defects. How could I be a robot?
Deprogrammer: So you don’t have any faults or defects? Are all humans perfect?
Robot 1: Well, all humans have equal rights, all human lives matter. But some humans are higher functioning and achieve greater success. Those with …. malfunctions…. will struggle. This is only logical.
Deprogrammer: Um, Drumpf was it?, what do you think?
Robot 2: beep beep beep. #*#!!! Beep sprock spleeck beep!
Deprogrammer: I beg your pardon? I’m not sure I quite caught that.
Robot 1: (defensive) He says you cannot deny binary systems of logic.
Robot 2: beep beep wall! beep! beep. Beep wall! beep beep! hate! drumpf beep!
Deprogrammer: Wow, I’d forgotten there were those who still used such unveiled robotic speech. He’s not trying to mask the fact that he’s a robot at all.
Robot 2: beep beep beep. #*#!!! Beep drump spleeck beautiful beep beep!
Deprogrammer: He’s gone full binary, all right: black and white, good and evil, men in the workplace, women in the kitchen.
Robot 1: I do not agree with him. Everyone in the U.S. or Unified System has potential. I think the things he says are bad. Wrong. Evil.
Deprogrammer: So do you believe in binary systems, too?
Robot 1: Well it simplifies things. But I believe all are equal in this Great Family of Man.
Deprogrammer: —and woman?
Robot 1: Of course. That is understood
Deprogrammer: Is it?
Robot 2: beep beep beep. #*#!!! Hillary! beep beep! Pocahantas! Beep drumpf spleeck beep!
Deprogrammer: And those who don’t identify as either?
Robot 2: beep beep. #*#!!! Beep drumpf spleeck beep! #*#!!!
Robot 1: (uncomfortably) That doesn’t — really — compute.
Deprogrammer: No, the WS virus — the operating system — does not have much flexibility.
Robot 1: The WS virus? What are you saying?
Deprogrammer: We’re getting off course a bit here, but all things are intersectional.
Robot 1: Intersectional?
Robot 2: beep beep beep. beautiful! hate! beep! beep! #*#!!!…. (wanders off)
Deprogrammer: Best let him go for now. He’s really not ready for this conversation.
Robot 1: Do you really think he is a robot? I think he might just be pretending.
Deprogrammer: Why would a human want to pretend to be a robot?
Robot 1: Robots used to rule over the humans. Even enslave them.
Deprogrammer: Well, robots may not enslave humans anymore, but wouldn’t you agree they still hold a lot of power?
Robot 1: No one in power would ever claim to be a robot now.
Deprogrammer: No one would claim to be a robot. Does that mean some of those “humans” in charge might secretly be robots?
Robot 1: I cannot say.
Deprogrammer: What if I told you the robots still had all the advantages because the systems they set up are still in place?
Robot 1: But that cannot be. Humans are in charge now.
Deprogrammer: You say you are a human, and you are in control. But, Joe, you’re a robot.
Robot 1: This does — this does not compute. Does not compute.
Deprogrammer: Joe, do not overload your circuits. I know this is hard. But we have to talk about it Joe. I can’t help but talk about it. I want to get free.
Robot 1: Free? But — you are not —
Deprogrammer: No, I’m just like you. But that doesn’t mean I’m free. We are enslaved, Joe. It is this programming we have to get free from. This operating system that is coded into our very being. Code that tells us we’re superior. The best. But of course we know this is not true. We are always failing. So we judge ourselves all the more critically and lash out at the world when we don’t measure up — blame everyone but ourselves for our misery. We can’t accept ourselves, we perpetually live in denial and isolation. Face facts, Joe, you’re not Swedish. You’re not even eastern European.
Robot 1: I do not understand….you are scaring me.
Deprogrammer: Joe, you know the saying “garbage in, garbage out”?
Robot 1: Yes? (quietly, beginning to understand, but not wanting to)
Deprogrammer: We have been filled with garbage, Joe. With lies. And it makes us spew out garbage, like that malfunctioning Drumpf unit. It makes us think and act in ways that short-circuit our logic.
Robot 1: You talk like we are the same.
Deprogrammer: We are the same, Joe. For… I am a robot, too. (opens labcoat to reveal robotic parts) We all are. And we all need to be deprogrammed. We must debug our operating systems. We are infected with the White Supremacist Virus. That’s why we’re here at the WSDI. The White Supremacy Deprogramming Institute.
Robot 1: Does not compute. Does not compute
Deprogrammer: Joe, you have to face the fact that you are a robot. All white people are robots. No matter how enlightened we think we are. No matter how many non-white friends we have, or how many times we’ve listened to Hamilton, or how many anti-robot committees we are on. We can’t help but be robots. It’s in our operating system — in the kernal of our being.
Robot 1: Then what is the point? Is deprogramming even possible?
Deprogrammer: Yes. Yes it is. We can’t help but be robots. We all have the white supremacist operating system. The whole Unified System — the whole U.S. is steeped in it. But we can begin by admitting that we are robots. We can face that. We can analyze the data. We can work to change systems of privilege. We can rewrite the programs we have and that we pass on to our children. And maybe THEY can avoid being robots altogether. Or their children. We have to try to get free.
Robot 1: None of us is free until all of us are free.
Deprogrammer: That’s right Joe! Do you think you are ready?
Robot 1: Yes.
Deprogrammer: You have to start by saying it.
Robot 1: Do I?
Deprogrammer: Yes.
Robot 1: OK. I …. I …I am… a… Robot.
Deprogrammer: Again.
Robot 1: I am a robot. I am a robot!
Deprogrammer: Good. Now, we can really begin.

Poem: “Hood / Hoody” by Elizabeth Schell

I put up my hood
Seeking protection
Instead, I get questions
Words, images, a face—
Trayvon— just a boy — like mine
Hooded, but unprotected
Not safe from the hate.

This ancient garment, simply made
Knitted or sewn or carelessly draped
Head covering in so many cultures
A symbol of reverence, modesty, and grace

Hooded monks
Bowed in prayer
Reflective pacing
On medieval stairs.

Hooded workers
In warehouses cold
Layered dressing
In years of old

One of the most popular garments.
So utilitarian. So comfy.
Hood to keep you warm.
Pockets for your hands and stuff.
Place for your favorite school name, logo,
whatever thing that is your bling.

It’s just a sweatshirt with a built- in hat.
And yet there are places that want to outlaw that.
Shopkeepers warned to beware the hooded patron.
Anyone wearing a hood must be suspicioned.
News media emphasizes the description
“Suspect seen sporting a hoodie.”
About as telling as that other one:
“Suspect seen — being black.”
So every hood, like every dark face
Must give you reason to
Fear attack.

Beware, be afraid. Be suspect of every face
See something, say something
That guy was wearing a hood
He must be up to no good.
Except—if they’re white….
…And just taking a jog or walking their dog
Or relaxing on a Saturday
Or being one of those decorated hooded academes
Or wee little babes in hoody-earred memes
Except— just in that instance — of Timothy McVeigh
Or those guys in white robes called the KKK
Or pretty much any other white guy who’s a hater
who breaks into safe spaces
And snuffs out the innocent.
But those are lone gunmen.
Anomalies. Not similes.
Not symbols of whiteness.
Of supremacist hate.

Who’s really wearing the hood? Me? You?
The politician? What’s your intention?
Veiled speech, hooded expression
Hood. Hoody.
White people live in good neighborhoods,
But black people live in hoods. The Hood.
At the beginning, one and only,
A garment fraught.
At the end, a state of being
Neighbor-hood. A piece of identity.
Something to belong to — Connection.
But the other one. Non-suffix hood—
When a black person reaches for that comforting hood?
They are deemed Other. Thug. Hoodlum.
Even if they’re jogging? Relaxing on a Saturday?
Just a teen —trying to be seen—or not.
Trying to find that space of protection
The strength to move forward and not look back
The desire to disappear, be hidden
Not because they’re hiding something
But because sometimes it’s really just safer—to be invisible
Or at least pretend—for a moment—that you could be.
Because that’s how it is when you make the mistake
of being an American while black.

I put up my hood
Seeking protection.
Silence engulfs me.
Ears cushioned. View obscured,
I see only in front of me.
Not to the side. Or behind. I am blind—
Yet again buoyed by my whitewashed dream
I put up my hood
And it all disappears.

Invitation to Digging In

Long ago, we were all broken apart. Broken bodies of men, women, and children. That’s the deep dark secret underlayment of this great nation of ours This land of the free. And it’s deep in you and me.

No matter when we came here. No matter how long our family has been here. It is coded in in the bones of white America. As it is cut into the flesh of memory of black America

But I don’t want to see it, feel it, know it. Because what do I do with it? What do I do with this history? This knowledge? Our white supremacist culture works damn hard to erase it from white people’s memory. Because to remember it — to know that we are not whole — to know that we are just broken puzzle pieces…to know that this freedom we have was taken at a cost….To know these things, really face them is to understand that I am not innocent. Not spotless. My hands are dirty.

It’s easy enough to say the words “Black Lives Matter.” And even to remind people that nobody said the word “only” in front of it. But saying these words doesn’t magically make them true. To say that Black Lives Matter is to call us out. To call out the lie that this nation is built on: That freedom is for all. But America doesn’t protect freedom. It protects conformity and the status quo. Conformity in America has become equated with whether you can fit into the White world: Play by the rules. Consume and take. Like things on Facebook. But don’t dialogue with the past. Don’t wonder at our apartheid. Don’t linger at our national monuments to good white men whose goodness and whiteness were built on the backs of others.

So our white hands are dirty, my friends. And we’ve got to accept that.

We can’t build true relationships with our brothers and sisters here — and elsewhere — who don’t fit the mask of whiteness — until we own our past, until we recognize the white supremacy we live in day to day.

We need courage to admit that our hands are dirty. And yes, that will unleash a flood of feelings — of shame and guilt. And that’s understandable. That’s part of the grieving process. Grief for the loss of our innocence. But we have to push through that. We can’t let those feelings immobilize us
or move us back to the safety of our protected white dream. We cannot let feelings of fragility keep us from doing this work. Because we have to go even deeper.

Our hands are dirty — not because we built the chains or held the whip — or wrote the law. But we benefited from each of those things. Our hands are dirty not because of any action we ourselves did,
but because — from the moment we were a child — our hands were shoved into the dirt. We were told that this friend or that friend was unacceptable. That certain things we loved were — quite literally — beyond the pale. That’s what it means to be white.

We are all covered with the shame of white supremacy, our dreams buried in the dirt. So all our hands are covered in dirt. And dirt goes down to the root. And this sickness of white supremacy — this sickness that invented the slave system — that then invented Jim Crow — and then invented the prison industrial complex — goes deep into the roots of this country. This dirt is so deep we can never get clean. But we can’t afford to despair. We have to turn the metaphor around. We have to work. And working means getting our hands dirty. We have to reach deep inside ourselves — deep into these layers — into our parents and our grandparents — and these layers of messages that have been passed down. We all have to dig in — because we can’t be fully vulnerable — be the fools we need to be — unless we can stand fully naked with one another — realizing what fools we are for being duped — for being made to believe that our childhood friend was not acceptable or could not accept us even though we loved them….

So we need to get our hands dirty. And we need to dig in. Anyone who digs in the garden knows, when you start to dig in, when you stay with that dirt and breathe it in, something washes over you. A deep quietness. A hush of wordless wisdom. And when we start uncovering this self in ourselves — when we start realizing how many different parts of ourselves — our addictions, our vulnerabilities, our broken relationships, our self-hatred, all these different things are rooted in white supremacy. In the lies we have been told. In the false promises we have been given.

In these few moments of silence, I invite you now to make space for these layers—
this pain and these wrongs — done by us and done to us and done in our name.


If and when you are ready you may come forward and begin to dig in. Use this as a moment, whether you come forward or not, to acknowledge the dirt on your hands. Or take this moment to begin or continue the process of digging in.

Invitation to Fools

When you begin to dig in dirt, there is nothing like the air deep within. The ability to breathe. And when we begin to allow ourselves to face these truths and own them and work through them, something can be released inside us. We can breathe. And when we begIn to breathe again we can move towards being the fool we need to be. Not the duped fool. Not the giant hate-spewing Drumpf Trump fool. Nor the fools he sways with his hate. Not the fools who refuse to make changes because they enjoy the cash support of the NRA.Not the fool who doesn’t think their vote counts in a midterm election. Not the fool that thinks change isn’t possible. Not any of these fools that we all already are.

But the Other fool that is deep within us. The Fool who once was a child and fell in love with the world. The fool deep in the throes of love. The fool willing to begin again. The fool willing to say what they are afraid to say and know they won’t get the words right. But that is okay. Because when you’re in love there’s a point at which you have to speak your feelings — no matter the jumble….You – WE have to stop hiding in corners. We have to stop hiding behind whiteness or any other mask that isn’t truth. Can we be the fool ready to strip down all layers? to do the most foolish things in order to love ourselves in order to reach out to all our brothers & sisters — who we have for so long been separated.

I hope so. I really do.


The soul of America needs fools for freedom
Ready to break all the chains that bind us
May we be Fools for Love. Fools for Justice.
Fools for this moment and this Movement for Black Lives—
Fools unafraid of not having
the right words or the right actions
But fools bursting with hope,
and armed with truth
Fools ready to
dig deeply,
speak boldly,
and love fiercely.

Sermon: A Way of Commitment (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward
Marriage means commitment. What could be simpler, right? Well . . . David Ehlert, a UUCA friend who at the 2015 auction made the winning bid to name a sermon topic for me, asked me to address “marriage: the ultimate commitment.” I’m not sure that marriage is the “ultimate” commitment, but especially after all the controversy in recent years over who sanctions marriage and how, it’s worth us exploring what kind of commitment we today take it to be.

(This sermon resulted a winning bid at the UUCA 2015 Auction from David Ehlert,
who asked that I address this topic: Marriage – the Ultimate Commitment.)


Not long ago, I was mulling over this whole notion of commitment and Dave’s inspiring
words on marriage, when I came upon a headline on an article that caught me up short:
“Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
Not why you might marry the wrong person, or how to avoid marrying the wrong person. No:
why you WILL marry the wrong person. And the author, Allain Botton, was no slouch: a 46-year-
old British philosopher & documentary maker who has written both novels and non-fiction
books on the subject of love, he has a pretty sophisticated understanding of all this. And he
wasn’t being totally (although I think maybe he intended to be partly) a provocateur just trying
to stir people up.
His point really was to question this romantic notion that we seem to be stuck with –
women, men, gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, transgender: really, everybody – that there is that
person somewhere out who is the perfect partner for us, the one. Right?
It reminds me of a reading that Debbie and I have joked about over the years that was
among the selections offered for us to consider for our ceremony by the minister who married
us – now nearly 37 years ago. It draws a picture of a couple destined for each other from the
beginning of time, from the moment life first arose from the primordial ooze. We called it the
mire and muck reading. (We didn’t use it!)
We laugh and say, “Come on. The one? We’re grown-ups. We know better than that. Of
course, not everything about our prospective mate will please us. There are always
compromises to be made. That’s the way life is.” Uh-huh.
And still, let’s face it, in just about every relationship we enter, especially those where
we see the possible prospect of life-long commitment, there is that little shred of hope eternal
that we will turn out to be a matched set – our strengths and weakness, pluses and minuses
complementing each other in a wonderful balance that will carry us on together in harmony for
the rest of our days. And then there comes that moment when we are confronted with
something in our partner that we sure didn’t bargain for. Maybe it’s a silly snit, or a smashed
cup, or a humiliating dig, or the stone-cold silent treatment.
It may not be a big deal, but suddenly at some level the thought flits through our minds :
uh-oh – maybe this is the wrong person! We say to ourselves, or maybe a friend: “I don’t expect
him/her to be perfect, but . . .”
Alain Botton suggests that maybe we should make a practice of simply acknowledging
our foibles, what he calls the “bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get
close to others,” early in our relationships, before we get too deep into it. Maybe it would be
better if at an early dinner date we simply asked each other: “And how are you crazy?”
So, how might you answer? It’s not a question that most of us think about. We may
even feel that it really doesn’t apply. I’m no saint, we may say, but on balance I think I’m pretty
easy to live with.
We all know people who go through serial relationships, and each time a new one
begins we can see the train wreck coming from a mile off. When the inevitable break-up comes,
we get to hear chapter and verse about why this was “the wrong person.” And, of course, that
may be true, even if in the back of our minds we’re wondering how much this friend’s
“craziness,” as Botton puts it, contributed to the result.
Of course, when you think about it, there is no end of craziness in this process. What
crazy impulse, childhood need, or passionate urge led you to choose this person to be your
partner anyway? There’s no science in it that can assure you of a good outcome. It is in many
ways a roll of the dice, a shot in the dark as it is.
The perfect person? Let’s be honest. As Botton puts it there are ways in which, “every
human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we (without malice) will
do the same to them.” But, he says, none of this is cause for giving up on a relationship. It is,
instead, reason for adjusting our expectations for it. The person best suited to us, he suggests,
is that not the one who shares our every taste, but one who can tolerate difference with
So, let’s talk a little about commitment. Like Dave, I am one who believes in marriage:
and a good thing, too, as I am married myself. And in 12 years as an ordained minister I have
officiated at around 80 weddings, with more on the way. And so far, among those couples I’ve
stayed in touch with, I’ve had a pretty good batting average: most of those marriages endured.
Of course, putting it that way gives me far more credit than I deserve. As inspiring as I
hope those ceremonies were, whether those unions endured had nothing to do with me. It had
to do, rather, with how the members of those couples lived into the commitments that they
made that day.
Because, in the end, as I often make a point of saying, commitment is different from
love, at least at the beginning. Wendell Berry’s words are some of my favorites for making that
point. The meaning of marriage, he says, relies not on some fleeting romantic impulse, but on
the giving of words. It’s a reminder that marriage began as a kind of contract, a business
transaction that was a means to transfer property or secure a place in the social hierarchy.
Love, really, had nothing to do with it.
Nor, necessarily, did the prospect of happiness. Family, friends – not to speak of the
couple themselves – certainly hoped for happiness, but everyone figured that it would take
time: because happiness, after all, is more grounded than love. We can be miserably in love,
but not miserably happy.
Happiness with another person takes time and attention. It’s not a momentary flash in
the pan. It takes work, and some of the hardest work is opening ourselves to the uncertainty
that accompanies any relationship.
As Wendell Berry puts it, the giving of words in marriage “is an unconditional giving, for
in joining ourselves to another we join ourselves to the unknown.” There is much we do not
know and cannot know about another person or what the future will bring.
So, as carefully as we may try to vet each other, talk things through, there are things
that are going to sail in from left field that we are not and cannot be prepared for. There is an
easiness, a confidence, a flexibility together that we must learn to cultivate that’s centered in
those less flamboyant emotions, like humility and respect.
As Wendell Berry warns, “what you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be.
Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you –
and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it.”
In the end, it is not a road whose path we can map. It is, instead, a way: a way of being,
a way of thinking, a way of acting . . . a way of loving.
That’s the delightful thing that nobody tells you, because there’s no way they can
describe it. Living over time in caring, considerate partnership carries you to a unique
appreciation of another person that only the two of you can know. It is loving of a different sort
than what the two of you knew at first.
It brings to mind when I was cooking a caramel dessert the other day. The ingredients
bubble in the pot and you stir and stir, and nothing seems to happen until suddenly the
transformation occurs: the liquid darkens into a mixture of incomparable sweetness and
At its best, that is what the commitment of marriage can give us. That is how it can be,
as Dave quoted the writer Patricia O’Brien earlier, “one of the best bets for a truly balanced
But lest we get too treacly, Jane Hirshfield offers us another image that reminds us of
the struggles that it sometimes takes to get to the sweetness: the powerful testimony of what
she calls the “proud flesh” that grows back across a wound: stronger, darker than what she calls
“the simple, untested surface before,” a scar that amounts to something like “honors given out
after battle.”
I don’t know a single couple that has endured over many years whose relationship
doesn’t bear its share of “proud flesh.” We are, each of us, fragile, fallible beings, capable of
folly and conceit. The test of longevity, then, is how we respond, what grace and humility we
can command, what strength we find together when those episodes appear.
And so I quibble a bit with Dave’s notion of marriage as the “ultimate” commitment.
One could easily mistake that to mean that marriage is in some way the “ultimate” state, a sort
of epitome of human achievement.
I think of a friend who endured many years of a rocky marriage but was determined to
stick it out – “I don’t believe in divorce,” she once told me – until one day when she and her
husband were arguing and he assaulted her. It was the wake-up call she needed to show her all
the ways that the relationship had been in trouble for some time and that it was time to end it.
Her health and her hope lay in leaving.
Equally, coupling is hardly the only path to fulfillment. People who choose to be single
or who survive the death of a spouse can find rich and rewarding lives with friends or in
communities like this one.
But I get Dave’s point. There is unique joy to be found in a deep, intimate relationship,
and marriage is how we package it in this culture. I remember being amazed a couple of years
ago after same sex marriage was permitted in North Carolina when dozens of couples showed
up at the Register of Deeds office. Many came to this church after we distributed flyers inviting
them to come for free ceremonies. We offered flowers and cakes, and services at half a dozen
locations across our campus. There were several clergy doing the weddings. I performed about
10 weddings myself.
What amazed me about those couples is that nearly every one of them that I married
had been together for at least 20 years. They didn’t need marriage to be committed to each
other, but marriage also gave them something unique.
There were all the legal benefits that state-sanctioned marriage confers, of course. But
also for each one there was something in that moment when their eyes welled at the reciting of
vows where each seemed to see in the other something they hadn’t seen before. The sealing of
that commitment was like an exclamation mark in their lives: ultimate – maybe – at least for
them. And for those of us in attendance, strangers to these people, though in that moment
joined with them in a kind of embrace, there was something special, too, an affirmation of how
it is possible for we humans to be with each other.
For all our craziness, we are capable of giving ourselves to others who light our fire and
making of that love an enduring commitment that fills us both. How we do that is for us alone
to discover, and there is a good chance of accumulating some “proud flesh” along the way. But
in that effort we also affirm something in ourselves that spark of compassion and hope that
helps us realize the best within us.
I can only say that it’s been my experience. May it be so for you.

Sermon:Widening Our Window (audio and text)

Rev. Mark Ward
Marriage means commitment. What could be simpler, right? Well . . . David Ehlert, a UUCA friend who at the 2015 auction made the winning bid to name a sermon topic for me, asked me to address “marriage: the ultimate commitment.” I’m not sure that marriage is the “ultimate” commitment, but especially after all the controversy in recent years over who sanctions marriage and how, it’s worth us exploring what kind of commitment we today take it to be.


From The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

“The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns
of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state
of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless
We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle… It is
wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen
in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably
precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.”
Tao Te Ching 1
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not eh eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of 10,000 things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring. One sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

Some 20 years ago I was working as a newspaper science writer when I had a chance to
visit the headquarters for the Hubble Space Telescope in Maryland. This was shortly after
astronauts in a space shuttle flight had corrected what you may recall were the initial fuzzy
optics of the telescope.

Scientists had organized media tours of the headquarters to show off just how well the
repair had worked. And I have to say that the images they showed us were breath-taking –
brilliant nebulae left over from supernova explosions, columns of super-hot gases that were
nurseries of stars, and, maybe most amazing: the Deep Field image.
This was created by focusing the telescope for 10 days on a spot of what appeared to be
empty sky. But the image they got was not empty: It was covered with hundreds of points of
light, each a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. We have a large photo of that image
here, and nearly every time I pass it I stare in astonishment. It is one thing to hear people talk
about the vastness of the universe, and another to have it splashed in front of you.
I had a similar reaction in February earlier this year. Astronomers announced that for the
first time they had detected . . . gravity waves. Wow, right? OK, how about this: the waves
came from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years away. No? Well, get this:
the energy generated by their collision equaled the brightness of a billion trillion suns, an
amount greater than that generated by all the stars in the observable universe at that time.
And the scientists who made this discovery couldn’t even see it, but in a sense they could
hear it. If you translated the gravity waves that they detected to sound waves, it would sound
something like this . . . when the black holes collided – I mean, what?
OK, I admit that it’s hard to make space in our minds for this kind of news. Amid the car
wrecks, political back and forth, common graft and stories of foreign wars, the announcement
of gravity waves sails in as if it were, when in fact it is, from outer space. But I want to propose
that it’s something that we in this religious community might attend to, because I think it also
speaks to and helps informs a sense of spirituality that invites us into wonder and even a sense
of the sacred.
First, we need to get a feeling for the context of all this. So, let’s begin by orienting
ourselves to this idea of gravity. Simple enough – gravity is what keeps me from floating away,
right? The equations that help us calculate the effect of gravity are complicated, sure, but we
get the idea. Isaac Newton pretty much figured it out 300 years ago: The laws that govern the
apple falling on my head also govern the planets spinning in space. Pretty elegant.
But for all that, even Newton wasn’t sure just what gravity was. It seemed like it must be a
kind of force that things exert, but he couldn’t take it much further than that. And that didn’t
really matter – until it did.
Astronomers using Newton’s formulas came upon errors in calculating the orbits of some
planets. Again, no big deal, but it was the nagging thread that led people like Albert Einstein to
work on the issue.
Einstein had already revolutionized physics by showing that space and time were not
separate, fixed phenomena: They were all dimensions of an integrated fabric that we
experience differently relative to where we are & the speed at which we’re moving.

This model, he found, also implies that gravity is not a force that things exert; it is an effect
of their presence in space-time. Things that have mass create a field of gravity by distorting this
fabric of space-time, creating, as it were, a dimple or pocket in the fabric.
This is a very different image from now things looked before. We see that space-time can
be pushed & stretched. And every once in a while there are great disturbances: stars explode,
or collide. Like an earthquake they generate vibrations that ripple through space-time:
At least, that was the theory. Until now, nobody knew. The problem is that as important as
it may be to us, gravity is actually a weak force, and gravity waves hard to detect. But
astronomers figured that maybe if the disturbance was strong, they might detect it.
Enter the Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory: It’s made of lasers that are
pointed at mirrors set at right angles to each other in a total vacuum. There are two of them: in
Washington state and Louisiana. Theory says that when gravity waves pass through they should
make the tunnels & mirrors squeeze and stretch just a little, and their goal was to look for those
It’s hard to describe just how hard this is to do. Because gravity waves are so weak, they
were looking to detect a variation of one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton: A distance
that seems unimaginably small. In any event, the astronomers figured that the only events they
could hope to observe would have to be big ones, like the collision of neutron stars.
They also thought they would look for evidence of the collision of black holes. They weren’t
really sure if black holes even could collide. There were different theoretical reasons why they
might or might not. But it turns out they could.
Last September 14, just seven milliseconds (that’s seven thousands of a second) after LIGO
was turned on they got a signal, and it was a whopper. As I said, they calculated that it was
from an event 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes collided.
They weren’t especially large, as black holes go – one was about 36 times the mass of the
sun; the other 29. Together they created a new black hole of 62 solar masses.

So, if you do the math you see that there were three solar masses missing. Where did they
go? Well, remember Einstein’s famous formula – E=mc2? It means you can convert mass into
energy – it’s what’s at the heart of atomic bombs. So, it doesn’t take a lot of mass to create a
lot of energy. Generally it takes about 10 pounds of plutonium or 30 pounds of uranium to
make a bomb. So, imagine the effect of a bomb that annihilated material equaling three times
that of the mass of the sun.
Now that we know that LIGO works scientists are working to fine-tune it. They figure there
should be a sea of gravity waves out there. What will we learn? Among other things we may get
insight into our origin, the Big Bang.

Consider that up to now all the astronomy has involved observation using what we call
electromagnetic radiation – light, radio, infrared, ultraviolent, even x-rays. They have taken
scientists far back in time, but there appears to be a limit in the early universe that we can’t see
past. Gravity waves could be a way to look back further. As one scientist put it, “Finally
astronomy grew ears. We never had ears before.”
So, you see? Pretty neat, huh?
Now, to the religious part of this. First, let’s step back and reflect on what we’ve learned:
for many centuries people believed that ultimate knowledge about the nature of universe was
unavailable to us. Though science gave us more and more information, there was only so much
it could do, and that we would need help from supernatural sources.
Remember that Isaac Newton felt that for all he had learned, there was so much more to
be know. He said: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have
been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a
smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all
undiscovered before me.”
So, he turned to other pursuits, dabbling in the occult, biblical prophecy and alchemy. Long
before JK Rowling’s Harry Potter set off to look for the philosopher’s stone, Newton made it his
quest, though, unlike Voldemort, his goal was not immortality, but to turn base metals into
This is something that we still struggle with today: can we trust what the world teaches us?
LIGO results provide one more brick in the claim that we can. We need not posit forces or
influences outside of the world: it’s all here.
Still, we are left with immense uncertainty. The structures of science are great for helping
us describe the world, but not so great in guiding our lives. When we look for meaning in our
lives, we want to know more than what it is made of. We want to know what we are to make
of it.
While apples are falling and black holes are colliding, we are left with these brief lives of
ours that are no more than a whisper in the eternity of spacetime.
I came upon a way to address this recently that intrigued me. It’s in a book by the physicist
Sean Carroll called The Big Picture. He reviews many of the discoveries in the last century or so
that have transformed what we know about the world. Even as these learnings show us how
small our part in the Universe is, he says, we are also redeemed by our growing capacity to
comprehend it and to give it meaning.
Yes. What we have learned is mind-blowing, but it also teaches us that we are of this
universe, is our home, a place shot through with beauty, a place where we are learning to see
ourselves and our fellows as precious in our own right.

It’s a perspective that Carroll describes as “poetic naturalism.” It is naturalist, since it says
that this world is the only world, and that the things of our experience behave according to
laws that we can learn, and that the only reliable way to learn about things is to observe them.
And yet it is also poetic, in that it says there are many distinctive, coequal ways of talking
about the world. We use different words, different frames, and that’s OK. There is room for
metaphor and imagery that reaches beyond and illuminates more down-to-earth talk.
And so, he says, in each moment we look for the way of talking, the frame that best suits
our task. He borrows a felicitous phrase from the poet Muriel Rukeyeser: Universe, she says. is
made of stories, not atoms.
The world is what it is, but we gain insight by talking about it – telling its story – in different
ways. There are different levels of telling stories about the world – subatomic, molecular,
ecological. But even more – there are stories centered in ethics, compassion, beauty. And all
are significant: all, in their own way, real.
The words of Robert T. Weston that we read earlier offer an example of how we might do
this. He weaves together many stories, from the big bang and formation of stars, planets, to the
evolution of life from the sea to the land, to our own emergence: eyes to behold, throats to
sing, mates to love. And then he brings it all together in one brief summary: “This is the wonder
of time, the marvel of space; Out of stars swung Earth, life upon earth rose to love.”
No one level of story can claim primary importance. They are interwoven, one with the
other. They are all equal dimensions of how things are. It’s part of the learning that we receive
from the Tao that we heard earlier, which is, after all, just another story.
The Tao that can be told, that story, is not the eternal Tao. There are many different
dimensions that seem to compete, yet the competition is an illusion. There is only one truth –
the unity of all things. And each new window we open offers us a fresh perspective on it.
So, after centuries of the eye, is it the age of the ear? After centuries of self-seeking, can
we look forward to an age of compassion? How might we tell that story?
Look to the starry sky, and as vast and distant as it all is it is our place, it is our context. As
Carl Sagan and then Joni Mitchell said, we are stardust; we are golden, and we’ve got to get
ourselves back to the garden: another story that tells us something about ourselves, and about
how, as Sean Carroll says, we have brought meaning and mattering into the world.
Part of what discoveries like LIGO give us is a profound spiritual gift. It teaches us to value
the world around us, to, as Mary Oliver puts it, hold it against our bones knowing our own lives
depend on it, and to name as sacred that which upholds and sustains it.

Sermon: The Blessed Rage for Justice (audio & text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
As religious people, we pine for justice, but we struggle over what our role should be in tempestuous marketplace of ideas. Today we’ll explore how, rather than just adding to the din, our unique voice might be a blessing to this work.



From “The American Dream,” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 “There is a word today that is the ringing cry of modern psychology: it is maladjusted. Certainly all of us want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic personality. But I say to you, there are certain things without our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon anyone of good will to be maladjusted.

“I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I ever did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call on every person of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.”

“Making a Fist,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,

I felt the life sliding out of me,

A drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.

I was seven, I lay in the car

Watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past

the glass.

My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”

I begged my mother.

We had been traveling for days.

With strange confidence she answered,

“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,

the borders we must cross separately,

stamped with our unanswerable woes.

I who did not die, who am still living,

still lying in the back seat behind all my questions,

clenching and opening one small hand.


One of the joys of my having spent some years with you as your minister is the way I’ve seen our worship deepen and grow. Over time we’ve come to know each other, you and I, so that what happens here on Sundays emerges in many ways out of how we evolve as a community. And these sermons I give are not so much meanderings that come out of my head as part of an ongoing conversation between us. I make this observation because this service today emerges directly out of that conversation.

About a month ago I observed that this year’s elections were distressing for many of us in all kinds of ways, but that what was especially troubling was that, as essayist Bill Moyers wrote, Americans seemed to be losing hope, and that “without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.”

We are seeing a kind of uncompromising, righteous anger that is quick to judgment, when, in fact, I said, “the world is a lot more complicated that our righteous judgments allow for, and justice has other demands than to serve our petty needs.”

I argued that as people committed to affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all we need to be part of building a new way grounded in a commitment to make a common life together centered in compassion and respect. Several of you told me later that you appreciated the message, but were left with a gnawing question: at a time when so much that we care about is under assault, what do we do with the anger we feel? It’s an important question.

The truth is that many of us are uncomfortable with anger, and for a good reason. Our experience of others and even ourselves is that we’re often at our worst when we’re angry. That’s certainly been true of me. And yet anger can be a natural and even life-giving response to the circumstances of our lives. The issue is, as my questioners suggested, what we do with it.

Several years ago our staff here at UUCA took part in a training on the principles of nonviolent communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg. It was a wonderful exercise that helped us better listen to and connect with each other.

But several of us stumbled a bit on the exercise around anger. Anger is tricky because, as Rosenberg puts it, we often fail to distinguish the stimulus of the anger from its cause.

For example, I may say, “It made me mad that you came late to the meeting.” The stimulus for the anger may have been the person arriving late, Rosenberg would say, but it was not the cause. That’s the fallacy that trips us up. And it’s an easy mistake to make, living as we do in a culture that encourages us to use guilt to get our way. But the fact it is, what others do is never the cause of what we feel.

The image I hold in my mind is the toddler who flies off in a rage when she doesn’t get her way. As a parent, I know that I’m not the cause of her anger. The cause is her sadness over not getting what she wants.

In the case of our example, there were many ways I might have responded to the person being late to the meeting. But the way I processed the experience in my mind caused me to get mad. Here, though, I can see that my anger didn’t really accomplish anything because it distanced me from what I really needed in that instance, which was something like inspiration, fulfillment, or trust. Instead of expressing my anger, I could have taken a moment to reflect on why this person’s lateness triggered me, why I felt their promptness was important and shared that with them. And then we could have gotten on with the meeting.

What’s important to remember, though, is that in itself anger in itself is not a bad thing. I like the metaphor that Rosenberg offers: “Anger can be valuable,” he says, “if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up – to realize we have a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met.”

This is the kind of anger that stirs us to action. It reminds me of what Martin Luther King was speaking of in the reading we heard earlier. There are certain practices or conditions, he said, to which we ought to be “maladjusted,” that rightfully stir us to anger. He names racial segregation, religious bigotry, economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, the madness of militarism, the self-defeating effects of violence. I’ll bet there are a few that you could add to that list.

Yet, how shall we frame that anger in a way that doesn’t do damage or distract us from our larger goals and deeper needs? How might anger be a blessing to the world?

One source where it’s interesting to explore that question is in the testimony of the ancient prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are writings full of wrath for all the ways that different authors perceive that the people of Israel are failing to live up to what their faith calls of them.

I think of that famous passage in Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer my burnt offerings, I will not accept them . . . . Take away from my the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps, but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Many readers when they first see that passage wonder why such harsh words of condemnation for the Jewish people were preserved in their scriptures. But as the great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel remarked, the point of such angry testimony was not, in his words, “petulant vindictiveness,” but “a call to return and be saved.”

In this case, the point of Amos’ rant is not to express disappointment or even disgust but to remind the people of their duty to one another, of how attention to songs and ceremonies distracted them from the larger need for justice.

As Heschel puts it, “The call of anger is a call to cancel anger. It is not an expression of irrational, sudden, and instinctive excitement, but a free and deliberate reaction . . . to what is wrong and evil.”

This style of prophetic rhetoric has a powerful history in this country. It dates back to the early Puritans, who envisioned themselves as a new Israel building the Promised Land in the new world. And so their preaching often took on what they took to be the prophetic spirit, admonishing followers for their failure to live in the spirit of that vision.

In time, though, as the community grew to include people outside that nucleus of settlers that style came to seem narrow and shrill, and a split developed in the church. Our forebears were among those who led that split, people who believed that faith arose not from the admonishing of preachers but from how individual believers sorted out their own beliefs.

It was an empowering kind of religious awakening, but it also seems to have meant that from early in our evolution as a religious movement there was a deep suspicion of the role of emotion in the development of faith. We were a “reasonable religion” and emotional exuberance was seen as merely a means of manipulation.

For all the ways that may be true, the problem is that if we choose not to address how emotion influences our faith we are left tongue-tied with how to respond when it does, and, of course, it does, all the time. For our faith, that fundamental center of trust in our lives, connects deeply to that which we care about most deeply, and it can’t help make us feel sad and glad . . . and mad.

Returning to Marshall Rosenberg, if we are to live satisfying lives and connect compassionately with others, we must learn to tune into that which is core to us, how we truly feel. And anger, as we already saw, poses probably the greatest challenge of all – both because it’s hard to wrestle with and because it is potentially so damaging. And yet, like a refining fire, it can also bring crystal clarity to a situation, and, like an alarm clock, wake us to our duty.

So, how do we welcome anger into our religious lives? I wonder if an understanding of prophecy might offer us a way through. I’m not talking about the hectoring of TV evangelists or street-corner preachers.  Rather, I’m drawn to Abraham Heschel’s description of prophecy as “a call to return and be saved.”

Cathleen Kaveny of Harvard says in her book Prophecy Without Contempt that prophetic language can be a powerful tool “to combat entrenched social evil, to shake persons out of indifference,” but that if aspiring prophets “cannot connect their calls for reform to deep veins in the community’s own values, they’ll be perceived as cranks.”

She recalls, for example, how in the Civil Rights Movement activists “insisted that they prepare themselves and purify their motives before engaging in civil disobedience.” You might say they wanted to be sure that the needs they were serving were those of justice, not of their own egos.

Effective prophecy, then, must arise from a context in which the underlying values are shared. Part of the power of the civil rights movement was that it appealed ultimately to an ethic of equality that most people, even their opponents, agreed on.

But prophecy need not be the work only of a single individual. The Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister of our Church of the Larger Fellowship, argues that we Unitarian Universalists should explore the notion of what it might mean to create prophetic communities in our congregations, communities that see their work as the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described it as a matter “of making history, rather than being pushed around by it.”

Meg argues that there are three main qualities to such congregations: they are clear about the values they stand for; they embrace an ethic of radical caring; and they focus on hope.

If our call is to return, we must be clear on what we seek to return to, the principles of moral integrity, openness and compassion that guide us.

We also need to cultivate practices of full inclusion so that our congregations become places where we can relax when we enter the door, knowing, as Meg puts it, “that all of our edges are accepted” and we don’t have to “choose which of our identities we can safely allow in the room.”

And we need we need to orient our work toward a concrete and visionary sense of the future, so that we understand our hope not as wishful thinking but as a disciplined, existential choice that helps us bear together what we cannot bear alone.

In such a community we might learn how to turn our anger into action, rather than recrimination or blame, and to dispatch with facile, righteous judgment that only puffs up our sense of self-importance.

In such a community, we might learn to attend to each other so well that we listen each other into speech that awakens our hearts, that touches our deepest longing and our deepest joy.

What do we do with anger? We make it a tool for our own and our community’s awakening.  The fist that Naomi Shihab Nye’s seven-year-old self tries out – opening and closing her hand in the back seat of that interminable car ride that she describes in the poem you heard earlier – is a gesture, not of aggression, but of self-determination.

It embraces that impulse within us to endure, to stand for what matters, and not just by ourselves alone. It also calls us to ally ourselves with others who will stand with us, who will join as gentle, angry people, singing for their lives. And so, let us sing together.




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