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YRUU Service

Sunday, February 23, 2020, 9:15 & 11:15amFriendship and CommunityYRUU Youth Join us for the annual YRUU- Young Religious Unitarian Universalist multigenerational service. Youth will reflect on friendship, community and the positive effects they have on our lives. Children in grades 3 and up...

Rekindling Moral Indignation

Sunday, March 1, 2020, 9:15 & 11:15am Rev. Claudia Jimenez, Minister of Faith DevelopmentIn these challenging times we are called to imagine possibilities that do not yet exist and are based on the good and the just.  As always, we are called to action! Join us in an...

Past Sermons are listed by date. 

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

READINGS

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.

SERMON

            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)

READINGS

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…

 Struggling…

 Making our Mistakes

 Paying Attention…

Asking our Question

 Listening…

 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.

SERMON

            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)

 

READINGS

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

 http://slaminatrix.com/the-edge-is-where-i-want-to-be

SERMON

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.

SERMON

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)

READINGS

 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.

SERMON

             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. Dictionary.com 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)

READINGS

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)

READINGS

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.

SERMON

             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)

READINGS

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.”

SERMON

            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)

READING

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.

SERMON

                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)

Readings

FROM THE U.S. DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

“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 AMERICAN BE AMERICA AGAIN by Langston Hughes

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,

America!

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!

SERMON

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
astonished.
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)

READING

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.

SERMON

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

READING

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.”

SERMON

         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)

READINGS

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.”

SERMON

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

READINGS

ON KINDNESS by Naomi Shihab Nye                https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/kindness

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.”

SERMON

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

READINGS

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.

SERMON

         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

READINGS

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.”

SERMON

            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?

CLOSING WORDS

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.

 

READINGS

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  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u59Fnw6HRUQ

SERMON

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.

Um-hum.

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?

READINGS

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.
SERMON

             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?

READINGS

“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/praise-song-day

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.”

SERMON

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)

whos-white-trash

 

SERMON

             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?

 

READINGS

“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.”

SERMON
“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.

 

SERMON

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.
Uh-huh.
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.
mp3=”https://uuasheville.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/161002-Forgiveness-That-Lonesome-Road.mp3″][/audio]

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.

READINGS

Song    by Adrienne Rich            https://readalittlepoetry.wordpress.com/2006/01/06/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.”

SERMON

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 PBS.org. 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.

READINGS

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.

SERMON

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.

 

READINGS

Lost by David Wagoner http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2009/09/lost-by-david-wagoner.html
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.”

SERMON

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
Child-hood
Man-hood
Priest-hood
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.

SILENCE

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.

BLESSING

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
generosity.
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
complexity.
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
life.”
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.

 

READING
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
equilibrium.
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.

SERMON
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
anomalies.
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
gold.
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.

 

READINGS

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.

SERMON

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.

 

 

 

Sermon: Crafting Our Credos (audio only)

Members of “Building Your Own Theology” Class
To nurture the individual search for meaning an Adult RE class, Building Your Own Credo, explored together the ethics, theological perspectives on Ultimate Reality, Unitarian Universalist writings, and values that help us discern meaning and underlie our beliefs. Today members of the BYOT class will present their credos written from this exploration.

 

Sermon: Awakening (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Every religious tradition has its foundational stories, tales that neatly sum up some central message at its heart that invites the hearer into the faith. Just so, is the story of John Murray that you heard Joy tell earlier.

 

READING

Rolling Away the Stone
by Sarah York

In the tomb of the soul, we carry secret yearnings, pains frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, worries

In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from the world and its heaviness.

In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.

Sometimes this is a comfort. Sometimes it is an escape.

Sometimes it prepares us for experience. Sometimes it insulates us from life.

Sometimes this tomb-life gives us time to feel the pain of the world and reach out to heal others. Sometimes it numbs us and locks us up with our own concerns.

In this season where light and dark balance the day, we seek balance ourselves.

Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us – possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.

SERMON

Every religious tradition has its foundational stories, tales that neatly sum up some central message at its heart that invites the hearer into the faith. Just so, is the story of John Murray that you heard Joy tell earlier.

It’s almost too good to be true – like something out of the Book of Jonah – but as far as we know it did happen. Here this bereft Universalist sails off for a new life, only to have his ship caught in a storm and founder on a sand bar just off the property of a man who had built a chapel awaiting the arrival of a Universalist preacher.

In our newcomer classes I say that we call it our own little miracle story, and for many years some of our Universalist forebears tended to treated it like that. I’m told that years ago some churches would hold an annual “John Murray Day” in late September, the time of year when Murray arrived, that would be marked by special services or festivals. They’d gather and sing, “John Murray sailed over the ocean; John Murray sailed over the sea . . . .”

The truth is, though, that Murray’s stumbling upon Thomas Potter may not have been quite so miraculous as it seemed, though it certainly was serendipitous. As it happens, Thomas Potter was not alone in his community in his Universalist beliefs. There were, in fact, quite a few.

Remember that at the time of Murray’s travels – 1770 – many people seeking religious freedom were drawn to what was to become New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, near colonies founded by the Quaker William Penn. Among them were members of pietistic sects whose faith had strong Universalist tendencies. Included were German Baptists, known as Dunkers, who had settled much of that area and that Potter himself may have had contacts with.

So, in truth, it’s not really accurate to say that John Murray brought Universalism to America. It was already here and eventually it spread out from many centers, ranging from Pennsylvania to the hill country of New Hampshire. That suggests that this story may be less important as an origin tale than as the tale of the journey of faith that even three and a half centuries later still has something to say to us.

With that lens, we can see when we return to the story that it really is one of awakening, an Easter moment of sorts that tells us of the hope of rebirth even at a time that feels most like defeat.

So, where does this hope come from? The Universalist answer to this has evolved over time as the tradition has evolved, but it is grounded in the basic understanding that this hope is not something we need to seek; it is something we are called to recognize.

John Murray’s understanding was different than ours. He felt that Jesus’ death on the cross gave us the assurance that all were saved. But Hosea Ballou, who succeeded Murray as the leader of the movement in the first half of the 19th century, disagreed that such a sacrifice was needed.

The Universalist notion at the time was that a God whose nature was love would not require anyone’s sacrifice, that the spirit of God’s love was present in all life now, that the world is good, our lives were good and we were made for each other. Our work, then, he said, was to feel this, align ourselves with it and to act with love for others and ourselves.

Ballou offered these thoughts in a book that disputed the traditional Christian doctrine of atonement, the notion that Jesus died for our sins and that suffering and sacrifice, such as Jesus experienced on the cross, is required if we are to experience happiness or wholeness. Such a theology, he said, is a good way to make ourselves and each other miserable that in the end makes us no happier or closer to the divine.

We can see how that works: as we each offer ourselves up for the suffering that we hope will earn us a chance at happiness we are locked into a twisted cycle where we accept abuse as the price of redemption.

It’s a pattern that unfortunately echoes throughout our culture today and that degrades our humanity and poisons our lives together. Yet, even when we know what it is doing to us, it can be hard for us to break through. When we experience a series of bad moments, something inside us bizarrely assigns them to ourselves as our due, perhaps the consequences of our selfishness or misdeeds, and persuades us that we are unworthy and unloved. It leaves us looking for a rescuer instead of mining our own resources, and so it can be a frightening gyre to be caught in and hard to find a way out of.

Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, describes the faith of Universalism as the belief that there is a fundamental integrity to the world and that the fullness of love is available to us always. But it is, she says, “a fragile faith” because, given what we know about the world and how it works, it is something that we doubt profoundly.

Merit, or worth, we sense, is not something we possess; it’s something we must achieve. We trust in action, in our industrious nature to power our way through our problems. We live in a go-get-em culture that tells us that the way to fix things is to get to work: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So, rather than trusting in any inner capacity, we shoulder the responsibility ourselves for making things happen.

The problem is, though, that in time, she says, “our will-centered religion comes to a crisis” because no matter how committed we may be, however earnest our efforts, there are limits to what our wills can fix. After banging our heads against the wall for a time, we’re not inclined to find much to celebrate in a world that, she said, seems “full of brokenness, suffering, and injustice.”

We become alienated, and with an alienated mind, Parker says, our care for the world, ourselves and each other that sustains our confidence and even our identity, can break down, resulting in a profound experience of grief.

She tells of her own experience of such grief after a series of terrible events in her life. And she found that nothing could stop her spiraling into despair. One evening, she said, she left her house for a walk with an eye to a nearby lake. Her face wet with tears, she said, she set her course for the water’s edge, determined to find consolation in lake’s cold darkness.

Entering a park leading to the lake, she walked onto the wet grass and discovered between her and the lake what seemed like a barricade that she would have to cross. She didn’t remember the barricade being there, but when she got closer she saw it was a line of people hunched over what seemed strange spindly-looking equipment.

Telescopes!

It was the Seattle Astronomy Club: a whole club of amateur scientists up and alert in the middle of the night, because the sky was clear and the planets were aligned. On her way to the lake, she was stopped by an enthusiast who assumed that she had come to look at the stars.

“Here,” he said. “Let me show you.”

And he began to describe the star cluster that his telescope was focused on. Brushing tears away, she peered in the lens and focused her eyes. And there it was: a red-orange spiral galaxy.

That ended her walk to the lake. As she put it, “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, I could not end my life.”

I wonder how many of us have had such a moment – not as dramatic, I hope! But I know that I’ve come to discouraging times where I wondered what the future could possibly be, where I was out of options to fix the situation and just dwelt in a pool of uncertainty.

“What saved me in that moment is difficult to fully name,” Parker said. But in the end she decided, “I was saved by the human capacity to love the world . . . by being met, right in the center of the pathway of my despair by one – actually one hundred – who wouldn’t let me go that way . . . by the stars themselves, by the cool green grass under my feet, by the earth, the cosmos, its presence, which won me over, persuaded me to stay.”

It was the most welcome kind of awakening – one not unlike John Murray’s – that cleared the fog and helped reorient her to a life centered in a hope-filled calling that was larger than the cares that dragged her down, a calling that was grounded in the fullness of life.

And so are we each called by a knowing deep within us to life and work that will help us realize who we are, that will carry us beyond our peculiar little universes into a common life in the presence of fellow travelers of all sorts and the vast reaches of stars. It is a moment fitting to hear Handel’s “Hallelujah,” a moment when we waken to a world, a life so rich that it astonishes us and fills us with praise.

As my colleague Sarah York suggests in the poem you heard earlier, many of us learn to hold our troubles within. In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from all the hurts and yearnings, the disappointments and pain: all the heaviness that weighs us down.

We sit with all of it, perhaps even nurse and console it. But the time comes when our own wholeness calls us, in Sarah’s words, “to push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us – possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.”

This is the season where we hear that call most urgently. As Robert T. Weston puts it, “this day of cold and gloom, chill wind and wet holds in its grayness the restless urge of upward straining life.”

“Stoop down,” he says, “and listen; thrust aside dead leaves, and see, under the ice crystals, that there is movement, as, undismayed, life steadily thrusts upward, nourished by the dark.”

This spring emergence is something we feel as well, an Easter awakening that assures us of life’s insistent urgings and so the hope of our own awakening.

Running through life, the Universalist Gordon McKeeman once said, “is the urgency to wholeness,” something woven deep into our being. And in that urgency is an enduring source of Universalist hope, something that attests, not to an inner deficit or lack but, but instead to a truth of a deep integrity that dwells within us, that invites us into love of ourselves, our fellows, of this blooming and buzzing world.

In this bounteous and blustery time of year, may you feel that urgency, may you know that love: may it shine, shine, shine.

 

Sermon: Solace in Solitude (text & audio)

Sunday, March 13
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Part of what a spiritual life gives us is the capacity to find peace and even comfort in time on our own. We’ll explore some of the dimensions of welcoming and even finding solace in those moments of solitude in our lives. <i> Click on the sermon title to read more and/or to listen.

 

READINGS

From The Zurau Aphorisms by Franz Kafka
“You need not leave your room. Remain seated at your table and listen. You need not even listen; simply wait. You need not even wait; just be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Directions” by Billy Collins

SERMON

I remember that in my early 20s I was plagued with a recurring nightmare. I would find myself in some unfamiliar place and I was suddenly aware that my family or friends or whoever I was with at the time had taken off for places unknown and left me behind. I was . . . alone!

It’s not hard to play arm-chair psychologist and recall that at that time of life I was separating from my childhood home. I was deeply uncertain of where my place in the world would be and that anxiety echoed in my dreams.

Still, that understanding doesn’t necessarily make the experience any easier. Even now, I can feel my pulse race a little at the memory of waking with that image. We humans truly are meant for each other, and no one wants to feel separated and alone.

Yet, most of us go through periods when the community we had breaks down or the time comes for us to leave it, and we are left to our own devices. I know this is a familiar experience for many of you. You may have left a long-time residence to come to Asheville. You may have just retired from a long career, or left home to come to college or begin a job here. You may have been through a divorce, or recently lost a spouse or partner.

Our lives are full of transitions that leave us unsettled and uncertain, unsure, even, where we fit in. It can be a hard and lonely time. And that’s one reason why we here create many opportunities to gather and get to know each other so that we can be communities of support for each other.

At the same time, we needn’t rush to fill every quiet moment of our lives. Time alone can give us space to sort ourselves out, to deepen our relationship with ourselves, with, even, the fullness of our own and all being.

And this is something that we find in solitude, in time by ourselves where we leave room for discovery. The poet May Sarton spoke of the difference between loneliness and solitude: loneliness, she said, is the poverty of the self; solitude is the richness of the self.

She described this in her book, Journal of Solitude, which described how at age 58 she spent a year by herself. Her experience, she said, was that the time she spent by herself came to feel like her “real life” because it was then that she had the opportunity to make sense of things.

The firehose of experience left her numb and distracted. Solitude gave her space to reflect on what she believed, what she cared about: in essence, who she was. With that understanding, she could return to her tasks and relationships with a better sense of what they meant to her.

You’ve probably had that experience of finishing a draining day and just feeling like you wanted to zone out. Our default these days when that happens is to turn to one screen or another: TV, laptop, tablet, phone, and just let its flood of content wash over us. It may, indeed, help us zone out, but instead of a reprieve what we get often feels more like an extension of the frenzy we were seeking to escape. The noise – visual as well as aural – is hardly calming and certainly no relief.

Now, I don’t want to dis screen time. It can be entertaining and enlightening. But all the same, as my colleague Rob Hardies puts it, checking our voice mail and our email and our texts, what’s trending on Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter, we are “quietly disappointed that we hear more from those who would sell us something, or demand something of us, than those we love.”

Amid all the noise we have little time to reflect on, as May Sarton puts it, what we believe, what we care about: we have a hard time finding and knowing ourselves.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton had a radical solution to that conundrum: he secreted himself in a monastery. And from that space he did indeed gain new insight into himself as well as his own sense of the holy.  His context was the Christian tradition, but he also deeply respected other traditions that centered spirituality in the heart.

His poem that you heard in our meditation invites us into an expansive solitude that requires nothing more of us than that we simply attend. Be still, he says. It is not required that we conjure any particular image or idea. Solitude alone is context enough.

He invites the reader to drop any consciousness of who she or he understand themselves to be and simply dwell in the moment, simply be. This is space where, he says, we let go of judgment and widen our awareness. We are not separate: while you are still alive, all things live with you.

And this dispels the mistake at the center of loneliness, the sense of being disconnected, of being alone. When we are present to the world, to each other, we are living the truth at the center of our being: we are bound up in this world, with each other & all things.

I love Kafka’s image of this growing awareness: You don’t need to climb a mountain top to discover it. In fact, you need not leave your room, whatever space you happen to occupy. And you don’t need any special discipline. You don’t need to concentrate your listening or somehow wait in some special way. As Mary Oliver put it, you don’t have to crawl on your knees in the desert for a hundred miles repenting.

Simply, as Merton counseled: be still and solitary. This is the stillness and solitude not of despair or abandonment, but of integrity, your own integrity. It is the space where you own who you are, where the soft animal of your body loves what it loves. It is not lesser than anyone, anything else, but is woven into all that is. It is in this space, where the world offers itself to your imagination to be unmasked and, as Kafka puts it, will “roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Part of what we exist as a community to do is to invite each other on the path to that awareness. And this is how Billy Collins’ poem speaks to me. To my way of seeing, this is where the “Directions” in his poem lead us.

We each have our own tale to tell of how we get to the place where our awakening occurs – through the woods, over the rocks, climbing steeply or over broad meadows, accompanied, perhaps, by birdsong or the falling of cones or nuts from the trees.

And what to say of what we find when we arrive? “It is hard to speak of these things,” Collins says. “How the voices of light enter the body and begin to recite their stories, how the earth holds us painfully against its breast made of humus and brambles, how we who will soon be gone regard the entities that continue to return, greener than ever,” generation upon generation, finally reaching “the ground where we stand in the tremble of thought, taking the vast outside into ourselves.”

I don’t know that I could tell it much better, how in our solitude we may get just the first glimpse of the glory of this Earth, of this life for which we are privileged to be present. We are then given the opportunity to invite each other into this same sort of widening awareness, to companion each other along the way.

We can help each other create space where the noise is diminished and our loneliness is relieved where we are liberated to discover what we believe and what we care about: where we can find and know ourselves.

Using Billy Collins’ imagery: we create the setting where we walk together with hands on shoulders as we head into the crowd of maple and ash. Moving toward the hill, we bid each other well as we leave off and watching each other go, piercing the ground with our sticks.

Sermon: Transient & Permanent (text & audio)

March 6, 2016

Rev. Mark Ward
What is or ought to be the concern of religion? A century and a half ago the Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker ignited a fierce controversy over his answer to that question, and it remains with us still. We’ll spend some time with it this week, and even draw in some of what I learned on my recent trip to Cuba.

 

READINGS

From “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” by Theodore Parker
Religion “is a simple thing; very simple. The only creed it lays down is truth which springs up spontaneous in the holy heart. . . . The only form it demands is a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives. . . . Try it by reason, conscience, and faith – things highest to human nature – we see no redundance, we feel no deficiency. . . . It allows perfect freedom. It does not demand all people to think alike, but to think uprightly, and get as near as possible at truth.”

From Fidel and Religion by Fidel Castro & Frei Betto
“If instead of being born and elaborating his ideas when he did, Christ had been born in these times, you can be sure -= or at least I am – that his preaching would not have differed much from the ideas or the preaching that we revolutionaries of today try to being into the world.”

SERMON

Theodore Parker used to tell a story from his childhood to illustrate what he considered the birth of his own religious awareness. Parker grew up on a farm outside Lexington, Massachusetts, in the early years of the 19th century, the last of 11 children to a struggling farmer and his sweet-natured wife.

He recounts that one day at around the age of 4 his father took him to a distant field to help with some chores. After a time, though, he told Theodore to walk home. On the way back, Parker says, he was passing a pond when he saw a turtle basking in the sun. He was carrying a stick, and lifted the stick to strike the turtle.

But before he could act, he says, he felt something stay his hand and a voice inside him say, loud and clear, “It is wrong.” Returning home, he asked his mother: What was that voice? He quotes her as saying, “Some people call it conscience. “I like to call it the Voice of God in the soul of people. If you listen and obey it, it will always guide you right. But if you turn a deaf ear, or disobey it, it will leave you without a guide. Your life depends on heeding this little voice.”

Parker went on to become one of the most brilliant ministers of the Unitarian church, a keen scholar who preached to a congregation of 3,000 and became a leading voice for the abolition of slavery. But for most of his career he was also a figure of controversy, since from early on he allied himself with Ralph Waldo Emerson and others of the emerging the transcendentalist movement.

The Unitarians had distinguished themselves in New England for their argument that religious understanding came from a reasoned examination of the Christian scriptures. Carefully crafted sermons plotted how, step by step, those gathered for worship might find their way to belief.

Emerson was the son of generations of Unitarian preachers, but he disrupted the church by arguing that religious belief has its origins in a kind of intuitive grasp of spiritual truth, in experience that awakened a sense of awe and grandeur. If that was so, it meant that, while the teachings of Jesus, say, might inform or reinforce that intuitive sense of faith, they were not the source of it, or a unique revelation of truth.

Emerson’s Unitarian colleagues couldn’t abide such a notion, but rather than do battle, Emerson left the pulpit for the lecture circuit. Parker was sympathetic to Emerson, but determined to remain in the ministry, though he soon entered the controversy, too.

It came in an ordination sermon he delivered in 1841 intended to address what he called “the Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”

His candidate for the “permanent” ruffled no feathers: essentially, he said, the content of Jesus’ teachings summed up the great truths of morality and religion. What, then, to count as transient, sure to pass away? Well, to begin with: centuries of church doctrine, once passionately argued and now proven irrelevant, even doctrines on such topics as the authority of the Bible and the person and nature of Jesus. All transient.

The truths in Jesus’ teachings stood firm, he said, like “the truths of geometry,” while all else washed away. Even the person of Jesus himself, Parker said, was not essential. He was, as it were, a vehicle by which moral truths entered the world. Even, he said, could it be proved “that the gospels were a sheer fabrication, that Jesus never lived” the truths that Jesus taught would stand firm.

As he saw it, as you heard in our reading, religion is simple, “the only form it demands is a divine life, doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives. Its sanction: the voice of God in your heart.”

You can imagine the outrage this talk ignited: the person of Jesus and the doctrine of the Bible transient? In time Parker found himself shunned by his colleagues, though his argument echoed across the 19th century.

His quandary remains central to us today: Where do we find the center of our religious life? What, if anything, do we name as enduring?

So, let me invite you to hold onto those questions – Where do we find the center of our religious life? What, if anything, do we name as enduring? – as we shift gears here pretty radically and turn our attention to . . . Cuba!

There are so many ways in which the trip that Debbie and I just took to Cuba was a revelation, and perhaps none more than with religion. Let me caution that I make no claim of authority here. My understanding comes only from a couple of lectures and my own limited reading and observations. Still, my interest was piqued by how the contrast of transient and permanent plays out there and how that might inform our thinking on this question. So, won’t you join me on a brief exploration?

Part of what makes religion in Cuba such a puzzle is that its role, its status is like nothing I’ve ever seen. And that is due to the rich cultural mix of its people as well as its tortuous political history. Its people originated largely from the Spanish who colonized the island and used it as a waystation for empire building and Africans brought as slaves to work sugar plantations. But the intermixing of people over the last two centuries has created a culture unique to the island.

Also, the series of revolutions in the 20th century made Cubans the ultimate pragmatists for whom religion is less an identity than a tool to navigate life. It’s a place where, as one of our lecturers put it, “People believe everything and nothing at the same time.”

The Catholic Church, for example, has a strong influence: It boasts several stunning cathedrals and some 70% of the people are reported baptized. Yet, only 2 to 3% of the population identify as Catholic. More influential are religious symbols, like the Virgin of Charity, born of an image that sailors found on a plank of wood in 1614 that is now mounted in a church that receives pilgrims seeking healing and wholeness that have include baseball players, military heroes, three popes, and Ernest Hemingway, who donated his Nobel Prize in literature to the virgin.

There are also dozens of Protestant denominations present, many with a Pentecostal flavor, plus outposts ranging from the Masons to the Russian Orthodox church. But arguably more important than all these established faiths is an uncountable variety of spiritualist traditions that ebb and flow and wash over into one another.

They include Santeria, with roots in the African Yoruba culture that also integrates some Catholic practices, as well as Espiritismo de Cordon, a more rural tradition whose group ceremonies feature ecstatic singing and dancing that seek contact with the spirit world.

I quickly exceed my knowledge base here, but I offer this litany to give you some sense of the astonishing diversity of religious practice that we encountered. In the end, as one of our lecturers put it, what is important to Cubans in religion is not so much the question of belief. “Whether it exists or not, is not the question,” he said. “The question is whether it works.”

The photo on your order of service that I took there illustrates that to me. Here you you see a woman who is a follower of Santeria, with the characteristic white clothes and headdress, seeking a blessing from “La Milagrosa,” a popular grave marker at Havana’s Colon Cemetery.

The story goes that the woman depicted here died in childbirth with her son and was buried with him, with the child placed at the mother’s feet. It is said, though, that they needed to move the grave. On reentering the grave they found the child’s body no longer at the mother’s feet, but in her arms.

So, it, too, has been a site of pilgrimage available to anyone. You approach, knock three times with a brass ring on the monument, then place your hand on the baby’s bottom, speak your wish silently to yourself, then leave the site to other side, walking backwards, rapping another brass ring. So, what do you think: did our group do it? In the spirit of Cuban spirituality, why not?

In fact, even Fidel Castro has adjusted his views on religion. The revolution that he led in 1959 declared itself atheist, but in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union was withdrawing from Cuba Castro began shifting his thinking. He accepted an invitation for an interview from Frei Betto, a Brazilian priest who had written on liberation theology. Their conversations were compiled in the book I quoted from – “Fidel and Religion.”

The book was a sensation in Cuba at the time: Castro described his education by Jesuit priests and his experience with the church and much else.

Hearing Frei Betto express his liberal views, Castro allowed as how maybe there was room for religion. Shortly afterward he announced the state’s policy had changed: No longer, he said, would anyone be hindered from following the faith of their choosing.

To sum up, then, what I find in Cuba is one fascinating response to the question of the transient and permanent in religion. What endures, what matters in the eyes of the people, is not the majestic forms and structures to which we anglos give so much attention. It is, instead, how religion serves their lives. Religion that works, that softens the hard degrees of their lives, that opens their hearts is worth attending to. The rest they can put aside.

So, with that let’s return to the questions that preceded this little excursion to Cuba: Where do we find the center of our religious life? What, if anything, do we name as enduring?

I’m struck by how the transcendentalist notions of Parker and Emerson echo in my experience of Cuba. With Theodore Parker, I believe we find the center of our religious life in our hearts. How we name that spiritual center and what expressions we use to be in touch with it shift and change as we grow, but our hearts tell us if we are on track.

And this, it seems to me, rings true of our work together. We exist here as a congregation to encourage each other to search our hearts and know that center and to support each other in the search.

And, what endures? Parker named it as the teachings of Jesus, but I would frame it more broadly. I would say it is how our hearts make wider connections, and how we serve each other. Over the centuries this work has been framed in many ways, some of which are unrecognizable to us now, as undoubtedly in centuries to come our ways will be unrecognizable to those that follow us.

But the need, the drive, the call for it, to find in our heart’s center a way forward in life that will connect us with each other, with all life, I have every reason to believe, will endure.

Cuando el Pobre
We closed our service singing a hymn, “Cuando el Pobre” (When the Poor) from our hymnal, “Singing the Journey,” that was written in Spanish and carries forward the theme of Liberation. It is a Roman Catholic hymn, inspired by the mid-20th century Liberation theology that sustained both people and clergy in Latin America but alarmed popes and religious conservatives in Rome. This hymn comes from a culture that has blended Christian liturgy with indigenous spirituality. In the Andean region of South America, the supreme creator is Viracocha. The legend of the Indians is that Viracocha disguised himself as a beggar and wandered the earth, weeping at the plight of his creatures. It is believed that he would return in time of trouble as stated in the song, “We see God, here by our side, walking our way.”

Sermon: Fanning the Flames of Desire

Rev. DiAnna Ritola, Guest Minister
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman
Desire and passion often get relegated to the back burner when it comes to religion and spirituality. For Unitarian Universalists, there can also be the fear of “losing our cool” or “not being rational”. Yet, it is from our passions that we come alive, that we find the ways to change ourselves and change the world around us. Let’s get passionate and find what we can transform and what can sustain us on the journey!

 

Sermon: Can We Grow Up? (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The writers of the HBO series “Mad Men” had their fingers on the pulse of American culture in the late 1960s last spring when they began the first installment of that show’s final season with that old Peggy Lee hit, “Is That All There Is?”

If you remember, the song by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller walks us through one story after another from the narrator’s life – a fire at her house as a child, then a visit to the circus, and finally a failed love affair – each experienced intensely yet ending in disappointment…

READINGS

From Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age by Susan Neiman
“Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge; all the information in the world is no substitute for the guts to use your own judgment. And judgment can be learned – principally through the experience of watching others use it well – but it cannot be taught. Judgment is important because none of the answers to the questions that really move us can be found by following a rule. Courage is required to learn how to trust your own judgment . . . . Even more, courage is required to live with the rift that will run through our lives, however good they may be: ideals of reason tell us how the world should be; experience tells us that it rarely is. Growing up requires confronting the gap between the two – without giving up on either one.”

“Gitanjali 70” – Rabindranath Tagore

Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?

All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on.

Keeping steps with that restless, rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away ⎯ colors, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy that scatters and gives up and dies every moment.

SERMON

The writers of the HBO series “Mad Men” had their fingers on the pulse of American culture in the late 1960s last spring when they began the first installment of that show’s final season with that old Peggy Lee hit, “Is That All There Is?”

If you remember, the song by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller walks us through one story after another from the narrator’s life – a fire at her house as a child, then a visit to the circus, and finally a failed love affair – each experienced intensely yet ending in disappointment:

“Is that all there is?” she asks, to a fire, to the circus, to love?

And then in her smoky voice, Lee sings,

“If that’s all there is, my friends, let’s keep dancing.

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”

The song nicely fit the state of life of Don Draper, the main character of the series, but it also echoed the times in which the show was set. All the social disruptions of the late 1960s left widespread disillusionment, and the response of many was something like dissolution – drinking, drugs, and behavior that crossed all kinds of boundaries in all kinds of ways.

“Is that all there is?” is a question that occurs to most of us at some point or another. The wonders of childhood are brought to earth, and clay feet appear on our parents, heroes and mentors. And so, we learn to cultivate the cynical laugh and the world-weary sigh.

And it’s true that some of us respond with something like the song’s suggestion, looking for satisfaction by dedicating ourselves to pleasure, while others go off seeking something new that we can throw ourselves into with boundless enthusiasm, and the rest of us . . . well, I guess we just look for a way to muddle through. What choice do we have?

I want to suggest today that there is a choice, an alternative to simply zoning out with pleasure seeking, hitching our wagon to somebody else’s star, or just plodding ahead with no particular end in mind. I think of it as a middle way of sorts, one that can be hard to navigate because we’re blazing much of it on our own, but one that I want to argue is ultimately more fruitful and more satisfying, a way I describe as:

                 Spiritual Maturity. . . . Spiritual Maturity

It is “spiritual” in the sense that it has to do core values that give our lives meaning and a sense of purpose. And since we’re talking about maturity we’re focusing on something that is developmental: a way of being, an approach to living that we come into over time.

Like physical maturity, it’s something that we are each capable of achieving, something that amounts to a full flowering of our natures. Yet, like emotional maturity, it’s something that takes work and attention to achieve, and not everybody gets there.

It is not exclusive to any faith tradition, or necessarily to religious faith at all, though its qualities can be found at the center of all the great religious traditions.

I like the observation that my colleague Kathleen Rolenz makes that the word “maturity” is related to the Latin root word “mane,” which means early, of the morning. For spiritual maturity involves waking up, coming to an awareness of what it is to be a more real and realized self. And yet, at the same time, it is no finished state. Throughout our lives, there is always room to go deeper and to see wider connections.

I want to be careful, though, not to dress this process up in flowery language and so fail to take account of the challenges it poses. The philosopher Susan Neiman, who we heard from earlier, emphasizes this point. Growing up, she says, is no panacea: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a matter, she says, “of acknowledging the uncertainties that weave through our lives; often worse, of living without certainty while recognizing that we will invariably continue to seek it.”

It’s worth remembering, she says, that often “we choose immaturity because we are lazy and scared: how much more comfortable it is to let someone else make your decisions.” And it’s true: there is no lack of people, from curbside preachers to self-help authors, ready to offer us programs that they say are sure to bring us enlightenment. In the end, though, spiritual maturity isn’t about finding somebody else’s pony to ride. It’s about coming to terms with the way that is ours in the world.

I sometimes think that this yearning for certainty may be the greatest threat to spiritual maturity today. Unlike the 1960s, it’s not personal indulgence that seems to be distracting us from this work so much as an elemental fear: fear of a changing world, fear for our safety and that of our families, fear that is borne of loss.

And when we’re afraid we don’t respond well. A first response, often, is outrage. And so, is there any wonder that early in the presidential campaign this year it is the candidates peddling outrage who are getting a strong response? Yet, as Susan Nieman points out, “outrage is enervating.” It wears us out. We can’t sustain it. And so, in time we slip into something like numb disengagement relieved from time to time by magical thinking.

Is it any wonder, she says, that the book Peter Pan was published shortly before World War I? In such a grim time, who could blame people for being charmed by the story of a gifted child who refused to grow up? With the world falling apart around you, who would want to?

The parallels that Susan Neiman finds between that time and ours are a bit unsettling: a culture that increasingly abandons the social safety net while celebrating material indulgence and the fantasy of the “self-made man” . . . or woman. How else to explain, she says, that instead of treating people as adults, we support moves to build increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance or praise the market’s ability to, as she puts it, “give us comfort through a range of toys”?

By contrast, she adds, “ideas of a more just and humane world are portrayed as childish dreams to be discarded in favor of . . .finding a steady job that fixes our place in the consumer economy.” Ouch!

But is that so? Well, her judgment may be a bit harsh. There are a few still holding out hope for what she calls “ideas of a more just and humane world,” though it’s true that they risk being drowned out by the din of our consumer culture.

Today, I want to argue that cultivating spiritual maturity is a way to place ourselves among those holding out that hope. For, in cultivating maturity we come into our strength, our best natures. And from that position we can learn to recognize that strength in others and ally ourselves with it. Once we come into our strength, the focus of our life is no longer the distractions that we sought to calm our anxiety but the values that give our lives meaning. We reach a place where we no longer simply proclaim our values: we live them.

My colleague Forrest Church in his book Lifecraft tells the story of the director of a spiritual retreat who as an exercise invited his students over several days to enter a room, sit for a time on a cushion and meditate on a blue vase. On leaving, each was asked to write down her or his reflections.

At first, the students focused on the form and function of the vase. “I followed the contours of the vase,” one reported. Another imagined it as a container holding almond blossoms. The director told them they were doing too much thinking. “Just meditate, as it were, on the vasishness of the vase,” he said.

So, the students tried again and reported deeper spiritual encounters. “I seemed to merge into the vase,” was the sort of comment that followed. At the end of the week, the director removed the vase from the room. The students arrived as usual and were stunned to discover that the vase was gone.

“Where is the vase” they asked.

“Surely you don’t need the vase now?” the director replied.

So, let’s explore this a little further. In cultivating spiritual maturity our aim is a settled and secure sense of self deeply integrated into the world around us. And so it is grounded, to begin with, in a willingness to accept every person and all things just as they are, but also as distinct from ourselves.

With spiritual maturity we see that there is irreducible ambiguity, confusion, paradox and complexity in the world. There are things that we will always simply puzzle over, and we can’t make everything right. But we still hold to our values and bring compassion and empathy to our interactions with others and to ourselves.

At the same time, we are capable of experiencing and taking pleasure in beauty as well as in moral traits like justice and mercy, experiencing them not in judgment but in humble appreciation and awe. Spiritually mature people are comfortable with metaphor and the power of ritual, making themselves available to and even creating for themselves expressions of deepest felt truths.

Spiritually mature people recognize the limits of their own understanding. They are accepting of others with differing backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences, not needing to impose their own way of thinking. They claim no privileged perspective. Instead, they submit their own beliefs to evidence, steer clear of wishful thinking and leave themselves open to learning. Through it all, they remain open to wonder, to astonishment and joy; they freely offer thanks and praise.

They also resolve to recognize and take responsibility for their own power, their own agency. They seek out and dedicate themselves to the work that they are called to, and they accept leadership when it is asked of them. They recognize the need for service, and they gladly and humbly offer their aid.

This, I submit, is some of what it means to grow up spiritually. And let’s be clear about its challenges. The fear that I spoke of earlier doesn’t respond well to maturity, since mature responses can threaten that bubble of magical thinking that serves to protect a fearful heart.

Susan Neiman was right to observe how important courage is to the process of growing up, courage in the face of what can be an onslaught of fearful anger, trumped up with all sorts of claimed authority that serves in the end as subterfuge. It is easy to be drawn into the tit for tat of hifalutin argumentation that simply serves to distract us.

As Neiman put it, “there is a rift in our lives” between our ideas of what is right and good and the way things are. And that can be hard to square with what we want from the world. What is required of us, then, is a good dose of humility and compassion: for ourselves and each other as we struggle with the many consequences of that fact.

And it is here that Rabindranath Tagore speaks to me. As he says, “All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on.” So it is. Time gallops ahead, the pace of our lives accelerates and so much remains undone. Still, he asks, is it beyond us to “be glad with the gladness of this rhythm? To be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?”

One of the legacies of our western culture is this intense drive to know everything and nail everything down. And so we cringe at a bit of chaos and uncertainty. Tagore, coming from a much older culture, reminds us of another viewpoint, one that in many ways makes more room for spiritual maturity. It is one that embraces a deep mystery, where, as he puts it, “seasons come dancing and pass away,” as we must pass away into a fate we cannot know.

And yet, while we live, “colors, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades,” and we find ourselves in a place where “abounding joy scatters and gives up and dies every moment.”

With John Lennon, we are invited to imagine ourselves into a way to be present to this astonishing world without projecting our fears on it, cherishing our companions and offering ourselves in service to the flourishing of all, while living with ready hearts and open minds.

Sermon: King, the Radical (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Cornell West argues that the prophetic message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been tamed and softened over time, so that we tend to overlook the truly radical nature of his ministry. Today we’ll explore the theme of resistance in Dr. King’s life and work. <i>Click on the title to continue reading and/or listen…

 

READINGS

From Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Our world is physical. Learn to play defense – ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve The Dream. No one directly proclaims the schools were diesignated to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well, We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”

From “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

SERMON

There is something about history that conveys a feeling of inevitability. So, it is easy to look back at Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963, pencil stub in hand, and imagine him confidently writing what he knew would be a work for the ages, words that would propel one of the most successful social justice campaigns in history and be proclaimed by presidents, recited by elementary school students, emblazoned on billboards and greeting cards.

I bring some of those words to you today from King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to remind us that the truth is far different. In fact, the 34-year-old preacher who landed in a bleak cell on Good Friday was unsure whether the act of civil disobedience that brought him there – trumped up charges of violating a parade ordinance – had made any difference at all.

The Civil Rights movement was still young and had turned to its most ambitious target yet. Birmingham was a contradiction: a fast-growing city that was a center of the steel industry, it was also a town where racial segregation and the indignities of Jim Crow laws were locked in tight. Even though steel-working wages paid to blacks were half those paid to whites, they offered the best jobs around, and few were interested in rocking that boat.

Only a couple of years before, a white mob had attacked an integrated bus of Freedom Riders, beating passengers for 15 minutes before police arrived and they were allowed to move on. The mayor had closed all city parks and playgrounds rather than allow them to be integrated under a federal order.

Still, in January 1963 as Governor George Wallace was declaring “segregation now, segregation forever” in Alabama, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to target Birmingham with an economic boycott during the Easter shopping season. Just before Easter, though, the city of Birmingham had changed its form of government, shifting from a three-member commission that ruled with an iron fist to a mayor and nine-member council. And Bull Conner, the bitterest opponent of integration, had been defeated as mayor, though he remained in charge of the police.

The new mayor, Albert Boutwell, promised changes, and as the SCLC protests began few joined in. Many middle-class blacks and about three-quarters of black clergy joined most whites in opposing the protests, arguing that the city should be given a chance.

Sitting in jail, wondering what to do next, King found the inspiration for his next step in a front-page column in the Birmingham newspaper by eight prominent Alabama clergymen. They appealed for calmness and forbearance, describing the SCLC leaders as “outsiders” and their protests as “unwise and untimely.” They urged “our own Negro community” not to support the demonstrations and to “unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”

Now, let’s pause a moment and consider that appeal, framed as it was in such reasonable language. You recognize the tone, right? We’ve all heard it, and I’ll bet many of us have used it. I know I have.

“Let’s just calm down now.
I’m sure we can work something out.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody likes conflict. We all want to get along, to resolve things. And that’s a good.

But what happens when what appears to be “reasonableness” is just a way of masking obstruction, a way of sweeping under the rug valid complaints of injury and oppression, a way of discounting the felt experience of people who see no hope of remedy?

It’s a problem stated perhaps most famously in that ancient Hebrew scripture, the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet complains, “I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’ All of them turn to their own course like a horse plunging headlong into battle. . . . They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:5-6, 11)

There comes a point when we must pivot from the response that is reasonable to the one that the writer Cornell West calls, “radical,” a solution that goes to the root of the problem, that questions the most fundamental assumptions and argues for new ways of looking at the world.

In a collection of King’s writings that he compiled for our own Beacon Press, West argues that now nearly a half-century after King’s death we have lost sight of the radical edge of his work, of all the ways that his work questioned fundamental structures in American society and called us to larger lives.

We find the ground laid for that radical King in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Who knows? But for that front-page appeal from his critics, King may not have had the occasion or impetus at that point in his life to gather his thoughts in that way. We know he was depressed from the lack of response to the protests, editorials from national newspapers criticizing his action, and President Kennedy’s resistance to requests to help him. He was also sad at being away from his wife, Coretta, two days after the birth of their daughter, Bernice.

That column, though, ignited a fire in King, and he entered a white heat, writing so feverishly that some of his supporters worried for his state of mind. He began scribbling on the edge of the newspaper, then writing on sheet after sheet of toilet paper, all of which was passed in secret to his secretary, who did her best to decipher his crabbed script.

It is here amid personal reflections on his family’s experience with racism and musing over passages of scripture that he lays down how he understands his calling to a radical activism, non-violent but centered in a love that refuses to see the separations that Birmingham’s laws enforce. You know the words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he writes. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

He acknowledges that the purpose of his action is not to make peace but to stir things up: “To create such a crisis,” he says, “and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

Those words may sound shocking, he says, but he makes no apologies: “There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth,” he says, and “now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Nothing much happened to the letter right away. Its addressed recipients never saw it until it was published elsewhere, and few newspapers were interested. It wasn’t until months later, when the Birmingham campaign entered a new stage with high school students leading the protests and TV cameras capturing images of them being sprayed with firehoses and attacked by dogs that people returned to the letter and found in it a blueprint for King’s actions.

King’s letter comes to mind on this Martin Luther King Sunday as I reflect on another “letter” of sorts that’s made its way into public consciousness – Ta-Nehsi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me.

Coates, a writer for the Atlantic magazine, wrote the book in the form of a letter to his teenage son as a way of sharing with him his own reflections on how race has shaped his life and pervades the way that each of us makes our way in the world.

It’s a hard book to read because it challenges us all to take stock – and in some ways, ownership – of the legacy of racism in which we each participate. And as Coates said in the excerpt I read earlier, people experience this racism, not in some abstract realm, but as a physical threat, as a threat to their bodies. And this separation we experience between white and black, he said, didn’t just happen. It was created over time as a way to elevate some people and diminish others.

“The elevation of being white,” he tells his son, “was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families . . . and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

It ranges from the brutality of slavery, to the horror of lynchings and Jim Crow indignities to all the ways that even today people who, in Coates words, are “different in hue and hair” suffer deprivation, loss and abuse because of it. We measure incremental gains in statistical measures without acknowledging how deeply this state of affairs remains marbled throughout American society.

We lose sight, he says, of the fact that the loss and suffering of African-Americans provided and continues to provide part of the underpinning for the success of what we call the American Dream: the idea that with enough gumption any of us can make it in the world, can achieve success and material comfort and be safe and secure. What our idolizing of “The Dream” omits, he says, is that in many cases what white people achieve depends on there being an underclass of black people to service them.

“The Dream,” he says, “is treehouses and Cub scouts . . . . And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs.”

It’s why, he says, black children growing up are taught different lessons than white children. “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good.’ . . . These words were spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as if they evidenced some undetected courage. . . (But) no one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good.”

Too often, as you heard in our reading earlier, Coates says that the lectures young black people receive on “personal responsibility” seem offered up more to the point of exonerating practices that have been tools of oppression for generations.

Coates tells his son something of his own growing up, how he escaped some close calls on the streets of Baltimore but found his way into an orbit of people who provided support for him. But he tells his son that he still fears for him.

“I’m sorry that I cannot make it okay,” he says. “I’m sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life.” And, he says, “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible, beautiful world.”

Like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Coates’ is a radical analysis of the state of affairs in this country. It goes to the root of the struggles we face, white and black, in seeing justice served.

And this gives us a moment to reflect on this word – “radical.” It’s got some buzz to it, doesn’t it? It feels disruptive, disorienting. And, let’s face it: we are comfort-seeking creatures. We want things to be OK, and we will go to some lengths to create some calmness and stability, if not serenity, in our lives, whatever the actual circumstances may be.

At the same time, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to his Alabama clergy detractors, there are times, for the health of a person, a system, a community, that we need to name the tensions that are among us, go to the very root of the problem, however indelicate that may be, and commit ourselves to bringing them to light so that they may be cured.

So, friends on this Martin Luther King Sunday let us with Dr. King and Ta-Nehisi Coates not hesitate to be radical in our work to free our own and our nation’s hearts of the scourge of racial oppression that dogs us still. Let us not turn to our own courses like horses plunging headlong into battle. Instead, let us own the work that is ours to raise our individual and community awareness. Let us join in common cause with those of all races committed to the ongoing work that frees us all.

Sermon: The Flame of Freedom (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The chalice flame we light each week had its origin in our movement as a symbol of hope and resistance. We’ll visit that history today and what it calls us to now.

 

 

Reading from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

“This is what life is about: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and things, the split and burr of it all, the fizz into particulars.”

SERMON

It was my junior year in high school, and I had transferred to a private school after mixed experience in public schools. I remember feeling a bit like a fish out of water, not sure how or where I fit in. Somehow it came up in my youth group at the Unitarian Universalist church where my family belonged that there were small, silver flaming chalice necklaces available for sale – a silver oval with the flame in the cup on a simple silver chain. I bought one.

I wasn’t particularly given to wearing jewelry, but somehow this necklace didn’t seem like jewelry. Instead, it felt like a declaration of identity, a way of representing what was important to me and the community I stood with.

I remember being comforted by the new feeling of the medallion bouncing around on my chest during phys ed classes, almost wishing that others would see it and ask me about it.

Our tradition takes pride in what we consider our thoughtful approach to religion, our commitment to a reasoned search for meaning that helps us articulate beliefs we can defend with intellectual integrity. And it’s good, it’s freeing, it’s refreshing. We’re not given a catechism to memorize or confession of faith to affirm. We weigh for ourselves what seems true, and we accept, even welcome, the broad diversity of faith stances that this exercise carries us to, knowing that those stances will shift and evolve as we change and grow. It is liberating to be part of such a community, and I am proud to be both a member and leader in our movement.

But here’s the thing: our attention to words and ideas, the products of the head, can lead us to neglect the role of the physical, the body in our spiritual lives.

The religion professor S. Brent Plate argues that it’s easy to mistake what religion is about. “Too often,” he says, “religion is explained as ‘a set of beliefs,’ which primarily exist in the thought processes of the brain.”

Look, for example, at that forbidding word “orthodoxy,” which translates from the Latin as “right thinking.” The notion, Plate says, is that the answers to religion are “guarded behind the fortress of the forehead.” Having sorted the options, we make our decisions about, say, theism or atheism, and then, in his words, “The quest is over, we’re all cleaned up, and life goes on.”

Yes, there are symbols and rituals and all the other ways that we dress things up, but those are seen to be “secondary expressions of some primary intellectual order.” In fact, though, this move reverses the actual order of things.

As Plate writes in his book, The History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, “there is no thinking without first sensing, no minds without their entanglement in bodies, no intellectual religion without felt religion as it is lived in streets and homes, temples and theaters.”

Now, that we might miss this is not especially surprising, given our history. Our Unitarian heritage, after all, emerged out of the Puritan churches of New England, where worship consisted largely in listening to hours-long sermons in unheated meetinghouses.

When the camp meetings of the Great Awakening with their shouting and weeping were spreading across New England in the 18th century, our forebears took pride in their more sober and reasoned approach to religion.

It wasn’t until later that Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists challenged that approach to religion in a significant way. We don’t find religion, a sense of faith from studying texts, they said, but from our experience of the world.

Religion, he suggested, responds to the joy to being alive, the sense of wonder that comes simply from being. We don’t need to seek it out from some supernatural source. We only need to make ourselves available to it as we engage each other and our surroundings. From it arises a consciousness that guides us in community and in the larger world.

But this connection beyond ourselves can be hard to find, Brent Plate says, and that is what sacred objects can do. As he puts it, they help us “bring the spiritual to its senses.” There are many ways to approach this, but today I want to argue that it is one of the things that our flaming chalice can do for us – connect us to larger truth, to deeper understanding, to both our wholeness and our neediness, and to each other.

To tell this story I need to step back about three-quarters of a century. As central as the chalice has become to contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it is in fact a fairly recent innovation for us, born in Europe in the midst the conflicts of World War II.

We begin in Czechoslovakia, a nation that at the time had the largest concentration of Unitarians outside of the U.S., including a central church in Prague, Unitaria, with a membership of some 3,000. The Czechs had been in close contact with the leadership of the then-American Unitarian Association, and in 1938 as Nazi troops were invading the Americans began a fund-raising campaign to support them.

In 1939, they sent the minister of a Boston-area church, Waitstill Sharp, and his wife, Martha, to Prague to help. They brought funds, provided meals and helped several hundred refugees escape to neutral countries. It was not long, though, before their activities were noticed by the occupying Nazis. So, they fled to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal.

It was there in May 1940 that they helped set up a new organization, the Unitarian Service Committee, to help coordinate relief efforts. Over the next several years they and the USC helped thousands of refugees escape the Nazis.

In the shadowy world of espionage during the war, the USC was unknown. So, its director, Charles Joy, decided it needed to adopt a symbol to give it some kind of dignity and importance. He turned to his assistant, Hans Deutsch, for help. Deutsch was a Czech national and artist who had recently moved to Lisbon from Paris after getting in trouble drawing anti-Nazi cartoons. It was his pen that in 1941 gave us the first flaming chalice.

Deutsch drew the chalice without ever having entered a Unitarian church or having experienced a Unitarian worship service, but he told Joy that he admired the denomination’s spirit. “I am not what you may actually call a believer,” he said, “but if your kind of life is the profession of your faith – as it is, I feel sure – then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy, and – what is more – to active, really useful social work.”

The director, Charles Joy, told the USC board in Boston that Deutsch’s thought was the symbol was “the kind of chalice the Greeks and Romans put on their altars as a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.” But he added that he felt it also connected to Christian theme of sacrificial love.

Unbeknownst to Deutsch, his symbol had also made a strong connection to an ancient Czech symbol of religious freedom. In the late 1300s a reformist Bohemian Catholic priest named Jan Hus had made a practice of reading the Bible in the vernacular and offering them the cup of communion wine as well as the bread. The church at the time insisted that the Bible could only be read in Latin and that only the priest, facing the altar, could receive the cup. For turning to face the congregation and sharing the cup, Hus was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.

His followers, the Hussites, rebelled, calling themselves “people of the chalice” and were said to have combined the fire of Hus’s pyre with the cup to create a flaming chalice that endured as a symbol for hundreds of years.

When the Unitarian and Universalist churches joined in 1961, the flaming chalice was adopted as the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Since then the chalice has been artistically re-imagined many times, and its role in our congregations has evolved.

Growing up in the church of my childhood in Princeton, New Jersey, even when I had the chalice on a chain around my neck, I don’t remember us ever having a physical chalice in the sanctuary or lighting it as part of worship. It is a practice that appears to have grown slowly and steadily, and not surprisingly seems to have spread first in children’s and youth worship. Children, after all, engage more directly with something concrete rather than lofty ideas, but are they really so different from adults in that way?

I wonder if there may yet reside in us some of that old Puritan suspicion of all the ways that we can be tickled, tricked or distracted by the concrete, by the sensual from those great ideals that we take religion to be about. But if Brent Plate is right – and I think he is – that “there is no intellectual religion without felt religion,” then it is worth our getting in touch with the felt experience that goads us to gather in religious community. And perhaps the chalice could be the tool that opens that for us.

I am struck that our symbol begins with a gesture of both hospitality and safe harbor. As Hans Deutsch intuited, the cup of the chalice has served for many years in many cultures as a vessel that is used to hold something precious that may be widely shared.

It celebrates a sense of abundance that underlies our liberal faith, a broad welcome to all and a community that cherishes diversity and offers compassion. At the same time, we recognize that none of us enters this community fully formed, having figured it all out. We will change and grow and sometimes suffer hardships and ill fortune. So, our chalice also offers us a crucible – contained space where we can be supported in our struggles, where we can bring our full and true selves without fear of judgment, and a place that offers loving arms amidst our difficulties.

A similar sentiment guides us as we extend our reach into the larger community. It is not through abstract reasoning that we are drawn to the work of freedom, justice and love, but as a visceral response to the hardship and pain that we see.

The sense of joy and wonder in being alive that we feel is not an experience exclusive to us. It is a heritage, a right of all human beings. We don’t have to figure this out. We know it simply by what our gut tells us when we experience the world otherwise. The abundance of our cup, then, calls us to share what we have and the vision of beloved human community that it implies as widely as we can.

I am struck by the image in David’s story of first man who finds his purpose by creating the world from what he draws out of his heart. It is, in a sense, a task that we all face: finding the joy, the heart-centered passion that drives us and building a life that serves it.

And so, we look to the flame, that symbol of warmth and light that casts out fear, that heats our dwelling places, that illuminates the world, that gives us the power of discernment. The chalice that we offer to the world is not empty; it is afire: afire with compassion, afire with hope, afire with love. . .

Afire, even, with impassioned reason.

A contradiction? Not at all. Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame notwithstanding, let’s not fool ourselves that there is no passion driving the well-reasoned argument. Rather, it is the energy of a refining fire that strips away foolish dross and takes us to the essential nugget of truth.

And that, in the end, is what we are left with: not our fantasies or all the things we conjure out of our fears, but what Annie Dillard called “the fizz of particulars”: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and the world around us.

So, into this space that we have created together we bring this symbol that gathers our community. As at other congregations it has evolved over the years here in different manifestations. Our newest, as you heard Lisa introduce it in September, is a design created by the late 1980s by Mordecai Roth, a UU artist who lived in Arizona and who died about two years ago: the bowl decorated as with branches from a tree holding lamp oil and a plate over it holding a wick, with interlocking brass rings representing the two religious traditions of our heritage.

I make the lighting of this chalice a ceremonial element early in our services and invite our worship associates to write words to accompany the lighting that invite us into worship. It is for me a moment of grounding and centering, a reminder of the context in which we gather, this tradition of memory and hope that we raise up each week. Later, then, we carry this flame to our joys and concerns table where we pass it to you in the hope that it might ease your sorrows and illuminate your joys, both of which we hold in community with love.

It is a way, as Brent Plate put it, that we bring our spiritual life to its senses. We connect with each other and with those who each week and for dozens of years have lit chalices in Unitarian Universalist congregations and meeting places around the world. And it can’t help but bring to mind beloved friends who are no longer with us.

We connect also with the fire within us, the passion that calls us beyond the narrow window of our lives to a covenant with all people, with all life.

It was a growing awareness of that covenant, I think, that occurred to me in high school with that little silver medallion dangling from my neck. I think what I wanted to tell my classmates in hoping they would ask about it was that I was linked to something larger than myself, to a community that carried a vision of compassion, integrity, service and joy – a fire that lives within me still.

Sermon: Great Expectations (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It’s not long after a child is old enough to be up on her or his feet and running around that we adults discover that we possess the most powerful curative known to humankind. We call it, “the boo-boo kiss.” Right? You know how it is: up the child walks with big tears and loud cries after a hard fall, and you gather them and make sympathetic noises. “Where does it hurt?” you ask. He or she points to the spot, and you kiss it. “Is that better?” you ask, and the child gives you a solemn nod.

 

READING
“Tao Ching #2,” translated by Stephen Mitchell

SERMON
It’s not long after a child is old enough to be up on her or his feet and running around that we adults discover that we possess the most powerful curative known to humankind. We call it, “the boo-boo kiss.” Right? You know how it is: up the child walks with big tears and loud cries after a hard fall, and you gather them and make sympathetic noises. “Where does it hurt?” you ask. He or she points to the spot, and you kiss it. “Is that better?” you ask, and the child gives you a solemn nod.

Now we can get into quite a lengthy academic debate about how much good you actually did do, but there’s no denying that at some level that interchange did accomplish something. It is better, at least in the sense that you showed the child that someone cared when she or he felt injured.

We are, in a way, setting up an expectation that they can seek and receive care from the assaults of the world. And – who knows? – this may be part of what is behind another curious phenomenon called “the placebo effect.”

For generations we’ve known that some people who receive treatments with no active medical ingredients – say, sugar pills or saline injections – will nonetheless report that symptoms like pain and discomfort are alleviated. In fact, some studies have shown that even when patients are told they are receiving mere sugar pills they report more improvement in their conditions than those who receive no treatment.

A key to this effect may be in the word’s roots: “placebo” comes from the Latin meaning, “I will please.” Perhaps, like the “boo-boo kiss” on the playground, the effect is a reflection in some way of our trusting that we can expect to be cared for. It’s one example of the way in that our expectations can have a powerful effect on us.

Because, of course, expectations are woven throughout our conscious lives. Our ability to plan and project into the future is helpful, arguably one of the characteristics that make us human. But it also can be a source of grief, since it’s so easy to raise our expectations to unrealistic heights. And probably nowhere do we feel the effects of this more acutely than in our interactions with our loved ones.

As Stan indicated, many of us bring wounded hearts from our upbringings, and those wounds colors our interactions with our families and other important people in our lives. And so, as we head into the holidays, a time of year where family gatherings are not only planned but also dressed up with tinsel and great expectations of holiday joy, it might be a good moment to reflect on strategies to help us ease the angst that those expectations can bring.

You know what it’s like: whether you’re approaching that holiday gathering as a host or a guest, there are old scripts, old hurts that lie in wait. But you tell yourself, “This time it will be different. I’m going to be calm, I’m going to be positive. I won’t let myself get drawn into those patterns that trip me up each time, and I’m not going to escape and avoid. I’m going to be present, and I’m going to be real.”

And then in the middle of it just when you thought things were going well you are triggered by some offhand remark, and you’re off to the races once again. Is there a way that we can avoid that path or at lessen our participation in it?

We begin by acknowledging that this is hard work. It touches us at our emotional core, and that deserves some care and respect. At the heart of it, after all, is something that really matters to us. The people nearest to us do touch us and how we are with them really does affect our emotional wellbeing. Avoiding interactions with them it isn’t a tenable way forward. It only numbs and hardens us, making us even less accessible to our own needs as well as potential sources of our own healing.

So, what to do? The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron points out that the initial feelings of worry and dread that we feel when we get triggered may actually be a signal that those old habits are being disrupted. Instead of seamlessly moving into them with some sort of sense of entitlement, we can feel that they don’t really serve our needs. We no longer take them for granted, and wesee them as unhelpful.

But rather than letting anxiety take over, she suggests, try adopting an inquisitive attitude. So, this is what it feels like when I’m pushed this way. This is the cascade of feelings and worried self-talk that tumbles out.

This may not be something that you can do when you’re in the middle of it. It may be that the best you can do is simply stay present and get through the moment. But a little reflection in a time away offers a chance to sort through what you’ve just experienced, to acknowledge that bump in blood pressure you just felt and offer yourself a little compassion.

Again, this is hard work. It touches you deeply, and it will take time and effort to sort through. But it’s worth it, since on the other side is a healthier way of seeing and being. And just that moment of pressing the pause button before you launch into old scripts can be enough to help you see that you do in fact have all the tools you need to do it. As Pema Chodron puts it, “we ourselves are the source of wisdom and compassion.”

OK, fine, you say. But how about now, when I’m not feeling so wise or compassionate? Well, here are some thoughts that might help us lighten up and disengage old scripts: First, don’t set up the target for the arrow. That’s a pretty dramatic image, but it often fits how the escalating cascade of conflict with another can feel.

As Pema Chodron puts it, if you don’t put up the target, you can’t get hit. That serves as a reminder that in the end we are in control of how we respond to another. It doesn’t always feel that way when someone is pushing our buttons, but the fact remains that, as she says, “we set up the target, and only we can take it down.” Withholding the target can disrupt and eventually break down the patterns of anger and aggression that otherwise drive our responses.

Then, after we’ve settled down and disengaged from the pattern of conflict we found ourselves in, Pema Chodron advises that we look for a way to connect with the heart. Once we have stepped away from what had been an escalating conflict it is suddenly plain how pointless and damaging this process is, how each of us in this exchange suffers for it. As she puts it, “millions are burning with the fire of aggression. We can sit with the intensity of the anger and let its energy humble us and make us more compassionate.”

It’s not as if having gotten through this crisis we are suddenly above it, more enlightened, more grounded than others who flare into anger. Who knows what might push our buttons next and send us back down that road again. It is only through compassion that we find a centered way.

For me, this provides one way into the selection from the Tao te Ching that you heard earlier. It’s all about the complementarity of things – how ugly and beautiful, good and bad, long and short, difficult and easy are not unrelated opposites: they support and reflect each other. We know anger not from observing it, but from experiencing it. And yet, once captured by it we lose all perspective on it. But sitting with compassion in the presence of anger helps us understand it. After all, not all anger is destructive. Righteous anger centered in moral understanding is a powerful positive force. But reactive anger arising from our fears accomplishes nothing. It even serves to undermine us. Seeing and understanding anger from the perspective of a compassionate heart, rather than running away from it, opens us to that insight.

That’s because compassion arises not from weakness, but from strength of heart. So, it tempers anger, and in fact all emotions, and focuses it in a productive way.

So, again, as the Tao de Ching suggests, we are able to experience the world, and when things arise, we don’t seek to control them; we simply let them come. When things disappear, we don’t cling to them; we let them go. We are able to have things without possessing them. We are able to act without layering onto the experience many great expectations for what will come of it

So, what does all this tell us about expectations? Well, our expectations matter. They shape how we perceive the world, but they can also lead us down some pretty perilous paths. This draws me back to think about how these themes are reflected in that novel of Charles Dickens that parallel’s our topic today, “Great Expectations.”

We’re used to turning to Dickens at Christmas time to mull on the tale Scrooge and all his ghosts, but it occurs to me that his protagonist Pip may have something to teach in this season of advent when we mull over this matter of expectation. One could argue in a sense that Scrooge and Pip both learn a similar lesson. Just as Scrooge’s miserliness makes him miserable, the money that lands unexpectedly in Pip’s lap fuels grand and unrealistic visions of what it is to live with means. So, not surprisingly he makes a mess of it.

His dismissal of the good blacksmith Joe and later his benefactor Magwitch and his infatuation with the seeming ingénue Estella and all the glittering lures of a moneyed life are fueled by the same illusory expectations that come of self-indulgence and disregard for others.

When his comeuppance arrives, he, like Scrooge, is forced to recognize the error of his ways, how he has disregarded those who cared most for him while currying favor with those whose interests were purely selfish. It is the moralist side of Dickens at his best.

And there’s some justice in that. After all, isn’t there serious vanity in the whole notion that we can expect to know ow the future will unfold, that the world will dance around our hopes and wishes?

Instead, we are more often rewarded by curiosity and openness, by a willingness to be surprised to what the world has in store. Of course, what the world has in store is not always what we want to receive. So, we are also wise to nurture expectations that arise from commitment. We can give each other the gift of expectation that we will be and do what we say we will be and do for each other.

We will be there when the other stumbles or is in need, to kiss each other’s boo-boos or walk with each other in our sorrow and disappointment. Let those be the expectations that we give and receive in this darkest time of the year.

Sermon: While We Were Making Other Plans

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Some years ago, the story goes, there was worrying among members of the council of New College, of Oxford, England about the state of their buildings. It seems that an inspector had been poking around the ancient oak beams of the roof of the dining hall and discovered that they were full of beetles. Despite its name, New College was actually one of the oldest colleges of Oxford, founded in 1379, and truly an architectural marvel. But as with all things it had deteriorated with time. And now that they looked at the massive roof beams council members were dismayed: Where on earth would they find beams of that caliber in today’s marketplace?

READING
Adapted from “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are Powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? . . . .

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. Not just some of us; everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

SERMON
At this point, one of the Junior Fellows hesitantly raised his hand and suggested that there might actually be some oaks on the college’s own lands that could serve the purpose. The college, after all, was endowed with many acres of forest, where college fellows loved to walk and cogitate. But, oh, cutting the forest? Really? Certainly there would be a great hue and cry if the Council went after those venerable old oaks. So, they consulted the college forester and cautiously raised with him what they admitted was this wild idea.

Appearing before the council, the forester smiled and said, “Well, sirs. We was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.” It seems that when the college was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted specifically to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because, as anyone at the time knew, oaks always get beetly in the end.

Apparently the warning had been passed down from one forester to the next over the next 500 years: “Do what you need to tend to the forest, but don’t cut those oaks. They’re for the College Hall.” And so, the story goes, the council had the materials they needed for the repair job.

I don’t know that we have any oaks planted as part of the project we are dedicating today, but the story makes a point that is worth our considering: the institutions we build to give flesh to our hopes and dreams require tending, vision and care.

As we dedicated this beautiful expansion and updating of our main building earlier, you heard a bit of the story of this congregation told through the evolution of our physical space. It’s an inspiring tale – how we grew from a handful of people meeting in rented rooms at the YMCA to hundreds now gathered in this distinctive, innovative and welcoming space, planted at a crossroads in our community.

We are known in our neighborhood and the Asheville area for this remarkable building that serves, as Jane suggested, as a kind of commons for our congregation and, increasingly, for the community at large. Now that we have broadcast our name so prominently and offer accessible plazas to our building front and rear I’m betting that more will come. So, when they come, how will they know us?

Back in the 1950s and early 60s many people coming to this congregation were liberal-minded folks seeking refuge from a conservative religious culture. As the congregation grew and we found space for ourselves, first in a large home in West Asheville and then at this spot at Edwin and Charlotte, we took the risk of making ourselves more visible, particularly in venturing more deeply into social justice advocacy, though in many ways we remained an outlier in the community.

When the boom times in Asheville came, beginning in the 1980s, we boomed, too. With Asheville’s population increase the cultural dynamics started to change, so that instead of being an outlier we were more in tune with the increasingly progressive sensibilities of the community.

Rather than a refuge, we became a gathering place for liberal-minded newcomers, many of them moving from UU congregations elsewhere or unchurched and looking for a community that supported freedom of belief. And so our congregation came to focus on offering connections to these newcomers: Cultivating a sense of community, a place for socializing became an important focus of our life together. It is a dynamic that remains strong with us today.

But now as we dedicate this beautiful space with our arms stretched wide in welcome it is given to us to articulate the vision that will lead us from here. In keeping with our theme this month, what ought we to expect of this gathered community and each other in the work ahead of us? What seedlings shall we plant for when our beams get beetly?

Because, friends, the challenges are not far off and the thriving of this congregation will depend on our meeting them. It is fine to be a gathering place of liberal-minded people, but to what end is our gathering? It is good that we proclaim freedom of thought and conviction, but what is that freedom is for? It is laudable to affirm love, justice, compassion, equity and acceptance, but again – to what end?

I was listening the other day to some talking head bemoan the latest mass shooting – I forget now which one; they all seem to blend together – and he saying that we need to find ways to “harden” our schools or malls or whatever to better protect them.

And I wanted to shout: No, no, no! For the past 14 years our nation has been on a tear of hardening, and what has it brought us? An accelerating toll of death, whether it be domestic shooting rampages, servicewomen and men dying in undeclared wars, or a galloping suicide toll. We have hardened unemployment rules and any provision serving the poor, hardened suspicions across races and nationalities, hardened restrictions on the voting franchise, hardened political discourse beyond the possibility of conversation.

All this hardening has made us no safer, no freer than we were. Instead, all it has given us is a bleak harvest of fear. Even more, it has taught us that there is no safe harbor, no refuge, no garden that we can retreat to while the mad world goes on. We are stuck in the middle of it.

And, ironically, this may be greatest gift that this crisis has to give us. Because finally we are forced to come to terms with the truth that we are in this together – in it with Syrian refugees, with Parisian restaurant goers, with Los Angeles health workers, with Nigerian schoolgirls, with Ukrainian grandmothers, with Charleston churchgoers.

It is in this muddle, in this mess that we reside, and it is there that where we are called, and called to act. It was the great minister William Sloane Coffin who said, “Human unity is not something we are called to create, only to recognize and make manifest.”

In a time like this, what is needed is less hardening and more opening, more awakening. How shall we be agents of that work?

Because, folks, the truth is that for all beautiful words that flow from religious texts and the pulpits of churches – including those of our tradition – religious institutions are often slow to take the next step and live into them. We mistake the nature of faith and presume it has something with words we recite, when in fact what it has to do with is trust, and trust isn’t something we just decide on. It’s something that grows in our hearts.

Faith is not something we have; it’s something we do. It may begin as a surmise, but it grows stronger and deepens as we act on it. In our case, I want to argue that our tradition is founded on more than freedom of belief. At its center, I find the radical surmise that every human being has inherent worth and dignity simply in and of her and himself and that living into that presumption could save us all.

Not only that but we are linked in ways deeper than we can know to every living thing to every atom, every star, every beetle, every oak and that in that relationship lies the greatest hope we can know.

For me, these are not some convenient intellectual suppositions: they embody a truth in which I deeply trust that has grown in me to the point that it bolsters me amid despair and disappointment.

As we look ahead to our future, I would direct us as a gathered community to Marianne Williamson’s words that you heard earlier. I wonder sometimes if what keeps us from living more deeply into the mission we proclaim is an unspoken fear of the consequences of claiming the power we as a community actually have in our hands.

The religious life is full of lofty notions of what the world will be like someday when our idyllic notions come true, when the beloved community is made real. But how about if we began living into it now? What would that look like?

To spur your reflection, let me offer a piece of this song:

Close your eyes, have no fear.

The monster’s gone, he’s on the run and your daddy’s here.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful – beautiful boy!

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful – beautiful boy!”

It’s the first verse of one of the last songs John Lennon ever wrote, done in tribute to his son, Sean, who was around 5 at the time.

For a song writer whose lyrics often had an ironical edge, this one is remarkable for its sweetness and simplicity. It’s said to have been a time when, after leading a tumultuous life, Lennon was settling down, finally: letting go of the star machine and enjoying family life. So, maybe it’s just an older father’s celebration of his young son, but there’s something else that draws me to it, the chorus, especially, I find magical, almost chant-like:

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful – beautiful boy!”

It touches a feeling that any parent has had at some point, looking at your child in wonder. But others know it, too. Maybe it’s a partner, a parent, or a dear friend who is the focus of your gaze. Isn’t there a moment when you look and simply think to yourself – “beautiful, beautiful”? It’s not an aesthetic judgment; it’s a judgment of love.

Because, it’s true: there is wonder and beauty in each of us. Unfortunately, it’s not what we attend to, as a rule. We’re busy with the affairs of the day, affairs that often have us pushing past these “beautiful” people to get some task accomplished. As Jennifer said, Lennon takes note of it in the third verse of his song:

Before you cross the street, take my hand,

Life is what happens to you

while you’re busy making other plans.

It’s not long before we start “hardening” our assessment of others, before we start seeing in other people obstacles, strangers, aliens, and worse.

But we don’t have to go there. We can instead take the time to see in the other the beauty that is there. As a community we could invite each other and our neighbors to do the same and in doing so let down our guard and build connections across barriers. Pretty soon the commons we create in our space magnifies and grows.

Who knows what a grove this would grow, but wouldn’t it be a blessing?

Sermon: Tales from the Borderlands

Rev. Sally Beth Shore, Guest Minister
Sally Beth recently led a UU College of Social Justice delegation that included UUCA members Tom Blanford and Cindy Threlkeld to the US-Mexican border in Arizona to witness how US Immigration policy plays out there. Today they share some of what they encountered there, as well as a glimpse of the situation concerning illegal immigrants in our own back yard. Can we make a difference for those facing the struggle to survive as they flee poverty, terror, and war?

Sermon: Our Faith in the Vote

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Seven months ago I recounted to you an amazing moment in my life and ministry that embodied in the photo you see on the cover of your order of service. Having come for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama I found myself crowded together with hundreds of others along the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings a half century before, in one of the most diverse assemblies of people I’ve ever been a part of. Despite being pressed together, though, there was an easiness among us communicated in smiles and casual banter amid the singing of freedom songs and the laughing of children that gave me a glimpse of what racial peace and racial justice might look like in this country.

 

Seven months ago I recounted to you an amazing moment in my life and ministry that embodied in the photo you see on the cover of your order of service. Having come for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama I found myself crowded together with hundreds of others along the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings a half century before, in one of the most diverse assemblies of people I’ve ever been a part of. Despite being pressed together, though, there was an easiness among us communicated in smiles and casual banter amid the singing of freedom songs and the laughing of children that gave me a glimpse of what racial peace and racial justice might look like in this country.

Selma was a focus because as a result of actions there, accompanied as they were with hardship and tragedy, one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights movement was won: the adoption in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act.

Federal protections for Civil Rights had been passed the year before, but they were largely toothless until African-American had the unfettered right to vote. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made the point, as you heard earlier, eight years before the March on Selma in his first speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.”

African-Americans had been given the right to vote in the 15th Amendment adopted in 1870, but Jim Crow laws passed across the South in the next couple of decades that enacted poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictions took most blacks off the voting rolls.

The Voting Rights Act swept those restrictions away, and the impact was dramatic. In following decades, the percentage of blacks in the South registered to vote rose from 31% to 73%, and the number of black elected officials increased from fewer than 500 to 10,500 nationwide. In future years, the act was expanded to lower the voting age to 18 and provide protections for language-minority groups such as Hispanics in Texas, Asian-Americans in New York and Native Americans in Arizona.

So, there was much to celebrate in Selma, but not without concern, too. For what has gained less attention since the Voting Rights Act was adopted is that just as Southern lawmakers in the 19th century passed laws to frustrate the effect of the 15th Amendment, laws passed across the South since 1965 have chipped away at voting rights to the point that today many of its protections no longer have the effect they once did.

Many voting districts were gerrymandered or switched to at-large voting to dilute the African-American vote. At the same time, a new wave of voting restrictions have emerged in the South and many states beyond, that while they no longer specifically invoke race, have the effect of reducing the voting by minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

They have curtailed early voting, purged voting rolls, denied the vote to ex-felons and required proof of citizenship or government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. This trend culminated with a decision by the Supreme Court in 2013 that hobbled the most effective tool in the Voting Rights Act to protect free access to the vote.

It is technical tool of sorts with an unassuming name – Section 5. What it did was targeted states where in 1965 less than 50% of blacks were registered or where voting restrictions were in place. It said that these states – largely though not entirely across the South – could not change their voting laws unless the changes were reviewed by the US Department of Justice. And it had been invoked repeatedly since 1965.

In the Supreme Court decision, though, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argued essentially that Section 5 was a relic, that conditions in the states that were targeted by the Voting Rights Act had changed, that in each state strong majorities of African-Americans were now registered to vote. So, he said, the formula that targeted those states, which was based on conditions in 1965, no longer applied and should be discarded. The court’s 5 to 4 decision freed those states from federal oversight.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg led the dissenters She pointed out that while black voter participation had improved, it wasn’t for lack of legislators working to dilute and reduce the black vote.

She noted that in 2006, when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, hearings documented that since 1982 the Department of Justice had blocked more than 700 instances in those targeted states where attempts were made to keep blacks from voting. Also, she said, while there are now fewer instances of bald discrimination, there was an increase in what she called “second generation barriers” like gerrymandering that reduce black voter participation.

Eliminating this tool of enforcement when it is working to reduce voter discrimination, she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rain storm because you’re not getting wet.”

Our focus now shifts to the state level. Three weeks after the Supreme Court decision essentially neutralizing the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina Legislature acted.

The Republican majority had already been debating some of the toughest voting restrictions in the country, such as strict voter identification, reducing early voting, and changing same-day registration rules. With the court’s decision they were put on a fast track and adopted.

North Carolina is an interesting case when it comes to voting rights. In 1965 with only about 47% of blacks registered to vote, it was one of the states given federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act, though only 40 of its 100 counties were covered.

Even then, overall voter turnout remained low. As late as 1996 we ranked 43rd in the nation in turnout. But due to reforms such as early voting and same-day registration voter turnout increased to 11th in the nation by 2012.

In debate on the bill, North Carolina’s legislative leaders claimed that the changes were needed to prevent voter fraud, but they provided essentially no evidence of it, and certainly none linked to the reforms. The North Carolina NAACP sued, arguing that the law was intended to silence black voters, since African-Americans were twice as likely to use same-day registration and early voting as whites. In 2014, they lost a bid for an injunction in circuit court, then won a reversal in the Circuit Court, before the Supreme Court reinstated the restrictions. The full case was argued to the district court judge in Winston-Salem last July, and we now await his ruling.

It was Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, whom we hosted in this pulpit last month, who dubbed this moment “Our Selma,” and the parallel is apt.

For we remember that in Selma in 1965 we faced people in power determined to twist the tools of democracy to shut others out. So in North Carolina in 2015 we find people in power once again using the machinery of government to shut others out.

If nothing else, the struggle we are in is proof of the power of the ballot. For where democracy holds sway, the ballot trumps all.

Give us the ballot, Dr. King said, and we won’t have to worry about people securing their basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we can have confidence in the leaders we call to serve us.

Give us the ballot, and we have cause to join in the mighty work of building a beloved community that serves us all.

The principles at play here go back several hundred years to the thinkers who influenced the founders of this country, particularly the philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that “the state of nature,” the way things are, is a state of perfect freedom and equality. That is to say, no one is naturally better than anyone else.

To get things done, though, he said, we need government. And government, in his understanding, takes the form of a social contract where equal persons agree to serve a common good that is determined by the will of the majority. For government to be legitimate, he said, it must operate with the consent of those it governs. That means people must have a way of influencing the decisions of government, and the vote is how that happens.

We Unitarian Universalists embrace this notion in our fifth principle, which invites us to affirm “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” There’s a bit to unpack here. To affirm the right of conscience is to say that we trust in an inner guide that we each possess to help us find the right way, the ethical way to be with each other. We don’t make any claim as to the nature and origin of that guide – there are many opinions on that. But we trust and respect what it teaches.

And this connects directly to the second half of this principle, that we affirm “the use of the democratic process” as a way of deciding things that gives each person a say in the deciding.

And we regard the opportunity that we each have to influence how matters are decided in our lives not just as a nice thing to have, but as a fundamental right: it is something we are each owed simply by being present in the world. Another way to say this is that we have faith in the vote. It is our conviction that a vote is something that we each as individuals of inherent worth and dignity are owed and that it is through the vote that our hope as individuals in society will best be served.

It’s true that there is a great leap of faith embedded in this way of thinking because it means that we accept that whatever is decided is outside of our control. We can put our oar in, but in the end there’s no predicting where democracy will take us, and that’s OK.

History is full of doubters of that claim, people who distain others they consider less worthy than themselves who they seek to push past to wrest power for themselves. We reject that. We say that the uncertainty of democracy is a price worth paying because it’s grounded in a deeper trust.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who 50 years ago led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday and took some of the first blows among the marchers, speaks to this. In his recent book, “Across that Bridge,” he mused on what for him were the lessons of that time. “All our work, all our struggle, all our days,” he said, “add up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves to the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family.”

Our dedication to democracy carries with it a deep respect for and belief in the inherent worth of each of us, in a fundamental goodness at our core, and our belief that for all our foibles we are capable of making decisions that will serve and save us all.

Walt Whitman was known as the poet of democracy in that he saw in it not simply a style of governance but a vision something like Lewis’s. It is a way forward, he suggests in the poem you heard earlier, that depends on “the love of comrades,” on “companionship thick as trees,” on “inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.”

It’s an image that carries me back, again, to the streets of Selma last spring. Too much to hope for? Well, there was a moment, a glimpse.

It is easy, I know, to throw up our hands at the electoral process. There is much in it that’s a mess, but thankfully I believe there is nothing wrong with our democracy that can’t be repaired by applying more democracy. The trouble comes when we absent ourselves and check out of the game. Because when we do that, all it means is that we give over our power and leave the decision-making to others

Instead, let us be faithful agents to bring about the change we want to see, to bring into being a society that makes room for all, that serves us all. Won’t you join me in the work of this congregation. Get out and vote yourselves, and help us make sure that every woman and man has access to the precious franchise that is the hallmark of our democracy: all colors, all ethnicities, all people.

Rev. Barber offers us the call:

Forward together, not one step back

Forward together, not one step back,

Forward together, not one step back.

Sermon: Opening a Way to Reverence (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It’s funny how some words can ignite great controversies. Some years ago, just as I was ending my training in seminary, reverence turned out to be one of those words for us Unitarian Universalists.
The controversy was prompted by a 2003 newspaper report that in a sermon the then-president of the UUA, William Sinkford, had called for adding the word “God” to the Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles. (Actually, in a sense it was already there, though technically not in the principles themselves but in the list that often accompanies them of six sources of our “living tradition.” Among those named sources are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”)

 

It’s funny how some words can ignite great controversies. Some years ago, just as I was ending my training in seminary, reverence turned out to be one of those words for us Unitarian Universalists.

The controversy was prompted by a 2003 newspaper report that in a sermon the then-president of the UUA, William Sinkford, had called for adding the word “God” to the Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles. (Actually, in a sense it was already there, though technically not in the principles themselves but in the list that often accompanies them of six sources of our “living tradition.” Among those named sources are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”)

In any event, Bill quickly announced that the reporter had misquoted him. What he had actually called for was that we UUs look at reclaiming some of the religious language that many of us had abandoned and, for him, that included the word God. “Religious language,” he said, “doesn’t have to mean ‘God talk’” or returning to traditional Christian language. But, he said, “I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about . . . the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.”

What was interesting is that Bill framed his sermon as inviting UUs to cultivate what he called “a vocabulary of reverence.” He said that he had borrowed that phrase from a 2001 essay by David Bumbaugh, who at the time was my advisor in seminary. David, however, had made a very different point from Bill’s in that essay, as is clear from its title, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence.”

Rather than urging UUs to reclaim traditional religious language, David’s was an appeal to what he called “the Humanist witness among us” to consider how they might recover “a vocabulary of reverence” from our understanding of the natural world.

He reminded his readers that decades ago humanists had, in his words, “set the agenda for religious discourse.” But now, he said, it seemed to him that humanists had become increasingly defensive and dismissive of any hope of dialog with traditional religion. His concern, he said, was that humanists “have lost the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language that would allow us to enter once more into critical dialog with others.”

The body of his essay was devoted to demonstrating how they might do that. All the discoveries of modern day science from high-energy physics to genomics and the interwoven character of life, he argued, are not only interesting and useful developments. They also inspire us.

“The more we understanding about the macrocosm,” he said, “the more reason we have to stand in awe and reverence at the process that shaped and structure its evolution, and our evolution. . . . The history of the universe is our history. . . . How can we not stand in awe before the fact of our emergence as a consequence of the same vast processes that created galaxies, suns, stars, and planets?”

This story, David argued, “is a religious story in that it calls us out of our little local universes and invites us to see ourselves in terms of the largest self we can imagine – a self that was present, in some sense, in the singularity that produced the emergent universe, at the birth of the stars; a self that, in some sense, is related through time to every living thing on this planet, that contains within it the seeds of a future we cannot imagine in our wildest flights of fancy.”

I must admit that I am partial to David’s vision of our religious story. My point today, though, is not to promote his notion but to invite us into an expansive understanding of what reverence might be in our own lives.

I don’t happen to believe that developing a vocabulary of reverence requires that we reclaim traditional religious language, but I also think it doesn’t preclude it either. David and Bill represent two very different religious positions in the spectrum of Unitarian Universalism, but each in his own way, I believe, invites us into the kind of exploration that serves us all as we seek to get clear for ourselves on what is deepest and dearest in our lives, or, as David put it in a subsequent essay, “what is so precious to us that we cannot betray it without losing our own souls.”

What he is talking about, I believe, is that for which we have reverence. So, that means that we need to get clear on how we are using that word. A place to begin is to take note that, while it is often used in a religious context, reverence is not strictly a religious concept.

Some years ago the philosopher Paul Woodruff made this point. In his book entitled “Reverence” he noted that the idea of reverence points to that for which we have awe that engenders in us a sense of love and respect. Let me repeat that: reverence refers to that for which we have awe that engenders in us a sense of love and respect.

It may or may not emerge in a religious context. Woodruff said that it was a central concept in both Greek and Chinese Confucian thought, where it operated as a civic virtue.

For the Greeks, he said, to have reverence was to live in a way that is conscious of our humanity – both our wonder and beauty and our foibles and failures. It was, he said, “the greatest virtue of leaders, because it gives powerful people the strength to listen to those who are weaker than they, and it remind them that no one, no matter how successful, was born complete, knowing everything.”

In the same way, in the complex social system of Confucian China to live with reverence was to behave in a way that was in tune with what they believed to be the natural way of things, the duties and feelings that naturally emerge from our relations with one another.

In both cultures, the notion of reverence was also bound up with humility, a sense that our understanding is limited, that we ourselves are part of something greater than we can know and that we need to be wary of presuming that we are in control or that our knowledge is greater than it is.

So, it is possible to experience and cultivate reverence outside of religion. It is also possible for religions to operate in a way that is at odds with reverence. An example that Woodruff gives in his book is a campaign he saw conducted on the billboards of a city where he lived that declared “God voted against Proposition 2.” The sign may be an expression of faith, he says, but it is an act against reverence.

“If you wish to be reverent,” he said, “never claim the awful authority of God in support of your political views. You cannot speak on such matters with the authority of God.”

There has been much speculation recently on the positive reception to Pope Francis around the world. My sense is not that people are suddenly persuaded to the views of the Catholic Church but that they find a sense of reverence in the way that this man has taken on the mantle of his awesome new responsibilities. Acting as the leader of a church that opposes homosexuality, to say of someone who is gay, and, in Francis’ words “searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” is to speak from a sense of reverence.

So, I think that both David Bumbaugh and Bill Sinkford are right when they urge us Unitarian Universalists to reflect on that of which we can speak with reverence. What is it that fills you with a sense of awe that engenders in you a sense of love and respect? What, in the words of the Ends Statements composed by your Board of Trustees, do you embrace that helps you discern that in which you most deeply trust, that to which you give your heart?

It need not be something big and fabulous. To my mind, Robert Frost’s humble, little poem, “Hyla Brook,” that you heard earlier, is an appeal to reverence. An ephemeral stream that has only the weak and faded foliage of weeds fed by its flow to show for its ever having existed, it is nonetheless loved by its author. Equally each of us humble souls have but the memories of our loved ones to attest to our having been here.

“We love the things we love for what they are.” They might not count for much in the wide world, and yet they are worthy of our attention, our respect.

I recall that the controversy over Bill Sinkford’s sermon now 12 years ago generated quite a tempest over how we use words, over what might possibly count as a “vocabulary of reverence.” It’s understandable because words have power and they have impact.

Bill’s remarks centered on one particularly powerful word – God. In his sermon he told how he once had a life-changing experience of what he felt was God that helped evoke a sense of reverence in his life. And that experience, he said, helped connect him to his own feeling of what was ultimately important.

In an essay following Bill’s, David said the notion of God and other words of traditional religious language had the opposite effect for him. He said that in our post-modern culture he had seen that language used, in his words, “to support political agendas of questionable merit” and sell soap, cereal and automobiles. The result, he said, has been to empty what has been called “the language of faith” of any meaning for him.

Instead, David says, he has turned to language that he believes “has the potential of unshackling the religious vision from its enslavement to the politics and economics of conventional society,” a language, he says, “rooted in the vision of reality of humanity’s place in the world that has emerged from the natural sciences.”

We in this tradition gather in a covenant that insists that no words are prima facie off the table as we seek to address those deepest things in our lives. Instead, we look to each person to use those words that she or he can claim with integrity, all the while agreeing to listen with equal integrity, with reverence, knowing that they will do us the same courtesy.

From this position we can entertain the notion of finding reverence gazing at the stars or listening to the singing of “Amazing Grace.” One or the other may not do it for us, but knowing how it moves our partner in conversation may open something in us. It is one way that we express a sense of reverence for a principle at the center of our religious tradition: the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

The words we use, after all, are embedded in the stories of our lives. None of them carries the trump of settled truth. Instead, they speak to the struggles and epiphanies that made us who we are, and by opening to each other with curiosity and humility, letting go of our fearful need to have everyone share our perspective, we create the possibility of growth for us all.

I offered you the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore earlier as an expression of reverence that has always resonated deeply with me. This poem speaks to my sense of the deep connection of all things. It captures the sweep of all being, from humble “Hyla Brook” to “the ocean cradle of birth and death,” all shot through with the running, dancing, joyous throb of ages, which is life.

And, like the poet, my pride comes not from some vainglorious vision of my own importance or the importance of my species, but from being immersed in the midst of it. I recognize it as such an improbable gift that from this tumultuous wave of being in this brief glimpse of a moment out of all eternity the conscious entity that I have become emerged. Who would’ve thunk it? Yet, there is it.

It fills me with such awe and gratitude to reflect on it that I am called to celebrate with joy not only my existence but all of it, every leaf, every bug, as Tagore puts it, “made glorious by the touch of this world of life.”

Cause for reverence? It is everywhere you look. Let us open ourselves to it.

Sermon: Learning from a “Watchman” (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The voice is a familiar one, like that of relative who surprises us every once in a while with fascinating, chatty phone calls: updating us on the family gossip, relating some slightly scandalous old stories, and puzzling over all that we lose in the relentless passage of time.

I recognized Harper Lee from the moment I opened her newly-released novel, <i>Go Set a Watchman</i>. To be honest, though, I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to buy the book, given all the controversy over the circumstances of its appearance, apparently some 50 years after it was written. Did she really write it? Did she really intend to release it, or was she bullied into it by relatives seeking to enrich her estate?

READINGS

From To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end.”

Her voice rose: “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him t pieces. I’ve seen him when – what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”

“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.

“I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves – it might lose ‘em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re – “

“Be quiet, they’ll hear you,” said Miss Maudie. “Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycombe knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we ca pay him. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

“Who?” Aunt Alexandra asked.

“The handful of people in his town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”

Miss Maudie’s old crispness was returning: “The handful of people in this town with background, that’s who they are.”

From The Luminous Darkness by Howard Thurman

“As long as Negroes functioned within the patters (of segregation), the fear of reprisal and punitive measures was a very effective deterrent. The fear was always current and always active. It could be implemented quickly anywhere by any white man. To use violence as a deterrent against the violation of the pattern had a general sanction in the white community. And the surest protection against its us was not one’s guilt or innocence but rather one’s cunning or the protection of some white an who sytood in the gate on your behalf.

“The stability of the pattern rested uneasily on the Negro’s active fear. That fea, in turn, was based on the threat and the fact of violence, and the inactive fear of the white man, which sprang from his deep unconscious guilt because of his treatment of the Negro and his genuine anxiety about the security of his own position and status. The active fear of the Negro and the inactive fear of the white man provided a condition of tension that stabilized the pattern of segregation. . . .

“Now a strange thing is happening, particularly in the South. The active fear in the Negro, one of the foundation stones providing uneasy stability for segregation, is rapidly disappearing (and) being replaced by an increasing sense of personal and inner freedom. The more Negroes lose their fear, the more white people increase their fear. . . .

:When both are free of the fear, then a new way of life opens for all.”

SERMON

The voice is a familiar one, like that of relative who surprises us every once in a while with fascinating, chatty phone calls: updating us on the family gossip, relating some slightly scandalous old stories, and puzzling over all that we lose in the relentless passage of time.

I recognized Harper Lee from the moment I opened her newly-released novel, Go Set a Watchman. To be honest, though, I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to buy the book, given all the controversy over the circumstances of its appearance, apparently some 50 years after it was written. Did she really write it? Did she really intend to release it, or was she bullied into it by relatives seeking to enrich her estate?

I plead ignorance on all those questions. Instead, what intrigued me were the disclosures from its first reviewers that the book would tell us something new and disturbing about Atticus Finch, the iconic figure at the center of Lee’s towering masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might as well admit upfront that I am among the devotees of Atticus Finch. At least part of it, I’m sure, comes from my admiration of how expertly Gregory Peck realized that role in the movie. But really, Harper Lee gets the credit for the lovingly drawn portrait of the small town lawyer who, against the counsel of his townsfolk, defends an African-American man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman.

It is not just Atticus’ courage that makes him such a compelling figure, but also his decency and humility. Throughout Mockingbird whenever Lee’s narrator, Atticus’ daughter Jean Louise, known as Scout, gets worked into a fury over the guile and narrowness of her townsfolk, Atticus’ is the voice of compassion – always inviting her to walk in another person’s shoes and be slow to judge.

At the same time, when principle, law, and duty are on the line, Atticus is a tower of strength and rectitude, and it made him a widely-held figure of respect. Probably no scene in the book speaks to that more powerfully than the one that closes the trial, in which the black man he defended so expertly is nonetheless convicted.

Atticus is among the last to leave the courtroom after the verdict is handed down and his client is led back to jail. Among those remaining are dozens of African-Americans who were relegated to the courtroom balcony.

As Lee tells it in Mockingbird from Scout’s perspective sitting in the balcony next to Rev. Sykes, the African-American preacher:

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’ lonely walk down this aisle.

“’Miss Jean Louise?’”

“I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Rev. Sykes’ voice was distant.

“’Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.’”

From the beginning of Watchman it’s clear that things have changed, beginning with Jean Louise. It is some 15 years after Mockingbird, and she is in her 20s, living in New York City. She says that her father suggested the move after she graduated from college. She’s not sure, though whether it’s a place she could make her home. At the same time, on the train ride back home she’s also doubtful whether Alabama holds much promise for her future.

Amid witty banter back at home about the state of the world, we learn a few things about her home town of Maycomb. Tragically, Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem, has died of a sudden heart attack, the same way that they had lost their mother years before. After Jem’s death, Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, moved in with him, and Calpurnia, the African American housekeeper who watched over Scout and Jem, left.

Meanwhile, Atticus is starting to feel his age. Though still practicing law, at 72 years of age he also has early signs of rheumatoid arthritis. Disappointed in his hope to see Jem take over his practice, he has been cultivating another young man in town, Henry Clinton, to help out in his office. Henry, in turn, has his eye on Jean Louise, and she is flattered enough by the attention to return it, though she discourages any talk of long-term arrangements.

One Sunday afternoon, though, everything changes. After Atticus and Henry leave for some undefined meeting, Jean Louise discovers in the stack of Atticus’ reading material a pamphlet full of sulfurous racism called, “The Black Plague.”

Sure that it must have been landed there mistakenly, she asks her aunt. But Alexandra confirms that Atticus has been reading it. Not only that, but the meeting that he and Henry have left to attend is a local “Citizen’s Council.” Jean Louise has paid enough attention to the news to know that these councils have cropped up across the South to block racial integration.

Disbelieving, Jean Louise hurries downtown to check this out. And in the courthouse – the very courthouse that was the center of the action in Mockingbird – she discovers Atticus, Henry and most of the prominent men in town listening to a speaker giving a scurrilous racist tirade. Stunned, her stomach heaving, she stumbles home, persuaded that, as Harper Lee puts it, “the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her.”

So, how is it that we understand letting go to be a spiritual discipline? After all, isn’t our spiritual center, that inner place of trust and love where our heart rests, grounded in things that we deeply affirm? Of course. But we also find that to discover those things requires a good deal of choosing, of casting aside or pruning away those beliefs or ways of looking at the world that no longer serve us.

As my now-deceased colleague Forrest Church put it, “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.”

But how we choose is tricky business. The sad truth is that we are disappointed and disillusioned in so many ways when we grow up; especially hard is how we disappoint each other. And perhaps nowhere is this harder than between parent and child. A natural part of growing up is coming to idealize our parents, but in time they all prove to be fallible – human, in other words. How we cope with that disillusioning experience has something to do with how we grow to be more mature, self-reliant people.

So, it occurs to me that one way to look at To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman is as two parts of a coming of age story. Harper Lee’s first book is told through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl who idolizes a father as her model for moral behavior.

And it is a measure of the power of her prose that so many of her readers close that book with that same idyllic image in their heads. Perhaps one reason for it is the context for Harper Lee’s story. In a country so conflicted over race, she offered for white people an image, a father-figure as it were, who could calm our fears and through principled living, courage and compassion help lead us through the toils and snares of the legacy of racism that we each inherit.

What we discover in Go Set a Watchman is the other side of that story: the disillusion we feel when we are confronted with a side of that father figure that we didn’t know, the clay feet that show us his frailty and limitations.

I was intrigued to discover that the great African-American writer and theologian Howard Thurman wrote the book I read a quote from earlier, The Luminous Darkness, at about the same time that Harper Lee reportedly wrote Go Tell a Watchman: the early- to mid-1960s.

In that book, Thurman observed that there was a shift in race relations under way at the time. The old practices of violent reprisals that kept white people over black people were being questioned. As he put it, “the Negro’s active fear (of violent reprisals) is rapidly disappearing (and) being replaced by an increasing sense of personal and inner freedom.”

But he also said that there was an “inactive fear” among white people that was increasing. That fear, he said, “sprang from his deep unconscious guilt because of his treatment of the Negro and his genuine anxiety about the security of his own position and status.”

We see what that white fear looks like in Go Set a Watchman when Jean Louise finally confronts Atticus. Presented with her discoveries, he receives Jean Louise’s complaint with lawyerly patience, drawing out her concerns, until he lays his position out straight: “Jean Louise, have you considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”

Brick by brick he argues his case for why he believes blacks aren’t ready for their rights, how, in his words, “they’re in their childhood as a people” and have been bamboozled by the NAACP to bring lawsuits that he says will only wreck Southern culture for all.

But Jean Louise won’t have it. She’s not interested in his fine arguments. Instead, she digs into her memory and throws his own words back at him. Her outrage over his remarks has its origins, she reminds him, in what he himself taught her about how every person had worth and deserved a chance.

“Atticus,” she says, “I grew up right here in your house and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me we were naturally better than the Negroes, that they were able to go so far but so far only . . . .

“You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you. . . .I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. Now I’m in a no-man’s land but good. There’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”

It was the African American writer James Baldwin who once said of his white detractors, “You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in history, which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it difficult to act on what they know.”

I remember when I was around 16 my parents told me of a call that they had received from my grandfather who relayed a complaint he had received from neighbors to house he owned on Point Pleasant beach in New Jersey. The weekend before an African American friend of mine had joined us during a stay at that house. The neighbors apparently were alarmed to see a black boy on the neighboring beach, and my grandfather informed us that we were not to bring him again.

I couldn’t believe that he would say such an outrageous thing – my own grandfather – and I wrote him an indignant letter protesting it. I don’t know what he thought of it. He never made any comment to me about it. Instead, in time each of us, in our own ways, let it go, and instead returned to our roles in family gatherings.

And so, in a sense, does Jean Louise. Once the bitterness of her disappointment fades, she’s able to hear her uncle Jack tell her that despite what she has seen, there are many in town who share her opinion. Not to forget, he tells her: “every man’s watchman is his conscience.” And she must follow hers.

And once we the readers get over, let go of, our disappointment with Atticus, this is the uplift that awaits us. Whatever limitations Atticus may have had, Harper Lee suggests that through his life’s example he was able to teach his daughter, and maybe us, too, not to carry forward the prejudice that had privately weighed him down and fed his fears in his declining years.

In that sense, one could say that his gift to the future, together with all the good he did with his life, was to send forth one child unshackled by that prejudice, so that, as Howard Thurman put it, “a new way of life (might) open for all.” So may that be the legacy that Harper Lee leaves to us, too.

Yes, there is much we must learn to let go of, but not each other, not the possibility of redemption for us all. We fragile, fallible beings do a lot of stumbling. As Stephen Sondheim puts it in his musical, “Into the Woods”:

People make mistakes: fathers, mothers,

holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.”

But we’re not. No one is alone.

We are ever learning and growing, and then invited to prune and discard. It is the way of things on the path to one earth, one people, one love.

Sermon: Finding Home (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The first place I remember calling home was a ranch-style house built on an acre of bottom land carved out of second-growth forest about 20 minutes from Princeton, New Jersey. Our young family – my parents, my 5-year-old self, and two younger brothers (a sister and another brother were yet to come) – had just moved to the area, where my father was starting a psychiatry practice.

 

READINGS

From “Walking Meditation” in Peace is Every Breath
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Every step we make in awareness helps us get in touch with the wonders of life that are here, available to us right now. As you breathe in, you can take a step and contemplate, “I am arrived; I am home.”

“I have arrived” means I am already where I want to be – with life itself – and I don’t need to rush anywhere, I don’t have to go looking for anything more. “I am home” means I’ve come back to my true home, which is life here in the present moment.”

You have arrived at your true home and the wonder of life that are there for you; you don’t need to wander around looking for something more. You can say:

I have arrived, I am home

in the here, in the now.

“In the here, in the now” is the address of life. It’s the place we come back to – our true home. Each step brings you back to life.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski

SERMON

The first place I remember calling home was a ranch-style house built on an acre of bottom land carved out of second-growth forest about 20 minutes from Princeton, New Jersey. Our young family – my parents, my 5-year-old self, and two younger brothers (a sister and another brother were yet to come) – had just moved to the area, where my father was starting a psychiatry practice.

The image of us living in that woodsy suburb still resonates in my memory, though it no longer has for me a sense of home. For, we moved from that place after only five years to another, larger house in nearby Pennington. And that house, which my family called home for another 12 years, has a more powerful claim on my memory.

It was there that I came of age, had my most memorable successes and failures in school, and developed a circle of friends, many of whom revolved around the Unitarian Universalist church that we had joined shortly after moving to Princeton.

Also, it was there that the ingredients of my sense of home began to expand. Geographically, I came to claim not just the rolling hills of central New Jersey where we lived, but also the Atlantic shore, where my grandfather had a beach house, and the urban centers of New York and Philadelphia that we found occasions to get to now and again, both within something like an hour’s commute.

There were other dimensions of that sense of home, too. The church, frankly, was one. It was a community where I felt welcome and valued, even as a child. And, while not much from specific classes sticks with me some 50 years later, I am left with a sense of being invited to discover the wonder of living, of the world about me, to treat others well and be open to wisdom from many sources.

There was also a sense of home about our social circle, the people we had most to do with, many of them young families like ours scrambling to make their way. Though, I’ve come to realize years later that not every element of that was positive. Most of the adults I dealt with were, like my parents, professionals, and so there was some elitism marbled into my experience: admiration and respect for some people, not so much for others.

Also, with some notable exceptions, our social circle was almost entirely white. So, there was a kind of unarticulated racism that pervaded it, too. My parents and their friends likely would have objected to such a claim. They talked a good talk and extended themselves at times to communities of color. But the gulf between them and the people they served was undeniable. It didn’t help that without exception the women my parents hired to clean our house were African-American.

We need to be wary lest the sense of home, that sense of belongedness, colors how we see the world, for there are some things from “home” that we need to outgrow as our sense of home widens. And so mine did. As I moved off to college what felt like home moved beyond the memory of that familiar place of my upbringing.

Instead, the rootlessness of school became a home of its own, a home in my head, the familiarity of books, classrooms and leafy campuses, and its own unreality: the unquestioned dependence, the cloistered circle of acquaintances, until exiting into the cold shower of the work world.

We each experience our own evolution as home of one form or another presents itself in our early lives, and it either suffices or it doesn’t. One way or another we try to make do until the realization dawns on us that home is not simply where we happen to land: it is also what we choose.

It encompasses not just places of our choosing but also partners and progeny – or not. Life invites us to sort ourselves out, and we either take the opportunity to make those choices or we don’t.

Some who are confronted with such choices forgo them. Faced with a decision – fourth and 10 – they punt and then mostly drift. They live on the surface, go with the flow, never really put down roots. It is an existence that is figuratively, if not literally, homeless.

For me, when the fork came in the road – as the now-departed Yogi Berra put it – I took it. I met the right person, we made the right choice to marry, bore three wonderful children: what Zorba the Greek called, “the full catastrophe.” But catastrophic only to some inflated sense of self-importance, or cavalier egotism. For what the experience gave me was a pearl of great price – a sense of home stronger and deeper than any I had ever known.

One of the surprises of parenthood, though, is how much goes into creating and maintaining a home – a place of love and affirmation, a refuge from the storms of the world, a cold frame where tender shoots can put down roots and send up their first leaves. Quickly it becomes obvious that we can’t do it alone and for us to thrive we must widen the circle of our concern.

We begin looking for others in similar straits, and, if we’re lucky, we come in contact with a community like this one, where breadth of life experience is wide and where connections of care invite us, once again, to deepen our sense of what home might be. I remember when our girls were growing up some of their most important connections came at church from adults who decided that they looked like pretty interesting people and made an effort to get to know them.

Experiences like this feed a new sense of well-being that extends beyond the particulars of the people and places that we know contributing to something more like a sense of faith. When I speak of faith, I’m not referring to the specific content of any particular belief. I am speaking of that in which we rest our hearts, which we trust as true. It is a settled place within us, at our core, the ground of our certitude.

It was the religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith who famously referred to faith as “a quiet confidence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe.” It is something that, he, says, has less to do with belief than with, in his words, “a quality of human living.” It isn’t anything that comes at once, but grows within us as we go through the process to trusting and testing that leads us to a settled sense of meaning.

One of the ways we develop our faith, then, is how we project a sense of home outside of ourselves: how it embraces others, even those significantly different from ourselves, and how it extends to the world around us.

Last year, for example, in this congregation we convened a class called, “Discovering a Sense of Place,” that was centered in the notion that how we understand our immediate surroundings can deepen our feeling of being at home in it. We walk, after all, on some of the most ancient mountains in North America and in one of its most diverse ecosystems. Yet, so much in our lives removes us from our surroundings.

So, we spent time examining all of it more closely. We took field trips to learn more about our human predecessors here, ranging from the Oconaluftee Village of the Cherokee to Hickory Nut Gap Farm. And we surveyed the natural landscape from investigating individual species of animals and plants to gaining a sense of our own unique niche in our nation’s complex array of bioregions.

We were companioned by poets, scientists and thinkers whose writings urged us both to widen our sense of boundaries to where our concern might extend and to sink roots where we reside, to know it as a real place, as something more than a place where we are parked for a time, but as home: home as a place occupied by our relations with all things our relations.

But Adam Zagajewski’s poem illustrates poignantly what can keep us from making that link in our consciousness. He wrote the poem you heard earlier shortly just before the 9-11 attacks, and it was widely shared at the time as a response to that disaster. But it could be applied equally to the world today.

“You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,” he says, watched stylish ships ply the seas “while salty oblivion” awaits others. We hear executioners across Middle Eastern war zones “sing joyfully.” This “mutilated world,” as Zagajewski puts it, is cause for much heartache.

Praise it all the same, he urges. Remember the beauty of long June days and wild strawberries, the moments of peace we find together, the leaves that in time cover over the scars on the landscape. Even amid all this, we are at home.

Thich Nhat Hanh in his walking meditation speaks of how we are so often preoccupied with regrets, suffering, worries and fear. But those phantoms, he says, need have no power over us in the present moment.

The walking meditation is a good practice to bring us back. Each step reminds us of where we are and that we need be present only to what is here. Focusing our attention on that moment brings us present.

What shall we do with this presence? This Buddhist master suggests that we use it to get in touch with the wonders of life that are here, available to us right now. Such as? Well, how about beginning with our breathing, that simple act that we perform without thinking about.

Right. So? So, at least for this moment we are calmed, and we are aware of our calmed self. And that calmed self, at least here and now, is enough. We don’t need anything else. We don’t need to go anywhere else. We are home, here, now.

And when we reflect, we come to see that, wherever we were when we last felt most at home, that self, the very self we just experienced, was a part of it, too. So, wherever it was – with our families, in our communities, at our places of employment, glorying at this good, green earth – there is home within us, too.

Welcome home!

Sermon: The Inside Out Journey to Forgiveness (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside them?”
So, begins the latest animated wonder from Pixar studios, “Inside Out.” And it offers up a nice premise for a coming-of-age story that will take up the next hour and a half or so on screen, as well as a good prompt to some deep conversations that we all are in need of right now, especially when the topic before us is “forgiveness.”

 

“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside them?”

So, begins the latest animated wonder from Pixar studios, “Inside Out.” And it offers up a nice premise for a coming-of-age story that will take up the next hour and a half or so on screen, as well as a good prompt to some deep conversations that we all are in need of right now, especially when the topic before us is “forgiveness.”

That opening line is spoken by Joy, the first of five animated emotions that we will hear from in this tale of Riley Anderson, an 11-year-old girl who after a happy childhood in Minnesota finds her life disrupted by a cross-country move to San Francisco, where her father is taking a job at a digital start-up company.

It’s a lovely notion, supported by the raft of social scientists who consulted on the film, that our natal emotion, that first feeling that emerges at birth is a sense of joy. Oh, life! What a wonder, what a miracle! What bliss just to be!

Of course, it doesn’t take long for others to make their presence known as well. Anger appears when hunger first rumbles in our bellies, fear when we’re confronted with the unfamiliar, disgust when those first foods are offered, and sadness when we’re not attended to in the way we want.

You could argue that other feelings ought to be represented, too: say, curiosity, or wonder. I expect you could name some. But the writers pleaded that too many characters would mix up the story line. OK, fine.

The film makes the interesting point that every experience we have is colored in some way by our feelings. We remember them that way – experiences that were happy or sad, or that maybe left us feeling angry or fearful. That’s part of how we store them.

Too, the intensity of the emotion has something to do with their valence, their strength. Some experiences are so strong they become what the film calls core memories, and they help create islands of emotional identity.

Up to this point in her life, the film says, Riley has been lucky enough that her islands are largely joyous ones. There is “goof ball,” representing her silly side, which she or her parents trigger with monkey imitations. Then, there’s hockey, a skill she learned on those Minnesota lakes, and strongest of all, family.

Every one of these islands, though, gets tested by the move to San Francisco – a place that Riley is assured will be beautiful and fun, but that she finds to be uncomfortable and foreign.

While all this is going on, there’s also a lot of turmoil going on inside Riley’s head. Joy, as usual, is trying to be the cruise director, keeping things light and fun, but not all the other feelings are on board. In particular, sadness, usually so quiet and unassuming, is playing around with some of the memories where joy feels she has no business. Particularly she seems drawn to some of those joyous core memories, which, when she touches them, begin to turn sad.

Alarmed, joy tries protecting them, and in the back and forth between them, both joy and sadness – together with some core memories – are transported away of “headquarters,” Riley’s consciousness. The rest of the film is devoted to them finding their way back to set things right, while Riley struggles with the inability to access her feelings of joy and sadness.

It’s a clever way of framing how disruptions in our lives can turn things upside down. Even as grown-ups, when things go wrong we try to be calm and reasonable, but we struggle with emotions inside us that are raging. Part of growing up, we learn, is coming to terms with those feelings but not necessarily letting them drive us.

Even more, we come to learn how to recognize feelings in others and how to respond to them effectively. The film offers us an example of a not-especially-effective response, when at the dinner table Riley responds to a question from her parents in anger. Inside her father we watch his emotions undergo something like the launch sequence of a thermonuclear weapon, ending with him “putting the foot down” by shouting at her and banishing her to her room.

It’s clear, though, that that display doesn’t accomplish much, and later he goes to Riley’s room seeking to smooth the waters. He tries engaging “goof ball” island, but he gets no response. Indeed, inside Riley we see goof ball island crumble and fall into the pit of erased memories.

It’s an excruciating moment in the film and a reminder of how fluid our emotional lives can be. In Riley’s case, goof ball island was something that was likely to go anyway as she grew older, but going as it did with no other positive core memory to replace it makes her vulnerable. We watch as joy and sadness scramble for a way back to Riley’s consciousness while Riley struggles with anger and fear driving her responses as each remaining island crumbles apart and tumbles away.

Joy is positively frantic: if only she could find a way back, she is sure she could fix things. But she has an awakening: along their travels through Riley’s memories, she and sadness come upon Riley’s one-time imaginary friend – Bing Bong – a manic combination of elephant, cat and dolphin. Bing Bong helps them along the way, but he becomes despondent when the wagon that was his magical transport is taken away.

Joy tries to cheer him up without success, but then sadness comes to the rescue. She simply sits with Bing Bong – “You lost your wagon,” she says. “You’re sad.” He agrees, and after crying for a minute, he’s ready to move on.

So, it’s worth our spending a little time thinking about what sadness brings to the mix of our emotions. Rilke offers an interesting insight in his letter that we excerpted earlier. Could we see beyond the limits of our knowledge, he says, “we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys.” Now, how’s that? It is, he says, because these are moments when something new, something alien enters us.

Sadness in that sense is a kind of reality check. We are sailing along, everything’s great, and then we are confronted in some way with something that catches us short, that trips us up. When that happens, we can, of course, respond in many ways. We can get mad about it, ignore it, or run away from it. Each of these responses, though, has within it an element of denial, of failing to acknowledge the loss we’ve experienced.

Rilke urges the young poet receiving his letters not to do that. Confronted with sadness, he urges him to be “lonely and attentive.” Sit with it, he says. Examine it. Treat it as the gift it is. Be patient and open to its teaching.

Of course, few of us want to spend much time with sadness. Like joy in the film, we’d like to be distracted, cheered up. Yet, at the center of our sadness may be an important learning – a way we’ve overreached or exceeded our grasp, or perhaps our first clear understanding of how deep a loss we’ve received is to us. We say we’re fine, we’ll be OK, but to move on with our lives we need at least for a moment to sit with the full truth and full impact of, say, a promise broken, a dream lost, a relationship damaged, a loved one gone.

We’ve heard of people who say, “I don’t dare cry because if I start crying, I’ll never stop.” But, of course, we all do. It just feels hard to give ourselves over to it. But hope of healing lies on the other side. I think Rilke offers some wisdom here.

“You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than anything you have seen,” he says. In fact, that response is part of your own psyche guiding you through. It is not that “life has forgotten you.” Quite the opposite. It is your life, your inner wisdom that is “holding your hand,” taking you where you need to go. Not to fear, he consoles his reader, “it will not let you fall.”

Likewise, at the center of any act of forgiveness is a moment of sorrow, where each person – the one injured and the one who caused the injury – acknowledges the loss, the injury, the failure to act as we should.

It, too, is a kind of reality check. Try as we do to be good people, we come up short. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge both the injury we give as the perpetrator and the wound we experience as the recipient. Yet, we can’t hope to restore our own peace of mind or to heal the relationship that was damaged until we have attended to it.

Here is the great wisdom in the Jewish Days of Awe, the passage from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur when Jews give and receive forgiveness and make atonement for the wrongs they have done to each other. The words that we sang earlier from of the Gates of Repentance, the Jewish prayer book for this time, lay it out.

Who of us can claim to be pure of heart, untouched by or unresponsible for wrongs to others or ourselves. There is none on earth. It is a sad truth for us all. Yet, renewal is possible for each of us: a new resolve, a new attitude, deeper compassion, authentic humility. All that’s required is that we sit for a bit with the sadness of this rift in our lives, and then act: give and receive forgiveness, offer and accept atonement.

So, poor Riley! Driven by anger, fear and disgust, she is led to a potentially disastrous decision. (For those of you who haven’t seen the movie I’ll leave you in suspense as to what that decision is.) As she barrels ahead, the emotions in her head realize what a mess they’ve made but can’t seem to do anything to stop it.

Through some funny and dramatic circumstances, though, joy and sadness make their way back to the headquarters of Riley’s consciousness. The other emotions look to joy, once again, as the fixer, but joy, instead, turns to sadness to do her work. And it is sadness that breaks through, that provides Riley the reality check she needs to show her the rashness and foolishness of her choice.

Riley makes it home to her frantic parents and then collapses into tears, confessing all the worries, fears and disappointments that she has held inside, how much she misses her old home and the life that she loved. And her parents chime in, too, admitting their own sadness, something they hadn’t confessed up until now. And they settle into a prayerful group hug of grateful unity.

So might we conclude our own inside out journeys to forgiveness, the sometimes painful passage that teaches us to sit with our sadness and then act, take ownership of where we have erred and seek forgiveness for our deeds.

As the Gates of Repentance put it: May we now forgive, atone that we may live. May we now forgive that we may live.

My friends, I confess to you that in the past year I have at times fallen short of your hopes and expectations of me. It makes me sad to think of and yet resolved to be more measured and intentional in my commitments, more compassionate in my dealings , and more understanding of the needs of others.

Please forgive me. I forgive you. Let us begin again in love.

Sermon: Come In, Come In! (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We never know where the invitation will come from. For Mary Oliver, it came when she chanced on a clutch of gold finches, chittering and warbling in a patch of thistles:
“Their strong, blunt beaks drink the air, she said, as they strive melodiously
not for your sake or for mine, not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude.”

 

We never know where the invitation will come from. For Mary Oliver, it came when she chanced on a clutch of gold finches, chittering and warbling in a patch of thistles.

Their strong, blunt beaks drink the air, she said, as they strive melodiously
not for your sake or for mine, not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude.

In that display Oliver read something deeper than just a momentary distraction on the way to wherever she was going:

Believe us, they say, it is a serious thing
just to be alive on this fresh morning
in the broken world.

And so, she urged the reader, before going on:

I beg of you,
do not walk by without pausing
to attend to this rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something; it could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote
you must change your life.

Does something like that ring a bell with you? Have you ever had such an invitation? I’m guessing that most of us have in one way or another. It may not have been golden birds dancing in the thistles. It may have been having our attention drawn suddenly to a gentle fold in the soft skin of an infant’s neck. It may have been at sunset when the clouds shift and open into shades of deep magenta. It may have been watching an aging parent’s face suddenly break out into a beaming smile.

D.H. Lawrence describes this as being “born to humanity,” a moment when we are drawn outside of ourselves to a new perspective on the world. He says that what he calls our “first birth” is to ourselves. The world is our nursery: pretty things are to be snatched for, pleasant things to be tasted. Some people, he says, never leave this state. But most of us open eventually to a larger perspective. We become conscious, he says, of all the laughing and the never ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that each reverberate across the world.

It is here, he argues, in what he calls this second birth that we begin to formulate our religion, “be that what it may be.” And here he introduces an interesting phrase: “A person,” he says, “has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together.”

From his perspective, then, religion is something that we come to know not so much by joining a church or affirming some statement of belief. It comes with how we gather together and make sense of all the ways that we are stirred by what he calls “the low, vast murmur of life . . . troubling our hitherto unconscious selves.”

Lawrence was a controversial figure for the sexual themes that emerged in his writings. But it’s worth knowing that, while he had little use for organized religion, he called himself “a passionately religious man” whose work is written “from the depth of my religious experience.”

It’s something we share with him in how we frame the first of six sources of our living tradition: Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to renewal of the spirit, and openness to forces that create and uphold life. So, our religion, our faith is a response to how we experience the world. It is, as D.H. Lawrence puts it, something we are always shaping and adding to; it is never complete. We are ever being invited into new ways of experiencing it.

My colleague Victoria Safford offers one way to look at this:

“What if,” she says, “there were a universe, a cosmos,
which began in shining blackness, out of nothing,
and into it came billions and billions of stars,
and near one of them a blue-green world so beautiful
that learned clergy couldn’t even speak of it cogently and
scientists trying to describe it would sound like poets.
And into that world came animals and elements and plants
and the imagination.
If such a universe existed and you noticed it, what would you do?
What song would come out of your mouth, what prayer,
what praises, what whirling dances, what reverential
gesture would you make to greet that world
every day that you were in it?

I hear a similar invitation in the passage I read earlier from Isaiah: how might we learn to live in such a way as to see the world infused with wonder. It isn’t easy, for our lives are too often mired in the pedestrian and pecuniary. “Here,” he says, “come buy without money, without price.”

Come in, come in: attend to the goldfinch, to a blue-green world so beautiful not a one of us captures it cogently until we begin to sound like poets. “Why labor for that which does not satisfy?” There is goodness before you without a price tag attached. And there is goodness within each of us that calls us to larger life, that invites us into service whose value is beyond what we could ever charge.

On a different occasion, Victoria Safford wrote of a conversation she had with a friend who worked as a counselor in the health clinic of a college. The woman told how not long before, a student she had known and counseled, committed suicide. It was a difficult loss, one that hit close to home.

At one point, she said, the woman looked up with tears running down her cheeks with a tone of what Victoria could only call defiance, as she spoke of a new resolve she had found, a new understanding of what Victoria called her vocation, and ours:

“You know,” she said, “I cannot save them.
I am not here to save anybody or save the planet.
All I can do – what I’m called to do –
is to plant myself at the gates of Hope.
Sometimes they come in, and sometimes they walk by.
But I stand there every day, and I call out
til my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon
and urge them to beautiful life and love.”

Beautiful life & love. I tell you when I first heard that story the mountains and hills before me burst into song and the trees of the field clapped their hands.

We are each laborers in the field with limited scope. We put in our hours, we do our jobs, we attend to our loved ones and our households. But there is more of which we are capable. There is a larger way of being to which we are invited if we would be born to humanity and accept our calling to beautiful life and love.

These are the words I want to place before you as we look to the worship year ahead of us. What invitations are calling to you? And how might you respond?

Is the craziness of your schedule getting to you? How about some experience with mindful meditation? Are your heart and mind telling you to dig deeper, to find a way to connect better with what truly matters in the company of others who share your hope?

Oh, there is so much! Theme groups, classes, spiritual practice groups . . . Well, you just need to find a place and jump in. Are you ready to put your heart and your hands into work that serves your values? Let me tell you, that will open your eyes and fill your soul like nothing else. It can be a little daunting to jump in by yourself so hop on board one of the projects we have going now, then perhaps you can help lead us to the next step.

I offer all this not as marching orders but as an invitation, an invitation to live into the promise that you are, the gifts you bring into this world, the hope that we realize when we join in common cause to give flesh to the great vision of beloved community, where we let all that divides us fall away like the insubstantial froth we know it to be and affirm the unity that is ours.

It is not easy, and because it’s not easy we stand together and support each other. It’s too much on our own, we need others to be in it with us: to cherish and teach each other’s children, to listen with full presence and speak with full respect, to help us celebrate our successes and grieve our losses, to reach beyond our comfort zones and put ourselves in places where we have the temerity to think that we just might help change the world.

Come in, come in. We have so much to do.

Sermon: On Not Worshipping the Teapot

Revs. Kerry Mueller & Dave Hunter, Guest Ministers

Rev. Kerry Mueller
“SBNR.” You’ve probably heard the term: “Spiritual But Not Religious.” It’s the coming thing. The future of the church for the Millennials and their children. I’ve been hearing it for years.

 

Often it comes from young couples looking for a Unitarian Universalist minister to marry them. “We’re not religious, but we’re spiritual – very spiritual.” I understand that they are feeling nervous about dealing with a clergy person. They want to get married, they can’t relate to the standard denominations, maybe they have already been turned down in some unpleasant way because they don’t meet some requirement of baptism or belief. They’ve heard of Unitarian Universalism in a general way; they don’t know much about us, but they’ve heard that we will marry all sorts of people.

We were happy to celebrate same sex unions long before Marriage Equality became a legal reality – our evolution came a little earlier than the rest of the culture. But sometimes couples know they don’t want only a civil ceremony, to be married by a justice of the peace; they want something more. . . And so they come to me, not sure what rules I may have, trying to impress me with their sincerity about . . . something. That’s when I hear it, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”

What do you suppose they mean?

I’ve heard it from more traditional Christians as well. Some years ago I was working on an anti-racism project with Avis, a lovely, elegant woman, a sharp lawyer, an activist, an African American and a devoted Baptist. She operated out of a strong Christian faith, with all the creedal beliefs. Yet she said to me one day, “Religion won’t save you.”

Well, that surprised me. If a Baptist doesn’t believe in religion, who does? When I asked her about that, it seems she meant that what I might call “religiosity” won’t save you – not going to church or reciting prayers or repeating creeds. The trappings are not important. What saves you in Avis’ view is a deep personal relationship with the ultimate realities of the universe – which she would name as God. Not “religion.”

I have a certain sympathy with Avis’ point of view. Not necessarily her take on theology, but her direct connection with the unvarnished spiritual reality of the universe. After all, religions may be a little distant from the reality they deal with, and always subject to all the pains and difficulties of institutional life – meeting disparate needs, paying the bills, getting the plumbing fixed. They can easily become too structured or too loose, too hierarchical or too ineffective, too burdened with rules or so vague that nobody knows what they stand for. And even under the best of circumstances, everybody gives up something to live in community. A vital spiritual life is a lot more fun. It’s constantly self-renewing, a source of energy, an inspiration for engaged living. And it doesn’t need any committees to keep it going. So I, too, sympathize with a preference for spirituality over the daily reality of “religion.”

Yet I’m always a little taken aback when I hear that declaration. I am, after all, a person who has organized my whole professional and personal life around nurturing religious community within an institutional denomination. I love this religion, this denomination, this faith, even when it sometimes makes me tear my hair out. And so I want to urge us to look a little closer at the issues of religion and spirituality, and at the related questions of religious language and religious engagement.

The late liberal Protestant theologian Marcus Borg writes about the necessity of the institutions of religion.

[But] the contrast between spirituality and religion is both unnecessary andunwise. . . . Religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education. One can learn about the world, become educated, without schools, universities and books, but it is like reinventing the wheel in every generation. Institutions of learning are the way education gets traction in history; so also religion (its external forms) is the way spirituality gains traction in history. Religion – its external forms – not just spirituality, matters. Its forms are the vessels of spirituality, mediators of the sacred and the way. [Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 219]

I agree with Borg. Somebody has to mind the store. Somebody has to keep the church going so that it will be there when those spiritual but not religious people need a wedding. Or when they come around later looking for a baby dedication, or religious education. Somebody has to preserve the home where we come together to work out our spirituality and to act out our faith. Without an institution, how would our values have a reliable presence in the culture? How would brilliant but isolated spiritual Millennials keep from going off the rails without a community to provide nurture and challenge?

But it is the last line of this quote of Borg’s that caught my attention and encapsulated the questions for me: Religion’s “forms are the vessels of spirituality.” I’ve been taking pottery courses for the last decade, making vessels of one sort or another. I even made a teapot recently, a dragon teapot – but because of an infelicity in the glazing process, you can’t actually make tea in it. I’ve been thinking about containers, about holding things, about decoration and utility, about structure and strength, about art and creativity. Something clicked. I remembered a little saying, a mere sentence fragment I found in Evensong, a lovely Unitarian Universalist curriculum for nurturing our spirituality:

Worshiping the teapot, instead of drinking the tea.

There it is in a nutshell, or at least a teapot. There’s the trouble with religion. Too often we worship the teapot, instead of drinking the tea. It’s so easy to get distracted from the precious tea, the thirst quenching, energy restoring, delicious tea, to get caught up instead in the virtues and flaws of the vessel, to spend all your attention on worshiping the superficial. People understand this in a deep way, and so they tell me they are spiritual, but not religious.

But this is not the whole story. Have you ever tried to make tea without a teapot? Or at least a mug? Without some sort of container, your tea will not brew and the hot water will run all over the table. It’s hard to embrace spirituality without some vessel to hold it and shape it. So drink the tea by all means. Brew it well. Try different kinds of tea, plain black tea and green tea, and exotic flavored teas. Don’t forget herbal tisane, which isn’t exactly tea but can be wonderful stuff. Share your tea with friends. Offer it to strangers as hospitality. Don’t get all hung up worshiping the teapot.

But do have a care for the vessel of your spirituality. Don’t break it. Appreciate your teapot. Did you inherit it from your great grandmother? Is it a museum reproduction? Did a friend make it for you? I’m trying again with my beloved dragon teapot. Maybe this time the glaze will work. Does it represent a year you spent in England? Does it keep the tea hot? Is it beautiful? Homey? Filled with nostalgia? Appreciate the other teapots of the world as well, even if the shape of the pot or the decor are unfamiliar. The teapot is not to be worshiped, but it holds and shapes and makes the tea available. And so it deserves its share of care and respect.

Rev. Dave Hunter
One of the things I had hoped to learn in seminary was “What is spirituality?” I had heard of it, of course, spirituality. I knew that a lot of folks considered it a good thing. But I didn’t know what it was. And I was embarrassed to ask. Asking about spirituality felt like asking about the missionary position. I figured that everyone else already knew, since that’s the sort of thing you should know, if you’re preparing for the ministry.

There wasn’t any course at Wesley Theological Seminary on spirituality, no exam questions on it, no one asked me to write a paper on spirituality. If it was covered in class, I must have missed that day. During my internship, with the UUs in Princeton, my seminary adviser pressed me to have spiritual practices. I knew what practices are, even if I wasn’t sure what made them spiritual. I told her that I played hymns every evening, and I offered to read passages from the Koran every morning, and that satisfied her.

As I see it, spirituality is not about how you feel. It’s not a feeling, or perhaps I should say, it’s not just a feeling. When people claim to be spiritual, or when people are striving to be spiritual, or more spiritual, they’re not talking about a certain feeling that they have, or that they’re looking for – or at least they shouldn’t be, if you ask me. If feelings were the issue, then the answer might be pharmacological. If feelings were the issue, the key to spirituality might be in the right drugs, or in alcohol, or in sexual gratification.

According to Benedictine monk Father Daniel Homan and his colleague Lonni Pratt, in their book Radical Hospitality: [Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2002)], what people are looking for when they say they’re in search for spirituality is often, really, comfort. Here is how Homan and Pratt respond to the idea of spirituality as comfort.

Genuine spirituality [, they say,] seldom makes you comfortable. It challenges, disturbs, unsettles, and leaves you feeling as if someone were at the center of your existence on a major remodeling mission. Spirituality is meant to change you. If it doesn’t, it is something less than spirituality. [p. 35, edited]

For me, whatever spirituality is, it has to be tied to our experience in the world, it has to be tied to our response to the world, it has to involve relationships. Spirituality isn’t comfort as much as discomfort. It’s not feeling good; it’s doing good. It’s not about trying to change yourself, but about engaging in the world, and finding that you are changed in the process. It is about looking for the meaning of life, not through introspection, not through devising a program called “the search for the meaning of life” but by participating in life, participating fully.

For me, spirituality is related to integrity, to wholeness. That’s what the responsive reading was about. [adapted from Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)]

Here’s an example of what I would consider a spiritual experience. It’s one of Father Dan’s stories, from the book I mentioned a minute ago. One of the families in his parish has “just had a terrible tragedy.” The son has killed himself; the mother is “inconsolable;” the father has “lost himself in a drunken stupor.” And there’s a six-year-old little sister. Here’s how Father Dan tells the story:

I went over to check on the family. The mother was locked in her bedroom. The father was sitting in a chair, completely intoxicated and basically unconscious. Their young daughter was sitting on the floor sobbing, with her frail little shoulders heaving and her eyes red from so much crying that you wondered if her little body could handle the force of all the pain. She was completely alone in her grief, not because her parents were cruel or uncaring, but because they were shattered.

I picked up the child, and without saying a word, I put her on my lap and sat in a rocking chair. I held her and rocked, while she cried for a couple of hours. A bond formed between us instantly. [pp. 138-39, edited]

Need I say that Father Dan did not set out to have a spiritual experience? As he sat rocking, he did not think to himself, “This is the most spiritual I’ve felt all week.” No, he was there to be with the family in their time of need. He was there, as it turned out, to provide the physical comfort that the little girl so urgently needed – a couple of hours of being held, of being rocked.

We don’t know what was going through Father Dan’s mind, as he sat and rocked. Perhaps he was giving the girl his full attention, practicing the mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh recommends. [see The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation (Beacon Press, 1987)] Or perhaps he was mentally preparing a shopping list, or brain storming possible tax deductions. I don’t think it matters.

Rev. Kerry Mueller
Held and shaped and supported by the structures and practices of his church, Father Dan was able to enter a moment of deep spirituality, giving what was needed on a human level, while being connected to the source of love and comfort in his life. Our vessel of spirituality – by that I mean both our personal credos and practices, and the community we help to nurture – helps us to brew our faith and to share the tea of spirituality in a friendly, sometimes life sustaining way. But what is that tea? How do we name our spirituality?

The heart of spirituality is being aware of your connection with something bigger than you are. Liberal Protestant theologian James Nelson calls it “the patterned ways we relate to what is ultimate in our lives.” [according to Thomas Ledbetter, 1/23/06 conversation; see James M. Nelson, Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality (2009)] That spirituality comes in many forms, held by many vessels, some of them explicitly religious, some of them brewed in secular language.

I think about my late father, Fred, who called himself an atheist. Well and good. He was deeply and passionately bound to the sources of goodness, truth, beauty, justice, compassion. He experienced these in the music of Beethoven. He raged over the state of the world and wrote papers on foreign policy, finishing one just before his final illness. He read voraciously – politics, religion, science, mysteries. . . and gardened devotedly – he took up organic gardening in the 50’s, long before it was trendy, when he knew so little about plants that he thought peas grew underground. He traveled with enthusiasm, and loved meeting new people and learning new cultures.

Fred was connected to a whole universe that was bigger than he, and he participated with passion and good will and caring intention in that something bigger. Fred was clearly a spiritual person, though he would not have used that language. And as a committed and active Unitarian Universalist, a long time supporter of our churches and elder statesman at the Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pennsylvania, he was clearly a religious person as well, though he called himself an atheist.

It must have been from Fred that I absorbed an understanding of the spiritual life. The spiritual endeavor is much like creating art.

You begin by paying attention to the real world or the world of hope or fear or dreams, worlds that have at least one foot firmly in the everyday world. Take some small bit of that world, focus on it and shape it lovingly towards the best, towards beauty or truth or justice or compassion. Take risks, be generous, share yourself. Focus on something precious, within yourself or beyond yourself. Engage with it – through meditation or prayer or reflective thinking and then move towards action – social justice or hospitality or compassionate care – wearing a Black Lives Matter button, gardening or writing letters to the editor or picking up trash in your neighborhood or taking part in Moral Monday, or assisting in a tutoring program. Just the things you are doing with children, youth, and adults here.

Reflect on what you have done, evaluate it with others, look at it through the lens of your deepest values, and then turn to the refreshment and renewal of your energy, reach together for the next layer of action. The whole cycle of attention, action, reflection, renewal – together it adds up to spirituality, if done with intentionality and integrity and a sense of connection.

Too often we think of spirituality as only the reflection part of the cycle, or as the acts of renewal. Journaling, art making, prayer, meditation, worship, rest – these are a vital part of our lives. We need that time apart, to connect again with what moves us towards the divine. We need time to refill the well of our creative energy, whether through music or church services or a candlelight vigil or a peace march or pep rally. But they are not the whole of our spiritual lives. We also need the active part of the cycle, to use our renewed energy to reach out once again to the world, to bless the world with our care and attention. That teapot comes in many styles, made of many materials. Some of them look religious, some secular. Some are for solitude, some for group work. All will brew a good cup of spiritual tea.

Rev. Dave Hunter
Kerry’s father might have argued with you, if you’d suggested that he was a spiritual person. My father – he’s been dead now for more than 45 years – I don’t think he would have known what to make of such a suggestion. He was an institutionalist, the kind of person every congregation, every denomination needs. Given the choice between the motivational mystical meditation movement workshop and the budget planning meeting, he would take budget planning every time.

Spirituality is often thought of as an individual matter, as opposed to what goes on in an organized religion – or even in a disorganized one. But that’s a false dichotomy. Remember what Unitarian Universalist congregations have covenanted to affirm and promote: on this short list is “spiritual growth in our congregations.” We do not see spirituality solely as an individual matter, divorced from a religious community, but more as what we strive for, as what we do – together.

Spirituality requires institutional support. Congregations, in my view, have the duty, and, fortunately, they have the ability, to encourage and challenge their members to grow in the maturity of their faith, to deepen their spiritual roots, and to broaden their religious imaginations. [Loren Mead, More Than Numbers: The Way Churches Grow (Alban Institute, 1993), p. 42]

Here’s how one congregation took advantage of an opportunity for spiritual growth. It’s not a Unitarian Universalist example, but you wouldn’t have to change much to give it a UUframework.

Donny would have loved nothing more than to lead the worship service himself, but, because of mental problems, his skills were limited. Besides, he was not ordained, and thus he wasn’t eligible.

During communion, Donny had an annoying and distracting habit of repeating the last phrase of everything the celebrant said. He had heard the liturgy so often that he had it practically memorized. Sometimes he tried to say the prayers and formulas before the celebrant did.

But how does a religious community – a community committed to compassion and hospitality – how does it deal with such a problem? Donny was not mentally equipped for extended reasoning or careful conflict resolution.

There were temptations for the group. Some no doubt wished that Donny would disappear. Some wondered about silencing him, or even evicting him. Resentment and annoyance would have made it easy to resort to criticism, avoidance, name-calling, or labeling.

The congregation wrestled with the issue for a long time. The solution was brilliant.

Donny was given one phrase in the service, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” [agnus dei, qui tolit pecata mundi] This was his line and no one else’s. At the appropriate moment, the celebrant elevated the loaf of bread in silence, and waited for Donny to say his line, which he did, with gusto and devotion. The congregation’s solution was brilliant; it was good for everyone. [Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Bethesda: Alban Institute, 1999), pp. 134-35, edited (Boers is a Canadian Mennonite minister)]

Everyone involved experienced spiritual growth. Of course, they didn’t characterize the situation as a spirituality opportunity. They saw it as the problem of how to worship properly, without compromising their principles of compassion and hospitality.

So here’s the bottom line, as I see it, if you are looking for more spirituality in your life: open your eyes and look around you. Don’t look for a mysterious feeling; don’t imagine that you have to take a pilgrimage to Tibet. You can even forget the word, spirituality, it’s only a teapot; it doesn’t matter.

But here’s what I recommend: seek justice in our nation, strive to maintain a community of compassion and hospitality in your congregation, practice loving kindness toward both family and friends and toward strangers, and take advantage of the opportunities for personal growth that obstruct your path.

Rev. Kerry Mueller
May we care for the many teapots of the world. May we cherish those teapots with which we have a special connection. May we appreciate also the teapots of others. But may we remember that they are vessels for tea, not the tea itself. And, finally, may we drink the full, rich tea of spirituality.

Sermon: Remembering (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Experiencing the death of loved ones is universal, but how we live with those losses varies from culture to culture. This Sunday, at the request of UUCA member Michele Gregory, who offered the highest bid for the chance to name a sermon topic at last year’s auction, we will explore some of the ways we remember, focusing particularly on the “Obon” ceremony of Japan. <i>Click on the on the title read more and/or to listen.

 

READING
Letter in Autumn” by Donald Hall

SERMON
We are the ones who grieve – we, the living, that is. It’s not something we like to dwell on, but most of us learn early that bound up with the joy we find in the people we love is accepting the fact that we will lose them, as they will lose us.

It is part of the ebb and flow of existence. And yet, we can be forgiven our reluctance to own up to it, to look in the eyes of those dearest to us and know that the time we have with each other is brief. And still, it is given to us to make peace, to find meaning, even in those losses we find it hardest to bear.

All of this begins with how we grieve. My colleague Mark Belletini notes that the word “grief” serves as a handy abstraction, rather than as an expression of anything precise. For, everyone’s grief is different since it emerges from our own unique experiences of and relationships to the people we’ve known and lost.

And not only that: it changes. Donald Hall’s poem is a good expression of that. Sixth months after his wife’s death, the immediate intensity of his loss has faded, yet still she inhabits the space around him. A certain quality of light at dusk, the slips from fortune cookies, mixed-up dreams, the dog carrying a slipper from the bedroom, all such things can revive a memory, a moment in time, and a new strain of sadness wells in our chests again.

As the poet Kevin Young puts it, “grief might be easy If there wasn’t still such beauty – would be far simpler if the silver maple didn’t thrust its leaves into flame, trusting that spring will find it again.”

Once again we feel the sharp edge of loss, something we had imagined ourselves over with. But the path of grief, we learn, is not linear. It may double back or flame up with an intensity we had never experienced before. And it shapes how we go about remembering.

This fall will be the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, and while much of the intensity around it has faded I’m often surprised by how at times he’ll just pop into my life. One of the ways I remember him most fondly is as a gardener, and so it’s not uncommon, especially at mid-summer when the flowers are at their fullest that I imagine him in the garden with me surveying the scene with undisguised pleasure.

Grief is odd in the way that it is at once so intensely personal and yet also universal. There is a Buddhist story around that: It seems a grieving mother once went to the Buddha and begged him to raise her dead child back to life. He refused at first, but she continued to plead with him. Finally he agreed to work the magic if she would provide for him a certain kind of mustard seed found only in the homes of families who have never been visited with death or grief.

So, she headed off to the village and visited home after home. But, of course, she could not find the life-restoring seed because no household had been spared death or grief. Learning this, she herself offered the families comfort. She cooked for them and reached out to them in their grief. She returned to the Buddha, and together they buried her child.

So, part of living with our sadness is accepting our grief, and also opening our eyes to its universality. It doesn’t lessen our sadness to do so, but it can provide a way for our compassion grow, to help us see that not only is grief a universal experience but also that we, too, may be the comforters, our experience can open our hearts to others.

This is part of the special learning that we can find in an ancient ritual of remembrance that our service today is centered in arising from a Buddhist tradition in Japan. It’s called Obon, and it, too, is centered in a story. Here it is: It involves a direct disciple of the Buddha known as Mogallan, one who was especially known for his keen powers of insight.

It seems that Mogallan was curious to know how his mother was faring in the afterlife. So he used his powers to search her out. To his dismay, he discovered that she was suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts, people who had died in violent or unhappy ways. Mogallan made several efforts to release her, but each failed. Finally he asked the Buddha how he might free his mother. The Buddha told him that the way to do that was to give a special feast to a gathering of disciples who were just ending a summer meditation retreat. The feast, he was told, must be given with no concern for himself, but entirely out of compassion for the disciples.

Mogallan did so, and the story says that as the disciples ate, Mogallan was able to see his mother being released from the hell where she had been trapped. His joy then spread to the disciples enjoying their meal, making it a festive occasion in the community.

Each year the Obon festival is held at around this time of year, at midsummer, in July or August, and it is seen as a time of celebration and remembrance, a moment to take a break in the flow of daily life and invite our ancestors back into our lives. It is a moment to appreciate them and send them our joy, while reminding us also that the compassion we feel mustn’t end with our families but extend to all beings.

Obon is celebrated in private homes and public ceremonies. At their homes, people often hang lanterns by their front doors to invite the spirits of their ancestors to return. Many also visit gravesites, where they wash the markers and burn incense or leave food offerings. Celebrations held in public parks remember the feast that Mogallan offered the disciplines with food, fireworks, drumming and stylized dancing.

The dances often invoke the Flower Garland Sutra, a Buddhist text that contains the famous image of Indra’s net: a net stretching infinitely in all directions, with a jewel positioned at each “eye” or intersection, each jewel reflecting and reflected by every other jewel, showing that all things, while distinctive in themselves, interpenetrate all other things through space and time.

So, while the festival is a celebration of remembrance, it extends that remembering beyond individual descendants, to offer honor to all in the great chain of being.

Among the words often spoken at Obon observations are those contained in a passage called the Golden Chain:

I am a link in the chain of love.

I must keep my link bright and strong.

I will try to be kind to every living thing.

I will try to think beautiful thoughts, say beautiful words and do beautiful deeds.

May every link in the chain be strong, and may we have peace.

The ceremony closes with floating lanterns being placed into rivers, lakes or seas to guide the spirits back to their world.

The period of the Obon ceremonies, which date back to around the 7th century, is one of the busiest holiday seasons of the year in Japan, full of travel and family gatherings. How many still hold to the literal stories of the spirit world is unclear, but it remains a season of gratitude and giving.

Our culture, meanwhile, suffers for the lack of remembrance. Scattered to the four winds, many of us lose any sense of coherence and history, of being a part of something larger, and with that we lose a deeper sense of connection across time and distance with a larger humankind and ultimately the great Web of being.

Years ago, the writer Thomas Berry argued that “we cannot discover ourselves without first discovering the universe, the Earth, and the imperatives of our being.” What Berry called “the dream of Earth” has as its premise that everything working within us, down to our genetic code arises from the processes that connect us deeply to all things. “The human is less a being on the Earth or in the Universe,” he says, “than a dimension of the Earth, of the Universe itself.”

Indeed, when we get in touch with our descendants we are carried deep into time. This is a good time of year for it, because at this moment in the turning of the seasons we can feel the Earth well past its equilibrium point at the summer solstice tipping toward autumn, with its many losses. In tune with the seasons, we can turn back again to our loved ones and the busy lives we share.

We and all things are bound up together and it is something to celebrate, so that while in time we lose the ones we love from our presence they are, in fact, never lost. They persist in our memory, in our hearts, in all of the ways that they changed our world. And those endure as they are remembered.

Mark Belletini, who I spoke of earlier, in his new book, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” relates what seemed to him at the time an odd experience. His mother had died a few days before and he was in the car driving to deliver her eulogy. Listening to music as afternoon light filtered in the window, he said, he was suddenly filled with a sense of joy and thanks.

Images of her life, images of her face raced by, he said. “I felt in my bones and tingling on the surface of my skin a deep, deep gratitude, a joyous sense of satisfaction that my life had been so blessed.”

He felt a voice inside question him: “You are driving up to deliver the eulogy for your mother and you are spilling over with joy and thanks?” But the answer came easily: this, too, was grieving. He had shed the tears and felt the sadness: they were still there. But the joy was real, too.

Our grief and the remembrances that come of it, Mark argues, is a gift that, he says, “blesses and illumines our mortality and our very existence in this world.” It is ultimately an affirmation that our lives and the lives of those we love, and in the end all lives – matter.

How we grieve, how we remember clears the way to compassion that opens and soothes our hearts, that reanimates our tired souls, that shows a way when it seems there is none to be found.

May we so remember and be remembered.

Sermon: Follow Your Desire Lines (audio)

Rev. Julianne Lepp, Guest Minister
This sermon explores how we can break away from well-worn patterns that no longer serve us. What does it mean to trust yourself to follow the road less traveled? In Patti Digh’s <i>Life Is A Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally</i>, she writes, “Natural human purpose. What is mine? Yours? Maybe if I look at the paths I’ve worn, over and over again, I’ll see that purpose show itself, the way cornfields create patterns I see only when I’m flying over them.”

 

Sermon: Going Through the Motions (audio)

Monika Gross, Guest Speaker
Religions throughout time have included gesture and movement as important parts of liturgy. Can motion embody meaning for us as religious humanists, separate from specific religious dogma? What is the quality invoked by pressing my palms together, by lowering my head, by opening my palms upward and outward? While choosing to look beyond the supernatural as a basis for worship, can we retain physical forms of spirituality? Can we honor the profound human need for embodied intention and emotional expression that inspired the creation of archetypical gestures of joy, devotion, request, compassion, awe, humility, thankfulness and consolation?

Sermon: Baggage Claim

This sermon/storytelling by Elizabeth Schell was shared in small pieces throughout the service. Elizabeth began the service with a giant backpack on her back that she eventually takes off and “unpacks” during her storytelling.

PART 1:

Some people do a lot of travelling in the summer…my son’s going to 3 different camps. Luckily, I love to pack. When we were kids, my grandmother instructed my sister and I in how to best pack for a trip—not so much what to bring, but how to fold or roll or generally fit whatever you wanted to take into whatever vessel you had to squeeze it in. I am known in my family for being the Master Packer—the one who can fit … it …. in! So I brought my baggage with me this morning.

The older we get, the more STUFF we have. Both literal…and emotional. Moving helps pare down the literal stuff. Anytime you have to stop and fit it all in a truck or fit it into a smaller home….well, it makes you question what you’re holding on to, right? Kind of like emptying closets in Sandburg Hall…. But what about the emotional stuff? What helps us with that? What helps us winnow that down? We carry it around with us everywhere. We feel its weight. But we don’t much like unpacking it.

It’s like when you’re moving and you pull out all the boxes you have of stuff from college or some other formative period. You go through it. You remember stuff. You realize you might have remembered some stuff wrong. You see some of it in a new light. You throw a bunch of it away. Or recycle what you can.

I’ve been doing a lot of unpacking lately. Emotional baggage unpacking, I mean. Especially since taking the Building Bridges class last winter. This is a workshop they do here in Asheville over 6 weeks that helps participants understand racism better: the history of racism in Asheville; the way systemic and institutional racism works; and our individual relationships to racism.

We’ve all got just a little bit of baggage in this area, right? Well, it’s about time we start dusting some of it off or change is never going to really happen ’cause we’re still carrying all this crap around. I’m going to unpack a bit of my personal baggage with you today. (take off backpack & open) ‘Cause I know this is a safe place and I can do that, right? I promise I won’t unpack anything too embarassing….well, maybe. Rubber chicken?! What’s that doing in here?….

PART 2:

The Irish tune they just sung to is also known as “If Ever You Were Mine” and it’s one of my favorites. It reminds me of something I’ve got in here. somewhere… Ah, behold, the Family Tree project. We all have a few unfinished projects, right?

The majority of students in my 1980s Los Angeles magnet jr. high classroom were first and second generation: Vietnamese. Korean. Japanese. Russian. Iranian. Indian. Israeli. Mexican. L.A.’s attempt at integration. It was a very rich and diverse education. But the richness and the diversity did not much include people of African descent. We were told to research our family trees and trace our family’s immigration to the U.S.. I don’t think the teacher expected the project to take too much time.Go home and talk to your parents or grandparents. You should be able to get the whole story.

I found out that my family came from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, & France. There were definitely many people who were running away from something bad or perhaps running to something good. Depends on which American tale you like to tell. But all these nations and cultures of origin were so far back in the family tree, there certainly was no living memory of them, let alone much recorded memory. I pieced together what I could. From researching and interviewing many family members, I found out a strand of my family came on the second boat to Jamestown.

My family’s been here a long time. As the only redhead in a sea of blondes, I found myself wanting to claim my Irish heritage. My grandmother had visited there. She said the Callahans (her people) had come from Cork. But many, many generations ago. I liked the Irish postcards in her album: Of fiddlers and dancers. Of green fields and stone walls. Of lots of pale faced, freckled, redheads like me. Something about these images beckoned to me. I wanted to say “I’m an Irish American.” But it just seemed pretty hollow. Mostly, I just felt bland.

The family tree I turned in went back more than 12 generations. It was definitely a lot more than my teacher asked for. I got an A+. But I was not satisfied. Where did I come from? I would visit my friends at their homes where other languages were spoken. Where there were beautiful colors, images, food, music…so many things that were foreign and enticing to me. But what was my culture? Most of my extended family was in Georgia, where my parents and grandparents were from. We’d visit there almost every summer, but somehow it never felt like a “coming home” but more like an alien visitation. Especially as I got older.

When I was little, these visits to the south weren’t too bad. I’d play with old toys in the suffocation of my grandparents’ sealed up air conditioned rooms. But sometimes we’d venture out onto the screen porch. We’d have watermelon eating contests. Uncle Bob would barbecue somethin. Uncle Freeman would fry trout and call me “Libby” with his pipe in his mouth. We’d have to get all starched and washed and ruffled up when we went to church (which never seemed necessary at our Methodist church back in L.A.). Maybe this was my culture. I definitely liked the food part. Starched and ruffled part, not so much.

Then I discovered there was a little girl next door I could play with. Her name was Crystal and we were the same age. And like me, she liked to lay under the hanging laundry and watch it blow in the wind. And she liked to crawl under shady bushes and stare at pill bugs, too. And she liked watermelon. I bet she could win the watermelon eating contest! But when I tried to bring Crystal onto my grandmother’s screened-in porch, I was sternly told to wash up and Crystal was sent away.

A lot of angry under-the-breath words were said between my parents and my grandparents that night. I didn’t understand any of it. Something about how “Crystal may be a Cole, but she was still colored, and it just wasn’t right her getting uppity and playin’ with Elizabeth that way.” I don’t think my parents agreed, but this was not their territory. This was the land they had fled. The land with issues they didn’t know how to address. I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew is that I had done something wrong. I had done something displeasing that sweet voiced Grandmother didn’t like.

We left the next day to visit other relatives and then on to home and other things so I never got to play with Crystal again. Seems like my grandparents visited us in California the following summer and then they moved. They moved from that wonderful big rambly house in Cascade Heights with all the acres in back. They’d lived through a major fire there and fully renovated. My mother and her sister had lived there through high school, college, and weddings.

And now they were moving. Because the neighborhood had “gone black.” It was one thing to have the Cole family next door (yeah, that’s Nat King Cole’s daughter Natalie and her family, including sweet little Crystal), but when Hank Aaron’s family moved in and all these other rich black families followed…. well that was just too much for my white… southern… grandparents.

I think I was 12 or so when I learned all this. And suddenly my eyes started to open a bit more. I started seeing black and white. But, to be honest, I had probably already been “seeing” it for some time. I think a part of me was introduced to “black” and therefore “white” that day on my grandmother’s porch. And my white shame grew.

White shame is something UU theologian Thandeka talks about in her book, “Learning to be White.” She challenges white people to think back to their first experience of knowing they were “white” which inevitably occurred the moment they learned that someone was “black.” Our caregiver’s negative response teaches us 2 things:

  1. in order to keep the love and care of my family I must reject this person;
  2. rejecting this person doesn’t feel right, but I have to do it.

So just as our internalized racism is built, so is our white shame. Because we didn’t start out as “white” just as the other child didn’t start out as “black.” We were just babies with feelings processing the world around us and we responded with delight or fear to everything and everyone around us based on how they made us feel or how they responded to us. We are not born racist; we learn it.

White Shame, Thandeka concludes, exists in Euro-Americans because “the persons who ostensibly loved and respected them the most actually abused them and justified it in the name of race, money, and God.”

This is simplifying hugely her argument. But basically: the majority of people that came to America, came in chains. Both Africans and Europeans. Half and possibly as many as ⅔ of all white colonial immigrants arrived as indentured servants. The 1% truly existed then. Perhaps only 0.5%. The land owners.

To keep their power in a land of Native Americans and African slaves and European servants— they had to lay down the law—you had to know that if you crossed them you would be whipped, separated from your family, lynched. You had to stay in line. Which meant that to rise above your present circumstances (always the promise of America!) you had to do things that went against your moral compass. Even if you felt sympathy for someone, you had to curb that sympathy if you wanted to keep your job or any kind of standing you might enjoy in the community. Or maybe even with your life. And THIS— this clarifying who was “in” — and therefore “white” and who was “out”— and therefore “black” —became THE way of insuring the success of your family, your community, your self. And it is shameful. And we need to unpack this shame.

As we come to our time of Meditation, we pause and breathe into these bodies—these bodies that carry us and all our joys and sorrows, all our baggage gathered up and lugged about, packed and hidden away.

Take a moment, silently, within yourself, to consider some of that baggage.

For those who are considered “white” in this room, when did you first know you were white?

For those who are considered “other” than white in this room, when did you first know you were not white?

What were those experiences like? How did they make you feel about yourself? About the person who made you claim this identity? What shame or baggage do you carry because of these identities?

SILENCE

I invite you now to bring some of what you carry, inspired by these questions, or whatever you walked in with this morning—whether it be joy or sorrow, confusion, wonderment, or shame.
Bring it forward and lift it up in silence in this space by the lighting of a candle from our chalice fire
and know, that all of us here, are with youin both your joy and in your sorrow.

Candlelighting & Music “Hard Times”

PART 3

Baggage.
We can learn, especially I think as we get older, the benefit of packing lighter. Traveling lighter. When I traveled in Great Britain after college, I learned to winnow down what I needed to what I could carry on my back. When huge portions of your traveling includes walking on stony roads or squeezing yourself onto crowded buses or trains, you want your baggage to be as light as possible.

But no matter how light you pack, you never want to forget your passport. Your ID. This is my first passport. From when I was 23 and I did my first big traveling…to Ireland and Scotland! with a wistful thought that maybe I’d find a bit of myself. Maybe.

During these travels, I worked in Edinburgh w/Volunteers for Peace. I lived with 10 other volunteers—all young adults from various countries—we slept on the floor of a local women’s center and staffed a summer program for children in Edinburgh.

We shared our small stipend in common for food and we all had pretty different ideas of what good affordable food meant. With Italian, French, Scottish, Irish, American, and German volunteers, not all of whom could speak much english, day to day communicating and “getting along” was hard even before we arrived at the school location of the youth program.

I learned a lot that summer. And I’m still learning from the experience. But in unexpected ways. That summer I became good friends with a young man from Ireland. After the program was over I visited him at his home in southern Ireland. Even until recently, the narrative I’ve given our friendship has been “oh, Jim (or Seamus, his Irish name), he was this sweet Irish lad who was totally gay, but unwilling to admit it. He’d smoke ‘fags’ (as they call cigarettes in Ireland) while I snickered. But he’d never admit his sexual orientation. Of course I was the enlightened American college grad who tried to help him come ‘out.’”

Though I was a good friend and supporter—an ally of sorts, I really had no idea the depth of pain and struggle this young man was facing. As a privileged, white, hetero”normal” cis-woman, how could I? But I didn’t see it that way. I was sympathetic and supportive, but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he didn’t just proclaim who he was and get on with it.

Because it’s not that easy. It’s not easy at all. To get “on” with it.

I reconnected recently with my Irish friend via Facebook. He’s been out for many years now and is a therapist, helping young people and adults face many struggles ….. Our FB relationship is pretty surface so I have no idea what his coming out experience was finally really like. I wasn’t there. Because “coming out” is not a singular summer epiphany— not something that can be done in one dramatic cinematic proclamation.

I imagine it’s more of a day in, day out, long haul, painful, forever on a spectrum type experience. One can be “out” in one place and time, but not elsewhere. It depends on what is safe. It depends on what’s at stake. It depends on who you are willing to offend or hurt or expunge from your life. And Ireland in the 1990s—there weren’t that many safe spaces for gay people then. Nor really in the U.S. either. My privilege of acceptable sexuality made me blind to the struggles he faced, which included huge cultural and religious layers.

Over the past couple years, as our 2 countries have wrestled with marriage equality and general acceptance, my friend Jim and I have shared about high and low points in our respective countries. I don’t think either of us ever dreamed that it would be HIS country that would first grant equal marriage and related rights to its gay citizens. Thankfully we weren’t too far behind! It’s just MARRIAGE now, people! Not gay marriage—that was a game we used to play (some sadly are still playing it). Marriage is marriage! Love is love!

I don’t often feel patriotic enough to fly the US flag (bring out flag from baggage), but this weekend I did. After 9-11 living in NYC with all the flag waving, we felt really uncomfortable with it. The flags felt less like symbols of patriotism and more like signals of hate and fear towards our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Our family sewed this flag and took it to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration because that was a moment of such deep patriotism for us. I think a little bit of my white shame was healed in the campaigning and voting and then the gathering on the Mall that cold morning.

I love these 2 flags. The rainbow one (pull out flag)—we proudly display in our store downtown. We know that it lets our LGBTQ brothers and sisters know they are welcome. But what flag can we put up to let our African American brothers & sisters know they are welcome? I know what flag NOT to put up.

We still have a long way to go. For LGBTQ rights. And all our so-called “non-white” brothers and sisters who have been waiting FAR too long for true and lasting inclusion and citizenship.

So don’t forget your ID, people. You may need it to vote. But also, you need to keep checking who you are and not just the stats printed on a government-issued page. But WHO you are, within. The Good and the bad. Including your blinders, your ignorance, your privilege.

PART 4:

When I was in college, my mom & dad joined a United Methodist congregation in northern California that was determined to become a welcoming space for its gay members.

My reserved, straight-laced, engineering dad was quiet at first. As treasurer, he could see the financial impact of this mission. Good pledgers were leaving over the welcoming stance. My dad was first to admit that he always voted based on how it impacted his finances. But something about this congregation was changing him. He and my mom had become good friends with an older lesbian couple. One of them had become quite ill and was hospitalized. And her partner kept being denied the right to visit and advocate for her loved one. As my dad watched his friends struggle in this way….Something in him broke. Like a levy, I imagine, a flood of feelings he’d held tightly closed away.

As a kid growing up outside Atlanta, he’d been put in military academy because of his parents’ fear over the possibility of school integration. At Georgia Tech, in his Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, he’d been aparty to the rejection of an African American pledge that he’d actually wanted the fraternity to welcome. He and my mother did not participate in the civil rights movement, but moved right after getting married— to New Orleans, then Arizona, and finally California.

My dad had remained silent. He had not spoken out against his parents or his church or his community. He admitted that sometimes he felt uncomfortable about things he witnessed, even things he did, and that sometimes he realized he didn’t even see what was going on. But as he witnessed the struggles of his new friends and as members of his United Methodist church spoke up about their love for one another and their desire to be recognized in the church and, even more so, by their government—with visitation rights and adoption rights and marriage rights…. I think my dad realized he might be able to redeem himself a bit.

And so, even though it really wasn’t that popular in the 1990s, especially among his engineering buddies, he started expressing his opinion. Expressing his support. He even started voting Democrat. It was a real and unexpected joy for he and I to be able to share what our respective faith communities were doing in the fight.

It was around this time that Susie Biggs died. And I wonder now how her death might have contributed to his need for redemption. I’d always heard my father speak fondly of Susie. As a kid I thought she must be an aunt or some other family member. And, from an emotional point of view for my dad, she was. But she wasn’t. Not at all. She was my father’s family cook and maid. She took care of my dad. Mothered him most likely in ways his mother never did since she worked full time. Her daughter came to my grandmother’s funeral. I think it was the first time my dad realized “his” Susie had her own children. Children whose needs had to be met on top of those of my father and his family.

I don’t think he ever fully processed his relationship to Susie. I really wish he’d been able to participate in a workshop like Building Bridges before he died. I think there was so much he really wanted to work through about growing up in the Jim Crow south. But, for him, speaking up and stepping out for gay rights within his faith denomination and country was a healing process.

I wish he were here for this moment in our history—for the celebration of marriage equality. For this frank conversation we are beginning and very much needing to have in this country about race. I wonder where he’d be with the rise (at least in visibility) of police brutality. With the Black Lives Matter movement. With the murders last month in South Carolina, church burnings that barely make it into the news, the debate about the Confederate flag… I wish I could talk to him about these things.

[pull out briefcase from baggage] No wonder everything’s so crammed tight in here: there’s baggage IN my baggage! Actually this is a briefcase. My grandpa Schell’s briefcase (that’s my dad’s dad). He was a lawyer in Atlanta.

He died before I was born but I always loved to hear stories about him. In pictures, he looked like Alfred Hitchcock. Bald pate. Giant belly. He wore a white suit to my parents’ wedding where all the other men wore black. To cause trouble. His interest in the law began with an interest in debate. Grandpa Sid’s love for debate came in High School. He was a bad egg, my grandmother used to say. Failing all his classes. Always in trouble.

One day during detention he was sitting in the back of the school auditorium writing “lines” while his teacher led the debate team on stage. He kept heckling the students and criticizing their debate skills. His frustrated (and I think a bit bemused) teacher finally told him to “come down and show them how it should be done (if he was so smart)”, assuming he’d fail. He didn’t. He was great at it. Turned his life around. Became captain of the debate team. Put himself through law school.

As a kid, I always imagined him as an Atticus Finch type lawyer. You know, Scout’s dad from To Kill a Mockingbird? Representing people even if they couldn’t pay. That’s how my grandmother got most of her pretty antique furniture—as in-kind payment from divorce cases. Supposedly in the early years of my grandfather’s practice many a meal at the Schell table was bolstered by in-kind payments of potatoes and the like from African American clients who couldn’t otherwise pay for his representation. Atticus Finch.

But families, like history, are never so… simple. See, not long before he died, Grandpa Schell was appointed a judgeship in Georgia. A very high office to achieve for a poor misbehavin boy from Kentucky. But Governor Lester Maddox handpicked my grandfather for the position. Because Grandpa had been one of his lawyers in 1964 when Lester Maddox owned the Pickrick Restaurant that refused to serve non-white customers. Refused while wielding an axe handle at any who tried to oppose him. Yes, my grandfather defended the arch segregationist Lester Maddox. And this is his briefcase.

My dad fled the south. Fled his father and expectations of following in his footsteps. I’ve carried this briefcase—literally—since HIgh School when I absconded with it for a theatrical prop. We were doing To Kill a Mockingbird and I was the costume designer. It made a perfect briefcase for Atticus Finch. I’ve quietly carried it with me all these years, trying to hold on to the Atticus Finch memory—and not the other ones.

But I pulled it out and took it to Building Bridges earlier this year to help tell the story of my grandpa’s role in the Lester Maddox case. My family’s part, a not so proud one, in the civil rights movement. It’s a piece of my white guilt. But it was—literally and emotionally—my dad’s baggage first. Expectations of his father—of him and he of his father—both disappointed.

Sometimes we carry baggage that is not even our own. But it becomes ours. I mean, should I keep carrying it? What can I let go of? What is actually helpful? What do I want to pass on to my son? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m trying to unpack it and see what meaning I can find. See what progress I can make. Within me. I really hope I can begin to let go of some of it. Leave it by the side of the road. Make my baggage lighter so I can actually get some stuff done.

On the Friday evening after the Supreme court ruling on marriage, many of us gathered downtown near the Vance monument. We waved rainbow and US flags, sang, cheered, and cried. A giant step had been taken towards equality for LGBTQ Americans—for our children and generations to come. Hopefully they will know far less pain and suffering when it comes to who they love or how they identify or express themselves. But as we stood in the shadow of the Vance monument, one of many tributes to famous white men of the Confederacy in this town—just blocks from the YMI and a former thriving African American community destroyed by redlining and other discriminatory, POST Jim Crow institutionalized racism—as we stood there, I noticed a little memorial candle laid at the base of the Vance monument—with a card listing the names of those slain at the Charleston AME church. And I think of the 8 churches burned since then.

All this joy. And all this sorrow.

Claim your baggage, people. We got work to do.

Sermon: Successful Aging (text & audio)

Virginia Ramig, Guest Speaker
The journey of aging begins at the moment of conception, so we all have expertise on the subject. I’ve asked some middle-aged and older UUCA members, and a few nonmembers, to share their concerns and discoveries about successful aging, and I’ve led a Covenant Group discussion on the subject. I’m sure you all join me in thanking the generous people who contributed time and thought to help others. I’d like to tell you their names, but there are way too many. I’ll mention only one: George, my husband, who contributed his ideas and support during the time of preparation.

 

The journey of aging begins at the moment of conception, so we all have expertise on the subject. I’ve asked some middle-aged and older UUCA members, and a few nonmembers, to share their concerns and discoveries about successful aging, and I’ve led a Covenant Group discussion on the subject. I’m sure you all join me in thanking the generous people who contributed time and thought to help others. I’d like to tell you their names, but there are way too many. I’ll mention only one: George, my husband, who contributed his ideas and support during the time of preparation.

A number of our thoughtful contributors spoke with great satisfaction about the perspective their years of experience have given them, finding it a powerful source of continuing personal and spiritual growth. They have little doubt that others find them more interesting because of this growth. Some have dropped illusions about themselves and are happy to see their lives more realistically. One spoke of her sense of deep fulfillment when she helps young people achieve a better understanding of aspects of life that puzzle them, particularly their personal relationships. Her perspective in middle age tells her not to shelter them from pain but to help them come out of it safely while learning something of value.

Several contributors pointed out the importance of warm, loving family relationships. “You have to get started early,” said one man, “maintaining good relationships with your siblings and then your children. Your self-discipline and consideration will pay well at the time and reward you even more as you get older.”

One woman advises, “Friendships are important. Don’t just wait for them to happen.   Look for people who share an interest with you. It may be playing tennis or cards, knitting, cooking, volunteering to help an organization, anything you enjoy. It will lead to finding congenial people.”

Some older contributors have a warning: There’s no getting around the fact that there will be differences in your life. Your friendships will feel different from those of your youth. Your body and brain will start having difficulties and deficiencies that can’t always be remedied. For the rest of your life you’ll have to make decisions based on increasingly limited abilities. Our contributors tell us that you may meet these changes with despair, or anger, or acceptance. Choose acceptance, they recommend—serene acceptance if possible, maybe even joyful acceptance.   However, you may need to remind yourself from time to time about how desirable a positive attitude is, and what helps you to renew it.

One woman told me about an aunt who had loved to paint ever since she was a child. Some of her happiest hours were those she spent creating colorful images on canvas. As she aged she developed macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. She was not deterred; she continued painting. Then she had a stroke which kept her from using her right hand. As soon as she was up and around she began painting again, now using her left hand. She joked, “This will be my abstract period.” Nothing could keep her from her enjoyment of painting.

One of our contributors recommends an attitude of openness to mystery and wonder. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I find to wonder about. It’s like part of me keeps on growing. I don’t ever want to be finished!”

I find this to be so in my life.   For the past year or so I have ended my morning yoga sessions by gazing thoughtfully at a big maple tree. I have seen it in our back yard for twenty years. But now I find myself taking it in with my eyes. I feel myself as erect as it is, as capable of growth, as much a part of the interdependent web of all existence.   I focus on its roots, connected to the local skin of our planet—Western North Carolina red clay mixed with pebbles, flakes of mica, bits of decomposing plants. My feet become roots powerfully connected to the planet. I wonder whether in the universe around me there are other planets with other conscious entities living on them. Are they too wondering about the possibility of other planets?

Walt Whitman wrote a poem about the universe as an open road. Late in the poem he calls the universe “many roads for traveling souls”. We can hear it as his version of the journey of aging. Please turn to Reading No. 645, “Song of the Open Road”, in the gray hymnal. Pat will read the standard type and you can respond with the italic type.

One contributor of ideas about successful aging reminds us, “You can be amazed over and over by the same simple things that caught your attention as a child, but with an adult’s perspective. Let your heart be lifted when you watch the rising sun light up the clouds. Feel the power of the wind as it makes the trees bow, and the strength of the resisting wood.”

Some contributors said their feeling of success in aging comes mainly from their continued ability to be of service to other sentient beings—not just other human beings but animals too. Service makes these folks valuable and valued. Even those who need walkers or wheelchairs or are bedbound can continue serving, offering to people or to companion animals the unique understanding and abilities that come from their years of living. Their value doesn’t come from their vigor but from their loving generosity.

Some contributors have very practical advice about successful aging:

  • Choose a house or apartment that will help you maintain your independence as long as possible.
  • Live where there’s a mix of ages, not just older people.
  • Choose a physician whose views about continuing a painful life, or ending it, are the same as yours. If you need to choose a nursing facility, make that congruence of views one of your criteria.
  • Be aware that laws which allow self-ending of one’s life tend to lead to longer lives, as several studies have shown, since people are likely to put up with more discomfort when they know they may end their lives.
  • Be sure to have all your end-of-life documents filled out, signed, notarized if necessary, and placed where they are accessible to the people who will use them to follow your directives.

I have a story from my own life to illustrate that point.

Many years ago my father was admitted to a hospital because of pneumonia. My mother stayed with him for the three days that ensued before his death. She desperately wanted to hear whatever last words he might say to her, but because of an apparatus to deliver oxygen it was not possible for him to speak.

His passing was not only sad for her but also a great source of frustration. She was determined that her death would not be like that. So a few weeks after his funeral she made out her living will and gave me her health care power of attorney.

Twenty years later she needed the care of a nursing facility. My brother Bo and I accompanied her there, together with her end-of-life documents.

By that time she rarely spoke—it was just too much effort. As Bo and I were sitting with her she whispered, “I’m…too…tired.” As far as we know, those were her last words.

Later the head of the nursing staff said to Bo and me, “We’ll have to put your mother on supplementary oxygen and a feeding tube.”

I saw Bo snap to attention. “Those are forbidden in her living will,” he said.

The nurse replied sadly, “I’m sorry—the living will can take effect only when her condition is clearly terminal. We don’t know that right now. We are required to make every effort to keep her alive.”

I spoke up. “I have her health care power of attorney. I believe it gives me the right to see that our mother’s living will is followed.”

The nurse brightened. “Indeed it does! Now we can do what we know your mother wanted.”

Because my mother had planned so well, her life was allowed to ebb away at its own pace. She died that night with her hand in my brother’s. If she could have spoken, that’s what she would have asked for.

I find that to be successful aging right up to the last moment.

The Reverend Forrest Church, Unitarian Universalist minister, had this to say about dying:

“Death is not life’s goal, only life’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”

What makes a life worth dying for? Dr. Church had an answer: “…the love we give away before we go.”

And that insight brings us to one last category of ideas on successful aging—love. Our love is a blessing to ourselves and to our life partners, families, friends, everyone we interact with. Love is a motive for service and a source of meaning in a life with less and less physical energy.

The Reverend Dr. Carter Heyward says, “Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.”

One contributor pointed out that a loving attitude makes us attractive to others, keeps us connected to the people and companion animals in our lives. Another said she sees people, especially children, who need to know they are worthy of love. She said, “I try to fill that gap in whatever way the circumstances allow.” One contributor said that in his experience, thinking about what makes another person lovable leads him to think about what makes him lovable. It’s a powerful boost to his belief in himself.

What I’ve told you in the past few minutes doesn’t nearly cover all the thoughts about successful aging that people gave me to pass along to you. Fortunately, the printed version of this sermon will have many of them added. Copies are available in the rack on the east wall of the foyer.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about aging:

I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.

We too can give ourselves to it. May we feel a sense of fulfillment in this widening and this giving.

Sermon: Men–What Are They Good For? (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Early in my reading for this sermon I chanced on a recent book with a provocative title that intrigued me: “The End of Men and the Rise of Women.” It’s not that the male gender is in danger of disappearing, Hanna Rosen says. Instead, she points to recent trends suggesting that the patterns of male dominance that have been central to, at least, Western culture for millennia are shifting. We live at a time, Rosen argues, when by any number of measures women are not only gaining on men but are moving ahead.

 

READINGS

Adapted from Exodus 18:13-23

One day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you?” Moses said, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another.”

Moses’ father-in-law said, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me, you should look for others to help you, so they will bear this burden with you. Then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

“The Gift” by Li-Young Lee www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171752

SERMON

Early in my reading for this sermon I chanced on a recent book with a provocative title that intrigued me: “The End of Men and the Rise of Women.” It’s not that the male gender is in danger of disappearing, Hanna Rosen says. Instead, she points to recent trends suggesting that the patterns of male dominance that have been central to, at least, Western culture for millennia are shifting. We live at a time, Rosen argues, when by any number of measures women are not only gaining on men but are moving ahead. And, what’s especially troubling is that in many areas it’s not really a competition because men aren’t playing. They’ve checked out and instead are drifting: in and out of jobs, in and out of relationships. Many are “missing,” in a sense, from the mix.

An important factor in this, of course, is the economic transition we’ve been moving through. Since the turn of the century, millions of jobs, especially in manufacturing and related fields – areas that traditionally employed men – have disappeared.

For her book, Rosen visited Alexander City, Alabama, site of prosperous blue-collar jobs until early in this century when Berkshire Hathaway closed a premium maker of athletic wear that employed 7,000. The closing, she says, “ripped out the roots of the middle class,” and along with mass joblessness came a decline in marriage and an increase in divorce and single motherhood. Some men found jobs at the end of long commutes, others scrambled for this and that when they could find it, and others still quit looking and left the bread-winning to their wives.

And women did step up, moving into the few service jobs that opened up. Recently, the town elected its first woman mayor. The long-term effects of these losses, Rosen says, are being felt in the next generation. She interviews the school superintendent – a woman – who tells her that girls have taken to fighting, drug use is up among all students, and there’s a rash of unintended pregnancies. At the same time, every candidate for election to student government is a girl, and of the students taking part in a city-funded program to prepare them for future careers, 65% are girls. “I’m not sure where the males go or what happens to them” the superintendent told Rosen. “I think they’re just not as motivated.” It seems to be evidence, Rosen says, of a transition time for men. But what’s unclear is what the transition is to.

It’s a pattern that we see played out among more affluent men, too. Sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the evolution of something he calls “Guyland” that has emerged among white, middle class men. They move into communal housing with college buddies, work dead end jobs, devote many hours to the bar scene and hook up with women but steer clear of lasting relationships.

At the same time, the long-term disparity in the achievement of men and women at higher levels of the academic ladder is evening out and even shifting in the other direction. In the U.S., for example, women now earn 60% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and around half of all PhDs as well as law, medical, and business degrees.

Of course, just because women have made gains doesn’t change that fact that the power differential in our culture remains heavily skewed in favor men. That enormous social overburden that has been described as “the patriarchy” – all the privileges and unspoken preferences that attach to men simply by virtue of their gender – is as strong as ever, though it, too, is shifting and evolving. And the process of change brings pain to men as well as women along the way.

We remember, after all, that each of us growing up didn’t invent the notion of what it means to be a man or a woman. We absorbed it from everything around us, from our families and communities, from the TV shows and movies we watched. And to varying degrees each of us struggled with the sex roles we were assigned with varying degrees of discomfort.

The excerpt from Exodus you heard earlier reminds me of one of the most enduring expectations that I know I absorbed early in life: that as a man I would be expected to be a long-suffering servant who, like Moses in that passage, would take on an unending stream of work uncomplainingly, even to the point of exhaustion.

It was something my father modeled for me with 60-hour weeks as a psychiatrist. I recognize it in my own work patterns – and I’m left to wonder how many others are afflicted with this notion that overworking not only serves society but somehow proves our manhood. How few of us listen to the Jethros in our lives who try tell us to slow down and share the load for the sake of our own endurance and, even more important, for the very peace of the world.

But behind all these social constructions there remains the question: Is there an essential essence to being a man, and is there a gift to be found there as well?

To look at the essence of manhood we might begin with biology. As a rule, maleness requires that the bearer have a Y chromosome that at about six weeks of gestation causes the body to be flooded with the male hormone, testosterone. Most such children head down the path to maleness, genitalia and all. I say most, because there can be variations on that theme. Another flood in the early teens completes the process with secondary sex characteristics like facial hair and the rest. Of course, having the standard male genitalia says nothing about more complicated things like an individual’s sexual orientation, or even necessarily how one might eventually identify one’s gender, as the story of Caitlin Jenner amply demonstrates.

The biology of sex and gender, we have learned in recent years, is far more complex than many of us had ever imagined. But still, biology matters. Let’s look at testosterone. Both men and women produce testosterone, but men produce much more – often 10 times as much. High testosterone correlates with the behavioral traits that stereotypes would lead you to expect: self-confidence, competitiveness, strength, self-confidence, sexual drive. But it’s not a constant thing. Levels of testosterone in the body change in response to changing circumstances, such as physical confrontations or arousing situations.

High testosterone levels are not necessarily linked to violence, but they can be a risk factor. At those times, men are more likely to be reactive and impulsive and less likely to be thoughtful and deliberative. That may work fine in action films, but day to day in our work lives and interacting with others we need our wits about us, and in relationship we need to refine the skills that lead to lasting commitments not just quick thrills. It tends to be after those moments of testosterone-fueled rage or sexual acting out that you hear comments that echo our topic today: Ugh! Men: what are they good for?

It’s worth remembering, though, that part of the advantage that testosterone can confer is strength not just for quick action but also for endurance. We do, after all, have a choice in how we respond. The spiritual that we began with, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” makes that point. It is said to have been a song that African-American slaves sang to encourage each other to stick it out in the hope that they would be freed someday.

It’s a hymn to endurance. The steep and rugged road to freedom was a challenge that they saw their work preparing them for, and each stroke, each hammer blow, each step strengthened them further. “We are climbing on.”

There are many stories that remind us of such lessons. Back in the 70s and 80s a men’s movement arose in the U.S. that looked to ancient fables for guidance on finding a more fulfilling and resonant vision of manhood than our culture seemed to provide. Perhaps the most famous of these was the story of “Iron John,” a Western European coming-of-age tale raised up by the poet Robert Bly.

“Iron John” tells of a boy who comes upon a mythical wild man in the woods who by assigning one task after another encourages the boy to learn disciplines that cultivate courage, endurance and strength that leads the boy to become a mature, confident and compassionate man.

Bly argued that a number of helpful practices that the tale pointed to, such as male mentoring, have been largely lost in our culture and encouraged men to look for ways to reinstate them in the coming-of-age process.

For a time, the archetypes in these stories became the center of retreats, full of dancing and chanting and drumming around campfires. In recent years, though, much of this “men’s movement” has faded from view.

Looking back, we can see that as a teaching tool “Iron John” had its limitations and that the way that Bly and others interpreted the stories often reinforced traditional gender roles. They also provided no way of framing anything but the heterosexual experience.

Still, they served a role by opening the conversation into a way to understand gender identity not simply as a fact of biology but also as a resource for our own awakening, a gift that shapes who we will be and what we will give to the world.

We men look to the wisdom of millennia that tells us that it is not our impulsive energy but our enduring strength that holds whatever greatness we are to achieve. It is not our power over but our steadfast love that will win what is worth keeping.

The “gift” that Li-Young Lee both receives and dispenses in the poem that you heard earlier is just such love, a gift that inspires courage, which is to say strength of heart, in those who receive it. And this may be the greatest gift that men have to give: a gift given from strength and confidence that affirms the ultimate worth and the essential capacity of others.

Hanna Rosen closes her book with a few glimmers of hope among the lost and drifting men she was following. She tells about reconnecting with Calvin, the boyfriend of a young woman she’d met in a Virginia beach town. The two had had a child together, but Calvin had drifted off and the woman, Bethenney, was fine to let him go. She was getting on with her life, studying for a nursing degree and raising her daughter. Calvin just couldn’t seem to find anything.

Checking back with Calvin some months later, Rosen learns that he is recovering from a car wreck that got him thinking about what he wanted from life. “Do I really want to spend the last days of my life smashed between two guys in the front seat of a truck?” he said.

He tells Rosen that he remembers back to when he was 11 and an uncle who was sick came to live with his family. He recalls that after the uncle recovered he started paying attention to Calvin, taking him on fishing trips and teaching him carpentry. The experience, she says, reminded him how just a little care could do a lot to mend people and relationships.

He tells her that he finally got up the nerve to get his papers together to apply to a local college, and how terrifying he found it to walk it into the admission office.

But he did it. And Rosen says Calvin told her that when he crossed the threshold of that office, “I also got this little thrill: like I’m finally doing it.”

Sermon: Southern Flame (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Years ago Unitarianism was known as “the Boston Religion,” with its attention focused ever on New England. Today we’ll explore some of the stories of Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism in the South, where our impact may be less noted but is important all the same.

 

Gordon Gibson, who we heard from earlier, tells this story of a couple who moved from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. The husband was standing on his lawn supervising the unloading of the moving van, when a car pulled up. A man emerged from the car and greeted the husband. He introduced himself as the minister of a nearby Baptist church and invited the couple to attend. The husband thanked the minister for the invitation but said they would be attending the Unitarian Universalist congregation in town. The minister hesitated for a moment and then said, “You know, they shot the minister of that church.”

The reception for Unitarian Universalists in the South has not always been so chilly, but the truth is that even today our numbers in this part of the country remain relatively small. For many reasons, those who seek to make a place for our faith in the religious landscape here can find it to be uphill struggle. And yet, as we know directly there many people here and across the South who hunger for religion in the kind of different key that we offer. At a time when congregations of other denominations are closing we are holding our own in this part of the country, with some congregations growing and new congregations being added. We believe there is room for growth here in western North Carolina, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the future.

Today, though, I want to acquaint you with a bit of the story of how liberal religion has made its way here and some of what I see as the promise of our chalice’s Southern flame. Our numbers in the South may be small, but it’s worth remembering that in some locations our roots go deep.

The first Unitarians in the South arrived as the early commercial centers were being developed – Charleston and New Orleans being prominent examples. In 1817, the Independent Congregational church of Charleston took on a Unitarian identity after one of its ministers announced that he been persuaded by the Unitarian theology of Joseph Priestley.

A couple of years later, that minister was succeeded by a Harvard-trained seminarian, Samuel Gilman, who had deep connections with the Unitarian establishment in Boston. Under Gilman, the church grew to prominence, serving some 400 members and prominent figures like the secessionist Senator John Calhoun. In 1854, Gilman goaded the congregation to remodel its building into the impressive structure that remains today. But the debate over slavery created difficulties. Gilman privately supported the union, but he and his wife had house slaves, and she was a public champion of slavery. His death in 1858 resulted in many years of turmoil for the Charleston church.

New Orleans followed a similar path. Theodore Clapp was called to the First Presbyterian Church in 1823, but soon after arriving began expressing his reservations about Calvinist doctrine. In 1832 the Presbytery convicted him of heresy and ordered him expelled.

But the congregation stuck with him and in 1837 declared itself Unitarian. Clapp was a popular speaker and was said to have a drawn a thousand or more on Sunday mornings. Unfortunately, he was also a vocal apologist for slavery, though he later shifted his position, arguing that the essence of religion was against slavery. But he opposed efforts at abolition.

Clapp retired to Kentucky shortly before the Civil War, though he was later buried in New Orleans. Lay members of the New Orleans congregation kept it alive, though: making it one of only two southern Unitarian groups to survive the war.

The experience for Universalists was different. The faith was spread largely through circuit-riding, saddle-bag preachers. But in a country dominated by Calvinists they encountered deep suspicion of hell-denying religion.

In some cases, towns where they found welcome had been seeded with Universalist thought of German Baptist settlers known as Dunkards. Dunkards, who shared the Universalist theology of salvation for all, immigrated to America in the early 18th century and many settled in the South. In those communities they would form the nucleus of early Universalist churches. Indeed, here in western North Carolina it appears that John Plott, who helped found a Universalist church in the Pigeon Valley in 1865 and persuaded James Inman to be its first minister, came from a Dunkard family.

It didn’t help that many viewed Universalism as a northern import that took a dim view of slavery. As it happened, though, as with the Unitarians, when the churches organized many of the new Universalists had no problem accommodating slavery.

This conflict developed into a rift that divided the denomination. In the end, few congregations survived the Civil War, and it took decades before the faith spread south again.

The late 19th century, then, was a time of rebuilding, although the Universalists devoted bit more attention to the task than Unitarians, whose outreach to the south was limited. Toward the end of the century, a self-designated Universalist missionary, Quillen Shinn, moved through the south planting several dozen small, rural churches. Many, though, were little more than family churches, and few endured very long.

It took until the middle of the 20th century for renewal to come in the South, and this time it came from the Unitarian side with what became known as the Fellowship Movement.

The way it worked is that ads would be placed publicizing Unitarianism and inviting anyone interested to meet a representative of the denomination. At the meeting, the representative would describe the religion and offer support for those who wanted to start a lay-led congregation. That describes the beginning of this congregation and many others. Check a directory of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the South you’ll find few with a founding date before 1940.

As Gordon Gibson points out in his book, Southern Witness, the post-war period of the late 1940s and early 1950s was transforming the entire country, but there was special pressure in the south. Many factors, including the return of soldiers from overseas, a booming manufacturing sector and new accessibility to college through the GI Bill, were stirring up what up to then had been an insular culture.

Lay-led fellowships appealed especially to those recent college graduates and transplants brought in by industry as well as locals who discovered, in the words of the advertisement of the time, they were “Unitarian and didn’t know it.” The early days were heady and liberating time, but some congregations got strong push-back for questioning traditional religious ideas, as well as long-standing social practices, and none of them more incendiary than racial segregation.

Where integration efforts were underway, the fellowships were often involved. These largely white congregations invited African-American speakers for worship and welcomed African-Americans as members. They started integrated daycare centers, joined voting rights campaigns, supported integrated schools and swimming pools.

We here were among them. We helped provide breakfasts and clothing for African-American children and registered blacks to vote. But for many congregations there was a cost: sometimes it was just estrangement from their neighbors, sometimes the cost was greater.

The incident I began with today is an example. The Rev. Don Thompson made a statement about his ministry when he arrived in 1963 as the first minister of the congregation in Jackson, Mississippi by also accepting the position on the Mississippi Human Relations Council created by the assassination of Medgar Evers. During his tenure, Thompson helped coordinate programs during Mississippi’s Freedom Sumer of 1964 and the summer after the Civil Rights marches in Selma in 1965 the congregation opened the first integrated Head Start program in Jackson.

On August 23, 1965 Thompson had just dropped an African American member of the congregation off at his apartment and emerged from his car in a parking lot near his home, when two shots rang out. One bullet missed. The other fractured his left shoulder.

Thompson survived and was determined to stay until FBI agents warned him that there was a credible threat on his life. And so he left. The congregation struggled without a minster for several years, having to sell its building and move to a small house nearby.

It’s a story that Gordon Gibson knows personally because he was the next minister to follow Thompson at that church. He arrived in 1969, staying for several years, as long as the church could pay him, and resigning when they couldn’t.

He spent the next seven years working for the federal Equal Opportunity Commission in Jackson until he returned as the congregation’s part-time minister from 1978 to 1984. You’ll get to hear more from Gordon this summer when he speaks here on August 9.

Few stories of UUs in the South from that time are quite so dramatic, but many aspects of the story in Jackson were mirrored elsewhere in quieter ways. And more often than not it was lay members, rather than ministers, who bore the brunt. Some were doctors who saw their practices dwindle. Others lost jobs or were threatened or abused. Some were involved in making history. We remember, for example, that Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a one-time president of the UU Fellowship of Montgomery, Alabama.

Many were part of the demonstrations in Selma, including several dozen from Birmingham and Huntsville who joined a march on the Dallas County Courthouse demanding voting rights for blacks the day before Bloody Sunday.

Gordon argues that the history of the Civil Rights movement could be written without Unitarian Universalists. Our numbers were small and our influence fairly negligible, though there were places we made notable contributions.

The important lesson, he says, is not how we helped liberate African-Americans, but how being part of the Civil Rights movement helped liberate the European Americans that largely populated our congregations.

Those southern fellowships promoted an approach to religion that was open and accepting but also a crucible for dissenting ideas and religious questioning. They upheld values central to our identity – affirming the worth of each person, freedom, justice, equity, compassion and the interconnection of all things. As congregations they were sometimes quirky, sometimes warm, but the struggles they encountered forced them to test those beliefs over and over again. If the groups could endure – and not all did – their bond and their commitments were deepened.

That pattern is not far from what we saw recently in the struggle for marriage equality. Being tested as we were helped us get clear on just who we were and what we stood for.

It’s an experience that Gordon Gibson argues is not dissimilar to the lessons of liberation theology that emerged not long after this time in Central and South America. People who stayed with our fellowships, he said, were forced to adopt what was essentially a style of praxis: reflecting on their beliefs, articulating them, putting them into practice, and then returning again to reflection and so on, each step leading them deeper into their faith.

“Southern society,” he said, “by opposing many central Unitarian Universalist values forced southern Unitarian Universalists into a deeper understanding, a clearer formulation, a more passionate embrace of those values – often leading to an active practical expression or embodiment of those values.”

So, it’s interesting to reflect on the lessons that our movement’s southern experience has to teach us in our work today. To begin with, we learned that this is religion has staying power, even in the face of steadfast and sometimes violent opposition, and that key to that staying power is being openly engaged in the communities where we live.

We learned that living our faith is the path to strengthening and deepening it. So, we are wise today as a community to create opportunities for and invite each other into work that helps us get there, from the reflection within on our own centers of meaning, to the articulation among us in small groups that help center us and refine our thinking, to practice in the larger world that gives flesh to our convictions.

And we learned that community matters: when we have each others’ backs, when we say “Yes” to helping when we can, when we are ready with care and support for each other during the struggles we endure.

This is the Southern flame that we carry – the flame of refining fire that concentrates and focuses our wisdom, of illumination where there once was confusion, of witness that calls people to action, of compassion and abiding love for all.

This is how, as Rev. Hoover put it, we can learn from and build on the past. We can act, even when we can’t be sure of the results. We can endure pain and tears, frustration and confusion and know that if we stay true they will empower and transform us. Let that be our legacy.

Sermon: Fake It ‘Til You Make It (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It was the summer after my first year in seminary, and I was sitting at the bedside of a man roughly my age who had just undergone heart bypass surgery. I had never met this man before. His room was merely on the floor that I had been assigned to as a hospital chaplaincy student. Seminary training generally requires that each student take a unit in what is called “clinical pastoral education” to help them prepare for the visits they’ll be making as ministers later on. This was mine. <i>Click on the title to continue reading and/or to listen…

 

READING
from All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum
http://www.mjglass.ca/metaphor/getfound.htm

SERMON
It was the summer after my first year in seminary, and I was sitting at the bedside of a man roughly my age who had just undergone heart bypass surgery. I had never met this man before. His room was merely on the floor that I had been assigned to as a hospital chaplaincy student. Seminary training generally requires that each student take a unit in what is called “clinical pastoral education” to help them prepare for the visits they’ll be making as ministers later on. This was mine.

To say that I was assigned, though, is not to say that I felt in any way prepared. To be honest, what I felt, depending on the day, was somewhere between a novice and a fraud. I had essentially no experience in anything like making a pastoral visit and really no training for it in school.

So, there I was introducing myself to this man only hours after he had emerged from what was likely one of the most traumatic events of his life. No family was present in the room, and I had no indication that any would be coming. What should I say? What does “a minister” say?

I began with pleasantries, acknowledging what a scary experience it must have been. I don’t remember all that I said, but at one point his eyes started to well with tears. I slowed my banter. I held his hand. We sat together in silence. I may have attempted a prayer. Before long I moved along on my appointed rounds. What with the busy schedule of his rehab and my own heavy load of visits and group work with other chaplains I didn’t get to see him again before he was discharged. But somehow we had made a brief connection, and I got a glimpse into this work.

It’s an experience that I’m sure resonates with many of you. None of us enters the work of our lives fully formed. And it doesn’t matter how much classroom or book learning we get. The doing of it requires that at some point we just jump in, no matter how unprepared we may feel. It may seem forced or unreal at first, but we give ourselves to it until we find ourselves in it. You might say we fake it until we make it.

It occurs to me that our religious lives are like that, too. Last week we heard members of our Coming of Age class tell us a little bit about what a year’s worth of studying, reflecting and talking with each other, their teachers and their mentors taught them about what they set their hearts to.

It is the kind of exercise that we think of as distinctive to the path of this Unitarian Universalism. In this month when we are exploring the role of tradition in our religious, it is something that I would call central to our tradition. Because, for us, the religious journey begins, not with learning a doctrine about a text or great teacher, but with our own personal experience. Texts and teachers are worthy contributors to our wonderings, but what’s most important is that we get clear on where our hearts rest.

If there is a doctrine central to our tradition, it is that we are persons of inherent worth and dignity who are capable of building our own faiths, that bedrock that gives us an orientation to lives, from that which calls to our hearts. We trust in that capacity, believing that in time it will open us to lives of compassion, integrity, service and joy.

What makes it challenging is that there is no neat prescription for getting there. We empathize with our 9th graders who told us that being confronted with writing their credos they felt a bit at sea. Who doesn’t? But for them, as for us, the process begins by making a beginning, by planting our flag somewhere and testing what we come up with.

It was Mohandes Gandi who framed the work of his own spiritual development as, in his words, “experiments with truth.” In his autobiography, published some 20 years before his death in 1948, he describes how each formative event in his life – large and small, success and blunder – shaped an evolving and expanding faith that informed a life of principle and practices of nonviolent resistance that have changed the world.

To Gandhi’s eyes, though, his was no hero’s journey. In fact, he writes, “the more I reflect and look back on the past, the more vividly do I feel my limitations.” Instead, he said he saw his own journey simply as a paradigm of the journey we all travel toward whatever we may hope might be true self-realization: harmony, awareness, peace, or, in Gandhi’s words, seeing God face to face, or attaining Moksha, the Hindu state of bliss, release from the cycle of rebirth.

Yet, Gandhi warns against our dwelling on that cosmic sort of end. It can needlessly feed our ego, he says, and distract us from the more pedestrian work of discovering what he calls the “relative truths” that guide our lives. They, he says, “must be my beacon, my shield and buckler.”

The seeker after truth, he adds, “should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

What Gandhi is raising up here is not an end but a process. Seek the truth in every encounter, he says. Let your life teach you. Take what you learn seriously, but don’t take it as final. Let each experience, each experiment shape your understanding. Key to humility is being wary of presumption. Perhaps it’s better to understand what we bring to an encounter as hypothesis, something we are testing, treating as true – faking it, in a sense – until experience confirms or disconfirms what we have come to believe.

Robert Fulghum’s story that you heard Bob read earlier has a heartbreaking episode at the center of it – the man with terminal cancer who died without telling anyone he was sick. Fulghum links it in a clever way with the children’s game of hide-and-go-seek happening outside his window and the boy who, he says, “hid too well.”

Have you ever known anyone who hid too well? The story couldn’t help bring to mind the man I told you about earlier who I met on the heart surgical floor during my chaplaincy training. I don’t know if he was hiding, but it sure looked to me as if he hadn’t been found. There is, as Fulghum puts it, a grown-up version of hide-and-go-seek that we don’t talk about much. It has to do with wanting to hide, needing to be sought, and being confused about being found.

Like the doctor in Fulghum’s story, we frame it as being considerate, but there’s also a darker side to that: a fear that we will be thought lesser of or we’ll think lesser of ourselves if we reveal ourselves. There is an image – well, let’s be honest, a fiction – that we cultivate to project the appearance that we’re in control, that we have it all together. So, even if we’re not OK, we strive mightily to maintain that image of control. I’m just fine. No problem.

How does this happen? It seems like the game begins in early adulthood when we scatter to the four winds, and work hard to develop that bullet-proof public persona that is so polished that no one will know what’s inside. We don’t actually frame it quite so grimly, but that’s its net effect.

Of course, the truth is that’s not what we want, not by a long shot. What we want is to be known, what we want is love and connection of all kinds. But we fear that who we are, who we really are might not be acceptable to those people who we want to connect with. So, we hide in plain sight and hope that maybe they’ll seek us, or at least they’ll let us hang out with them. If we’re lucky we do get found – really found – by people who not only accept but cherish us. But others of us are burrowed deep in the leaf pile, secure that our true self is safe: safe from disapproval, safe from abuse, safe from shame.

I get it. I understand why we go there. But, oh my, at such a cost. Maybe there’s another way. Maybe there’s a way that opens the door a crack and admits the possibility of opening further.

And it brings us back to our topic today: a way of getting found. It begins, once again, with giving ourselves to something until we find ourselves in it. In order to make a change we need to put ourselves into a place where change can happen.

It’s something like Robert Fulghum’s game of sardines. Instead of scattering, waiting to be found, we align with the ones we seek. Even when it’s uncomfortable at first, we err on the side of building relationship. We may not be sure at first if this connection is going to work, but we stick with it. We fake it in the hope that in time we will make it, that we will create lasting connections that offer a way for us to enter fully into the picture.

There’s no guarantee that any particular connection will work, or will fulfill our initial hopes for it. But at a minimum it gives us practice and at best we create a new node in the web of relationships that supports us.

This applies not only to new people we meet, but even to those who are closest to us. We all experience frustrations with parents, children, partners, siblings and friends, and sometimes we find ourselves in destructive patterns that tear at those vital links in our life.

The same strategy applies. We stay connected, stay in the game. Even if in the moment it feels inauthentic, we affirm how we care. Yeah, OK, we fake it a bit until we have reconnected with the authentic feeling within us.

This is part of what we here can give each other: permission to shift the game from hide-and-go-seek to sardines, to acknowledge that in one way or another we are all at sea struggling to come to terms with that on which we set our hearts.

So, friends, olly-olly-oxen free! Let go of the fears that have kept you hidden away. Come in from wherever you are. It’s a new game and you’re part of it. Get found. Lay claim to your truth. Plant your flag. And share your vision, your wisdom with us that we may each be enriched.

Sermon: Staying Open (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
When times are hard, the first response that many of us make is to withdraw or close down, to find a way to remove ourselves from the conflict or difficulty. But often the healthiest thing we can do is to do our best to stay open and available, to accept the pain that we’re feeling and let it guide us to deeper way of being.

 

Reading: “The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water” by Mary Oliver

The call came from a friend who I hadn’t heard from in a while. She had had her eye on a job that made her a little nervous but that nonetheless she was excited about. We had talked about this before. She wasn’t sure at first whether she wanted to move, but as time went on she felt the urgency for a change increase to the point where I knew she had a lot of emotional energy invested in it.

The news was disappointing. She hadn’t gotten the job, and even worse wasn’t even sure it was for the right reasons. From the feedback she received she felt they had read things into her background and discerned things about her that weren’t true. So, not only had she lost the opportunity she sought, but the whole process had unsettled her and shaken her confidence. She wondered about how she presented herself and even whether the whole trajectory of her career had jeopardized her options for the future. It was a rough place to be in.

Listening to her, I felt badly, but I was also aware that her tale triggered something a little like panic deep inside me. In a sense it unearthed my own experiences of failure and rejection and all the terrible feelings around them, and I was aware of a small, frightened voice inside me telling me to flee.

But I kept my head. I didn’t find some convenient reason to end the call or jump into “fix-it” mode – offering all sorts of prescriptions for what went wrong and what she should do about it. When a pause came in the conversation, I simply took a breath and invited her to go on.

Frustration and disappointment are part of the warp and weft of our lives, but none of us wants to spend any time with them. They bring us real pain, and we’d just as soon avoid them. Yet, that impulse to flee also serves to isolate us, to disrupt or break the very connections that feed us most deeply. And what is more it disconnects us from ourselves.

So, how do we find the strength not to flee, to remain present, to stay open even when the going gets tough?

Today I want to organize my answer to that question around my understanding of a Buddhist practice that continues to fascinate me the more I explore it. It’s called “Tonglen,” and it translates literally as taking in and sending out. It’s a practice centered in meditation, but the course it follows is different from the way we often understand meditation to work.

Meditation is centered in the breath, and usually in meditation we imagine breathing in energy and vitality and breathing out bad feelings or anything we want to get rid of. In tonglen it is just the opposite: we imagine someone who we know who is suffering and with the inward breath imagine taking their suffering in. Then, with the outward breath we send that person peace and good feelings. In other words, we breathe in what we want to avoid and breathe out what we’d like to keep.

Hmm, you think. Now, how is that a good thing? Why would I want to take that ugly stuff in? Some Buddhist practices even invite the practitioner to imagine it as dark smoke.

Well, to begin with another person’s suffering is not our own. There is no way we can feel it as intensely as she or he does. But taking that suffering in is the beginning of compassion, literally feeling with another. When we sit with another person’s suffering, we don’t belittle or dismiss it. We honor it and affirm the person who is enduring it. It’s not nothing. It’s real. And it matters. That moment of communion alone can make a huge difference in how that person experiences his or her suffering.

Also, because this suffering is not ours we have a perspective on it that it can be hard for the person experiencing it to have. For them, it can seem all-encompassing. It fills the screen, so to speak. But we see the suffering in the much larger context of what you might call the “spaciousness” of this person’s life. We know the inherent goodness of this person, her gifts, his capacities, the larger story. And so we can send him or her the good wishes we truly feel – happiness, joy, peace.

And, of course, this process need not be confined simply to our interactions with others. We can apply it to ourselves as well, though that holds challenges of its own.

Buddhists diagnose the fact of suffering as the chief ill that besets us, and they note that, rather than confront it, many of us devote a great deal of energy to escaping or avoiding it. Our goal is to protect ourselves from unpleasantness. So, we become well practiced at denial and escape.

The problem is that neither strategy is especially effective, and each has the effect of removing us from the world around us, from people we love and even from our true selves. The fact is that there is a crack in everything. The world will go its own way regardless of our wishes, and every one of us is fragile and flawed. So, rather than run from our pain, why not accept it – or, who knows, even embrace it?

That sounds good. Very compassionate, to be sure, and yet, let’s face it, a little scary. None of us really wants to spend much time with that which brings us pain. We want to be happy, happy, and we fear that dwelling on the hard stuff may just bring us down, possibly even to a place from which we can’t get up. And then there’s the shame that we sometimes attach to what brought us pain. Who needs to go there?

Yet, here’s the amazing thing. Sometimes when we own our pain, when we sit with it without judgment, without beating up on ourselves, we find that our capacity to endure it, to walk, as it were, next to it, is greater than we thought. We can even learn to extend some compassion to ourselves, not in a self-pitying way but in a way that acknowledges the pain as what it is, that acknowledges the wound it has given us, but still appreciates that the pain does not define us.

And just as that is true of us, it is true of others, too. It can help if we remember that there is nothing unique about the suffering we endure. The circumstances are ours, but pain is a universal experience. And this can be a point that opens our hearts. We soften our judgment against ourselves and others once we dismantle the shields we created to protect ourselves from our pain and instead accept it.

What’s more this acceptance makes us more available to be of comfort and support to others. Acceptance of our pain gives us a strength of sorts grounded in the realization that we need not be defined by our wounds. Instead, we are defined by our goodness, and that goodness that opens a broad spaciousness in our being, spaciousness that can hold and release the pain of others and respond to them with loving kindness.

Mary Oliver makes this point in the poem we heard earlier comparing our sorrows to water lilies with their roots sunk in the pond bottom, in her wonderful image, “the mud-hive, gas sponge, reeking leaf yard, swirling broth of life” that send skyward on tall wands fists with beaks of lace that tear the surface of the water and break open over the dark water.

Our wounds, in other words, can be our gift. They can be the agent that opens us to deeper living and to deeper compassion with others, that help us break through habits that paralyze our lives.

So, in tonglen meditation we take in the suffering we experience or that others experience and hold it, not belittling it or dismissing it, but honoring it, acknowledging it, not as the whole story, only part of the story we are living.

And then, with an eye to the wider truth of our lives, the deeper beauty within us, we send a wish of peace, that we, that whoever we are with or whoever we are holding in our hearts will take in and experience a sense of the beautiful spaciousness of our, of their lives.

This is framed in Buddhist practice, but it also resonates deeply with my understanding of our tradition as we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When we suffer, we have a sense of ourselves diminished, as a little less worthy than we had thought we were before. The gift we can give to ourselves is to help each other see the beauty, the wholeness that remains within us despite the circumstances.

We don’t distract ourselves with imagined ways of evading or escaping the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we help ourselves understand how they are nested in a larger truth of our lives. What had seemed so scary or shameful was not as big, as overwhelming as it had seemed, and from that perspective we find that a way forward presents itself that is true to our heart.

Part of what we can do as a community is to help each other see that way forward through our compassion. We accept that pain is a part of life, something that we will each encounter, but that it does not define us. So, we can be available to each other, accepting without judgment, making room, offering space, until we are able to tear through the surface of our sorrow and break open.

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