Sermons

Upcoming and Past

Upcoming Sermons

Gaia, Mother Earth and the Oneness of Everything

Sunday, November 29, 2020 Jim Scott, Guest Artist Come celebrate the earth with the music of renowned UU musician Jim Scott. Jim is a composer, guitarist and singer and former member of the Paul Winter Consort who has contributed several hymns to UU hymnals. Join him for this live Zoom service.

The Meaning of Home

Sunday, December 6, 2020 11am Live ZoomRev. Mark Ward, Lead MinisterUUSC and Guest at Your Table Our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee will lead a service inviting us to consider how our justice efforts support the notion of home, a place where we are safe, secure, and cared for. Sunday...

What’s Water?

Sunday, December 13, 2020 Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister We’ll explore how the writer David Foster Wallace used that question from a Sufi teaching story to prod us to reflect on how we think about the present moment.

At Peace With Mystery

Sunday, December 20, 2020Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister The stillness of the longest night of the year invites us to embrace the dark and with it the mystery it holds.

Christmas in Story and Song

Thursday, December 24, 4pm Zoom Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister and Rev. Claudia, Minister of Faith Development This live Zoom service will blend the best elements of our traditional Christmas Eve service, with wonderful stories and music, and a candle lighting ceremony.

What I Love About Islam

Sunday, December 27, 2020 11am Rev. Mellen Kennedy, Guest Minister The tension & misunderstandings between Islam and the West are tragic and unnecessary, according to our speaker, minister of the Springfield UU Meetinghouse in Vermont, chair of Inayatiyya: a Sufi Path of Spiritual Liberty, and...

Past Sermons are listed by date. 

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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.

Sermon: Counting on Chaos (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
My wife, Debbie, has begun a new practice when we go out on our walks. Periodically, she’ll just stop and jump. She’s not jumping over or onto anything in particular – just jumping, for the sake of jumping. She started this after reading that she might be able to reduce the gradual loss of bone mass in her hips and legs by mildly stressing them in this way. Just jumping something like 20 times a day, it seems, can halt the loss of bone density – something that is a particular concern for women – and in some cases even improve it.

 

My wife, Debbie, has begun a new practice when we go out on our walks. Periodically, she’ll just stop and jump. She’s not jumping over or onto anything in particular – just jumping, for the sake of jumping. She started this after reading that she might be able to reduce the gradual loss of bone mass in her hips and legs by mildly stressing them in this way. Just jumping something like 20 times a day, it seems, can halt the loss of bone density – something that is a particular concern for women – and in some cases even improve it.

Now, of course, I need to caution that I’m not prescribing this technique for you. You need to decide for yourself what physical exercise makes sense for your situation. But, when Wes introduced the topic for the sermon he hoped I’d write, it occurred to me that Debbie’s jumping had already anticipated it. It’s an interesting idea that I find challenges some of the ways we think about how we organize our lives. So, I welcome you to open your minds, and as you consider it reflect with me on what implications it might have for our religious lives as well.

The notion we’ll be working with today is something called “Antifragility,” and it was invented by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a one-time financial trader who now teaches in a field called “risk engineering.”

Taleb begins with the premise that the way we thrive in a world full of uncertainties is not to flee from risk but to work with it. As I said, it’s counterintuitive to the way most of us tend to think. We work to make our lives predictable and so protect ourselves against risk. But Taleb argues that risk is not only unavoidable, it can actually be a spur to growth and make us stronger.

So, what is this “Antifragility”? Well, we begin with the idea of fragility. Things that are fragile break easily. So, that would seem to imply that the opposite of fragility is robustness, resilience, the quality of resisting being broken. But Taleb sees it another way. Things that are antifragile, he says, don’t resist forces that threaten to break them, they gain from them.

Debbie’s jumping is a good example. Our bones are strong, but they are also at risk of breaking, a risk that increases as we get older: our bones get more brittle to the point where any fall might result in a serious break. We can do things to reduce the risk of breakage. We can keep ourselves fit, make ourselves more robust, and limit our activities to avoid circumstances that put us at risk of falling.

But, as some of you have discovered, surprisingly serious falls can happen just about anywhere. And even if we eat well and stay healthy, our bones still lose density over time. Apparently, though, one way to slow and even reverse that process is to give our bones a little stress. Small jumps now can reduce the impact of big falls later.

This is true of other systems in our body as well. We know, for example, that exercise that works our cardiovascular system strengthens it. Taleb goes so far as to say that stress is how our bodies learn about their environments, and when we deprive ourselves of stress – the right kind of stress, something we’re more likely to call stimulation – we increase our own fragility and imperil our health.

He pushes this to our inner lives as well: all of us, he says, need some stressors that make us wonder and think, some push-back against our pat certainties, ways to engage our hearts. “If you are alive,” he says, “something deep in your soul likes a certain measure or randomness and disorder.”

Indeed, antifragility, he claims, “looks like the secret of life,” or how it is that living things have endured across the millennia, despite the assaults of one extinction event after another. The trick, of course, is that while life may be antifragile, individuals aren’t. The dinosaurs couldn’t endure the circumstances of their extinction, but life did.

The perspective that Taleb seems to want to urge on us is to see randomness and uncertainty as inherent to anything we do. So, as I’ve framed it today, we should count on finding chaos everywhere. Again, this is contrary to the way we like to organize our lives. We like to create islands of stability in our lives where things are predictable. We look for things we can count on and organize what we do around them.

But Taleb insists this grasping for predictable outcomes is an illusion. The parable of the Chinese farmer that Pat read earlier is an example of this. When the farmer’s horse runs away, the villagers console him. What a terrible thing! But the farmer is not so quick to make a judgment, and sure enough the next day his horse returns with a herd of others. But this blessing turns out to be mixed when his son breaks his leg trying to train a horse. Ach, bad luck! But maybe not, since it leaves his son out of the fighting that suddenly erupts.

The parable teaches that we need to be cautious about how we assess the implications of events in our lives. That means steering away from “catastrophizing” – oh no, we’re doomed! – or smugly congratulating ourselves – well, we’re in clover now.

Another way of looking at the story is that we need to be careful what we assume is predictable. For example, none of the incidents in the parable were things that the Chinese farmer was likely to predict. They are what Taleb calls “black swans” – events that are surprising and rare, that could not have been easily predicted from prior circumstances. When such things happen, we’re inclined to discount them as flukes that we needn’t attend to, while paying attention to what appear to be predictable patterns in our experience. Yet, we know from experience that many of the most important events in our lives – from who we meet to how we make our way in the world – are inherently unpredictable.

But we tell ourselves otherwise, going about planning our lives as if we could control them. All of this worries Taleb, who argues that acting this way blinds us to variability in the world and when adopted, which he insists that it is, by many of our major institutions in the economy, political life, education and more can get us into difficulty.

We look for strategies to reduce risk, to make our lives more predictable. This may be possible within limits, he says, but in the end there is no escaping randomness and volatility. By seeking to remove the uncertainties, the stressors that impinge on us we, in his words, “fragilize” our lives: we increase the chances that a “black swan” event will do real damage.

So, how does Taleb suggest we respond? Do we simply leave ourselves to the whims of fate? Here’s where he introduces another term that came from his work in the financial markets, which he calls “optionality.”

Essentially, as I understand it, this means seeking out circumstances where there is a good chance that good things can happen and taking advantage of them when they do.

For example, we can’t map out the circumstances for when we will meet the person that will be our life’s partner, but we can place ourselves in situations where we are likely to meet people who share our interests. If you like hiking, join a hiking club; if you like music, go to a blues club or the symphony. You can’t be assured that it will work out, but you improve your chances of a good outcome by your choices.

It’s a strategy that rather than fighting the randomness of events, seeks to take advantage of it. We put ourselves in a situation with a number of positive options without betting on one in particular, hoping that in the end we will get something close to what we think we want.

The trick is that to use this strategy, we also have to be comfortable making mistakes – say, a string loser dates until we find the right person. What’s important in this scenario is that the mistakes are small ones – bad dates, say, rather than a bad marriage – so that we have an opportunity to adjust our strategy. That club was a little sleazy. Let’s try a different one.

It’s the tinkerer’s approach to making our way in the world, rather than that of the master planner. And, whether it appeals to us or not, Taleb insists, it is the way of things. We stumble around in a world we don’t really understand and through experience put together ideas of how things work that we continually tweak and test. It is a viewpoint that sees mistakes or bad outcomes simply as information, bumps we find a way to overcome. But, in the end each one makes us more adept at navigating the world around us.

This is all fine as long as we’re aware of our mistakes and upfront with others about them. But, what if we are insulated from our mistakes or able to keep them quiet? The negative effect of our decisions doesn’t go away. It just gets passed on to someone else.

An example of this that Taleb cites is the 2008 financial crisis. It was an episode brought on largely by a limited number of people who made risky deals that brought them great gain and little personal risk. When they collapsed, they passed the pain on to others and it endangered the entire financial system.

So, in any endeavor Taleb warns against working with anyone who isn’t invested in the result, who doesn’t have what he calls “skin in the game.” If I put myself at risk to some degree, I’m more likely to work for a positive outcome, and in doing so I reduce the fragility, the overall riskiness of the endeavor because I’m helping to share the load. Indeed, in some cases I may go even farther and sacrifice something of myself or my situation because it will help the larger good. That itself would be an antifragile act since it would transmute the pain of an individual to a strengthening of the whole.

So, what does all of this have to do with the religious life? Well, in keeping with our monthly worship theme of Revelation our dance with antifragility does offer up some truths that open new ways of thinking about what we hope to accomplish as a congregation.

First, it seems to me that religion itself can be an intensely antifragile enterprise. That’s because through activities that take us out of our comfort zone it helps us grow. We come here and find a diverse community of people with different backgrounds, different beliefs. We are challenged in worship, in classes, in small group ministry, in justice work that takes us into the community to think about things that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed our minds, to reflect on them and consider new ways of looking at ourselves, each other and the world. That is to say, when religion is doing its job, it is changing us and inviting us deeper into lives of compassion, integrity, service and joy.

It’s also antifragile in that we share the risk we encounter. We care for and support each other. We collaborate in the work of raising each other’s children. We attend to each other when we are ill or in crisis. We celebrate each other’s successes, and we mourn each other’s deaths. We affirm it in the covenant that joins us and reminds us of the part we each play in this enterprise. And, like exercise, the more deeply we are committed to it, the more we involve ourselves in it, the greater benefit it gives us.

Also, our Unitarian Universalism has some particularly unique antifragile qualities. Our community is centered not in a fragile, monolithic faith statement to which we are directed to adhere but in a path intended to guide us toward spiritual maturity. We are invited to reflect on and develop practices that help us know and name our core values and sense of purpose.

It is work that we begin by going deep inside ourselves but that we complete in our interactions with others who join with us in a similar spirit of exploration and in our service to the larger world. We do it in different venues that suit our own particular needs, but each grounded in a larger purpose.

To say that we might count on chaos, on volatility and uncertainty is merely to say that we needn’t fear it. As beings of inherent worth and dignity – resourceful, antifragile creatures – we have evolved to cope with a changing world: in fact, not only cope with it but employ it to our advantage.

It gives us enough confidence that we, like the figure on the cover of your order of service, might look into the abyss of uncertainty and offer each other a few notes.

Sermon: How We Bloom – Easter (text & audio)

 

The pink cherry tree outside the window of my home office is done blooming, its delicate petals blasted away by spring’s bluster, replaced by clusters of tiny green leaves poking out of the ends of branches in origami-like folds that seem to open as I watch.

Each year this tree serves as my living reminder of Easter: a non-descript presence through the winter, its spare, dark limbs calling no attention to themselves until suddenly one day in early spring the tree explodes into brilliant beauty.

Each year, even though I know it’s coming, it takes my breath away. Especially on bright spring mornings when the sun lights up the flowers, it’s hard to get any work done. I can’t take myself away from the window as I stare in dumb awe.

Whatever our theology, this is the impulse that this season stirs in us: the capacity to be struck dumb by the beauty of resurgent life. Even though we know it’s coming, there is something astonishing about how the world around us awakens, and it puts us in the mood to wonder what else is possible. What other great, though improbable, things might the world be capable of, or might we be capable of?

The Christian story of Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies that kind of wondering. How might it be that what follows from death is not an ending, but a beginning? And what might it take for us to live as if that were so?

For what is interesting about the Easter story is not really its supernatural details around the empty grave but what it suggests about what ultimately endures among us. It’s not individual persons or their accomplishments, no matter how grand and glorious they may be. It’s something about how we are changed and can become ourselves agents of transformation.

I’ve brought the Flower Ceremony into this service today because I think we can find a similar message within it. But before we go on, it’s worth lingering a moment to introduce it and Norbert Capek, the Unitarian minister who was responsible not only for the Flower Ceremony but arguably for the existence of the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia.

Capek was born 1870 in an area of Europe known at the time as Bohemia. He was raised a Roman Catholic, but later joined a Baptist youth group and headed off to seminary, where he was inspired by the emergent Social Gospel movement. A tireless, writer, speaker, preacher, Capek became head of Baptist churches in Bohemia, but soon realized his own liberal leanings were carrying him elsewhere.

With the coming of World War I, Capek fled to the United States, after being warned that he was seen as a threat by authorities. On arriving in the U.S., he found a settlement with a large Slovak Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, but in time he found that the theological gulf between him and the Baptist church had grown too wide for him to continue.

Capek quit the position and he and his wife, Maya, began visiting different churches. They recount that it was their children’s enthusiasm for the Unitarian Church in Orange, New Jersey that persuaded them to attend there. Never underestimate the power of religious education!

With the war’s end the Capeks returned to Prague and with some support from American Unitarian leaders set about building a Unitarian presence there. They opened what they called the Religious Liberal Fellowship in 1922 and drew standing-room crowds. In addition to sermons, Capek composed hymns, led adult classes, and created a counseling center. Within a decade the congregation grew to 3,200 – at the time the largest Unitarian congregation in the world – and about a half dozen other congregations had been started around the country.

The Flower Ceremony was an innovation that the Capeks introduced in June 1923 toward the end of their first year in Prague. At first the services were quite stark, comprising a sermon and a couple of pieces of music. In time Capek added hymns he had written, but he felt they also needed a more spiritual component.

He was treading on tricky ground, though. His congregation was a mix of former Catholics, one-time orthodox Protestants and former liberal Jews, all of whom were wary of ritual. What gesture might help bind these people more closely as a community but not alienate them?

He decided to try an experiment. Each person was asked to bring to the service a flower of his or her choice from their garden or the roadside – even just a twig. Each flower would signify that person’s decision of their own free will to join the others, and the bouquet created would be a symbol of the gathered community. Once the bouquet was complete it would be brought forward and blessed with a prayer from Capek, then returned to the rear of the assembly. At the end of the service, those in attendance would be invited to take a different flower from the one they had brought and leave with it.

That gesture, he said, would symbolize that those who participated accepted one another and agreed to share in both the “beauties and responsibilities” of life in community: Recognizing, in other words, that a spiritually centered life requires that we not only give, but also receive.

Capek’s ceremony was informed by his sunny theology that, as he put it, there is “a hidden cry for harmony with the Infinite” in every person and that the goal of religion is to open the way to each person discovering that connection.

The ceremony was a hit from the beginning and spread widely, and with Capek’s urging the Unitarian movement grew as well. But the rise of Nazi Germany put a chill on liberal religion, and Capek was one of the more noted voices urging his countrymen to hold out against them.

Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Gestapo broke into Capek’s apartment, confiscated his books and sermons and shortly afterward arrested him and his daughter for treason. He wrote the poem you heard our Speaking Choir read while he was in prison in Dresden. Even there, he insisted, he found a source of strength and connection to the eternal. Prisoners who were with him testified after the war that his quiet conviction fortified them in that grim time.

A German appeals court in April 1942 concluded that Capek was innocent of treason, but the Gestapo ignored the decision and sent him and his daughter to the Dachau concentration camp. Records of invalid transports indicate that he was gassed to death in October 1942.

Capek’s wife, Maya, survived the war, though she didn’t learn of her husband’s death until it was over. She brought the flower ceremony to the U.S. in the 1940s, was herself ordained a minister and briefly served a congregation in Massachusetts.

Nearly 50 years after her death, the ceremony is not as widely practiced as it once was. And here I must admit I may be part of the problem. In my 11 years as your minister, this is, I believe, the second time I have brought it into our worship. Some of you have asked about it, and I’ve tended to nod, “Uh-huh,” and move on. So, here on Easter Sunday might be a good time to make a confession: It’s not that I don’t like the Flower Ceremony – what’s not to like about passing around bunches of beautiful flowers on a sunny spring morning?

It’s just that in my experience, as religious ritual it tends to be, well, pretty light if not downright . . . um . . . empty!

I know, I know. No offense, Norbert and Maya! But really as far as I can see, this is not your fault; it’s ours. Not infrequently in UU congregations the flower ceremony tends to be an occasion to wax poetically about the beauty of flowers, about how they’re all individual, just like we’re all individual and beautiful in our own way. Yay, us!

OK, fine, but, really? Is that all we’ve got to say? There must be a reason why this ceremony captured the imaginations of hundreds of liberally minded people in one of Europe’s most sophisticated cities in the 1930s, a time of intense turmoil, and it wasn’t so that they could smile at each other and say, “Aren’t we special?”

So, in returning to this ceremony, I was determined to look for the energy, the deeper connection that made this ceremony such a transformative moment in that emergent religious community, and what it still might hold for us today.

I think we begin by understanding that the point of this thing was not the flower. It was illuminating to read again that Capek asked his congregants to bring flowers from their homes or roadsides, even just a twig! He wasn’t looking for hothouse wonders from the florist shops. He was asking members of his congregation to share of themselves. The only way that this diverse group would come together was if they were each fully present and fully accepted as they were.

Also, the point of this ritual was not to celebrate each participant as an individual. It was to introduce his congregation to the hard work of building community with the lovely metaphor of creating a bouquet. Capek’s theology spoke to this yearning within each of us to make deeper connections, those sometimes electric, sometimes quietly profound experiences when the world somehow knits itself together and something awakens in us that wasn’t there before.

And he recognized that the experience of community is what triggers those connections in what we free ourselves to give to each other, and what allow ourselves to receive.

We are reminded of where the flower comes from: a plant rooted in the soil – perhaps cozied and fertilized in a garden, perhaps punching up through the leaf mold of the forest floor. It comes with a context that we must get to know and take account of. And that context is what makes it possible for it to bloom.

It’s telling that the Flower Ceremony remained a touchstone for Unitarian communities in Czechoslovakia, even as increasing political pressures made liberal religion a dangerous place to affiliate. The ceremony was an opportunity to renew the heart connection of that community, and the center of value from which it arose: that fundamental assertion of the essential worth of each person and the bond that knit them together.

It didn’t depend on Capek specifically; it depended on the good will and unbroken commitment of each participant. And this brings us back to the Easter story. The true miracle I find at Easter is not the rolling away of the stone. It is the endurance of a community centered in the spirit of love, despite the death of its proclaimer.

How might it be that what follows from death is not an ending, but a beginning? And what might it take for us to live as if that were so? The short answer is that somehow we are changed, and we make ourselves agents of change.

Robert Frost’s poem that we heard earlier points to the brief, elusive pleasures of spring – the bees, the birds, the stray blossoms dancing in the breeze – a moment to savor ahead of the uncertain harvest that awaits us all.

And this, he says, is love, and nothing else is love, that evanescent, soul-stirring experience that wells up within us or that suddenly explodes into our awareness after a dark winter of the soul. Imponderable, really: something before which we simply stand in dumb awe.

But that’s OK. As Frost says, what’s demanded is not that we understand it, but that we learn to fulfill it. Each of us goes about our lives planted in our own soil, yearning for something that we can’t quite name. As Capek wrote in prison with the gas ovens of Dachau waiting, there is a source of strength within us, that if cultivated may give rise to something beautiful.

It is the message that Capek’s flower ceremony still communicates today, inviting us for the sake of our own awakening to build the disciplines of giving and receiving so that we might be agents of each other’s and the world’s blossoming.

So, as you leave today do take a flower with you – even if you didn’t bring one. We’ve got extras. And as you do, reflect on how we build the bonds here that help realize our hope in the world, how you might offer yourself more fully into this community and how we might invite you to receive. As we make space for our mutual blooming, we can ponder what improbable things we might do to bring more beauty, more integrity, more light into the world.

Sermon: Black Lives Matter (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We are now only a few weeks past the latest round of national elections. And amid the tally of winners and losers is the ongoing rumination over the direction of our political life. I’ll admit to being among those feeling discouraged by the results this year, though I try to find comfort in the observation that American politics tends to follow the path of a pendulum, swinging one way before inexorably turning the other. I’m hoping for a turn. You may feel the other way. That’s the kind of dynamic tension we live in, something that’s been true since our nation’s founding. And still, despite all of that, there is something holds us together.

 

READINGS

From The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In an ear of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

From Across That Bridge by John Lewis
“All our work, all our struggle, all our days ad up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves t the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family . . . . Our struggle to affirm the light despite oppression, depression, conflict, poverty, hunger, disease, violence, and brutality is a loving gift we give to ourselves ad our another to help humanity move toward the day wen we can readily separate the light from the darkness and the equal incandescent beauty of the light that is in us all.”

SERMON

There was a festival feeling in the air as we marched west along Selma Avenue last Sunday. A brilliant sun was in our eyes, and people were gathered along the street, smiling with something between amusement and amazement in their eyes as this flood of humanity passed before them.

The tenor and pace of the march changed, though, as we approached Broad Street. It was here that we began to get a sense of the true scope of this gathering. Turning left to face the Alabama River, we saw for the first time some five blocks in the distance that iconic marker of the Civil Rights movement with the heavy block letters spread across its central girder: Edmund Pettus Bridge.

More remarkable, though, was the amazing crowd of people spread before us. You get a sense of it from the photo I took that appears on the cover of your order of service. The crowd covered every bit of the bridge and the street leading up to it. Organizers had also put up a massive screen that you see to the left where images of and video interviews with major figures in the 1965 Voting Rights campaign in Selma were projected. I happened to catch the moment when an image of the Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister who was murdered in Selma, was displayed.

What this picture doesn’t show is the many others who spilled over into side streets leading up to the bridge and were lined up for several city blocks behind us. Once we turned onto Broad Street it was no longer possible to march: We inched ahead step by step as we could. It must have taken 20 minutes to walk the few blocks to the bridge. I’ve found myself in crowded settings like these before, but I can’t remember ever having been in one that was as diverse. Even more, I can’t remember having been a part of a diverse gathering where the racial animus or just discomfort that seems so often to lie just below the surface when white and black gather in this country was so low.

As we moved forward, it seemed to me that the festival feeling that we had felt earlier shifted into something deeper. Part of it, I’m sure, was the weighty sense of moment. Here we were – black and white – celebrating with our presence our joined affirmation of the principle won by the struggle of Civil Rights leaders 50 years before – that all people have the right to a role in deciding their own destinies, and that that right is embodied in unhindered access to the vote. Ultimately winning that right was an extraordinary victory that ended a pattern of oppression that had been in place for centuries. And here in Selma in 1965 was the tipping point, hard won through injury and death but won all the same.

But beside that sense of occasion, there was something else in the air. It felt to me like an easiness, communicated in smiles and casual banter. Pressed together as we were, there was no pushing or impatience. We took our time, and it was OK. Looking from the crest of the bridge on that picturesque bend in the Alabama River, listening to children laughing and clusters of people singing freedom songs, it was easy get lulled into a kind of happy “Kumbaya” moment.

But on the bus ride back I remembered remarks from the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at a service only three days before at the Baptist church where the Selma campaign had its origin to remember the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. As good as it may feel to celebrate, she said, our nation is at “a critical moment” when, “we must shift our mentality and our behavior and our practices. We must do something radically different if we are going to be able to continue move forward as a nation and a world.”

And it’s true: 50 years after the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, our nation is challenged with a different image: blood on the pavement in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio, and elsewhere, and ugly truths about persistent disparities in the lives of black and white Americans.

How far we have to go can be measured by the fact that as we celebrate the Civil Rights victories of the 60s the most powerful slogan of our time is that “black lives matter.”

Yes, we have both elected and reelected the first black American president. Yes, African-Americans are media, entertainment and sports superstars and head major corporations. All that is true, and still racism remains imbedded in the fabric of American life.

The difference from the 60s is that the way it makes itself known is less obvious . . . at least to those of us who are white. We haven’t been followed around in stores by suspicious retail clerks. We haven’t had jobs or mortgages denied for vague reasons. We haven’t been pulled over, repeatedly, for no apparent reason and searched spread-eagle outside our cars. All this goes on, and not just out there in the big, wide world, but right here in Asheville.

Even that, though, is just the surface. It gets more frightening as you move down the economic ladder, where opportunity for employment is less and the chance for entanglement in the legal system is greater. It’s a world that few of us here encounter, and yet it is devastating and even destroying the lives of thousands every year. What’s especially frightening now is the escalating level of violence that has resulted in the needless shooting deaths of black men and now the tragic deaths of police officers.

So, what now? Last December our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper challenged you to consider how we as a congregation might respond. She presented you quotes from a couple of our colleagues: One was from The Rev. Tom Schade, who said that “We who believe in people must join in the movement that demands that black lives matter. It is the cutting edge of the assertion that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity.”

The other was from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who observed that: “Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of competitive debate and rational inquiry into the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.”

Lisa closed announcing, “I stand before you this morning with no easy answers, no clear call to action. I stand before you brokenhearted and tired, feeling as if the darkness has come too close, and I can’t see the way forward. But I have faith in the power of goodwill to act. I believe we can turn that anxiety into anger and the anger into action. I have faith that we will find a way forward, together.”

So, we announced our way forward by posting “Black Lives Matter” on our sign and convened a meeting. Those of us at the meeting resolved that before we decide what to do, we need to know what we’re talking about. People were encouraged to attend the upcoming Building Bridges anti-racism training or make contacts with community groups like the NAACP. And we announced that everyone in the congregation would be invited to read Michelle Alexander’s path-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, and that we would organize groups to discuss it.

I hope that many of you had a chance to at least look through Alexander’s book. It can be dense in places, but she makes a devastating case for how many African-Americans are being denied essential rights of citizenship.

The irony, she writes, is that just as Civil Rights laws were taking effect, tearing down century-old Jim Crow laws intended to intimidate and exclude African-Americans from civil life, a new raft of laws and practices were being adopted that accomplished the same purpose. They weren’t billed that way. Instead, they were offered as tools to protect public safety. But, how they were enforced assured that a generation of young African-American men would be swept away and stigmatized, ripping apart families and neighborhoods across the country.

The numbers alone tell a shocking story. Since 1972, the number of people held in prisons or jails has risen from 350,000 to more than 2 million and a disproportionate share of them are African-American. The number grows even larger when you add those on probation or parole. In fact, there are cities in the U.S. today where more than half of all young adult black men are under correctional control.

The main driver of this increase, Alexander shows, is a program that once was highly praised: the War on Drugs. You recall the grim stories of crack houses and drug gangs turning urban centers into war zones. Politicians promised to “come down hard” on the perpetrators with laws that vastly increased prison sentences for even the smallest drug offenses.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the War on Drugs was declared at a time when drug use was actually on the decline and that treatment is a far more effective preventive for drug use than prison. What devastated the African-American community was that police targeted their neighborhoods for enforcement, even though studies showed that whites used drugs at equal rates. That meant that in the highly publicized perp walks of drug dealers the face in the news almost always was African-American. That, in turn, fed racist assumptions that intensified the drive to push even harder.

Meanwhile, African-American men were being warehoused for years, and when finally released discovered that they were tainted for life by laws that forbid those convicted of crimes from participating in civil society. They were unable to vote, to obtain licenses for most professions, to obtain housing or food assistance. Even when not forbidden to hold a job, their conviction was a stain that often shut them out. The American script that anyone with gumption can make it in life was unavailable to them.

The net effect of all of this, Michelle Alexander argues, has been to create a racialized caste system that devastates lives and threatens to defeat any effort of social reform. So, what to do? Well, here’s where it gets hard because this state of affairs forces us all, white and black, to examine ways of thinking that unknowingly perpetuate it.

Alexander says that what distinguishes the “New Jim Crow” from the old is that it is driven not by racial hostility but by racial indifference. We begin with the simple notion that those caught up in the criminal justice system got there by their own choice. Nobody made you buy that cocaine – right? Commit the crime, do the time!

Except, of course, we know that’s not the way the world works. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I invite you to reflect on what laws you have violated in your life. Ever smoked or dealt marijuana, or maybe even taken cocaine? Or, maybe your brother, sister, friend? Many people make foolish choices. Even Barak Obama admitted to “doing some blow” when he was young.

But he, and most of us, grew up in families or communities where police were not vigilantly watching for drug use, and even if caught, sympathetic police or judges often could be persuaded to give us a break. As a rule, young African-American men don’t get that break.

So, we fool ourselves if we pretend that race is not a factor in how laws are enforced. This is what drives the fury of African-Americans in places like Ferguson and even here in Asheville. And it helps explain how African-Americans see racial animus in police officers even if the officers don’t feel it.

The truth is that race does make a difference and has made a difference ever since our nation’s founding, and to pretend that it doesn’t is to perpetuate an injustice. In the end, we are left to declare that it is unacceptable, it is morally wrong to write off a generation of young men because they got themselves entangled with the law, to demonize them as evil-doers who “had it coming” and never need concern us again.

Preparing for this service, I visited the discussion groups who were working through Michelle Alexander’s book and found that many of us followed a similar arc in our responses. First: anger over the injustice she so persuasively describes, but then something like deep sadness and remorse for the terrible toll all this has taken, for how our own racism that has blinded and distracted us.

My own moment came in the last chapter of Alexander’s book when she sums up her case and makes the argument that for those who want to make a difference, the chief work before is not tinkering rules and legislation – as badly as the laws need to be changed – but the building of a movement and with it a sense of personal investment.

Ultimately, she writes: “It is the failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States.”

And that’s it, isn’t it? That simple. Reading that forced me to confront, once again, the excuses and evasions I use to avoid letting my heart be touched by the wanton cruelty of racism that unfolds before me every day that I open the newspaper.

To say that “Black Lives Matter” is to declare that we do care, that we are ready to open ourselves to the truth of the travesty that racism makes of our community and our nation and the way it inevitably poisons us all.

Back in Selma at a Living Legacy conference preceding the bridge crossing, I heard the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed discuss what led the pioneers of our movement to heed the call from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma. We assume, he said, that people were drawn by “the righteousness of the cause and the magnitude of the injustice.” That was there, yes. But to a one, he discovered, it was relationship that compelled them to go: relationships to people and communities, especially African-American people and communities, that got them on those planes, cars and buses regardless of the clear risk of that choice.

So he posed the question for those of us who are mapping how we as individuals, as congregations, as a religious movement might respond to the strife we’re living amid now: with whom are you in relationship?

It’s a question I pose to you, too. Because, if we are going to engage in this work, it needs to be on the basis of more than high-minded principle. We need to have skin in the game. We need to care, and that begins with relationship. As Mark Morrison-Reed put it: when your brother, your sister, your friend, your grandson calls and says they need you to come, you are compelled to go. It doesn’t matter if you have all the answers or can solve all the problems. What matters is that you are there.

The fantasy I hold to is that that glimpse of peace that I experienced on the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is not just a fleeting moment but a foretaste of the future, a future that we here might be agents in bringing about, where all people learn to be easy with one another, where caring, respect, and love flow freely among us.

I’m not sure of the best way forward. I just know that we have to move. I’m encouraged to hear how many of you have been prompted by this initiative to find your own way. I look forward to us sharing our learnings and inspirations. I’m willing to accept that we’ll make mistakes along the way because I know that the focus of our work will not be getting it right with the proper wording and the proper gestures, but the building of connections – sometimes messy, sometimes wonderful, but sure to change our lives.

In all of this, I am comforted by the words of John Lewis, grievously wounded at the foot of the Pettus bridge, a foot soldier for voting rights who went on to become one of our shining leaders.

All of our work, he said, points to a simple truth: that we are one human family, one people, and that the struggle we endure to overcome the many ills that persist among us – brutality, poverty, oppression – is a loving gift we make to each other that we might finally see the incandescent beauty within us all.

Photo taken by Rev. Mark Ward at the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. (March 2015)

Sermon: Where the Heart Rests (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Along with many UUs, for years I struggled over how and even whether to use the word “faith” to describe my religious orientation. And then I had my own awakening concerning just what I think that word points to.

 

Faith. For most of my life it wasn’t anything that I thought much about. Yes, from an early age I was a pretty regular church attender. I’ve told you about growing up in the Unitarian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, a booming, young church in the 1950s and 60s. I felt safe and welcome there, and even more, young as I was, I felt like I mattered. But, faith wasn’t really a word that was used to describe what bound us together. We might have used words like “share values” or “a sense of community.”

In fact, I think that if you had asked them, many of the people attending that congregation would have told you that “faith” was something that they had come to that church to get away from.

“Faith,” in their eyes, was something that they associated with the churches of their childhoods where catechisms and Bible stories laid out a belief structure that pretty much was beyond question. Good doubters that they were, though, they did ask questions and probed seeming contradictions and at some point by some person were admonished that they simply need to “have faith.” That reply, they would have told you, prompted a cascade of thoughts and feelings, but the net effect was that in time they drifted away from that community, and often from religion entirely.

Still, something tugged at them. Perhaps it came with the birth of children, or a restlessness sitting with the Sunday paper, or the query of a friend, or a particular book, or movie. Somehow the “big” questions of life started pestering them or perhaps that dark night of the soul arrived, and they thought, “Well, maybe there’s something else out there.” And so they made the rounds and ended up eventually at a Unitarian congregation: nice people, interesting services, and no talk about “having faith.”

Perhaps this story is something like your own. If so, you may be feeling a little nervous now: “Oh, no, what are we doing talking about faith?” So, let’s begin by clearing the decks here. In my understanding of faith, I am informed by one of the great liberal theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich. In a book published in the 1950s he lamented how use of the word “faith” had been misconstrued.

“Almost all the struggles between faith and knowledge,” he said, “are rooted in the wrong understanding of faith as a type of knowledge which has a low degree of evidence but is supported by religious authority.” We are left with the idea that faith is something that we get from someone else and that we adopt by a kind of act of will. If you don’t have it, you haven’t tried hard enough.

This sets up the traditional conflict of faith and reason. In fact, Tillich said, there is no contradiction between reason and faith, as it rightly understood. Faith, he said, is not about what we know, but how we feel about what we know: not about how our mind engages with the world, but how our heart does.

It is highly personal, something that arises in each individual in response to her or his own experience. It is that felt sense that connects us to the world around us in the deepest way. In Tillich’s words, it is the state of being ultimately concerned.

“Ultimately concerned.” That’s a pretty abstract idea, but it points to an intimate experience. Essentially, faith is what underlies our sense of wellbeing. It is what we hold to because we cannot possibly not hold to it. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning and lets us settle into sleep at night. It is what centers us when our lives have been knocked off kilter.

All of us have our moments of feeling alienated or disconnected. It is the kind of existential despair that makes our lives seem absent of meaning. It does no good at those times to say, “Buddy, you’ve just got to have faith.” What we need instead is a way of connecting with that original sense of wholeness that we were born with. Ultimacy, to my way of thinking, is that intimation, that felt sense that we are bound up in it all – the vast, mysterious beauty of all things – that we are now and ever will be home.

I remember an incident many years ago when I was a senior in high school. I had applied to five liberal arts colleges, all of them competitive, but within my grasp, I was assured. Then the day came when five thin envelopes arrived in the mail, and I learned that I had been rejected by all five.

Neither of my parents was home. All I could think of to do was to launch out to a tree nursery across the street and walk and walk, brooding. For some time in recalling that episode, I told myself that with that walk in the woods I was just getting some air to take my mind off that crushing news. Yes, it did help in that way, and of course I did find a way to college and all the rest. But I realize now that something else was going on out there on those paths of the nursery. I was, in fact, getting in touch with the ground of my faith.

I found something that day that I have come back to time and time again. Amid my despair something in the world called me back to wholeness.          It is said that in the fraction of a second before we process our perceptions into discrete elements – sights, sounds, and so on – we are first flooded with an ineffable sense of being alive in the world.

It isn’t something we articulate; it’s pre-verbal. And yet it gives us a grounding, a place to begin. Amid raging emotions and conflicting thoughts, it is a place of peace, a floor from which to build the foundations of a living faith.

I find it at the center of our first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are, each of us, enough, and we have the capacity to discover how to realize our best selves and live into the promise that we are.

Sharon Salzberg in her book Faith comes to a similar conclusion. Faith, she says, “is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”

The passage you heard from Annie Dillard comes after she describes watching a full solar eclipse. She writes that she was surprised by how disturbing she found the experience, as if the sun itself were being obliterated. And yet, beneath her fear what she calls the substrate, the matrix that buoys the rest, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.

Some decades ago, James Fowler made a study of what he called “the stages of faith,” that is how faith is born within us and how it grows over the course of our lives. He noted that people commonly identify faith with a code of beliefs, say the credo of the Latin mass or the creeds of Protestant reformers. But, he says, that’s an error. Belief may be a way that faith expresses itself, but a person does not have faith in a proposition or concept.

Instead, he said, “faith involves an alignment of the heart.” Curiously, this notion stretches across cultures. In Hindu, the term is Sraddha, which translates as “to set one’s heart on.” The religious life, they say, begins with finding in one’s life something to which one gives one’s heart.

Credo from Latin has a similar root, a compound from the word for heart and the world for place or put. So, its most accurate translation is not, “I believe,” an intellectual affirmation, but “I set my heart on,” or “I give my heart to.”

The writer Diana Butler Bass argues that people often misunderstand some of the most famous words attributed to Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

With those words he was not speaking of a philosophical idea or a set of doctrines. The truth, she said, “was that the disposition of the heart was the ground of truth. Spiritual freedom results from a rightly directed heart. The self as it moves away from fear, hatred, isolation, and greed toward love.”

Buddhism offers a similar view. As Sharon Salzberg puts it, “faith is the capacity of the heart that allows us to draw close to the present and find there the underlying thread connection the moment’s experience to the fabric of all life.”

Giving one’s heart, of course, can be a risky proposition. Our hearts are tender and easily broken. And so we have good reason to be wary. At the same time, of course, being made of muscle, they also get stronger the more they are used.

And so here is the conundrum of faith. It is possible to drift through life taking the safe route, trusting in few things, exposing little of ourselves. It offers no assurance of safe passage, but at least we reduce the risk of injury. And yet, what a pallid existence, what a dull life.

The life of faith, though, offers a different path: risky, to be sure, because we can’t know if what we put our trust in will merit that gift. Likely, we’ll overextend ourselves at some point and need to regroup, perhaps nurse our wounds. But we learn, and our heart grows stronger, wiser. And moments will come when our risk pays off with the most glorious awakening, the most amazing meeting of kindred souls, and we are filled as we never thought possible.

Yesterday in our Connection Points class we invited people who are thinking about joining this congregation to reflect in small groups on our worship theme this month: what does it mean to be a person of faith. Some said there was something a little scary in that task. Shaming scripts from their past emerged in their minds, and they weren’t really sure how to reply.

Others helped open the conversation, though, sharing their own experiences and their own sense of deep convictions that kept them centered and grounded. It was a microcosm of one of the key things this congregation exists to do: to listen each other into spiritual growth, to give each other courage to open and explore.

We all know the experience of having been smacked down emotionally, having our hearts wounded and feeling that we need protect ourselves. We shelter ourselves, but, sadly, in sheltering ourselves we turn from our hearts, become stoic, impassive. It’s a place we can live for a surprisingly long time, but not happily.

A way I have seen this present itself in our churches is that we process the work of religion as the wrangling of words. Words are good, but without bringing our hearts into the equation they can be empty. Sometimes you can see the heart pushing to make itself known in the heat of the conversation. How would it be if we let the words be for a moment, and paid attention to the heat? What is that? Can you name it? Can you own it?

May Sarton’s poem that I read for our meditation has been a favorite of mine for some time precisely because it speaks to me of that moment in our lives when the heart makes itself known. It is the moment when we fully know ourselves, when all, as she says, “fuses, falls into place: from wish to action, from word to silence.

“My work, my love, my time, my face gathered into on intense gesture of growing like a plant.”

What does that look like for you, and how might we invite you to explore it? For, there is the vitality of your life. There is where, as Sarton says, all we can give grows in us to become song, made so and rooted so by love.

Let us here affirm, as Sharon Salzberg puts it, that “We all have [the] absolute right to reach out, without holding back, toward what we care about more than anything. Whether we describe the recipient as God, or a profound sense of indestructible love, or the dream of a kinder world, it is in the act of offering our hearts in faith” that something changes within us, something that gives us the courage to act from the center of our lives and fully live our truth.

It is the journey of faith, a journey whose destination is an ever deepening awareness of how entangled we and all things are and how dear we are to each other.

Close Encounters (text & audio)

Three weeks in India brought encounters with people whose lived faiths I’ve never experienced before. How does a Unitarian Universalist respond?

 

Readings
“Varanasi,” by Mary Oliver 

“I Said to the Wanting-Creature Inside Me,” by Kabir (click here to read the poem)

Sermon

The poet’s eye focuses on the telling detail, elements of a scene that illustrate the larger truth that she finds in the moment. But to get the full picture, here’s what you need to add to Mary Oliver’s description of the scene of the shore of the holy Ganges at the ancient city of Varanasi, India:

First, you need to get down to the river, and that is no mean accomplishment. In this city of 3.5 million the clogged streets and winding alleys are dense with life. Bicycle rickshaws, squat, three-wheel tuk-tuks, motorcycles, subcompact cars, oxcarts, and delivery trucks nudge and beep at pedestrians, cows, and dogs packed together in a kind of lazy river of their own wending down to the water.

Women in bright saris walk purposively with eyes straight ahead, young men in western clothes gossip with the owners of vegetable stalls, older men in dusty kurtas sit along curbs, commenting on the scene. Women sit along the street median with complaining children holding out their hands for alms and teenage boys dog westerners, pleading that they buy their plastic keepsakes. Watch your feet, or your next step may find you in the middle of a cow pie or someone’s half-finished lunch.

Along the riverfront, the ghats, a series of concrete stairways, extend for several miles along the riverfront, often cracked, or broken and uplifted at crazy angles. Sitting under wicker umbrellas, Hindu priests chant an ongoing stream of blessings, tossing herbs into small fires in front of them, as people of mixed ages drop coins in their baskets. Boys sell small, banana-leaf cups, each filled with a votive candle and marigold blossoms, many of which are already burning along the riverfront.

At the water, dozens of people are in various states of undress. Young men stripped down to shorts jump in noisily and splash each other, while women edge into the water up to their waists in their saris. Some hold hands, shyly encouraging each other, while others stand quietly with eyes closed or softly unfocused before they dunk themselves again and again into the cool, grey water.

The scene is empty of organized ceremony. There appears to be no right way to approach the water. And no great fuss is made of this moment of communion. When finished, the bathers simply make their way gingerly back up the steps to a towel or some covering, carrying a small jug of river water, or smiling and chatting with friends or family.

It is, as Mary Oliver suggests, an affecting moment, and yet at the same time about a half-mile upstream a very different scene is taking place. Scattered across the steps are dozens of funeral pyres, each attended by silent mourners dressed in white looking on as tall fires crackled and blazed.

We had visited the spot the evening before, watching silently as every 10 minutes or so a priest would guide mourners carrying their dead wrapped in sheets on a bamboo bier to the river, where they dunked them before hoisting them to huge wooden pyres and lit the flame. When the fire was done, the chief mourner, head shaved and in bare feet, would tote the largest remaining bone on the end of a heavy stick and hurl it into the water.

What does it mean to be a person of faith? It’s a question that we’ll wrestle with this month, and it’s something that I found myself bumping up against time and again these last few weeks in a trip along the great river Ganges in India. It is a place where faith is interwoven into so much in ways that are often paradoxical and confusing. Three weeks of travel is hardly enough time to grab more than a passing impression, but I wanted to share with you a bit of the journey that Debbie and I experienced and some of the threads that surprisingly lead me back to our work here.

Hindus say the Ganges is no ordinary river: it is the embodiment of the goddess Ganga, Ganga-ji, dear Ganga, who once descended to Earth to purify the souls of humankind. On the shores of Varanasi, humans have worshipped Ganga the purifier for nearly 3,000 years, archaeological records go back many thousands more. So, is it any wonder that Hindus regard it as the holiest place on Earth, where special blessings are conferred on those who greet the day here, and where death along its banks is thought to bring moksha, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, union with the infinite being of God?

The faith that people bring to Ganga’s banks has its roots in sources that precede historical records, to the earliest days of the Hindu pantheon. This is, as Mary Oliver says, Shiva’s city, evidenced by the three horizontal stripes of pigment that you find on the foreheads of his followers, or the marigold leis placed at the altars of his shrines. But others are here, too: worshippers of Vishnu with the single, vertical red stripe on their foreheads, elephant-headed Ganeshas stuck on the dashboards of delivery truckers, or “Jai Maa Kali,” hail mother Kali, across the tops of the windshields of tuk-tuks.

In short, everywhere you look, from the roadside shrines to the bulls, those sacred reminders of Krishna, avatars of Shiva’s great mount Nandi, who lope lazily into traffic, you are reminded in one way or another of a spiritual dimension to our lives that our busy striving distracts us from seeing.

And that, Hindus will tell you, is what our Western senses miss when we remark on the chaos and sensory overload of India’s busy streets. It is the seemingly contradictory way of looking at the world holding that the possibility of our own awakening, our own happiness is in our hands, and yet warns against celebrating the ego.

It is not personal salvation that is our goal, they say, but union with all things – not raising up, but erasing the ego. And so each shrine, each image becomes a reminder of the work before each person to shed distractions and better our lives. And every being, every major event in our lives is a teacher for us all. What this means is that the Hindu pantheon, now thousands strong, is not just a historical legacy; it is alive and growing even today.

Our guide on this trip told us the story of one that emerged in his home town. It seems that years ago a young man had lusted over a particular motorcycle. He worked for years to get the money to buy it and finally did. But he had not been driving it for more than a week or two when he crashed into a tree and died. It was terribly sad, but afterward nobody in the family or anyone else in town had the heart to remove the crumpled machine under the tree. In time, people began bringing candles and chains of flowers, first to remember the boy and then as a way of sending blessings or hold loved ones from harm.

What will become of this shrine remains to be seen, but it illustrates a pattern that has been repeated time and again, how Hinduism over time has absorbed and reshaped many of the influences that have touched it.

This is true of religious movements that moved through and even the sub-continent’s conquerors. Buddhism, for example, was born in India in the 6th century BCE, though today less than 10% of Indians call themselves Buddhist. But honoring the fact Gautama Siddhartha likely walked Varanasi’s streets in his wandering, Hindus claim him as the 9th avatar of the god Vishnu. Today most of the foundational sites of Buddhism have been restored. And perhaps none is more notable than Bodh Gaya, where a massive successor of the bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment grows near of the massive Mahabodhi temple. Visitors of all races stream through the grounds while pilgrims in saffron or scarlet robes singly or in groups do prostrations, chant pali scriptures, spin prayer wheels or simply meditate. Nearly every space is occupied by a worshipper of some kind.

We had perhaps our most amusing experience of Hindu repurposing at the famous Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. The hall is a massive marble structure with architecture mirroring the Taj Mahal, even using the same marble. It’s known as the “Raj Taj.”

Outside stands an enormous sculpture of a seated Queen Victoria, soberly surveying the scene. We happened to arrive the weekend of Indian Independence Day and discovered that on that weekend the park’s grand walkways and lawns become a kind of teenage meet market. It was, we were told, a place where Indian taboos on the public display of affection were relaxed and girls in their best saris and boys in their cleanest shirts walked hand in hand, taking photos of each other in alluring poses. Prim Queen Victoria as the latest goddess of love? Well, who knows?

These temples serve as place to keep stories alive that resonate with the people. Temples of a sort include the home in Delhi where Mohandes Gandhi was assassinated. The room where he lived remains preserved with his simple possessions, and footprints imbedded in concrete mark the path to where he was shot. The location of the shooting itself is roofed and adorned with flowers.

But not infrequently we experienced the most incongruous juxtapositions of faith. In Kolkata, for example, we arrived the day of a special celebration of Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and the arts. Several blocks in town were dedicated to shops that made unfired clay sculptures of Saraswati ranging in size from a foot or so to seven feet.

Each was brightly painted with a sweet face, dyed hemp for hair and elaborate paper clothing. On the festival day, we watched neighborhood groups who ordered the sculptures carry them down to the Hooghly River, the name the Ganges takes near the Bay of Bengal. Then, circling seven times and chanting together they immersed the glorious sculpture in the river, where it melted into the fast flowing stream.

And then on a visit downstream we saw a temple dedicated to Ramakrishna, the Hindu leader whose lectures about the unity of all religion at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions introduced the West to Hinduism. Headquarters of the Vedanta movement, it is a monument to the elevated notion of the spiritual unity of all faiths, and still there at its center, was a ghat on the riverbank where worshippers bathed as Saraswati’s remains drifted by.

What this landscape dotted with temples served to remind me was that the spiritual dimension of life, that which guides us to see ineffable beauty wherever we look and challenges us find inherent value in all beings, in all things, remains close at hand.

One of the centers of Hindu theology is what is called sanatana dharma: the notion that there is an eternal path that connects all things, that holds all things in harmony. It affirms no creed, but instead stands for a code of conduct that we might simply call right living. It is centered in spiritual freedom, arguing that any pathway or religious teaching that has spiritual freedom at its center is part of it. Indeed, for some Hindus it is the essence of Hinduism, an ever-evolving way without beginning, without foundational prophets or teachers that is inherent in all things and inclusive of all things.

It’s here that I began to find some connections to our own very different community and to the notion of faith. Faith in our way of thinking is not so far removed from the sanatana dharma. We affirm that our lives are grounded in a center of meaning that is larger than us yet within us. We affirm that our faith is realized in how we engage the word, in an ethic of action, and we insist on spiritual freedom, providing room for us each to find our own path to an awakened state of spiritual maturity, trying in our own ways to make sense of the elephant of our heart’s calling.

Of course, from the Hindu perspective, the world today is far from an awakened state. Indeed, they say we are living in the age of Kali, the goddess of destruction. In the Kali Age, the last of four great ages, strife, corruption, darkness and disintegration prevail in the world.

Traveling across India, it’s not hard find confirmation of that assessment. Amid astonishing beauty and stunning human cultural achievement, there is also terrible pollution and deep deprivation. The crowded cities find a way to function but so much is crumbling or broken or mired in filth as to make one discouraged about their prospects.

The holy city of Varanasi is a good example. Home of one of the premier universities in the country and a center of the silk weaving trade, its sacred riverfront is much the worse for wear. And the human ashes that drift in upstream from where worshippers bathe are hardly the worst assault the Ganges receives. More troubling are the pipes that regularly direct untreated human sewage into the river. And yet, like the woman in Mary Oliver’s poem, they are still determined to find the holy in it.

Our guide told us that Hindus have some thoughts about enduring and even growing spiritually in the age of Kali. In this time, he said, people learn to live closer to the earth, to cultivate a sense of inner light in themselves and among others amid the darkness.

Using Kabir’s imagery, what are doing looking for another river to cross? Do we really believe there is some other place that will make the soul less thirsty? No. Let us give up such imaginary meanderings, accept ourselves and stand firm in that which we are.

And even in this place, wherever our wandering hearts take us, we may yet find the bliss of certainty and a life lived in accordance with that certainty.

Sermon: The Good of All (text & audio)

 

Our Director of Administration, Linda Topp, is… known for being blunt. So, I was a bit taken aback when earlier this week, she called me into her office, with a sort of sheepish look on her face and said, “Can we change the wording in your sermon blurb before it goes out in the enews? I mean, I know your sermon will not actually be a snoozer, but the words ‘congregational polity?’ those are a snoozer.”

Wait, what??! Whooya callin’ a snoozer, Linda?! I mean, I know I’m a geek about this stuff, but c’mon! It’s one of those buzzwords that doesn’t inspire confidence. Honestly, I’m not sure why it comes off as such a bore, especially since it is so fundamental to who we are! Congregational, of course, refers to the gathered community within a church or other religious body. Polity means governance structure.

Let me pause for a quick point of order – a few years ago, you voted to change the name of this community from the UU Church of Asheville to the UU Congregation of Asheville. This was done this largely because the word congregation is more inclusive to people who do not identify as Christian, and it is important to us to have an inclusive and welcoming name. For the purposes of this sermon, and because it relies on the historical record, I will use the words church and congregation interchangeably.

So, congregational polity is central to our faith – it’s our religious DNA – core to our identity as Unitarian Universalists. It matters, because it impacts who we are today and how we organize and create community.

Congregational polity means that the people are the ultimate authority in Unitarian Universalism. It is why there were congregational meetings in 2004 and 2014 when you voted to call both of your ministers. As a governance structure, its origins are rooted in both the history of Reformed Christianity and the birth of America.

In 1637, a group of people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in what is now Dedham, decided to gather and create what they called the Free Church. They began holding cottage meetings, not to discuss and decide on what they believed, but how they would gather.

These meetings had a few simple rules, which I share as paraphrased by Alice Blair Wesley, “Rule 1: They would decide before leaving each meeting what question to discuss next week… Rule 2: Each week the host of the house would begin, speaking to the agreed-upon question. Then everyone else could speak by turns… Rule 3 was: Here we speak our own understandings our doubts. No arguing.” (ABW, p19)

The Dedham rules are surprisingly similar to the guidelines we use for small group ministry today. In any case, they spent over a year asking questions of one another and having these discussions before the congregation was founded in 1638. They understood that a healthy church would mirror a healthy society in which “concerns for justice, peace and reasonable laws can be freely and effectively voiced, without suppression.” (ABW, p.20) So the free church was established with an explicit responsibility to both its own members and the larger society.

They created a “…radically lay-led church gathered by mutual consent rather than by mutual belief.” (ABW) At that time, their beliefs actually were very similar. They could easily have organized as a creedal church, but chose not to. They were, of course, reacting against the prescriptive and limiting reality of the English church – it was the 17th century, after all, and these were colonists.

This doctrine, this way of organizing, comes out of an historical context. It is steeped in the outcomes of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, impacted by British political and church politics, and intertwined with the American Revolution. The ideas and governance structure created by the folks in Dedham was described in and codified as the Cambridge Platform, which remains the highest authority on the origin of congregational polity as practiced by a number of denominations, including the United Church of Christ, the Baptists, and most Anabaptist and non-denominational congregations.

All week, a phrase kept popping into my head – an earworm, if you will, with no music. You may recall it. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” It’s the final line of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence came out of the same political and social stew as the Cambridge Platform. Over a century after the Dedham church was founded in the Massachusetts Colony, the country itself was founded. These new Englanders believed that the strongest, clearest, most authentic voice in their whole society would come from the Free Church once it was established. (ABW, p20)

When you are living in Massachusetts, or even greater New England, you are surrounded by the origins of both Unitarian Universalism and the country, and you can see their interconnectedness everywhere. You can visit Walden Pond, and many of the pivotal moments in the revolution are intertwined with churches that are now part of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Names of the founding fathers are sprinkled throughout the cemeteries and named rooms or buildings of numerous local churches. Similar to living in Asheville, where everywhere you turn you can see views of mountains surrounding us – this history is simply part of the scenery.

Interestingly, the values that caused the folks in Dedham call a series of cottage meetings and set their intentions down on paper were the same values that caused the revolution and the birth of the United States. They had been persecuted in England, moved to the colonies seeking freedom, and worked diligently to lay out a societal structure that would guard against the kind of limits on free expression they had fled.

It’s a question of authority, and of integrity.

Who has the authority? The people. The congregation has the power – through freedom of the pew – the right to discuss, decide and express the vision and mission of the congregation. So too is there a provision for freedom of the pulpit. In fact, the boilerplate contractual language for most ministers (including Mark and myself) calls the pulpit “…free and untrammeled.” It goes on to say that “The Minister is expected to express his/her values, views and commitments without fear or favor.”

And the freedom of the pew is defined by your shared covenant – the bonds of affection you create with one another, and the relationship between the congregation and its minister.

As John implied in his opening words, the congregational idea of freedom is complicated. It’s not that we can do, say, or believe whatever we feel like. It is that we choose to be in community, and we are free to explore and understand our own mind, our own heart, our own truth. And we do it together.

It is a beautiful thing. We are gathered together, here in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the places this faith began – far from Geneva, where Michael Servetus was executed, far from Hungary and the Edict of Torda, far from Boston – and yet we are connected to this tradition. We, too, have the opportunity to pledge to one another our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. Our bonds of affection are stronger because we choose them.

And that is the power of the Free Church: The power of choice. I once heard an “elevator speech,” that ubiquitous attempt to explain Unitarian Universalism in the time it takes for an elevator to go from floor to floor, that centered around the origin of the word “heretic,” which is the Greek for “one who chooses.” Our lives as religious liberals are full of choices. But fundamental to them all is the one We choose to be together, not because we share belief or creed, but because we share a commitment to the good of all.

I began this morning with the words of the Griswold Covenant. It is the most famous of the covenants that is used by UU congregations today – having been adapted time and time again. The members of the Dedham congregation followed a more explicitly Christian covenant, but they created a covenantal organization that lifted love as the highest value, and we have followed in their footsteps.

Covenant is about relationality. If we have no creed – we must nonetheless have something to bind us together. And so we make these relational promises to one another in this community. Our cultural fabric is full of promises – from the Hippocratic oath under which a doctor operates, to the promise to serve and protect as a law enforcement officer. Most of these promises, however, are enacted in relationships between individuals or small groups. Our covenant begins with one on one or small group relationships, but it expands further to connect and include people we may never meet. Our integrity as a community relies on our shared commitment to this covenant.

Can we identify our commonly shared loyalties? What is most important to us? If love is the spirit of this church, what is it that we, as a congregation, most love? Where are we putting our energy? Our lives are intertwined by the covenant we share.

John shared a version of our liberal covenant earlier in the service – and what a lovely, lofty goal those words are: With incomplete knowledge, partial truth and uneven love, we nonetheless believe that the bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom. She acknowledges that there is always more to learn, but that fulfillment is possible for us and for our children – and that, like the settlers in Dedham did, we have a responsibility to the world outside this gathered community. Though our 17th century forbears did not have golden shirts with catchy logos on them, they were committed to the ideal of an active, engaged love.

Keeping covenant is a challenge. I recently spent some time reflecting on the fact that I am in covenant with somewhere around 1500 people – other UU ministers – most of whom I have never met. It’s a strange and challenging reality. You, too, have this challenge. We have close to 600 Members, somewhere over 100 Friends. And more people who have not signed the membership book but affiliate with this congregation. You, too, are in covenant with people you don’t know.

And so, how do we do that? How do we love one another when we may not know one another? It is in some ways like any relationship. When I write vows with couples preparing for their wedding, I always encourage them to include a formal vow – whether the words are traditional or not – so that they will be promising the same things to each other. My own wedding vows were like this: we repeated the same vows to each other, and we return to those vows regularly, to see how we are doing, to revisit, to re-promise. A covenant is an active and relational promise, and requires presence and attention to sustain itself. Cindy and I each have three stones in our wedding rings – which remind me that there are three parts to my marriage: myself, my wife, and the two of us together.

We begin with a lofty promise, and then we live our lives in the day to day. And so it is for congregational life.

Sometimes living in covenant feels like striving toward an impossible ideal. It’s often messy. We fall down, we hurt each other’s feelings, we make mistakes. And yet, we continue to return to that highest ideal, we continue to strive.

We choose to be faithful, to be loyal, and to remain in relationship, even when it feels impossible, even when we are uncertain, hurt, or lonely.

We choose to remain in relationship because life’s venture is important, and we understand that we are that venture.

The legacy of the Cambridge Platform is the practice of lifting relationship above creed – covenant above doctrine – so much so that love becomes the doctrine. Our own congregational covenant, which I will explore in more depth in the second installment of this sermon series on January 25th, ends with the line, “Our life together declares that the future of each depends on the good of all and the future of all depends on the good of each.” And so we, here in Asheville, have taken up the charge laid out by the settlers in Dedham over three centuries ago.

May we reach toward the ideal of our own covenant

May our history inform our future together

And may active, engaged love remain our highest ideal

May it be so.

Sermon: Having Enough (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is enough? It’s one of the more subtle and challenging spiritual questions. As we start the new year, we’ll reflect on some of the ways that we might sort through all the tugs on our life and find peace.

 

It may just be a time-of-life kind of thing, but I’ve been feeling an impulse to shed in recent years. Things I’ve been carrying around for years I take a second look at and think to myself, “Do I really need to keep that?” And more often than not, when I’m really being honest with myself, the answer is, “No.” And so, out it goes.

The turning of the New Year is a great time to do this. Clothes, gadgets, even books: toss, toss, toss. It becomes a spiritual exercise of sorts. I make peace with bits and pieces of my past that I no longer need to hold onto so tightly: fascinations, avocations that seemed so interesting for a time that I realize no longer hold my interest. And that’s OK.

By paring down my possessions I remove distractions and make it easier to focus on what matters in my life. What was it that Henry David Thoreau said was the key to a more peaceful, centered way of living? Simplify, simplify, simplify!

In one way or another, the question that we are asking in the midst of such sorting is, What is enough? It’s a question with deep roots. For it touches existential aspects of our identity. For example, I own a good number of books. And while some mean a great deal to me, many I hold onto because they have utility. In my line of work I am dipping into many sources, and it’s helpful to have them ready to hand. Indeed, part of the professional expenses that you provide me goes toward adding to that collection.

Some of these are valued resources that I’ll keep, but others I’m ready to pass on once I’ve read and made use of them. It’s a discipline for me to think carefully about what I want from each book and why. Am I holding onto that book because I foresee using it, or because somehow I feel it’s the sort of book that “someone like me” should own? Is it some kind of badge of my identity?

It’s easy to get tangled into this kind of knot, and we can do it with all kinds of things, not just books. How often do we look to physical objects as proxies of our identities? Clothes, cars, homes, technologies? There’s a dance we do with the things we own, and for the sake of our own peace of mind we want to be sure that we, not they, are calling the tune.

Because, otherwise there is something unhealthy driving our lives. Rather than true needs, these things feed our appetites – appetites for approval, for status, for pleasure. When pleasure’s in the driver’s seat, singing its siren song, it skews how we relate to the rest of the world, and it makes it hard for us to talk about “enough.”

You recall those experiments from the 1950s when scientists implanted electrodes in the brains of rats that enabled them to stimulate their pleasure centers. The rats would ignore food and keeping pressing the lever to the point of exhaustion. After a holiday season when you may have found yourself pressing that pleasure lever a few more times than was good for you, I thought it might be helpful for us to reflect on some useful ways of thinking about enough.

Now, I’m betting that at this point as you reflect on whatever your own holiday excesses may have been you’ve already been through the drill that anyone raised in this culture learns at an early age: You have spent some time beating yourself up.

“Oh, no! I did it again.” “I was bad; I need to be good.”

The great American guilt trip. We’ve all been there, and we all know a bit about how ineffective it tends to be. So, in the hope of finding a better strategy to grapple with all this, let me invite you to consider a different way of reflecting on this notion of “enough.”

I begin with a big word that you may not have heard before: sophrosyne. How about that? It’s spelled “s-o-p-h,” as in sophomore, “r-o-s-y-n-e.” SoPHROsyne. It is one of the Greek virtues and is a word without a precise translation into English. Essentially, it implies what is called a “healthy-minded” approach to life: balance, moderation.

It is centered on the idea that we can find joy in discovering what is good for ourselves. Pleasure, of course, is part of it, but only part. We can get pleasure, for example, from eating a delicious meal, but part of our enjoyment of that meal comes with ending it when our bodies tell us we are full. The pleasure we get from eating is diminished when we eat to excess. The indigestion, increased weight and all the rest bring our bodies distress.

It’s not a matter of self-denial. We don’t deny ourselves when we end the meal. Rather, we reach a balanced, harmonious place where we feel that we have consumed “enough.” To find that place, though, takes some attention. So, instead of roaring through the meal as fast as we can, when we take our time we recognize the feeling of satisfaction without excess.

From this perspective, there’s nothing especially satisfying about overindulging. There comes a point, for example, as we tuck into that second pint of ice cream that we are no longer feeding our physical need. We are, instead, feeding unhealthy hungers – say, an desiure to draw attention to ourselves, to impress others, to seek their acceptance, or to pacify our own unhappiness or disappointment.

An important dimension of sophrosyne is that it is not a practice of enforced discipline against our wishes. It begins with the assumption that harmonious living is a natural state, what is best for our minds and bodies, how we are naturally inclined.

But it’s not always easy to learn and it can take time. And so the ancient Greeks argued that people adopt an attitude of humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness in going about their lives. We are better able to appreciate others since we are living from a joyful appreciation of who we are. And in time we come to know ourselves as well as those around us more fully.

Our joy, in the end, is bound up with the joy of others and the joy of the community as a whole. Somehow, though, we seem to have the notion marbled into our culture that another person’s joy comes at our expense. We organize our lives to protect our own prerogatives and hold others at bay so we can get while the getting is good.

Wendell Berry’s “Vision” that you heard James read earlier emerged from his experience of many years as a farmer in Kentucky. Berry has long been an advocate for what he calls the “localist” point of view. It comes from the perspective of a farmer who measures the state of the world by the state of the earth. And what troubles Berry is how so much of our current economy has lost touch with the Earth. The kind of factory-level farming that predominates in America, he says, degrades the soil, poisons waterways, endangers wildlife, and promotes patterns of development that are unsustainable. Yet, it is outside the purview of most people, for whom food appears at the table from sources they know nothing about.

This disconnect, he argues, endangers the health of our communities and serves to drive us apart from one another. The corrective he recommends is that we all learn to live, as he puts it, “closer to the ground.” This means not only that we get in closer touch with how and where our food is grown and produced, but that we also get into closer touch with each other.

It is, of course, a challenge in our busy lives, but it is also true that our busyness is part of the problem. We take on work or activities in excess of what we can reasonably achieve and maintain our health and balance.

We organize our lives for efficiency, what the writer Gerald May calls, “the ‘how’ of life,” how we get things done and survive from day to day. But we fail to make room for what May calls the “why” of life. And that, he says, is love, or as he puts it “why we are functioning at all, what we want to be efficient for.”

If it’s true, as Thoreau says, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” it is likely because they have lost track of their “why.” We need to get back to the ground, to be grounded in who we are and the joy of knowing that.

So, when we turn to Wendell Berry’s poem we can see that it is – in essence – a hymn to sophrosyne, to the joy of finding balance and in it a recipe for enough.

The image that he paints of our lives enriching the Earth, rather than depleting it is not, as he says, “a paradisal dream.” It is instead a vision of us living in balance and harmony that is natural to the Earth – to the fields, the rivers, the forests, the mountains. It is a way for us to find closer harmony among ourselves as creatures of this planet in tune with the music that rises from it, which brings with it abundant health and wisdom. So, that we might come to see ourselves in this sleepy backwater of the universe as guests at the district fireman’s ball, dancing to the beat of the local oompah band.

Some years ago there was a poem bouncing around the Internet that made Berry’s point in a different way. It was called, “A Lost Generation,” written by Jonathan Reed. In a YouTube version, a young woman’s voice read:

I am part of a lost generation
And I refuse to believe
I can change the world.
I realize this may be a chock bu
“Happiness comes from within”
Is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy”
So in 30 years I will tell my children
They are not the most important thing in my life.
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
Work is more important than family
I tell you this
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
But this will not be true in my era
This is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
30 years from now I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce
I do not concede that
I will live in the country of my own making
In the future
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this earth.
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope
And all of this will come true unless we choose to reverse it. 

There is hope
It is foolish to presume that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It will be evident that
My pooers and I care about this earth.
No longer can it be said that
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
In the future
I will live in the country of my own making
I do not concede that
30 years from now I will be celebration the 10th anniversary of my divorce
Experts tell me
This is a quick fix society
But this will not be true in my era
Families stayed together once upon a time
I tell you this
Work is more important than family
I have my priorities straight because
My employer will know that
They are not the most important thing in my life
So, in 30 years I will tell my children
“Money will make my happy:”
Is a lie, and
“Happiness comes from within”
I realize this may be a shock but
I can change the world
And I refuse to believe
I am part of a lost generation.

And neither are any of us.

Friends I wish you well in your New Year’s shedding. Along with the clutter, why not toss out a few other outmoded things that may be lying around, like disillusionment, cynicism, pointless guilt, or despair.

Instead, find joy coming to know the good, coming to know your community, coming to know yourself.

Sermon: One Shining Moment–Remembering the Christmas Eve Truce (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Testimony from the trenches: “It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing…”

 

Photo credit: Diego Sideburns / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

(Testimony from the trenches, 1914 – 1

Private Albert Moran of the Second Queens Regiment

“It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing.”

Rifleman Graham Williams of the First London Rifle Brigade:

“We could see makeshift Christmas trees adorned with lighted candles that burnt steadily in the still, frosty air. First, the Germans would sing one of their carols, and we’d sing one of our, until we all started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the Latin, so we could sing together. It was the most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”)

SERMON – 1

Christmas 1914 arrived only about six months after the start of the first World War. Having repelled the first attacks by German forces in several major battles over the summer, as the fall started the allies – Britain, France and Belgium – formed a western front to push the Germans back. To stop the allied advance and protect their gains, the Germans began building trenches, which protected their soldiers from machine gun and artillery fire. The trenches succeeded in holding off the allies, so the British and French began building trenches of their own, sometimes only dozens of yards from the German trenches. The trench system expanded as each side attempted to flank the other, stretching eventually from the North Sea to Switzerland.

The two sides jockeyed back and forth, but by November 1914 they had settled into a stalemate of sorts, faced off against each other in their trenches across a “no man’s land” of a hundred yards or less. The trench system had the advantage of slowing the loss of life, which had been catastrophic in the early days of war – hundreds of thousands dead – with more precise artillery and automatic weapons multiplying the rate of mortality.

But conditions inside the trenches were abysmal. Soldiers were continually mired in sticky mud and due to heavy autumn rains there was standing water, sometimes up to several feet, in the most of trenches. Even worse, amid the foul conditions – latrines were a luxury few had access to – the trenches attracted rats and lice and diseases of all sorts.

Soldiers on both sides had enlisted in the war as an adventure that their leaders confidently predicted would be over in a month or so. As winter set in, soldiers began coming to terms with the notion that this war would drag on for some time. Under lowering skies in early December, a British commander was reported to have been concerned that a “live-and-let-live theory of life” was spreading among the troops on both sides. Neither side was firing at the other during meal times, he said, and on occasion there was friendly banter across the lines. The initiative usually came from the Germans, a number of whom had worked at British seaside resorts before the war and so knew English.

To counteract this creeping fraternizing, British commanders mounted several attacks to prompt an aggressive response from the Germans, but it had little effect, and in one case it worsened things, when, due to poor aim, some artillery barrages struck British positions.

The approach of Christmas had soldiers on both sides feeling blue. Governments responded with gifts to keep them happy. German businesses sent packages with sausages, chocolates, cigars and cigarettes, not to speak of hundreds of evergreens so that the soldiers could have their tannenbaums. Some two million British soldiers received brass “tins” embossed with the image of Princess Mary that contained cigarettes or a few sweets and a note from the Princess, and British businesses also provided chocolates and plum puddings.

Christmas Eve settled in cold and quiet along the trenches. A dusting of snow covered the ugliness of the battered landscape, and guns along the front were quiet.

No one knows where it started, though the best guess is somewhere near Ypres, Belgium. British soldiers saw one, then another, then rows of sparkling evergreen trees appearing at the edge of some of the forward German trenches. British high command had issued a warning to be wary, that the Germans might take advantage of a lull at Christmas to attack. So, the allied soldiers watched warily, but before long the lilt of Christmas carols began floating out of the German trenches.

One hundred years later, all we have is brief snatches from the letters of soldiers at the time like Private Albert Moran and Rifleman Graham Williams, but somehow all along the western front something like peace spontaneously broke out. Some British, French or Belgian soldiers replied in song of their own, or waved white flags to exchange cigarettes, or simply rose from their trenches calling out, “we no shoot; you no shoot.”

Hands were shaken, food was exchanged and the stillness of the night and the silence of the artillery on this singular night was how the angels sang.

HYMN 253:     Adeste Fideles, first verse

(Testimony from the trenches – 2

Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment

“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the Britain shouted, ‘No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same, and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously.

Lieutenant Kurt Zemisch of the 134th Saxons Infantry:

“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”)

SERMON – 2

After all the singing of Christmas Eve, the light of Christmas Day brought another prospect. The bleak expanse of no-man’s land was dotted with corpses of men from both sides who had died in one foray or another. Some had lain there for weeks, since venturing out to retrieve their dead comrades put soldiers at risk of joining them. With hostilities suspended – no one really believed that they were ended – soldiers at different locations approached the other side and suggested they take the opportunity to bury the dead. And so they set to it, collaborating in digging the graves of each other’s dead with crosses made from British biscuit boxes marking the graves. At some locations, chaplains from the two sides led prayers, alternating between English and German.

With the ceremonies done, soldiers from the two sides began talking. They shared stories of home and family as well as newspapers and cigarettes. At some locations German soldiers rolled over barrels of beer and the English responded by handing over plum puddings. At other places the French responded with cigars. Elsewhere, liquor and chocolates were passed around

Amid the conversations soldiers from the two sides began trading souvenirs – buttons, belt buckles, badges and such. And then here and there, from one side or another, a soccer ball or some approximation of it – a sand bag or a food tin – was rolled out and the soldiers organized informal football matches, often across the pock-marked expanse of no-man’s land.

Those who were slowest to join in the festivities tended to be the officers, who had their eyes out for treachery from the other side amid the good feelings. But in time many did come forward to shake the hands of their counterparts and marvel at the sight of their troops toasting each other and trading chocolates.

Of course, not everyone was taking part in the soccer games and singing. Both sides took advantage of the truce to move supplies forward, fortify their trenches and improve their dug-outs. And some soldiers on both sides who had recently lost friends to the fighting hung back resentfully and never took part.

Altogether, some kind of Christmas truce was observed along around two-thirds of the trenches. But as remarkable as the sight was of combatants dropping their rifles and laughing together like old friends, what may have been most distinctive about it was that in a war driven by geopolitical strategy and the ambitions of kings and princes, it was one event that was the initiative of the ordinary soldier. In a conflict that for the first time introduced killing on an industrial scale, a moment arrived when the soldier’s humanity took hold.

Christmas gave them that opening – a holiday dear to the hearts of both sides, full of warmth and cheer that touched a faith they held in common, a faith honoring love and forbearance and light amid the darkness.

Song – “Good King Wenceslas,” first verse

(Testimony from the trenches – 3

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps:

I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposition troops. To finish the war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.

Captain Charles Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers:

At 8:30 I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas on it. A German put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.)

SERMON – 3

How quickly the war got back underway varied from place to place along the front, but it was months before the attacks resumed their former level of ferocity. And in many places it took the substitution of fresh troops who hadn’t taken part in the truce for both armies to get back at it with a will.

It took a week for news of the truce to find its way into the media, and official reports from the front and later histories downplayed the significance of the Christmas truce. It was an aberration that the command staff was determined the troops would put behind them, else, as General Smith-Dorrien put it, it might sap their “fighting spirit.”

But not all observers saw it that way. A 1915 New Year’s editorial in Britain’s Daily Mirror reflecting on the Christmas truce observed that wartime hostility was to be found “mainly at home.”

“The soldier’s heart rarely has any hatred in it,” the editorial argued. “He goes out to fight because that is his job. What came before – the causes of war and why and wherefore – bother him little. He fights for his country and against his country’s enemies. Individually, he knows, they’re not bad sorts. He has other things to think about. He has to work and win.”

We could say that many circumstances conspired to make the Christmas truce of World War One a singular event. After all, it took place at a pivotal moment in history between combatants that, despite efforts by each side to paint the other as monsters or barbarians, held much in common culturally, ethnically, religiously that came together in the celebration of Christmas.

Also, the truce came early in a war that would change the nature of warfare, before soldiers became inured to the notion of total war, before the introduction of such atrocities as chemical warfare. As the poet Phillip Larkin remarked in 1964 at the 50th anniversary of the war’s beginning in 1914, the soldiers of World War One brought with them a kind of innocence that we were not to see again in the 20th century.

All that is true. And yet we are left to wonder whether the Christmas truce was not so much as an aberration as a high-water mark, one of those shining moments when our common humanity shone clear and our fears subsided, at least for a bit. It wasn’t the first or the last time that people saw past the causes that divided them to a greater unity that gathers us all, but that we still recall such events with surprise, as novelties amid so much carnage in human history, is a good reason to raise it up as a gesture we are each capable of making.

There is hardly a more important message for us to attend to today. We live in a time when so much divides us – race, class, religion, national origin – and those divisions make it hard to see the truth of our common humanity unites us and is the source of our greatest hope.

We may not be soldiers under fire in trenches, but we struggle all the same, fearful for our safety, for our economic well-being, for our children’s, our grandchildren’s future. We hunker down with those we know, fearful and wary of the motives of others.

Might this Christmas be a moment to break out of that pattern, to take the risk of extending ourselves beyond our familiar boundaries, into a no-man’s land where we are present to others without pretense or guile? At the turning of the year when we take account of what we have made our lives and what is to come, when our hearts are made lighter by the story of an improbable birth of light and love the invitation is plain.

What is left merely is for us to step out of our trenches onto the uncertain ground before us, into a meeting where the promise of possibility opens before us. As we look ahead to the New Year, let us as individuals, as a community commit to making this so.

Song –            Silent Night – German, then English

Stille Nacht! Heilge Nacht!                                   Silent Night! Holy Night!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht                                 All is calm, all is bright
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.                        Round yon godly tender pair.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,                           Holy infant with curly hair,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!                                Sleep in heavenly peace,

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!                                Sleep in heavenly peace.

Photo credit: Diego Sideburns / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Sermon: Yo, Bear! Facing Fear (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
I have a quirky, old VCR tape that’s still a favorite, something I plug into the player – yes, we still have one – about once a year. The film’s called “Defending Your Life.” Anyone else know it?
It appeared back in 1991, written, directed and starred in by a young Albert Brooks, together with Meryl Streep and Rip Torn. It’s one of those existential comedies – full of clever lines while at the same time brooding on the quandaries of existence. OK, yes, just the thing for a minister.

 

I have a quirky, old VCR tape that’s still a favorite, something I plug into the player – yes, we still have one – about once a year. The film’s called “Defending Your Life.” Anyone else know it?

It appeared back in 1991, written, directed and starred in by a young Albert Brooks, together with Meryl Streep and Rip Torn. It’s one of those existential comedies – full of clever lines while at the same time brooding on the quandaries of existence. OK, yes, just the thing for a minister.

Brooks plays a kind of schlemiel – marginally successful, but divorced from an unhappy marriage and unsure what he wants in life – who, after buying a status symbol of a car – a BMW – runs into a bus. He comes to consciousness of sorts being wheeled with dozens of mostly older others into what appears to be a convention hotel in a place that is announced as “Judgment City.”

The group is told that they have just died and have come to have their lives weighed to determine whether they are ready to “move on.” We’re never told exactly what that is, but it’s clearly a good thing – kind of like moving up an escalator of existence.

The alternative is not a trip to hell – good universalists that they are – but, from the film’s standpoint, perhaps as bad: being sent back to Earth for another try. This doesn’t go on forever, though. Brooks’ character, Daniel, learns that after getting sent back a certain number of times, we may just get thrown away. After all, the universe needs some quality control.

Over several days, Daniel undergoes a trial – complete with judges, prosecutor and defense counsel – where his life is examined. What they attend to is what progress he made in at freeing himself of his fears. Fear, he learns, is the central hazard of our earthly existence, something we must rid ourselves of to “move on.” Of course, there are also fun touches like being able to eat anything he wants and never gain weight, and visiting the “Past Lives” pavilion – hosted by Shirley MacLaine – where Daniel sees himself as an African man being chased by a lion.

It’s clear early on that the odds of Daniel “moving on” are slim, while the chances of Streep’s character, Julia, are a seeming sure thing. Yet, somehow they connect and, even in Judgment City, they fall in love. Is this coupling doomed, or could it be saving for them both? I won’t tip my hand, except to say that the film IS a comedy.

It is just a plot device, but still it’s an interesting notion. If our lives truly were judged, wouldn’t it be on how we responded to our fears? When I think of all that I’ve done or not done that got me into trouble or that I most regret, I have to admit that fear was at the heart of it – something that either kept me from action or propelled me into a foolish response.

Look at the world around us. Isn’t fear what lies at the heart of our greatest ills? War, prejudice, neglect, abuse? Fear locks us up and shuts us down. We become reactive – the old response of fight, flight, or freeze – and niceties like reasoned consideration and compassionate response are thrown out the window.

It’s not that we can avoid fear entirely – there are times when there’s good cause to be wary, and faced with immediate threats we need to act. The problem comes when fear becomes a miasma that colors our living. As Daniel puts it in “Defending Your Life,” it’s like a knot in our stomachs that never goes away.

Today I want to suggest one path that might help release us from our fears, and it ties in with our worship and small group theme this month: Imagination. When we engage our imaginations, we relax our dread fear of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and new possibilities emerge.

We remember, after all, that among religious traditions fear is a great spiritual teacher. For example, in the stories of both Jesus and the Buddha encounter with fear is a pivotal moment in the evolution of their ministries.

In the Bible, the moment comes after Jesus is baptized by John, and – we’re told – is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. There Satan tempts him in several ways to abandon his calling. Each is an encounter where Jesus’ imaginative response turns his tempter aside.

First, after many days of fasting, Satan appears and says. “Why be hungry? If you were the son of God, you could turn this stone into a loaf of bread.” Jesus deflects the question of his theological status and merely replies, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Then, Satan takes him to the top of a temple and demands, “If you are the son of God, you could throw yourself off and not be hurt, for the angels would catch you.” Again, Jesus deflects and says he will not put God to the test.

Finally, Satan takes him to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “I will make all of this yours if you’ll worship me.” But Jesus won’t be moved: “No. I will serve only God.” Thereafter he begins his teaching in Galilee.

At the time of his enlightenment, Gautama also undergoes a series of tests – three trials – at the hands of Mara, the demon king. His first test is not food but sex. Mara sends his beautiful daughters to seduce Gautama, but he will not be moved from his meditation.

Then, Mara sends an army of horrid demons to attack him with swords, arrows, spears and clubs. But Gautama sees them not as weapons but as flowers, and they fall harmlessly to the ground.

Finally, Mara sends whirlwinds and earthquakes that howl around Gautama and shake the ground beneath him. From the middle of all that Mara calls out: “Prove that you are worthy of enlightenment.” Gautama replies by putting out his hand and touching the earth in front of him. The earth is my witness. And with that he sinks into a meditation of some 40 days from which he emerges as the Buddha, the enlightened one

The parallels in these stories are fascinating in many ways, but for our purposes today I’d like to direct us to a larger message underlying both of them. Before either of these teachers could begin his ministry, he had to confront a few things. They are embodied in fearful demons or accusers, but it’s plain that they reside in themselves, indeed in each of us.

The first is the temptation of sensual pleasure, which in its essence represents the fear of never having enough. It is a craving for sensation that can be addictive. The more we feed it, the more we need, and we are never satisfied.

The second is the fear for our wellbeing. We perceive threats to ourselves that are in fact empty. We give energy to our critics or to those who seek to take from us through passive aggression. Resistance here is simply refusal to engage.

Third, is the fear embodied in the bully’s threat, a puffed up challenge to our ego, the drive to be a player, to impose our will on the world. Remember that high-flying figure from the 1980s – Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe, who the novelist Tom Wolfe lampooned?

Such an inflated image of our own importance is a fanciful delusion that disconnects us from the real world, from who we really are. As in the Buddha’s gesture, we need to be grounded, to embrace with humility our own deepest knowing, something it takes time to find, something we achieve more through listening than speaking, more through compassion than achievement, something to which we might give many names – perhaps one of them, God.

These are the kinds of responses that open to us when we use our imaginations to disconnect from the electric charge that fear sends out. We see that what keeps us from living into who we are is often the fierce clutching of our own hands.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer takes note of the fact that many spiritual traditions hold out the hope that we can escape the paralysis of fear and come to encounter others and even challenging situations in ways that don’t threaten us but instead serve to enrich our work and our lives.

This hope, he says, is embodied in the phrase “be not afraid.” This phrase is not suggesting that we should not have our fears. Fears are inevitable and even necessary. But, as Palmer puts it, “we do not need to be our fears.”

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer tells the story of a shop teacher in a group he once worked with. The man was an impressive figure – six-feet-six and 240 pounds with an athletic build and deep voice.

For some years, though, he and the school principal had been caught up in an escalating argument. The principal wanted the teacher to attend a training to modernize the shop, but the teacher insisted that all that stuff was just a fad.

One day, Palmer says, the teacher arrived at the group to say that the cycle had been broken. The principle had made his demands, but this time the shop teacher responded differently. “I still don’t want to go to that institute,” he said, “but now I know why. I’m afraid – afraid I won’t understand it, afraid my field has passed me by, afraid I am a has-been as a teacher.”

There was a silence, and then the principal spoke: “I’m afraid, too. Let’s go to the institute together.” They did, Palmer writes, and the experience reclaimed and deepened their friendship and revitalized the shop teacher.

We inhabit a universe where the smallness of our “I” often makes us feel dwarfed against the vastness of the “not I,” where we can feel like isolated atoms bouncing against unyielding walls or though unending emptiness.

It’s a sobering picture, and maybe with the winter settling in and troubling reports of war and prejudice topping the news it can feel all too real. But it is an illusion. The truth behind our fears is one of deep and abiding connection. We can see it when we look for it, but we’re not always inclined to look. As Parker Palmer puts it, the way we move beyond the fear that destroys our connectedness is to reclaim the connectedness that takes away fear. That may sound circular, he says, but that’s the way the spiritual life is. The initiative lies with us.

(Here I tell extemporaneously the story of Nik Wallenda who on November 4 walked on a steel cable connecting Chicago skyscrapers 600 feet above the Chicago River. The lessons I learned from Nik about dealing with fear here is that he practiced precise conditions of the walk for some months before attempting it, that the cables was carefully prepared the day of his walk and that he prepared for failure, so that if he were to be dislodged from the cable he would grasp the cable and wait to be rescued. He practiced holding onto the cable for 30 to 40 minutes at a time.)

So, it’s true. Our fears do not need to lock us in. Indeed, the most formidable locks that hold us in place are of our own devising. Pema Chodron is another wise person who has written about on this. “Although we have the potential to experience the freedom of the butterfly,” she writes, “we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego.”

Ah, ego again: that fearful, fortified place where we hide, a place that we persuade ourselves is safe, yet that shelters us from what we most want and need – connection. This isn’t just some intellectual construct. It’s something we feel in our guts. Our hearts pine for it, even when we fool ourselves with the pretense of indifference.

But this ache, Pema Chodron insists, is not something that should trouble us. It is, in fact, a blessing, for it directs us where we need to go: outside of ourselves, into communion with others, into a place where we come to know the great unity of all things that we inhabit now and ever will.

From time to time you may be inclined to acquaint yourself with the vast plenitude of being in which we find ourselves. You may, say, head out for a nice walk in the woods, where the glory of these mountains is on display before you. As lovely as it is, though, there are those of our fellow beings out there who may not welcome your company, in whose poor eyesight larger creatures like us appear as threats. Given that, when frightened, they, too, may be threats to us, it is wise to keep your distance.

But rather than walk with dread, fearing each turn in the path, why not bring your imagination to bear, so to speak. Why not enter into an imaginative conversation with this fellow being: nothing fancy, since its understanding is limited.

Perhaps we can imagine ourselves reaching across that seemingly unbridgeable distance between species, beginning with simple awareness, a meeting of respect:

Yo, bear!

Sermon: Rethinking Wild (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is “the wild?” Years ago it was scary space that we humans felt needed to be tamed. Then, it became a source of romantic inspiration. Today, as climate change threatens even the most remote ecosystems, we are being forced to rethink again how we ought to regard the Earth’s “wild places.”

 

Nigel Pitman, a field biologist who worked for a time in Amazonian Peru, tells the story of once receiving an unusual visitor to his research station. The man was Thomas Struth, a German fine art photographer.

Pittman had been through this drill before with dozens of visitors, from teachers and schoolchildren to philanthropists and filmmakers. Per usual, he showed Struth a map of the area and offered to take him on a tour of some of the most photogenic sites near the camp. Struth thanked him for the offer and said he would like to visit those locations, but wouldn’t bring his camera.

Differences in language made it hard for Pitman to understand Struth’s explanation, but he understood him to say that rather than striking settings in the rain forest he was looking for “complexity.” Hmm. OK, fine.

Pitman said he gave the photographer and his assistants a map and left them to their own devices. It was only later, when Struth volunteered to give a slide show of his work, that Pitman got a sense of what Struth’s work was about. The first images, gritty scenes of German cities, made the audience of scientists bored and restless. But they sat up when Struth moved on to a series on forests around the world that he was calling “Paradise.” But soon they began to slump again in their seat. While some of the scenes were striking in their beauty, others appeared to be mere tangles of vegetation.

They weren’t the kinds of scenes where observers could easily fix a gaze or that one could tell stories about. There was just too much. The lights came on, and the scientists applauded half-heartedly, happy to get back to their work.

Three months later Pitman received a note from Struth in his email inbox, and attached were six images that he had taken at the research station. Struth mentioned that when exhibited these images were enormous – the largest as big as two king-size beds pushed together.

Sometime later Pittman organized a slide show of some of the most interesting photos taken at the station, and he slipped Struth’s images in at the end. The scientists murmured with approval at the scene of a jaguar pacing a riverbank or of a woman giving birth in a canoe.

But when it came to Struth’s images they started muttering again. The most common remark on the photos he heard later was, “Are you kidding me? I could have taken those pictures.” Which was true. And yet, he reflected, of the thousands of people who had passed through the station only one did.

To botanists, after all, the scenes were uninteresting, since the forest they showed had clearly been disturbed by human activity and other disruptions: “trashed,” they might call it, something they’d hike through to get to a more pristine, undisturbed place.

In the months ahead, though, Pitman says he kept returning to the photos. Yes, to some they may look like a tangle of vines, but to him, they were the placed he lived. They were home.

Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that the images that have been cycling behind me are, in fact, from Thomas Struth’s exhibit, “Paradise.” They come from around the world: not just South America, but also China, Japan, Australia, Germany and California. In an interview, Struth said, “one can spend a lot of time in front of these pictures and remain helpless in terms of knowing how to deal with them.  They present a kind of empty space: emptied to elicit a moment of stillness and internal dialogue.”

“Nowadays,” he says, “the human being is reduced to a consumer and therefore to an instrument of a global economic mechanism. I, on the other hand, am interested in peculiarity, the individual ways of people and what goes on inside them when their historical bearings are disoriented.”

Growing disorientation is a pretty good word to describe how we think about wildness these days. This fall marks the 50th anniversary of passage of the Wilderness Act, legislation signed by Lyndon Johnson that set aside 9.1 million acres of federal land that was to be “left wild” to allow plant and animals communities to thrive essentially undisturbed. The amount of land set aside for wilderness has since grown to 110 million acres, and as development encroaches on other fragile landscapes advocates are pushing to expand the designation to at least a dozen more locations.

Amid all the anniversary celebrations, though, there is a worrying undercurrent. Agencies that are monitoring lands intended to be preserved pristine for generations are discovering an uncomfortable truth: land that we leave alone doesn’t remain static. It changes.

Debbie and I discovered this last summer on a vacation trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The scenery is still stunning, but invasive beetles are attacking the native pines, long-time meadows are drying out, threatening elk populations, and the numbers of tiny mouse-like creatures called picas that are prey for any number of animals are falling, and no one knows why.

Pick your favorite national park or wilderness area and you’ll find a similar story. Invasive species and the overall warming of the climate are a couple of the more obvious causes for these changes; in some cases the causes aren’t clear. The National Park Service and Forest Service are scrambling to respond, in some cases going so far as to spray pesticides to kill invasive pests, or considering relocating iconic trees from threatened landscapes.

There is, of course, great irony to all this. Once we start pampering wild places, are they still wild places? The answer is not as simple as that question makes it sound. Scientists in the Northwest, for example, are concerned that drying of climate is threatening giant Sequoia trees. We could just let them go, but isn’t it worth having these trees around, even if it means we have to see that they are watered?

Scientists manage populations of elk, bears and other animals with an eye to maintaining viable ecosystems. Is it worth sustaining those ecosystems? And if we do, does that mean we’ve taken on the role as the Earth’s gardeners? If so, how do we decide what to protect and what to let go?

There are no obvious answers, but one way to address all this is may be to reflect a little more on this notion of wild.

It was disorientation that Henry David Thoreau hoped to address in his essay, “Walking,” which you heard John read from earlier. Really, what he offers is a prescription. Are the obligations of society weighing too heavily? Get on your hiking shoes, and head out the door.

“The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,” he says. “I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” And, to use his language, whither shall we walk? “I believe,” he says, “that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”

And for Thoreau the source of that magnetism was what he called “wildness.” For most of Thoreau’s contemporaries, wildness was not an especially attractive notion. Wildness suggested danger, savagery, something that civilized society existed to protect people from. Thoreau, for his part, argued that civilized society offered its own form of savagery, resulting in people who, he observed, “lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

with the song still in them…

In his essay, he locates the wild in “the West,” what at the time was unsettled land where travelers told of primitive forests and vast mountain ranges.

In a sense, we still do that. Out West is where we find those majestic parks and untamed wilderness. It is true in a sense and yet also a fantasy. In fact, there is very little in this country, no matter how far “out in the middle of nowhere” you go, that humans – including people who occupied the land long before Europeans arrived – did not have some role in altering. To describe a landscape as “pristine” is really to speak of how long it has been since it was last altered.

Thoreau only made one trip “out West” in his lifetime, and yet he found ample sources of “wildness” in the forests around Concord, land that was hardly pristine, having been clear cut only decades before. No, wildness was not a character of landscapes far distant from human cities. It was more like an essence, something that one could almost drink in, he says, like “hemlock-spruce, or arbor-vitae in our tea.”

“How near to good is what is wild,” he says. Why? Because, “life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.” Wildness is that song in all things, that vital essence that makes each thing what it is. Little wonder that, in Thoreau’s words, we plough and sail for it, or seek to import it at any price. We seek to tame our landscapes, to make them less dangerous, more accommodating. But for Thoreau, “hope and future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

At Thanksgiving a few years ago with our daughters out of town, Debbie and I decided to drive down to Savannah, Georgia for the long weekend. We saw all the standard tourist sites and enjoyed them, but I think that for both of us the most memorable part of our trip was a tour with a young biologist of local salt marshes.

Wearing high boots and coated with bug spray, we trudged through brackish water and watched fiddler crabs skitter about and egrets soar, then stand like statues. It was wonderful! It was wildness on parade, everywhere you looked, even if it was a couple hundred yards from the main highway.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you what that kind of experience is like. We are blessed to live here with such amazing wildness near at hand. And whatever our location this proximity invites us into the kind of relationship that John spoke of. We are invited to locate ourselves within it, to enter it, bringing our curiosity, compassion and wit. In a sense, the wildness of the world calls to the wildness within us and bids us to respond.

This is the place where we experience the power of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle: respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It is our way of saying that we are not just observers of the world around us: we belong, intimately in every possible way. We are part of it, and it of us.

It has been our way, we know, to imagine that somehow we humans rise above the great welter of things, that our plots and plans shape the larger scheme of things. We live still with the old biblical myth of dominion ringing in our ears and suppose that we far-seeing beings we can look ahead to some greater destiny.

It’s a habit we find hard to break, and yet the deeper we dive in our understanding of the natural world the clearer it becomes that we must. It is this insight that I think gives us a way to contribute to resolving the disorientation that haunts the debate around making space for the wild. Wild is not just an attribute of distant forests or rocky crags; it is a character of all things, of their deepest essence. As we struggle over preserving our wildest places, the issue is not how to save particular iconic creatures or plants. It is instead that we are called to uphold life where we can, and to do so with humility and with respect to the extraordinary complexity with which life abounds.

 

 

This, I believe, is the “complexity” that Thomas Struth told Niles Pitman he was seeking to photograph in the Amazon rainforest. It is a dimension of life that we can’t get at a quick glance, and yet that draws us in all the same. The more we attend to it, the more we see. I wonder if that’s happened to you as you’ve watched these photos cycle past. Is there something here that you find yourself drawn to, where somehow the tangle of leaves and vines in one or the quality of light filtered through branches in another speaks to you?

Perhaps the time will come for us when, like Niles Pitman, we will be able to look at any scene like this in its wildness and luxuriant complexity and see not some random arrangement of vegetation, but home.

Five Happy Things (audio)

Todd & Meg Hoke, Guest Speakers
Each of us struggles with difficult passages in our lives. In more than 25 years working in end-of-life care, Todd and Meg Hoke have worked through a process to help us find the positive even amidst sadness and pian. Meg is Clinical Service Manager for Hospice of the Carolina Foothills and Todd is a nurse at Elizabeth House, a hospice in Hendersonville.

After Ferguson: Entering the Wilderness (audio)

Taryn Strauss, Guest Speaker
Our only Universalist miracle story, that of the Rev. John Murray and the winds of change, begins with the extreme discomfort of a man steeped in doubt and personal loss. In the book of Numbers, Moses faces severe doubt that he can care for his people after bringing them into the Wilderness. Each of us works to find comfort, a sense of safety and protection from danger, but that keeps us out of the wilderness. What can the wilderness teach us?

 

Photo credit: theglobalpanorama / Foter / CC BY-SA

The Power of Promise (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
How are you with promises? I mean, not only how are you at keeping your promises, but how are you at making them, too?

I think that generally I’m pretty good at keeping promises. I try to think about the commitments I make and attend to them, though I mess up sometimes. Just this past week an error I made in keeping my calendar resulted in someone cooling her heels in our church office while I scrambled get in.

 

READING

“You Reading This, Be Ready,”   By William Stafford

SERMON

How are you with promises? I mean, not only how are you at keeping your promises, but how are you at making them, too?

I think that generally I’m pretty good at keeping promises. I try to think about the commitments I make and attend to them, though I mess up sometimes. Just this past week an error I made in keeping my calendar resulted in someone cooling her heels in our church office while I scrambled get in.

Well, it happens, right? Sure, but it bothers me. Because I know how I feel when other people fail in their commitments to me, and even worse if they seem to just blow me off and act as if it doesn’t matter. So, when I’m the one at fault, I try to make sure to acknowledge the mistake I’ve made and apologize for it and the wrong that I’ve done them.

It may be just an inconvenience to them, or it may be something deeper: embarrassment, or even deeply hurt feelings. I can’t know, and I can’t change it, but I can at least make some gesture of compassion and respect. Because, promises matter, even the little ones. When we make a promise, we put something of ourselves emotionally into the transaction.  And to have that promise broken feels at some level like a violation.

So, I try to be careful about the promises I make, too, though often these days I find I have little choice about them. Just about every commercial transaction we make seems to have some carefully lawyered promise written into it, whether it be the cell phone contract or some credit card payment.

There you are online trying to make some purchase and suddenly up comes this screen full of dense text entitled “terms of agreement”: I agree to . . . yada, yada, yada. And, of course, you read every word, right? No, I don’t either. I look for the box I can check that will let me get on to the next screen and complete the purchase. The box may say, “I agree,” but it doesn’t feel like much of an agreement, except that I accept that I’ll be dunned if there’s some hang-up in my credit card.

This state of affairs may satisfy corporate bookkeepers, but it doesn’t do a lot for the state of promise-making in our culture. Indeed, it serves as a reminder that while our lives are flooded with promises of this sort, there are whole industries of people working to find loopholes in those promises.

There’s a Darwinian kind of feel to all this: the survival, not necessarily of the fittest, but of those who can best game the system. OK, maybe this is how the whole miracle of the marketplace works, but we get into trouble when this sort of sensibility invades our private lives. For, no matter how grizzled or world-weary we may be, there is still something tender inside of every one of us that is looking for the real thing: true communion with another human being.

It could be a partner; it could be a friend; it could be a community of people. It feels like a rare thing these days to be in relationship with people who live inside their promises, not because the terms of a contract loom over them but because of their personal commitment to keeping them.

And so we learn to be wary, reluctant to commit to others and ready to flee when the inevitable lie is uncovered. Well, what did you expect? You expected better. Some of us learn to harden ourselves, or to define the world by our own interests, or just hide away to avoid the harm and deceit we’ve come to expect.  We also learn to deny the longing for connection that we feel and the deep grief for it that lives inside us.

The importance of promise-making is very old in our religious tradition, originating among the Puritans who settled New England in the 17th Century. Here’s a statement of this that comes from John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts , who famously told his shipmates aboard the Arabella:

We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must hold 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.

The language may be archaic, but the intent is clear: Winthrop was laying out the terms of a promise that he proposed the settlers make to one another.

Heading into an unknown land, seeking a new way in the world, he urged that they support each other, not just in the supply of “necessities,” but also by laboring and suffering together, by making others’ conditions their own, by “delighting in each other” in “meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.”

History shows that these settlers had mixed success in living up to that promise, which was a big part of why our forebears, Unitarians and Universalists, later split away to form their own religions. But the notion that we as religious communities are gathered by promises has endured. We frame it, in this congregation and elsewhere, as a covenant. These are words of our choosing that tell how we intend to hold a space for spiritual exploration that makes room for a diversity of belief.

People new to this community may wonder how a religious community could ever exist among people with differing beliefs. My colleague Meg Riley, minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, says in a recent newsletter column that the way that we create spiritual or theological common ground “is so simple it’s almost embarrassing: We agree to do so.”

No person, no pronouncement compels us. On entering this community, we simply are asked to enter into that agreement. That’s a way of pointing to the fact that for us, our covenant, our promise to respect and care for one another, to stay in conversation even when the going gets tough, is more important to our community than the individual beliefs of its members. Sounds simple, but in practice it’s anything but.

It means that we endeavor to leave ourselves open, not just to hearing what others say to also to being changed by it. There are people from across the theological spectrum – theist, atheist, humanist, Christian, Buddhist, mystic and more – who can’t imagine being in community with people with different beliefs.

It’s what makes us distinctive and puts the lie to the criticism that, as Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, puts it, UUs are some kind of “empty cipher.” We are open to many things, but there are ways of thinking that have no place here.

*  “You can hold a view that there is no God or that God exists,” Parker says, “but you cannot hold the view that God is the all-powerful determiner of everything that happens, that there is no human freedom. We hold that freedom is a real and essential characteristic of life.

“You can define salvation, healing and wholeness in many ways, but you cannot hold to the view that there will be an ultimate separation of the saved from the damned. . . . UUs are clear that all souls are of worth.

“You can be devoted to a specific religious practice – Christian prayer, Buddhist meditation, or pagan ritual (to name a few), but you cannot hold the view that one (perspective) encompasses the exclusive, final truth for all times and places.

“Finally, you can see this world as tragically flawed, wondrously gifted, or both. But you cannot hold the view that salvation is to be found solely beyond this world. UUism is clear that the ultimate is present here and now, and can be grasped and experienced, even if only partially, within the frame of our mortal existence.”

And there’s more. The reason this business of covenant making is so important to us is not just because we want to be nice, although we do try to treat people with compassion. And it’s not just that we think it’s important to leave room for people to make up their own minds about what they believe, though we do strongly hold that position.

It’s centered in the understanding that the covenant we make extends beyond ourselves. It is a way of helping us to see that we live and have our being in relationship. The covenant we make with each other helps us better understand the larger unspoken covenants into which each of us was born.

“We are not our own,” writes Brian Wren in one of our hymns. “Earth forms us. Human leaves on nature’s growing vine.” And not just Earth: generation on generation we form each other in ways great and small, ways that may even be invisible to us, yet are undeniable all the same.

Beyond the beliefs that arise among us out of the circumstances of our lives, there is a greater unity that we are a part of, a unity we hope to model in our lives together and bring into being in whatever ways we can. The unity of all things is not something we are observers to: we are in the messy middle of it, bound up by our spirits’ longing, by our very DNA. The covenant we make acknowledges that and invites us into deeper relationship.

This being in relationship is one of the inescapable truths of our lives. A couple of weeks ago when Asheville Playback Theatre led our worship service we invited you to reflect on two questions: who are you, and whose are you? We paired those questions because they are inevitably interwoven. Who we are is defined at least in part by those with whom we are in relationship. And our relationships are shaped by the particularities of our individual identities.

We are not always so good, though, in acknowledging the covenant that is embodied in those relationships. We take things, we take each other for granted, even assume we are entitled to the bounty that is ours.

Is it any wonder, then, that we are so often divided from one another, that we have such a hard time, as John Winthrop put it three and a half centuries ago, “making others’ conditions our own, rejoicing together, laboring and suffering together, delighting in each other . . . abridging ourselves of our superfluities, holding familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality”?

In our disappointment and grief, we forget that we have at our disposal the power of promise. It is a power that I want to argue that we in this community are gathered to employ.

We gather to promise each other a crucible where we may bring our full selves to the life-long journey of spiritual exploration, free of judgment but not of challenge, free of compulsion but not of invitation and inquiry. We gather to promise to be present to each other in each stage of our lives to our wonder and our befuddlement, to growth and decline, to joy and grief. We gather to promise to call ourselves and each other to account to live what we proclaim, to be guided by our hearts as well as our minds, and to put our muscle and our money where our mouths are.

It is good to begin this worship year with a reminder of the promise that underlies our commitment to this community and all the opportunities we have to put it into action.

I’m grateful that our Board of Trustees is beginning this year with a process designed to elicit from the congregation where we want this promise to carry us as a community. Last week they began by inviting about 10 members of the congregation to talk with them about what nurtures them about this place, what motivates then to take part, and also what hinders their involvement and they might add or change to improve their experience.

We learned from these folks that they have a fairly positive experience of Sunday worship and religious education as well as social activities like Restaurantours and family potlucks, as well as social justice work like Room in the Inn and our sharing our offering plate with the community each week.

We also heard disappointment at the lack of diversity in our congregation, difficulties that some newcomers have finding a way in, and intolerance that flares from time to time.

The process will continue the rest of this fall at the board, and in other venues, too, throughout the year. Please look for opportunities to join in as you can. The Puritans aren’t the only people who ever struggled with holding to their covenants. We, too, need occasions to remind ourselves of and renew the promises that gather us and to challenge ourselves to live fully into them. One thing that 35 years of marriage have taught me is that promises are not static. They require continuing attention, investment and care. So it is with us as a covenanted congregation, too.

To create what we hope to see – a place where our tender hearts lead us into deeper connection with our best selves, our dearest values, beloved community – will take a combination of both dedicated commitment & work, and making room for the gentle grace that is forbearance and love.

Out of great need, the Persian poet Hafiz put up, climbing in dangerous terrain, we are holding hands, friends. Holding back, playing the observer, kibitzing from the sidelines – all ways of what Hafiz calls “not loving” – are not neutral acts. They are ways of letting go.

Won’t you stay with us in the game? Will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now? What can anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

* From “Quest,” newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, Vol. LXIX, No.8

Who Are We? Whose Are We?

Because this service was a performance by Asheville Playback Theatre, there is no script or audio available.

Sunshine and Sadness (text & audio)

Elizabeth Schell, Worship Leader
Even in the midst of brightness and vacation, sometimes we get the blues. And sometimes even in the dark of night we get the giggles. Thankfully, our UU community is a space to embrace ALL our feelings.

 

(after congregation has brought up stones representing their joys & sorrows to build a common wall or cairn in the front of the sanctuary)

Look at all these stones. This pile/wall of our joys and sorrows.
Can you recall the moment of laying down a stone or of watching someone else do it?
Putting that weight down and stepping away.
What joys or blessings, sorrows or woes did your stones hold for you?
Can you imagine what other people’s stones might hold?
Do you think anyone else carried similar stones to you?
What does it feel like to have our joys and sorrows stacked together like this?
We enter this space carrying so much with us.
No wonder it can sometimes be an effort to get here.
Because sometimes it can be so hard to motivate, to muster our resources.

Perhaps because we have a horde of kids to wrangle with and sometimes we wonder,
is it really worth it? Do they appreciate it? What do we all get out of it?

Perhaps because we’re feeling old and tired and bothered by our bodies or the weather and wondering….Will anyone notice if we’re not there?

Perhaps because our partner or other family members go somewhere else or no where at all, but

refuse to make this journey with us, so coming here involves the weekly energy drain of re-affirming

our connection to this space of liberal religion, even if it is not supported by others whom we love

Perhaps we’ve been listening to the news all week….from the NC legislature; from Ferguson, Missouri;
from Palestine, Iraq, and on and on….
and we are just too numb to hear anymore of it.

Or perhaps there’s no one else at home to motivate us, but ourselves.
And getting out of bed, digging ourselves up out of the hole we are presently in …
Is just too much effort.

(singing)
I’m sad, so sad, and I’m tired, so tired.
And I’m hungry, so hungry,
there’s a hole in my soul.
And it swallows me up, and pulls me into the darkness.
there’s a hole in the center of me.
there’s a hole in the center of me.

We want to enter, rejoice, and come in.
Know that it will be a joyful day.. But sometimes it really isn’t.

Sometimes that’s an impossible idea. And the hole inside us just can’t fathom it.
Because even though in our best moments
when we know each day is a blessing, that our lives compared to many in the world’s are
fantastically privileged and lush…..
even so, life can seem pretty bleak sometimes.
And it may be because of actual crap going on in our lives –
loss of job ….or family …..or a diagnosis…..
or a forever seeking of acceptance or love or connection that seems perpetually unrequited….

Or it may be because we are yet again in the jaw grip of that crafty monster Depression –
that hateful Creeper that can be inspired by actual events in our lives or
just be forever lingering around any corner, waiting to explode in our face
and pull us down into its unending hole of suffocating darkness.

And it doesn’t need to be in the growing darkness of winter
for the insatiable monster to rear its spiky head;
it doesn’t need to be in the midst of the stresses of family holidays…it can appear anytime.
Even in the sunny summer.

(singing)
I’m sad, so sad, and I’m tired, so tired.
And I’m hungry, so hungry,
there’s a hole in my soul.
And it swallows me up, and pulls me into the darkness.
there’s a hole in the center of me.
there’s a hole in the center of me.

I’m glad we all made the effort to be here today.
That we each did whatever we needed to do to motivate ourselves
(and perhaps others) to BE here.

Because once we’re here…once the music has begun, the fire ignited,
once the hum of this community is in motion….
I hope we can feel something in ourselves melt away a little bit,
feel something of that tightness relax…
I hope that we can, if we need to, feel the permission
to schlump into our bench and sigh the deepest sigh possible;
or reach out to the person next to us and clench their hands,
no words, they’re rubbish sometimes anyway,
just that grasping, clutching for life force.
But some of us may be still perching on the edge of our pew waiting
for something to spark our imagination, feed our hunger,
fill our need for a speck of light in the darkness.

(singing)
I’m sad, so sad, and I’m tired, so tired.
And I’m hungry, so hungry, there’s a hole in my soul.
And it swallows me up, and pulls me into the darkness.
there’s a hole in the center of me. there’s a hole in the center of me.

Let us breathe into this space and know its reassuring silence—-[silence]

Let us breathe into this space and know, that here at least
it’s okay to be sad.
It’s okay to be tired. Okay to be hungry.
Sometimes just saying it aloud relieves some of the pressure.

May we all know the comfort and strength of this welcoming and forgiving place,
this place where we can carry our burdens in….
and, if only for an hour, lay them down, lay them bare.

Lyrics to “Sad” by Joe Jencks
from the Brother Sun album, Some Part of the Truth

Chorus
Well I’m Sad, so sad
And I’m tired, so tired
Well I’m hungry, so hungry
There’s a hole in my soul
And it swallows me up
And pulls me into the darkness
There’s a hole in the center of me.
There’s a hole in the center of me.

Well I’ve never been one to sing about my troubles
I figure most of the world Has enough of their own
But now and then I think That when we sing about our truth
Maybe we light up a pathway For somebody else

Chorus

Sometimes I wonder When the whole world is quiet
When there’s nothing to hear But the sound of my breath
Why there’s so many people With so many hurts
And none of us really knows Quite how to love

Chorus

Now I like to dream Of a time when I’m happy
When I don’t feel the sting of each Pain in my bones
But then I reflect That the day I stop feeling
Is the day that they lay me Flat down in the earth

Chorus

There’s a hole in the center of me

By Joe Jencks © Turtle Bear Music / ASCAP
http://www.joejencks.com/index.php?page=songs&category=Some_Part_of_The_Truth&display=1319

READING 1
“Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton

READING 2
“Garden Pavilion” by Ric Masten

FURTHER REFLECTION
In the west of Ireland there are stacked stone walls like this everywhere.
It’s how they cleared the stony ground to make it somewhat habitable and grazeable.
The rocks are just stacked like this, no mortar.
Some have been stacked in fields for generations.
The amount of rocks, stacked one upon the other, wall after wall, everywhere….. it’s both impressive
and… heartbreaking. You can’t help but think of the people who had to dig all these rocks up, and
stack them one upon the other. It must have taken forever….and felt overwhelming…. endless…

When you enter the pit of depression it can feel like that…endless, bottomless, no light to see by….
…to find your way home, find your way out. If you’ve been in that place, like I have,
like my husband has, my mom, actually most people I know have visited that place….
when you’ve been in that place, you know what helplessness feels like.
What simultaneous emptiness and utter fullness to the point of drowning feels like.
And it’s…. it’s horrible. It can feel really hopeless.

And sometimes it’s so horrible that it forces us to see pulling the trigger on our lives as an escape.
It’s that bad.

As I prepared for today, the news of comedian actor Robin Williams’ death seemed pitifully ironic.
Anne Sexton, who also committed suicide, ends her poem with
“The joy that isn’t shared…dies young.”
Robin Williams seemed to be an unending overflow of silly voices and humorous commentary.
He more than shared his joy. And yet….
The joy that isn’t shared…. dies young.
But the sorrow that isn’t shared….festers and overwhelms.
This is what Ric Masten, our Unitarian Universalist troubadour poet,
so simply and painfully describes in his poem, “The Garden Pavilion.”
It can be easy to wonder, from the outside,
“why couldn’t that amazingly talented person keep it together?
Why couldn’t they see and embrace their many blessings?”
If a person like Robin Williams, with every potential resource at his fingertips—if he couldn’t
overcome depression, what makes any of us think we can?

Because we can’t. When depression hits. forget it. There’s no fighting back. It’s a losing battle.
What power can we have against the intensity of that engulfing wave of darkness
that takes all light and breath away?

I’m sorry to say that I’m not here to give any of us an answer for conquering depression.

There’s friends and family and other support systems, there’s therapy, there’s medication,
there’s all kinds of things that can help…help us understand it better, fend it off,
and sometimes even endure it and limit its effects. But if you don’t have those things,
or, even if you do, sometimes we can still fall prey. And that’s not our fault.
But I do want to say that coming here, being in community can help.
Being here won’t solve all our problems or take the depression monster away,
but hopefully by being here we can see that we are not alone.
And more importantly, we, any of us who are not presently in the darkness of the pit,
but who have known it, or known someone whose been there,
we can be a lifeline, we can be a hand to grasp, a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to.

I remember something David Ray over there said in a discussion years ago about worship.
He said that he thought it was important to come to worship every opportunity, whether he was
intrigued by the “topic” of the service or not. Because who knew what experience might actually be
transformative for him? But, more importantly, who knew what might be transformative for the
person sitting next to him? And how important it might be for him to be sitting next to them at that
time. This, to me, is one of the best statements of what worship, what this community, is all about.
Sometimes it’s about feeding a need within us. But often it’s about the hunger sitting to the right or
left of us. The desperate hurt soul sitting right there who really needs someone to reach out to them,
to notice that they are not talking to anyone or making eye contact or that they are actually silently
crying.

I’m very excited about the direction our ministers want to take us in this year – Walking Towards
Trouble, as Lisa called it last week, getting out there and really doing justice in our community and
beyond. We need to remember that sometimes the Trouble is sitting right next to us.
Some who are here now, or who might wander in the door at any time, some of us are terribly,
unspeakably broken. Some of us are barely making it. Some of us are clinging to this space of
welcome and it may be the only thing keeping us from sinking into the depths.

We have to keep making sure this community is a place where people can come and let something
go. Those stone walls in Ireland… seeing them everywhere….even though they hold a kind of
sadness and desperation, they also feel like a beacon, like walls and walls of unending hope.

May these stones be a sign, a marker, a cairn laid in the depression forest to mark our way back.
For each of us to know that this community is here – for us when we are hurting.
And that we, here, need to remember to BE here, waiting to notice, to acknowledge, to reach out and
hold the one among us who wanders in, deep in that place of darkness and suffocation.

Once someone’s fallen over the edge, it’s on US to find ways to pull them back. We are responsible
for each other. We have to notice the person standing in the corner by themselves;
notice the person sitting next to us, shaking from fear;
it may mean reaching beyond our comfort zones;
it may mean getting in someone else’s space; it may mean saying or doing something awkward.
And I know that’s easier said than done. I suck at this. Because it’s always safer to stay inside
myself, and I want to give people their space. But really I’m just making excuses. Like the reading
Lisa shared last week. It’s always easier to send money somewhere else, then to actually face
something directly. And this is pretty direct. This is right here.
This is us and anyone else who walks in that door.

We light our chalice when we gather. We who can be big time anti-ritual, anti-spirituality people,
yet we have clung to this most basic of human rituals – lighting a candle. Because we know how
important light is. And light is not just seasonal. It’s all the time. It’s in us. It’s knowledge of
possibility. It’s wonder. It’s hope. And when the darkness within us comes, when possibility and
wonder and hope are all snuffed out and we are drowning….. we need that spark of light all the more.
All we can do is cling to each other and cling to the light.

CLOSING HYMN: “Here We Have Gathered” #360

1. Here we have gathered, gathered side by side.
Circle of kinship, come and step inside!
May all who seek here find a kindly word;
May all who speak here feel they have been heard.
Sing now together, this our hearts’ own song.

2. Here we have gathered, called to celebrate
Days of our lifetime, matters small and great;
We of all ages, women, children, men,
Infants and sages, sharing what we can.
Sing now together this, our hearts’ own song.

3. Life has its battles, sorrows and regret:
But in the shadows, let us not forget:
We who now gather know each other’s pain;
Kindness can heal us; as we give, we gain.
Sing now in friendship, this our hearts’ own song.

BLESSING: “Come, Come” adapted from Rumi by Leslie Takahashi Morris

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving….
we will make a place for you,
we will build a home together.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
We walk together;
Come, yet again come.

from Voices From the Margins: An Anthology of Meditations
http://www.uuabookstore.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=3599

Photo credit: Drriss & Marrionn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

White in America: Can I Get a Witness? (text & audio)

Rev. Jane Page, Guest Minister

 

(Sing) “Have you seen but a white lily grow – before rude hands have touched it?”

That’s the first line of a song that my voice instructor assigned to me. This song was written in the 1600’s for an English theater group. So the words were written a long time ago and it’s known as a classic solo. The song starts off praising the whiteness of the lily and the new fallen snow – that’s not really a problem. But it ends with praise for the whiteness of the woman he loves – and that just didn’t sit right with me. SO – when my voice teacher encouraged me to work on this song, I told him that I was uncomfortable singing it. He said, “Well I know it has some challenging parts – but I think you can do it and it provides good exercise in variations for voice.” We were obviously not talking about the same kinds of challenges. 

I had to do a little talking to myself. “It’s just a song Jane. And he’s the teacher – you are the student. Sing the damn song.”

(Sing) “Oh so white, oh so soft, oh so sweet is she – so sweet is she.”

Maybe I’ve gotten too sensitive! – Or maybe not. Sometimes I feel like I’m balancing on a tight rope when considering and discussing issues of race and privilege – but even that is a form of privilege; because I have the choice to get up here on this tight rope or not. 

As a white person, I don’t have to think about being white. In fact, when this topic comes up some white folks say, “You know, I don’t see why we need to focus on race – I personally don’t think about it. We should move on.” Or those of us submerged in academia may say something like, “Ultimately we humans made up the concept of race as we attempted to increase both our understanding and manipulation of our world. In other words, race is socially constructed. It has no natural, biological reality. We are all a part of the human race with lots of variability within it.” Blah Blah Blah. All that may be true, but as Cornel West states, “Race Matters.”

This group is well read – you know that race still matters greatly today. You probably know that even today, job applicants with white sounding names are 50% more likely to get called back. (And not have to produce their long form birth certificate!) I could go on and on regarding how race still matters in housing opportunities, education, health and wellness, income security, etc. etc. And most of you know this. But it’s not something white folks really have to think about. Those of us who are white are like fish swimming in the water. We are in the middle of a white dominated society, swimming in white privilege and so unless we make a conscious effort, we don’t really know the water is even there.

Here’s a homework assignment for you white folks that are here today. This week – just this week – every time you look at your watch to note the time, also note that you are white. Then think about what your current situation is at that time and place, and consider the implications of your whiteness.

I’ll model this for you. (Look at watch). It’s now _____ o’clock. I’m white. And I’m speaking to you as a Unitarian Universalist minister called to serve in South Georgia. Now believe me, I could spend days considering the implications of my whiteness for that situation.

My sermon topic today is “White in the South: Can I Get a Witness?” I’ve read loads of books and articles on racial identity and privilege. Also, I’ve been studying and exploring this from a personal perspective and the perspective of my southern community for most of my life. So, while I could share data with you, I’m not sure that would be all that meaningful. Instead, I’m going to tell you two stories in the short time I have left. 

The first story takes place in fall of 2008. Richard came over to look at my husband’s fender bender and give an estimate. Richard used to work in an auto body shop my family had owned back in the 90’s and now has a small shop in his backyard. Back when Richard worked at my family’s auto body shop, we used to have some heated conversations around race and sexuality issues –with him quoting scripture and sharing what he thought was just the natural and right way of living. Well, on this fall day of 2008, Richard happened to see a presidential campaign sign that I had by my driveway and commented that he saw it. And I thought, “Oh, here we go again.” 

Then he said, “I’m with you all the way on that one. We can’t afford the other one.” 

And I probably looked shocked and said –“Well, Richard – I’m glad to hear you say that because – you know –they say that a lot of hard working white folks like yourself are just going to vote against their pocketbooks for some reason.” 

And he said, “Well, Miss Jane – (he’s from the old school) – he said –“Miss Jane, Ida been right there with’em too. But I’ve changed. You know some of my nieces got into mixed marriages –and I told them that was their decision – but that I didn’t want them comin’ round to my house. You see, I didn’t want my children exposed to that kind of thing ’cause I didn’t believe it was right. But one of them called me this summer – one of Mike’s daughters – and said,‘Uncle Richard, you know I’ve always loved you, and I think you loved me when we were growin’ up. You were like a father to us when daddy died. And I know you didn’t approve of me dating and marrying Joe. But I know you loved me. And I’m callin’ now because I need you. I need you because our little baby just died and I wanted you to come to the funeral home tonight if you could.”

Richard said he went to that funeral home and went up to that casket and saw that beautiful baby lying there and just wept. And he said, “God – you got my attention! I had a month and a half that I could have known and loved this precious little girl. But because I held on to those stupid racist attitudes, that had been ingrained in me from birth, I missed that opportunity. But I’ll never do that again.” Richard said that the next weekend he invited the whole family – with all the children of various marriages that he had not gotten to know – to come to his home – and they shared food and love.

He said, “Miss Jane – I sometimes slip up and something will come out of my mouth like it used to – but I’m really trying.” 

And I said, “Richard – you’re recovering – just like me. I’m a recovering racist – and I mess up too – but I keep trying. And if you keep working on it, you will get better – but it takes work. And like any good work – it’s worth it.”

Story # 2 is more personal. It’s a bit of my own story.

I was born in Statesboro, Georgia in 1950. (Go ahead – do the math.) I grew up in the days of Jim Crow laws. But these laws did not affect me in ways that were obvious to me. My white privilege allowed me access to every store, restaurant, and entertainment spot in town. And for the most part, I was pretty naïve about the evils of racism. 

Oh, I did notice things – as all children do. I remember when I was 5 or 6, standing in the “Whites Only” line at the Dairy Queen with my dad, waiting to get a cone. I asked my dad why all of the white people were in our line and all of the colored people were in the other line. My father shared this explanation with me. He told me that we were white – and that we stood in our line to get vanilla ice cream, while the colored people stood in the other line to get chocolate ice cream. Well, of course, I immediately told him that I wanted chocolate. And he said, “No, you are white, so you get vanilla. That’s just the way it is and you have to accept it.” Well, I didn’t realize that vanilla was the only flavor served at Dairy Queen. (That was even in the days before dipped cones.) But his unusual answer stuck with me. And it has served as a metaphor for what happened in my life. Indeed, I just accepted the differences and did not question them much.

Yet, I still took notice –like when boxes were being filled at my elementary school with our old worn-out textbooks. I asked what was going to happen to them and was told that they were being taken to the “colored school” for the children to use there. “Separate but equal” was never the case in Statesboro, Georgia. 

To be fair to my parents, they never overtly taught me to be a racist. They didn’t have to. Everything in my society, from the Dairy Queen windows on, taught me that white folks and black folks should function in separate social environments. And my society not only taught me that “separate” was right, it also taught me that I was in the superior group.

All I had to do was look at the water fountains. The “whites only” fountains were clean with cool, refrigerated water. Not so for the “colored” fountains. And of course, my Southern Baptist church reinforced these standards.

When I entered Statesboro High School in the fall of 1965, there were 12 new faces, darker faces than I was accustomed to seeing in my schools. And I was afraid of these new folks and I could not understand why they would want to leave “their” school to come to “our” school. But I made it through those years with very little interaction – except with one special girl that I connected with. She and I were both kind of cut-ups, and we’d have a few laughs in the hallway together between classes. And I began to realize that in many ways she was more like me than my white friends –so that put a little crack in my racist armor that was the beginning of a long journey and transformation.

Fast forward to the year 2008! That year I was on the planning committee for my 40th high school class reunion. We had not had one in 30 years. I had volunteered to try to find the addresses of the African American students who were in our class. And as I found some of these folks on the internet and read about the great things they were doing, I thought — I could have KNOWN them. What an opportunity I had missed because of my racism!

So I wrote them a letter, sharing with them some of the background I’ve mentioned to you, thanking the one girl anonymously who helped me to begin my journey, and offering an apology to all of them. I closed the letter with this list of sorrows.
* I’m sorry that I did not make an effort to understand why you were coming to Statesboro High School. 
* I’m sorry that I did not meet you outside of the school to welcome you. 
* I’m sorry that I was afraid of you and avoided being in places where several of you were gathered together. 
* I’m sorry that I avoided sitting by you in class.
* I’m sorry that I was involved with negative conversations about you and did not speak up when you were put down. 
* I’m sorry that I didn’t encourage you to join the clubs that I was in or join the flaggette team. 
* I’m sorry that I didn’t invite you to my 16th birthday party. It would have been a lot more fun with you there. 
* I’m sorry that I didn’t find ways to get to know you – really know you and understand you individually, rather than seeing you as “one of those black students.” 
* I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize the remarkable opportunity that I had in that place and time in history to be a part of something special with you. 
* And I’m sorry – oh SO sorry, that it’s taken me 40 years to say, “I’m sorry.” 
I hope you can forgive me.

On March 17, 2008, I mailed that letter to those classmates, and I also sent it as an “open letter” which was published in our local paper. I have since met with five of them – who have generously forgiven me, and a couple of them have become email buddies. But you know the one that I thought was my “sort of” friend – the one that I singled out and thanked anonymously in the letter – I didn’t hear from her. Now at first I thought, “Maybe she didn’t get the letter.” And that was a little bit of white privilege too –thinking that surely if she got the letter she would forgive me. That’s what we white people do when we mess up – we just say –“Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I didn’t realize it would be a problem.” And folks that we’ve really hurt, who we’ve cut to the core with our comments or actions or non-actions – are just supposed to say, “That’s okay.” 

I think she probably got that letter – because I sent it right where her Mama told me to.
But perhaps the pain I caused was too great. The other students said they remembered me as someone who was nice to them. I appreciated that memory – and realized that basically I had been polite as my Mama taught me to be with all folks – but I had not really reached out in any positive way to them. 

But with this girl –my “sort of” friend, I was just friendly enough with her for her to perhaps think that I was her real friend. But then of course – that was just when it was convenient –when I wanted to have a good laugh with her and break the tension –and perhaps relieve a little of the guilt that I was already beginning to feel. I realize now I should not expect her forgiveness. I can’t go back and change my actions, but I can actively work to change what I do in the future. And my intention is to be an active antiracist and white ally, and to be a WITNESS to racism and white privilege when I see it.

The subtitle of this sermon is “Can I get a witness?” Because I’m asking you to explore your own privileges – be they the result of race, gender, sexuality, physical abilities, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or class –and I know you may have some oppression as the result of some of these things –but most of us have great privileges too. As my friend Jesus told us – we need to get the logs out of our own eyes. Then we can see more clearly and be a witness!

Of course, a witness doesn’t just SEE something. A witness attests to it. They call it out. And there ARE ways to do this that can live up to our principles of respect and dignity for all. We don’t have to lay a lot of guilt on folks or belittle their backgrounds. We can witness with love. 

But I won’t lie to you. When you witness, when you work as many of us have – actively in anti-oppression work, you will sometimes hurt someone and you will sometimes get hurt. Many of you may be able to attest to that as well.

This is not an easy journey. But you know – if your heart is in the right place, if your heart is in a holy place, you will be blessed with knowing that you are trying to do the right thing.

(Sing) “When our heart is in a holy place, when our heart is in a holy place,
We are blessed with love and amazing grace, when our heart is in a holy place.”

Amen and Blessed Be.

Poetry Sunday: Reach Out in Love (text only)

Reaching Out in Love
by Donna Lisle Burton (read by Jill Preyer)

I love this place that I still call my church,
for all the facets of the care it brings
to an old and ailing woman—I mean
love and food and flowers and greeting cards—
you’d think I mattered here—only one of
six hundreds plus—who could spend so much
time for one?

I think I know; one for one
here.  Not six hundred for one but one card,
one phone call, one visitor, one huge tub
of the sweetest strawberries I ever
ate—half a dozen hugs, one at a time—
who wouldn’t fall in love with a place like this
congregation, church; whatever its name.

Remembrance
by Sylvie Delaunay

Remember
The sun sets the skies ablaze
Before darkness settles
Remember
Millions of stars dancing
Keep the moon awake with laughter
Remember
A flower pretends to be the sun
In fields bursting of yellow
Remember
A tiny bird can fly so fast
And yet be so still
Remember
A fish lives in the desert
Where it never rains
Remember
Creatures travel thousands of miles
So life can be born
Remember
I am here to remind you
Of life’s mysteries,
Of life’s miracles
And through uncertainties
Remember
I am here for you
And
I love you

Starting Over
by Joan Weiner

Because I have failed
in so many ways large and small—
so small hardly anyone noticed
so large their weight tilted
my sky for years,

and because I have not cherished
enough of what I’ve passed—
the silvering stream lapping its banks,
the gentleness of the golden leaves
floating from the branch, the tightness
of the infant’s fingers curled around mine

and because my dead have left me
since I could not protect them
from the sweep of time
and now are sailing so far away
I may never recover their rosy cheeks
or angry scowls or restlessly drumming fingers

and because I did not listen fully
to the notes that were played
and now have forgotten them
and go tune-less through the world

and because so often I have traveled
as if underwater, oblivious to the air
moving against my skin, the color
of the sky, the pebbles beside the path
I might have pocketed and burnished

and because so much is lost
and, like falling leaves, will only return
in unrecognizable colors or shapes
that do not assuage the grief

and because the mouse found
dead in the driveway this morning,
his pink feet curled tight against his fur,
spoke of all that is gone, all that is beyond
rescue, so that I thought at once

of myself, flying blind now,
at the mercy of this burning season,
of the sometimes bitter air,
of the rubble mounting all around me:

Please, if you will let me,
I will hold you so dear
together we will recover everything

The Deadliest Sin
by Andy Reed

Redemption calls us to reveal our sins.
Even we, whose language of belief
has no such words:
Atone, repent, forgive, or else … Or else,
Circle the wagons, call the marines,
Harden your heart and thicken your skin.

Obscure, dispute, deny, rebut. Display
Uprighteous rancor—never shame—
That Anger, Envy, Greed and Sloth
Insinuated such transgressions … here?

No, not in this pure soul! Nor yet, we hope,
Lust, Gluttony, or Pride, those other deadly sins,
Or worse, Despair, the deadliest of all….

Validate but hope, reach out in love;
Expunge despair, and sin
will be redeemed.

Toenails
by Norris Orbach

Toenails grow until they break
Cut first into woolen socks,
Making toeholes.
Stuck my finger through the sock,
Made a shadow duck on the wall.
Quack- what webbed toenails
Have we here?
A brown downy duck
Stuck thumb-billed through-
I hid under covers,
Safe in my cave.
The woolen ceiling above my head and toes,
Had window holes to peek through
At ducks that feed on fingers
And toenails outside my room.

Transformation
by Liz Preyer

She slathers her lips pomegranate red,
with a competent strokes eases on deep set eyes,
and turns, arching back to stare defiantly at the mirror.

Smiling tauntingly she covers her curls with an ebony wig.
Slither of black stockings, smooth as snake skin,
urging on a skirt hardly there.
Wriggling into a shimmering shirt,
bright like salt water fish in an aquarium,
she stares back at her reflection.

An aquamarine bottle sprays lilacs onto arms and wrists.
With a steady, proud flourish, she twists sharply,
strapping the precarious high heels onto her feet.
Tottering towards to the door,
the heat pours from her volcanic body.

She lurches towards my hand,
grabs her Halloween bucket.

Our Firefly Girl
by Liz Preyer

That brightly burning, dancing, swirling
woman child we have all loved,
has flown off into the ethers.
Her passionate, bubbling and aching soul
has asked for Respite.
And so we must now honor her request.
Such energy, creativity, her sweetness also masked
deep pain, feelings unspoken.
We gather together, all of us mourning
her abrupt shocking departure from our midst.
But like the flickering beauty and light,
turning on and off, our firefly girl will not be forgotten,
tucked safely into the depths of our hearts.
When you see those magical Fireflies
wafting freely under steamy summer nights,
gently greet that beautiful beloved Serenity.
Tell her we shall all take tender care
of those she loved and had to leave behind.

May she dance now, ever brightly, in Peace.

true love
by David Post

there was a time when I was nine
I loved a girl named jean.
there was other who would bother
cause her was was green.
I think I loved her hands the best
her fingers were webbed and short.
and when she spoke, she didn’t speak
she let out with a snort.
so if u think it strange
that I meet her on a log
come with me and u shall see
my beloved is a frog.

 –fall 1967

a prayer
by David Post

by never forgetting that our father is the heavens
and our mother the earth
and all living things their children
the Darkness of the world cannot diminish the fire from the
solitary flame of our one tiny candle.

–christmas day 1972

the circle
by David Post

we stand (sit) here together forming a circle
a border separating what is known from what is not
we look behind and see our paths only too well
we look ahead and see an ocean…not well enough.
we fear….we long….we choose
Death says “sit down, my friend, ur path is long, so long”
but I say “not yet, my friend, my path is long enough for me.”
tho much we do not know this much we do-
we are standing (sitting) here together forming a circle
a link, the link, between what has been and what shall be.

–mainely men 1992

wrapping it up (the gift)
by David Post

I ain’t done with life and life ain’t done with me’’
but one day I’ll awaken
as if from a Dream
and it will be over
and looking back I will say
“it was good. all of it.”

–oct. 2012

Chicken Soup
by Peter Olevnik

It was a special time at the family home
in South Chicago’s Polish neighborhood.
Grandmother, my mother and her sisters,
absorbed at the downstairs kitchen
coal stove crowded with pots of cooking soup,
sizzling pans of sausages and nearby
trays of rising dough; aromas
wafting through the kitchen’s tangled air.

With a bowl of chicken soup mother handed me,
and her all-purpose admonition, “you can go now,
but remember to be good.”
Soup in hand, I took the steps upstairs
to a hushed crowd of visitors, some aside
in prayer, murmuring, others stilled
in rows of folding chairs.

At one end of the large parlor, under a row
of lace curtained windows a casket rested,
church kneeler placed at its side
for me to see grandfather sound asleep,
dressed in a suit he rarely wore,
large hands jutting beyond the sleeves,
mustache-crowded face.

Forgetting my chicken soup,
I spilled it down his pillow case.
My mother took me aside.  “Grandfather died.
He won’t be back,” with tenderness, she said.
“Funeral is tomorrow at the church across the street.”
Her words unleashed a torrent flooding through my mind.
like a door suddenly thrust open:
I knew some day I would die.
As quickly opened, the door slammed shut.

The Afternoon Dream of Juan G.
by Richard Horvath

He rubs the sleep from his eyes
brews a mug of Cafe Rico, and,
as he has done so many recent mornings,
walks down five flights of stairs,
side-stepping the broken glass,
to the sidewalk on East 4th
to play dominoes with the other viejos
on the over-turned orange crates
from the Big Apple Grocery on Avenue A.

The morning wears on
the sun climbs higher.
his eyes begin to drop toward sleep.
He shuffles to the park on East 7th
and naps on the bench
beneath the oak tree
breathing in the sweet scent of marijuana
wafting over from the bandstand
where the hombres jovenes hang out.

He begins to dream –
Russet-feathered chickens
pecking in the dirt
at the rear of a small house
in a semi-tropical land
at the foot of a mountain
in the Cordillera Central.
A young man
lifting 132- pound jute bags of coffee
onto a donkey-drawn cart
bound for the barrio warehouse.

A young woman
carrying a basket of fruit,
the early morning sun
illuminating her face like a ripe plantain,
smiles at him.

They shared fifty years together.

He wakes,
shakes off the afternoon slumber
and returns to an apartment
that has turned to stone
where he feels
the hard fact of absence
whenever he turns to speak to her.
He longs again to see each morning
the early sunlight fall
across her fragile face.

March
by Paul Fleisig

Old hemlocks gust-bow
To flaunting white-gowned bradfords
And rose-spangled quince.

Lemon rapiers
Of forsythia thrust at
The birthing cherry.

Yearning dogwoods spy
The willow’s wisps of chartreuse,
Straining, like kite strings.

Vanquished daffodils.
Prostrated casualties
Of the fickle spring.

The radiant sun’s
Blustery resurrection.
When will my last be?

Rebirth
by Paul Fleisig

Signs of renascence
Amid the frosted rubble.
Life, but without fruit.

Sentinels, peeking
Through curtains of withered leaves.
A resilient Earth.

What will replace us,
After nuclear winter?
What mutant surprise?

A Poem
by Monty Berman

I think that I shall never see
A Society as inspiring as a tree
Unless it’s a UU Society that may in all seasons
Put forth the best of life’s good reasons.

Devastated
by Krista Heldenbrand Christensen

The licking flames crawl up the seeming dead.
Charred limbs and ashen leaves: all are consumed.
The forest quivers in communal dread;
The weakest slump, collapse, and are subsumed.
They, steaming, sink into primeval graves,
Evaporating life. Resilient, tall
And straight, the strong withstand the heat which bathes
The forest in regenerative pall.
Then does the drenching rain arrive to smite
The itching flames: it washes fury clean.
A wedge of vacant sky provides the light
That tempts again each hopeful spear of green.
Though scarred impermanence herein abides
It is in such abandon growth resides.

For Cindy
by Jake Marx (Read by Jacqueline Larsen)

Lie by my side
In the twilight hours,
In the twilight years,
Our skin soft and pillowy,
Our minds traveling familiar roads.
It is quiet now, we are quiet,
And though the roses
That we planted
For our eyes to see
Have been cut back
To save from October frost,
They will redden our dreams
Come June and time.
We have both lost much,
Have left a dream or two
By the wayside
But there was enough left
To walk on, us two,
So that we find ourselves
Here in bed
In the twilight hours
Sharing words
Hued by the
Fading colors
Of our flower bed.

No Place To Rest
by Nick Andrea

If you think you know, you’ll get
crucified, fellow, cause,
that’s the fate of ego, when it
thinks that it’s so.

Truth is like this: demanding
constant sacrifice, ah
of our attach-a-ment , to
knowing cause that’s our vice; for,

like it’s been said, “I
am a mystery,  I’ve
always been a mystery, and I’ll
always be a mystery,” Yeah yeah!

Senselessness
to the intellect
we’re instructed not to lean,
on, our, understanding,  for it’s
al-so been said, that; “The
wind blows where it pleases. You hear its
sound,  but ya just can’t tell,, where it’s
coming from or where it’s going,” No no!

So,
Chi-ld,  la-y  down, the
one who thinks, “I’ve got it,” and
like the wind find no place to stop, and
think, that you know it. Instead,

Go, ride the wave, of the
never-ending Flow, and
like the Son of Truth, find no
place to rest your ego, forsooth!

Ah………..

And sink back in-to That, the
cloud of unknowing, oh
of-fer-ing, your whole Self
to its promp-a-ting. to-

day’s a good day to die, child, to-
day’s a good day to die, to the
One guiding you, from inside, where the
heart, the heart does fly.

And, do not let yourself be troubled, my love no,
do not let yourself be troubled, at the
ren-der-ing, of the
intellect to be, humbled; cause

you, are guided
you, are guided, you have

always been guided, you have
always been guided, you will

always be guided, you will
always be guided.

Seeking Caesura (text & audio)

Elizabeth Schell, Guest Speaker
What my professor was trying to get across, besides obviously really having enjoyed the opening scene to Jaws, was how the poet’s use of a caesura intensified the focus within the poem. A lovely little poetic device, the “caesura.” It’s basically a complete pause in a line of poetry. Sometimes it just adds a breath to the poem, but it can also signal a significant shift in the feeling or narrative. Caesuras are most dramatic when they fall in the middle of a line and break the rhythm.

 

READING 1: A Story Heard on NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/05/30/317019212/anatomy-of-a-dance-hit-why-we-love-to-boogie-with-pharrell

READING 2: A Recorded Memory

Intro: Our second reading is recorded in my memory.  If I were Albus Dumbledore, I’d use my wand to thread out the wisps of memory from my mind, and place it in a pensieve for all of us to see.  But I’m not, so I’ll just have to share it with you in my own way.

We’re in a basement, windowless classroom at Boston University on a Wednesday afternoon in 1992. The course: Intro to English Poetry.  A man who seems too big for the room and his smallish tweed coat is pacing back and forth at the lectern, getting worked up over Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem, “The Rape of the Lock.” With a shock of white leaping hair and sparkly blue eyes, Mark Patrick Hederman, visiting professor, is trying to explain Pope’s perfect use of the poetic caesura. Sonorous!

Professor: Now what Pope does in this stanza is brilliant! And everything in the poetic narrative has built up to this moment, see—even the meter has sped up, all the syllables crowding onto the line and then BAM!  a caesura, a big breath, a  break in the momentum. All right before the cutting of the hair. It’s brilliant! It’s….. well it’s just like the beginning of the film Jaws…. Have you seen it!? Most fantastic opening sequence in cinema! First there’s the young people partying on the beach.
Then the young man and woman run off from the group. There’s expectation and inhibition. The woman is stripping off her clothes. Will the man catch up with her?
He’s drunk and falls on the beach. The woman leaps into the water, naked. The sun is setting. We see her gracefully swimming through the clear water. Then we are her and we are seeing the water on our body, seeing the light in the sky, the shore, the young man. Then, we are down below, in the deep. Looking up at her, at her danglingly tasty legs. Then we are her, swimming again. Then down below, getting closer to those legs. Then we are her and YANK! the first bite and she is pulled under for the first time. And the sound in the audience is truly audible. A GASP. An intake of breath. Not just because we are shocked by what has just happened. But because we were the woman. And then we were the shark. And then the woman. Then the shark. And now CHOMP! We have eaten ourselves. It is cinematic brilliance, I tell you! And it is just what Pope is trying to do here in this stanza!

SERMON:

What my professor was trying to get across, besides obviously really having enjoyed the opening scene to Jaws, was how the poet’s use of a caesura intensified the focus within the poem. A lovely little poetic device, the  “caesura.” It’s basically a complete pause in a line of poetry. Sometimes it just adds a breath to the poem, but it can also signal a significant shift in the feeling or narrative. Caesuras are most dramatic when they fall in the middle of a line and break the rhythm.

In The Rape of the Lock, the poem my professor was lecturing about, the poet’s use of rhythm—and especially the interruption of predictable rhythm – gets across a moment of crisis and transformation. In that space of interrupted rhythm, in that in-between space, something intense happens. A lock of Belinda’s hair is cut off and stolen. It is later humorously put on par with the abduction of Helen of Troy and the horror that follows. A ridiculous exaggeration. But, like all parody, there’s a root of bare truth. In Pope’s time, the early 18th century, women were judged on their “honor” without being given the rights to defend themselves.  A woman defending a lock of her hair—; a woman drunk and naked on the beach—women whose agency is in question—is this tragedy or comedy? It’s supposed to be both, and what does that say about us? The caesura is a marker, drawing our attention to a pause, telling us to take the time to think.

In the space of the caesura, this silent in-between space of interrupted rhythm, interrupted predictability, a lot can happen. I like to think of this caesura beyond the realm of poetry and music, but instead within our lives. What is the caesura to us? It’s kind of like an ellipsis, a pause, a break in the flow of thought. A space to soak in, to be awed, to empathize, to be moved. It is in these moments that we may be inspired to reconnect with what is meaningful, with our best intention. In these moments we might be challenged to question ourselves, our passive acceptance of something we know to be wrong or our lack of engagement with others. We might even see glimpses of what some of us might call divine, a space of unknown, a space of communion where we truly observe our 7th principle in action. Within the space of caesura, all things are connected.

Sometimes, it’s a personal moment. Have we knelt down and looked underfoot lately? Have we gone for a walk in the park or the woods with no particular purpose, but to just BE there? Have we unplugged lately? That distraction can be the biggest barrier to all forms of caesura space—keeping us from paying attention to who and what is directly before and around us.

Other times, the caesura space moves beyond ME to WE. This collective caesura is what happens… when the power goes out on a hot summer night and all the neighbors you may or may not know come out on their porches and the conversations and laughter and soft candlelight of each porch creates this kind of gorgeous hush of sound that is usually lost under the electrical hum and the daily routine. A moment of communion instigated by a disruption. Other kinds of collective caesuras might be during a snowstorm or on a stopped elevator and usually bring us closer to the people we are with. Even if they are strangers.

Part of what makes these collective caesuras meaningful is how they break into our ordinary lives and shake us up a bit. We creative humans often design our very own collective caesuras specifically for the purpose of breaking through the familiar to make space for deeper connections. These times include holidays, retreats, weddings, funerals, and family reunions. Many of these events include special rituals, but often it’s the time leading up to and after these highly charged events where there is the most potential for a meaningful caesura between people.

Of course we’re in one of the most traditional forms of scheduled caesuras right now. All of us. Here in this human invention: worship. People all over the world in all kinds of religious traditions do this. It really doesn’t matter the tradition, the speaker, or the topic. The point is the space given for connecting. To each other. To our inner selves. To the outer unknown. And we do that through making Sabbath. At root, we humans created Sabbath in order to build in Caesura, spiritually transformative space, within the routine of our lives. Think of it, this Sunday “thing” we do here, it’s definitely a break in our weekly routine. Because in this place we DO things we don’t do in our everyday lives: We SING! Sometimes we even dance a little. We hold hands. We say words together… out loud… that affirm what we believe, what we intend. We celebrate rites of passage. We warmly—and unconditionally—welcome strangers. And sometimes we just sit in our pews & cry.

But sometimes nothing happens. The service is over & we feel unmoved, unchanged. You can’t force the sacred. You can’t force “aha’s” and sighs. And even though we may crave the caesura space, we’re kind of built to resist it. We keep people at arm’s length emotionally. We rarely go out into nature. Our world and our hearts can become pretty calcified by concrete routine. But we are hungry. We are hungry for that moment when all that is expected goes out the window. The moment when words and expectations are consumed. What is left? The possibility for something new to enter. The possibility of finding the strength to not fill the silence with the thrust of our own arguments, of our certainties, but to instead let the unknown settle and hear what might be within it.

And we need to listen for that possibility. Because sometimes we really need to draw upon some strong communal energy to get thru stuff. Because there are communal caesuras that aren’t just little “happenings” in our everyday or intentional experiences we humans craft. No, there are also these capital “C” caesuras that come to us, whether we want them or not. These are events like September 11th, 2001 and they make a pause that’s very hard to fill—even together. Whether you were in NY on that day or in a neighborhood far far away, regular time stopped for hours, even days on end, as we all watched and waited and mourned. Caesuras can be caused by natural disasters or human enacted violence: Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, a building fire, a bombing, a school shooting. These are not really the kind of caesuras  any of us want, but disaster can certainly bring about all kinds of transformation—as people are forced to move beyond themselves as they are ripped from their everyday to reach out to cling to their fellow humans. We are challenged to rethink how we view the world and this “rethinking” may bring us more in line with our values, or it may push us more towards behaviors based on fear. We want these events to be turning points;
we say “Never again,” but our differing reactions to these tragedies can actually make it harder for us to work together or even talk to each other.

Supposedly one of the motivations of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Santa Barbara last month, was the young man’s feeling of rejection by women. In the aftermath of this disturbing revelation, there’s been a groundswell of commentary shared under the Twitter hashtag “Yes All Women.” Women of all ages  breaking silences to share their experiences. Though a great deal has changed since the 18th century, women’s experiences reveal that patriarchy and misogyny are alive and well. And that’s pretty loud and clear when you read some of the horrific responses of many men to the “yes all women” tweets. And not just the overtly misogynistic. But just the flat denials of the women’s truth: “You’re just being paranoid.” “Men aren’t after you.” “Men aren’t going to rape you.” “You don’t have to fear every guy you see.” And women know that they don’t have to fear EVERY guy they see. The point is, we are talking past each other and not taking the deep pause for listening. Tweets and talking points aren’t a conversation. Each group entrenches itself against the other and just continues to solidify its position, instead of stopping. Pausing. Breathing. Listening. Making a caesura space. A space where different opposing voices can actually stop and pay attention to each other.

And it’s not just gender issues and gun violence where we need to make space for listening and thinking; it’s every issue that divides people into an “us” and a “them.” Equal marriage, health care, income inequality, race, religion, privilege. Moral Monday versus the North Carolina legislature in a nutshell.

Our congregation’s covenant declares that, “Our life together declares that the future of each depends on the good of all and the future of all depends on the good of each.” That “all,” that “each,” that “everyone” —they include the people we disagree with, the people we can’t stand, the people who hate us.

Personally I think we need to enact our own big fat caesura in our culture right now.  A big pressing of the PAUSE button where we LISTEN; where we hear different interpretations and opinions of what true liberty means. That doesn’t mean we have to accept discrimination, gun violence, or anything that is harmful to another. But it does mean that for any progress to really happen, we have to be willing to talk to each other and not vilify each other. Do what the Campaign for Southern Equality has been doing. By performing acts of loving civil disobedience in every town in the south, they are enabling, emboldening really, people to come OUT and talk with each other about what they’ve never talked about; talk about what it means to be IN relationship, to be neighbors, to be fellow citizens in the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Big awesome people-enacted Caesura Activism that is.

The NPR story talked about breaks in the rhythm. Musical gaps that seem to be these open spaces that our bodies want to jump into. And that’s fantastic. That’s something we gotta do more of. Boogieing is definitely something that needs to be a part of our day to day. How often do we let our bodies move to the beat the way they desire to? But it’s interesting that what gets our bodies moving is not the rhythm, it’s the gaps in the rhythm. And too much of our daily lives, even our weekly Sabbath, can become too scheduled, predictable. And we need moments that aren’t predictable—by chance or by planning. We need breaks in our rhythm. We need to mix it up, stretch ourselves. We can’t let this precious time with each other be rote. There’s too much at stake.

But even when we hear that gap in the rhythm, that gap that entices our bodies to break out of our cocoons of complacency, it can be really hard. Because our bodies are holding on to so much. All this tension up through our spine. We stay so tightly wound within our bodies because we’re holding on to all this hatred. Of self. Of other. All this internalized violence. And all this feeling of failure. We’ve learned to tune Violence out because that’s what we have to do to survive. We think, “we can’t make a difference.” We think “it is impossible to overcome.” If the horrific caesura of Sandy Hook couldn’t make an impact, what can? Has this become our new normal?  We move on because we feel powerless to do anything. But our bodies hold onto it. Obviously the hurting people who enter schools and college campuses, places of worship,  malls, and movie theaters…these people who feel the need to arm themselves and go out and destroy life and then themselves—something is causing that. And it’s not just mental illness. Not just the availability of guns. Not just misogyny. Not just racism. All of them, to me, seem interconnected: Hatred of Other. Hatred of Self. 

So what can we do about it?    Well, we can and should do the things many of us have already been doing—vote our conscience; sign letters and petitions; get out there in the streets and protest. We may not see the change we wish to see in our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean our actions aren’t meaningful, aren’t part of the longterm pressure needed to move things along.

But there is something else we can do. It’s radical, but it’s simple.

We need to be the shark. And we need to be the woman. We need to try to have these different camera angles. We need to try to see through the eyes of the person without privilege and the person with privilege, both sides. And in different situations we are one and in others we are the other. But in every situation we need to try to see from both places, without hatred of self or hatred of other. This can be done silently, in our own heads, trying to think out different point of views. But we also need to really do this work outside of our heads, person to person, and not just on Facebook or Twitter, but actually face to face. Take time for a caesura, a breath, a break in the ongoing me versus you, and find a way to be A “WE.”

We have to be the shark and the woman. The terrorist and the hostage.
The rapist and the victim. The shooter and the child.
Or, less dramatic, but no less problematic: the Republican and the Democrat;
the Christian and the Atheist; the Religious Conservative and the Religious Liberal; the Pro Lifer and the Women’s Lifer advocate; the Politician and the Constituent; the Parent and the Teen.  

But we must come towards each other, not seeing each other as ferocious predator or vulnerable prey, but as two equal beings, each seeking sustenance, meaning, acceptance. When we, the shark and the woman, come together, the giant GASP need not be because we’ve eaten one another, one or both of us slaughtered in the altercation. Because instead that gasp is when the two of us sit down together and commune. Break the rhythm of the planned and the expected interaction. Break the rhythm. Break bread. Exchange questions and answers.  And listen…. 

When we allow this kind of caesura space, it is certainly not an easy place to be in. It is a true gap in the rhythm. And it is physically torturous to be in that gap. But if we make it a communal caesura, instead of a poetic-in-our-head caesura, then we can endure it. Then our bodies will want to move together, and we can slowly work towards making things better. 

To me, this worship space, this community, is where these gasps and gaps really happen; where we can be energized to go out and make these caesura spaces become reality. Can you feel the entry point? The break in the rhythm that invites us to move? The space where we can experience a kind of happy where we feel like we are a “room without a roof” ?  Nothing can hold us back. Not when we are in it together. 

May we seek and find and make space for all these caesuras…..
and may we boogie our hearts out in the process.

VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Sxv-sUYtM#t=11

Refulgent – Still! (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It was on an April morning 10 years ago that this congregation gathered to get its first look at this middle-aged seminary graduate who your search committee was proposing be called as your next settled minister. As I had prepared for that service, I learned from the chair of your search committee, Linda Bair, that there was much amusement in the congregation at the rather hifalutin word that I had tossed into the title of my sermon, “This Refulgent Moment.” Oh, boy! What does this guy have in mind?

 

It was on an April morning 10 years ago that this congregation gathered to get its first look at this middle-aged seminary graduate who your search committee was proposing be called as your next settled minister. As I had prepared for that service, I learned from the chair of your search committee, Linda Bair, that there was much amusement in the congregation at the rather hifalutin word that I had tossed into the title of my sermon, “This Refulgent Moment.” Oh, boy! What does this guy have in mind?

On reflection, it may not have been the best tack. Here I was waltzing out of seminary seeming to flaunt an arcane vocabulary: not a great way to win friends and supporters. But you were kind. You listened with forbearance and decided in the end that I just might work out. And you gave me a vote of confidence for which I have never ceased to be grateful.

Ten years later, though, I want to return to that fancy word. For, in truth, as you might imagine, I had a greater purpose in introducing it to you than simply hoping to impress you. Indeed, to me that word represents a thread that has wound through my ministry with you these 10 years and that guides me still. Even more, I think it points to a center of energy that holds hope for our future as a congregation and for the future of our movement.

So, why refulgent? I think initially I wanted to signal to you some of what most strongly influenced me in my development as a minister. Long before I entered ministry I was drawn to Emerson’s Divinity School Address. I’m not sure I could have told you why in those early days, other than the wonderful lyricism of Emerson’s prose here – the way that he evokes the soul-stirring beauty of the natural world – and how it echoes my own experience.

Like many of you – I have since learned – my first spiritual awakenings took place in the natural world and I am still renewed there continually. It’s certainly part of what drew me to Asheville. How could anyone living here help but be inspired by the glorious world around us?

But it’s worth remembering, as Emerson’s biographer Robert Richardson puts it, the opening sentence of Emerson’s address, “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life” is not, in Richardson’s words, “a casual allusion to the weather or a clearing of the throat. It is the central theological point of the talk.”

Hear him for a minute: These words, Richardson says, are “a description of the religious impulse in human beings. Emerson says that the ‘religious sentiment,’ the religious feeling, is universal and that it derives from or is awakened by the ‘moral sentiment,’ which is the even more fundamental perception that the world has an essential balance and wholeness. The feeling of veneration or reverence that arises from this perception is the basic building block of all religion.”

There is a reason why Emerson’s address was received as scandalous by so many of the Harvard faculty who heard it that day. In many ways, he was contradicting key teachings that they had offered the tender seminarians in the audience who they were sending out into the world.

Recall that Unitarianism emerged in response to the Puritan doctrine that we are each born depraved, stained with sin, and that our only hope in appeasing an angry God is to give ourselves over to what the church declared that Christ taught in the hope that he would enter our lives and save us. Unitarians insisted that God was not so angry and that rather than left to fate, we each have a role in our own salvation in how we lives our lives, and that we can use the minds we were given to sort out our duties in life.

Behind this “reasonable” approach to religion, though, remained some essential doubts about humankind. Yes, we can be clever and kind, but we can also be deceptive and deceived. Jesus’ ministry, they insisted, offered the only sure path to right living, and it was the duty of the ministry to deliver it.

Here is Emerson, though, saying that the source of religion is to be found, not in church, but our individual experience. Here is Emerson, saying, “Go alone, refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination.”

As I said, it’s no wonder that he created a furor among his contemporaries. But what interests me more is that, what I think he and others with similar views at the time were doing was opening the door to a new understanding of what religion is and does that is central to us today.

Religion begins, Emerson suggests and I want to claim, in an experience of the fullness of the world around us, the refulgent – that is, shining, brilliant, resplendent – world that breaks in on us every moment of our lives. And that experience awakens our sense of the wholeness of all things. We today articulate this as the awareness of an interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

It also evokes in us a sense of gratitude, wonder and awe that feed and affirm an elemental capacity within us that blossoms into love: Love that we are each born with and that, if nurtured, can deepen and grow and fill us to overflowing.

We require no meditator, no influence outside of ourselves to experience this. It is what living gives us, and it is available to us all.

But what am I to do with all of this? What consequences does it have for my life, how does it help me to live with meaning and integrity? These are the questions of religion, the questions that tie us back to that original experience of fullness, of wonder, of joy.

This is that to which we bring our agile minds to bear, where we posit such notions as God, the goddess, the Tao, the unnamed source of eternal mystery, or simply that great moral center within. It is where Jesus found the Kingdom of God, where Siddhartha Gautama located the Buddha nature, where Elijah heard the still, small voice. And there is so much more beyond. The heritage of humankind is to be found in how people have struggled to come to terms with their experience.

But all that history and all those big thoughts are only the prompts for our own explorations. How shall we speak of this? Bring in the poets, the artists, the dancers, the musicians; the theologians, the astronomers, the naturalists, the psychologists! What shall we leave out, or shoe-horn in?

This, it seems to me, is the project of liberal religion: Not to debate the terms of salvation at our deaths, but to learn the disciplines that make for a meaningful life before death: real-living, not going through the motions, never losing sight of that refulgent truth that awakened that spark of awareness of our own worth and that of our fellows and all things.

REFULGENT – STILL!  PART 2

Several times a year here our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper and I lead a series of classes that we call Beginning Point and Connecting Points for people who are considering joining this community. We walk them through the history of this congregation and Unitarian Universalism, and we talk about some of what goes on here – our classes and small group ministry, our social activities and justice work. But to my mind one of the most important things we do is ask them to take part in facilitated small groups where we invite them to share some of their stories and some of their hopes.

It is a privilege to sit in on some of those conversations, and I have to tell you that if you ever doubt the need for this congregation and this religious movement, you should listen in sometime. For those who come to us from other UU congregations, it is a bit of a homecoming. You should know that these new arrivals are often quite complimentary of the congregation that you’ve created, the way they feel welcomed, and all that you’ve done to make a strong home for liberal religion in the mountains. That’s not to say we don’t stumble sometimes or don’t need to make improvements, but as a rule UUs arriving here are happy to find their tribe among you.

The majority of people who attend our newcomer classes, though, are new to Unitarian Universalism. They may have just moved to the area or may have lived here for years, but something in their lives got them out the door and over to a UU congregation – sometimes the first time they’ve darkened a church door in decades.

By the time they’ve made it to our classes, of course, they’ve done more than just scout us out. They’ve seen enough to be ready to throw their lot in with us. Each person has her or his own story, but among them I find a remarkable consistency. Essentially, they want their lives to be about something. They want to make a difference. Many are quite accomplished, but they want to make deeper connections in their lives, and they’re hoping that we might be a part of that happening.

My colleague Tom Schade, who you heard from earlier, writes a blog that often tweaks us UUs for our foibles and confusions. I was taken with this essay, though, as it seemed to land particularly close to home. In polls here we’ve found consistently that when asked what the most important work of this congregation is, the answer tends to settle, as Tom suggests, on “building religious community.”

Is that bad? Heavens, no! In fact, it’s wonderful. The support that members of this community give to each other is inspiring and makes such a difference in so many of our lives. There are many occasions here where, as Tom puts it, what we do “blossoms into the experience of beloved community.”

But, is that enough? Let me take this occasion of celebrating my 10 years with you as your lead minister to offer you a challenge: What if we answered, “No,” and what might that reply require of us?

I suggest that the place we would begin is by recognizing that, as Tom puts it, naming “religious community” as our main focus is to place our focus on ourselves. The work of caring for each other, of listening, of sharing, of creating a village to help raise our children is crucial work. But as a community, it is crucial mostly for how it prepares us for carrying the hope, the deep grounding we find here forward into the work of creating a better world.

In a sense, our newcomers give us our charge. They tell us what they see in this community, that this is a place where they can make a difference and make deeper connections in their lives. I think that hope resonates with all of us. As individuals we affirm it, and some of us take the time to dive into the task. But as a community we still struggle with making it real.

It’s easy to pack our busy lives so full that we take little time for the slow work that feeds us here, the time we spend with others to create space to listen and open to each other. This listening and sharing is the groundwork for everything else we hope to achieve. So, I want to invite you to find space for this good, slow work, and I will commit to working to create opportunities that work for you and open the conversations that help you grow.

Once in conversation, we can begin asking deeper questions. What do we know about this community where we live? How we might even widen our understanding of who is part of that community? Who are our neighbors, what are the challenges that they and we face, and how might we be agents of change for the better?

Our justice work gives us an entrée into this, but we would be more effective if we were more deeply engaged. One way I am proposing to do that is that we expand how we contribute to the work of justice. Beginning in July we will expand our practice of sharing our offering, as we are this Sunday with The Mountain Learning and Retreat Center, from once a month to every Sunday. All cash and any designated checks that we receive will be dedicated to outreach to the larger community.

Of course, just devoting more money to this work is not enough. If we are to shepherd these resources wisely, we will need to spend more energy getting to know the needs of this community and building relationships with other change agents across our community. Where would you like to connect? What opportunities await us? Help us find out.

We are blessed with a strong congregation here in Asheville, but we know that there are many people who identify with us in this region who live too far away to participate regularly, and many others who would but don’t even know that we exist. There are about a half dozen UU congregations around the country who have responded to this concern with a creative solution that I think could work for us – starting satellite congregations.

These are groups that gather in distant locations that stay connected to a home congregation. Key portions of Sunday worship are sent via the Internet or satellite to create a common experience, and the home congregation provides worship leaders and small group coordinators, as well as administrative assistance, to help the new group get started. It is a system well suited to the mountains, where travel across long distances is challenging.

We’ll be busy enough in the coming year with the capital campaign that I hope you will approve at our annual meeting today. But afterward I invite you to join me in exploring this exciting option for growing liberal religion in the mountains.

Meanwhile, the Internet and social media offer opportunities for us to be in religious community in ways we’ve never considered before. We already know that most people make their first connection with us through our Web site. How might an increased presence in cyberspace deepen and grow our work as a congregation? Let’s think, let’s explore, let’s dream!

REFULGENT, STILL!                PART 3

I joined a half dozen of our members on Wednesday at our weekly silent meditation time. We gather here from 8 to 9 a.m., light our chalice and simply sit in silence. People come and go; anyone is welcome.

It took a while for the buzzing in my head to settle down – all the busyness of this congregation and the many plans for this very full life that I’m living right now. In time, though, I found some quiet, and in that quiet I became reconnected to some delicious quality in that time and space. I guess the only way to describe it is to go back to our opening word – a refulgence that filled me and reminded me of the peace we can find in this place.

I stumbled on the Rumi poem that Sharon read earlier some months ago, and immediately I knew I would turn to it to help me close this sermon. Because, you see, I have struggled over how to explain what 10 years of ministry with you has done for me, and Rumi’s poem sums it up.

I’ve never understood this image that some have of religious leaders as people who sit around all the time in some sort of wise, imperturbable Zen state. What are they, crazy? Yeah, sure there are those moments such as I experienced on Wednesday where your feel the currents of the universe flow through your being.

And then there are those moments when you’re itching to get out the door to a meeting on the budget drive, which is coming up short, but you’re on the phone with someone explaining why they were unhappy with your sermon on Sunday, while you’re plotting in your head how to find time to meet with a family to talk about an upcoming memorial service.

It’s not that I didn’t anticipate this kind of juggling act when I came here 10 years ago. It’s just that I didn’t know how it would feel to be in the middle of it. The difference, as Rumi puts it, is between admiring wines and wandering inside the red world.

You can’t know ahead of time how it will fill you when someone you’ve counseled rises out of despair and how it will break your heart when people you serve, people you love and admire, die, and you must be present to gather their loved ones and tell their stories. It is not infrequent that I feel like nothing more than a burnt kabob on such occasions, and yet I am grateful to be with you.

I have learned in so many ways that this work – my work, our work – is not about me, about ourselves as individuals. It is about letting go of ego, letting go of expectation and being present. That presence opens us as nothing else can, opens us to the astonishing fullness of life every moment, to the wonders of our companions on this journey.

What a gift our presence can be to one another! What a rare occasion of meeting, and when we find it, oh, what a blessing! These are the moments of meeting that comprise perhaps the greatest refulgence of all, the brightest, most brilliant events of our lives and the sources of hope that keep us going.

My friends, this time with you has been most refulgent for me, and I pray will continue to be for some time. Let me close by telling you something that I don’t tell you often enough but is always present to me: I love you and am grateful and proud to be your minister.

At Play – Mother’s Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward
My own memory goes back some 30 years, but this time the genders in the scene that Sharon Olds holds up in her poem are switched. And it’s me and one or another of my daughters at one or another of the homes we occupied during that time….

 

My own memory goes back some 30 years, but this time the genders in the scene that Sharon Olds holds up in her poem are switched. And it’s me and one or another of my daughters at one or another of the homes we occupied during that time.

Before beginning I set out all the ingredients – soap, shampoo, wash cloth, towel, clean clothes – and then with excruciating care calibrate the temperature of the water that slowly pours into the basin, a la the tree bears – not too hot, not too cold: just right!

And then this carefully choreographed dance that my daughter and I engage in. The hold, just as Sharon describes it, initiated by me, the child gathered in the crook of my arm, as if she always belonged there, and then the slow descent to the dance floor, the welcoming pool of water with satisfying wisps of steam rising off of it.

From the infant at first, a clenching, tensed response to this new environment, eyes wide, apprehensive, focused tightly on my face, but then with a gentle touch, the water’s soothing feel and the soap’s slipperiness, a slow relaxing, a calming of movement, and together we catch the rhythm of this routine.

I remember as a new parent the fear that surrounded me that first time I attempted this feat – visions of all that could go wrong and do damage to the child before me – but, as Sharon Olds says, experience in time teaches us. It teaches us not only how to navigate this task; it teaches that we are good for each other.

This is how we are meant to be: two people linked in love, bonded, but not too tight. And if we are lucky, the formal nature of this interchange – the cleansing of the child – devolves into something deeper, which is play. Whether it’s cooing or splashing or singing or laughing, we connect and find an easiness with each other that opens the way to intimacy.

So, on this Mother’s Day, I’d like to take some time to notice of and celebrate the many ways in the parenting we both give and receive that play opens us to each other and the possibility of deeper connections in our lives.

Now, as we enter this subject I must admit that I am of the generation that was raised under the guidance of Benjamin Spock. Remember him? We baby boomers, now nearing our retirement years, were beneficiaries of the then-scandalous advice of this best-selling pediatrician that parents ignore the rigid rules of child-rearing proclaimed by supposed experts and simply use common sense in rearing their children. Your children want love and affection, he said: give it to them. They want to explore: let them. Talk with them; listen to them; and, yes, play with them.

In his early TV appearances Spock was sure to elicit cries of surprise, and sometimes disapproval, when, presented with a clutch of toddlers, he would fold his six-foot frame and settle on the floor among them. Naysayers fretted: you’re spoiling those kids! And years later, commentators diagnosed the nation’s ills as the result of Spock’s supposed leniency.

Spock himself and anyone who paid attention to what he actually wrote dismissed such rubbish – attending to your child doesn’t mean you don’t also guide and correct her. Your play with him is not the same as what happens in the company of his age mates. It is something else: a unique opportunity to create something that is really more like a moment of communion.

For, as people who study such things tell us, there is something extraordinary that happens when we are at play. Any parent is familiar with the phenomenon when they see their children settle into play, and so are artists or anyone who finds him- or herself deep in a creative endeavor.

There comes a point when we forget about ourselves and whatever our worries may have been and we enter into an expansive state. When we join in play, we enter into that state together – a place where we are fully present as who we are, present to ourselves and each other, and yet not present, so absorbed in the play before us that the world around us vanishes, and there is only the play.

Though we may not frame it this way at the time, it is a place of great spiritual depth – something akin to what the Buddhists call samadhi, a meditative state of selflessness where we feel the borders between us and everything else disappear and experience ourselves connected to a wider world. Our play invites our children into that space, a place without judgment where they and we are worthy and whole, and also bonded with each other.

Of course, as nice as play is, our lives are busy enough that it can be hard to schedule and exhaustion often robs us of the energy to engage. It’s why we need communities like this one where the play of parenting can be shared, and one wonderful avenue is across generations.

It is one of the great joys of grandparenting that it has given me a new outlet for play. From the first peek-a-boos to puzzles or the games of tag in the yard we are weaving webs of intimacy that we each can draw on.

A great Mother’s Day recollection I have is a time when our daughters were growing up, and on my mother’s visits she would put herself at their disposal: “What shall we do?”

The answer was often an elaborate story line with roles assigned based on dress-up clothes they would dig out of a great trunk in our family room. My mother would adopt whatever role she was given and accept the clothes they chose to drape on her together with elaborate hats.

I tap into the same sense of play when my granddaughter touches my arm, shouting, “Tag, you’re it!” and giggles as she dashes away. In that moment, our roles and the generations disappear, and we are in it together. It is more than a lark. It is truly one of those great unitive experiences that reminds me who I am and what I love.

The writer Stephen Nachmanovitch argues that we make a mistake when we downplay the significance of play as something ephemeral or foolish. Creative play, he says, is not the act of manipulating life. It is experiencing life as it is.

This is, after all, how we become: we play – with ideas, with our environment, with each other. We step away for a moment from the world with all its consequences and toy with possibility. And in possibility we find our place.

We reach a place where we are finally determined to take ownership of our lives. “Now I become myself,” says the poet May Sarton, and it often feels that way. Having lived within the tidy or tangled scripts that we cobbled together from our limited experience, we are called to something larger, something greater. Those early scripts, we now see, were inadequate to who we are and what we need, but we had no way of knowing that. And it wasn’t our fault: it was just too big, and there was too much, more than we could possibly fathom at the time.

Somehow, though, within our fearful, clinging selves we can discern something deeper that is both ours and greater than us, a dimension, a capacity that draws us out and links us more widely with others, with all that is.

We find it in the dawning moment, at the edge of perception where an astonishing fullness floods in on us pregnant with possibility.

Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, whose words we sang earlier, evokes a sense of that moment. He places it in a memory of his childhood – sun-kissed mornings when, in his words, “the marvelous” bloomed like flowers within his heart. The tone that runs through the poem I can only call playful, taking in the world around him “with simply joy” where grass and clouds are enough to inspire “fullest wealth of awe.” It is, he says, is not the words his mother speaks: simply her voice that gives “meaning to the stars.”

It reminds me that we mistake sometimes how we touch each other. We wordy, well-reasoned sorts imagine that it is our arguments that carry our weight in the world, when really it is how we make ourselves present and to whom that matters.

Tagore closes this passage, which he wrote toward the end of his life, saying that thoughts of his own approaching death brings him back to that rising bedside curtain, to the new morning, and with it life awakened in fresh surprise of love.

It is in childhood, of course, when we feel that most intensely, before we have constructed our filters and armored ourselves against injury and disappointment. Yet, the fullness of life is no less available, the marvelous is still at hand, and love is every morning a fresh surprise.

And so today we celebrate the mothering that has taught us to care,

to open our sometimes-hesitant hearts to each other,

to make room for the play that welcomes possibility, our own and the world’s,

so that once nurtured in the crook of a loving arm we, too, born from the mystery beyond all knowing might come to move our silky limbs at will and realize the blessing that we were born to be.

Out of the Ordinary – Easter (text & audio)

 

Our “Sense of Place” class had its April field trip last week to the North Carolina Arboretum. It couldn’t have been a prettier day for a tour of the gardens and a walk through the woods. We had an eye out especially for those ephemeral spring flowers, and here and there we found a few – yellows, pinks, whites: tiny flowers that pop briefly out of the leaf litter before dying back without a trace before the tall trees overhead leaf out and blanket them in shadow.

Except for these flowers and a few early shrubs, the forest looks inert at this time of year. Last fall’s leaves are drained of color, and things in general have a beaten-down look from the snows and winds and frigid temperatures of winter.

We know, of course, that outside of our sight there is a lot going on. Sap is running in the trees and tiny tendrils everywhere are reaching out as daytime temperatures rise. That’s the thrill of a walk in the woods in this season: each day something new emerges or unfolds. A seemingly dry and colorless landscape is shot through with the electricity of life; out of the ordinary, the blah, the unexceptional, something exceptional, amazing and fresh is entering the world.

And so, with that image before us once again we enter the Easter story, that great tale of death and resurrection that centers the Christian tradition. It’s a story that lives with us as Unitarian Universalists as well by virtue of our historical roots in that tradition, although our practice is to give that tale a different take than Christian churches do.

As Frederick May Eliot, historic Unitarian leader, put it more than a half century ago, “When I go to church on Easter, I expect to be reminded of the elemental truth that in this universe of ours, with all its hesitancies and timidities and tragedies, the tides of life are flowing fresh, manifold and free.”

What speaks to us isn’t the magical story of bodily resurrection at Easter, which has dominated the Christian narrative for the past millennium or so, as much as the need for rebirth. Just like the forest floor in early spring we find times in our lives when we feel beaten down. Circumstances, some of them of our own making, shut us down or cause us to draw in on ourselves. We get quarrelsome and cynical and just stuck.

Easter serves as a reminder that there are stores within us, within the world around us that can lift us out of our funks and offer a way forward. There are those who will say that this is just those UUs again messing with a well-established religious tradition, picking and choosing the parts they like, but leaving the hard parts behind. Curiously, though, thanks to recent scholarship, we’ve learned that our take on the Easter story connects in interesting ways with the perspective of early Christian communities.

Several years ago, Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, one of our seminaries, and a colleague, Rita Nakashima Brock, wrote that in studying early churches they found that for hundreds of years the image of Jesus was very different from what appears in many churches today.

Instead of the crucified Christ whose death was recompense for humanity’s sins, they discovered a figure with welcoming arms inviting followers into a luminous scene that was strongly reminiscent of the Mediterranean landscape where they were situated. Parker and Brock realized they were looking at a vision of paradise, not as a distant heaven, but as the world of those people’s experience that was infused with a brilliant energy.

Paradise, in other words, was not another world; it was a way of looking at this world that had been lost to its people. The purpose of worship and other dimensions of community life, then, was to restore this lost connection to a sense of that sacredness, and it was communities that sought to live by Jesus’ teachings of justice and compassion, rather than dwell on his death, that were offering that path.

Parker and Brock argued that there was a strong parallel to our work as religious communities today, communities that celebrate the beauty and wonder of this world while seeking to cultivate practices of what they call “ethical grace.” They describe this as living in a way that is “attuned to what is beautiful and good, and responsive to legacies of injustice and currents of harm.”

With this view in mind, Easter could offer us the opportunity to praise that which upholds life and to call forth that in us that awakens hope and courage to act in such a way that we might bring such a world into being and learn to live rightly with the Earth and each other.

OK, OK, sure: Sounds great, but often a whole lot easier to say than to do. Again, back to that funk: “praise life, awaken hope, live rightly with the Earth and each other” is just a lot of words unless something connects with us directly. So, here’s where this business of blessing comes in.

As John said earlier, the traditional meaning of blessing is an act of or in the name of God. I’m wary, though, of anyone who presumes to speak or act on behalf of God or any other image of divine authority. For we fragile, fallible sorts, the source of our authority is our own authenticity. We speak for ourselves, and only ourselves. Yet, if we are fully present and true to the best within us, we are capable of conferring on each other gifts that might waken us to the wonders of the world around us, to life abundant, to the ethical grace of our lives together

The author Barbara Brown Taylor, who is also an Episcopal priest and professor of religion, writes that for many people the prospect of conferring a blessing is daunting. Who am I to do such a thing? So, she invites them to begin with something simple – say, a stick lying on the ground.

The first thing to do, she says, is to pay attention. “Did you make the stick?” she asks. “No, you did not. The stick has its own story. If you have the time to figure out what kind of tree it came from, that would be a start to showing the stick some respect. It is only a ‘stick’ in the same way that you are only a ‘human,’ after all. There is more to both of you than that. Is it on the ground because it is old or because if suffered a mishap? Has it been lying there for a long time, or did it just land? Is it fat enough for you to see its growth rings?”

This stick has a history you cannot know. Did a bird once make a nest on it? What was it like to be part of the deep mystery of drawing water up from the ground against the pull of gravity? How was it to launch green leaves from its buds in spring and only to have them drop off and float to the ground in the fall? It has arteries not so very unlike yours and tissues that as you stand there are breaking down, returning to the soil from which it sprang.

What might you say?

“Bless you, stick for being you?”

“Bless you for turning soil and water and sun into wood?”

We only need remember, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, that “the key to blessing things is that they beat you to it.”

Blessing is ultimately an act of deep appreciation and once you are in the posture of doing it, the act redounds to you. The respect, the care that comes from a blessing speaks to an unplumbed depth within you. It is the place from which the “path to plenitude” that John Donohue spoke of in our reading opens for us.

This also connects us to another way of looking at the Easter story. The scholar John Dominic Crossan has examined much of the historical record around the stories of the Bible, and he notes that as lyrical as the death and resurrection narrative is, there is nothing historical in the finding of the empty tomb.

The most that we know from the record, he said, is this: there was a movement of people organized around a man named Jesus; he was executed by the authorities; but the movement continued and spread. The final point, Crossan argues, is the key one, and how it did so is the subject of one of the final episodes in the Gospel of Luke in the story of the walk to Emmaus.

In it, two disciples are on a road leaving Jerusalem shortly after Jesus death, talking about all that happened. At some point, they are joined by a figure they don’t seem to know, but later identify as Jesus, who tells them to continue his teachings.

Crossan argues that the story is intended not to be historical, but apocryphal: in his words “a metaphoric condensation of the first few years of Christian thought and practice in one parabolic afternoon.”

In essence, he says, Jesus opened a “path of plenitude” for his followers, a blessing that helped them see the world in a new way. This lives on in the gift that Easter gives us, the reminder that death is never the final answer. There are, as Frederick May Eliot put it, “tides of life flowing, fresh, manifold and free” – just look at the green points poking through the soil in your garden – ready to be employed if we can imagine ourselves as agents in bringing the future about.

And for many of us this is perhaps the greatest reach of all. Who am I? Pretty small, let’s face it. Life abundant, living with ethical grace. Wow, yeah! But . . . well, we each have our own reasons for why we think that path is a bigger lift than we’re capable of, but more or less they all fit under that classic Facebook post: “It’s complicated.”

But think about this. Today, you scribbled a few words on a slip of paper, crammed it in a plastic egg and dropped the egg in a basket intending it for one of our children to find and read: a blessing! What was that like? How was it to imagine your words being read, or perhaps read to someone?

How will that child receive it? I don’t know, but I call tell from what I have been told in past years that our children are kind of amazed by this gesture. They may not understand all the words, but they get the gesture.

It is a step or two above blessing of a stick. It is a moment of meeting that communicates abiding care, care that every one of us is in the position to offer each other in many ways. You may not be able to move mountains, but you can communicate abiding care.

And, hey, remember there’s another one of those blessings waiting for you in a colorful plastic egg that our children have secreted somewhere in Sandburg Hall. How will you read that blessing? What will you do with it? How will you let it touch you?

Annie Dillard paints it in stark terms: there’s nobody here but us chickens, nobody else to do all that heroic work that needs doing.

Remember the image from Wendell Berry’s poem that I offered as a meditation: amid our fears and tormented dreams there is within us the capacity to see beyond our outcast state, to make ourselves available to that well of abiding care within us that connects us with each other, a source that, if we will let it, can bathe us like a quiet, summer rain.

It is a weakening and discoloring idea, Annie Dillard says, that “rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us.”

No: The absolute, the ineffable, however we might understand that unfolding possibility that moves like electricity in us and all things, is available to everyone in every age. And we who go about our busy lives – knowledgeable and important, fearful and self-aware – we well-meaning folks, who nonetheless sometimes cut corners, who promote and scheme and deceive, we who long to flee misery and escape death – we are all that we have to bring it into being.

Our destination is not clear, but as John Donohue puts it, we can trust the promise of this opening and unfurl ourselves into the grace of beginning.

Pull a Thistle, Plant a Flower (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
How do we learn what it is we must do with our lives? For the figure at the center of our service today it came to him while he was harvesting wheat on his family’s farm one bright autumn day. Only just returned from service in the Civil War as an artilleryman with the Sixth Wisconsin Battery, Jenkin Lloyd Jones didn’t see much future for himself in farming. As he joined his brothers in the field, his head was full of all that he had seen in the war – the folly and the bravery, the terror and the tedium – and he marveled over how, as he was to put it later, the war seemed, “such a wrong way to do the right thing.”

 

How do we learn what it is we must do with our lives? For the figure at the center of our service today it came to him while he was harvesting wheat on his family’s farm one bright autumn day. Only just returned from service in the Civil War as an artilleryman with the Sixth Wisconsin Battery, Jenkin Lloyd Jones didn’t see much future for himself in farming. As he joined his brothers in the field, his head was full of all that he had seen in the war – the folly and the bravery, the terror and the tedium – and he marveled over how, as he was to put it later, the war seemed, “such a wrong way to do the right thing.”

Then, suddenly, it occurred to him what his path was: he was to be a Unitarian minister. It’s not the kind of epiphany that occurs to most people, but then the members of the Jones family were not most people. They had immigrated to Wisconsin only a couple of decades before, when Jenks, as he was known, was just an infant. Their home had been in Cardiganshire, Wales, which at the time hosted a dozen Welsh Unitarian churches. Nine of Jenks’ uncles were Unitarian ministers, including another Jenkin who had preceded Jenks’ family to Wisconsin, and who, barely a year after they arrived, died of smallpox.

So, the family was not especially surprised by Jenkin’s announcement, even if up to that point Jenkin had never actually attended a Unitarian church.

Oh, it’s true, the family read from the old Welsh Bible, and in this literate household Jenkin had read whatever he could get his hands on. He had also experienced his father at times offer up sermons at nearby churches – not often, since their liberal theology always seemed to get them in trouble, earning them the nickname, “the God-Almighty Joneses.” It would be a decade or more before Unitarian congregations formed there. But the family affirmed the gift they saw in Jenkin and sent him off to seminary without so much as a day of formal education.

Arriving at Meadville Theological School, Jones was the proverbial farm boy: lacking social graces and struggling with the demands of school but earnest, bright, and persevering.

It may have been his unusual origins or his family’s proud heretical heritage – Jones always said that for his family “freedom was a word to conjure by” – but from early on he had a different vision of religion than most seminarians. His idea, as he put it later, was the church would be “a free congress of independent souls,” a place of, in his words, “universal brotherhood” that would “lead in the campaign for more truth rather than to indolently stand guard over some petty fragment of acquired truth.”

It was an attitude that ended up putting this Welsh Wisconsin farm boy at the forefront of what was to become an emerging movement for expansion to the west in a denomination that at the time mostly saw its proper role as offering Biblical instruction from the high pulpits of Boston.

So, no sooner had he graduated from seminary than Jenkin Lloyd Jones enlisted in the role for what was described as Wisconsin missionary. Really, it was a role that Jones created for himself: there had never before been such a position in the Unitarian church and never would be again. But it turned out to be a winner for all involved. For Jones, the position got him back to familiar territory near his family, and for the newly emerging Western Conference of Unitarian churches it got an energetic organizer in the field to drum up interest in fast-growing pioneer towns.

Jones and his new wife, Susan, landed in a vacant parsonage attached to a struggling congregation in Janesville, Wisconsin, where between visits to emergent groups in growing towns he worked to give form to an evolving vision of what the church might become.

For Jones, the church was first off a center of community. So, to bring people together, among his first creations was an adult Sunday school held on Sunday evenings. Unlike the old catechism classes, the lessons were set up to explore topics ranging from the Beatitudes to the natural sciences to great religious teachers, ranging from Socrates to Buddha, Zoroaster, Muhammad and Confucius.

The classes gained a strong following in Janesville, reviving that congregation. So, Jones and his wife managed to package the lessons and send them off to others. Within six months he had a subscription list of 700.

After a few years, Jones’ success led to his being named missionary to the entire Western Conference, which at the time was vaguely defined as stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific coast. His activities, though, were mostly focused in the Midwest and Plains states, reaching from Ohio through Iowa and up north to Minnesota.

It was challenging work that he once described as like that of the woman in a Medieval story who appeared in the marketplace with a can of water in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, declaring it was her purpose to put out the fires of hell with the water and set fire to paradise with the torch, so that men and women might serve the right regardless of their own selfish interests, whether it be hope for future reward or dread of future punishment.

The schedule that his expanded duties demanded of him was insane. His first year he logged nearly 10,000 miles by train or ox cart, often sleeping in train stations and boarding coaches without enough money for the trip home, hoping for freewill offerings that would give him return fare. He mostly visited distressed or dormant churches, or isolated groups of religious liberals who sought to start churches. But it paid off with him helping to establish many new congregations.

His encouragement and support went a long way to holding struggling congregations together. And nowhere was that support more crucial than in Iowa, where women were emerging as leaders in some small congregations.

Denomination leaders in Boston had no interest in encouraging women to take on the role of clergy, but Jones had been promoting equal rights for women since he first arrived in Janesville. He was delighted to find women eager to step into the pulpit, especially since few male clergy would travel to serve those prairie towns. After arranging for the Western Conference to ordain one of those women – Mary Safford – Jones trumpeted the achievement to the wider conference, and invited other women to join her. At Jones’ urging, Meadville, his alma mater, began admitting women, and soon about half a dozen women joined Safford to minister to those country towns in what became known as the Iowa Sisterhood.

In his travels, Jones gathered allies in his work, a group who together created a magazine to communicate their views that they dubbed, “Unity.” The text Bob that read earlier by William Channing Gannett, probably Jones’ closest colleague, opened the inaugural issue of that magazine. Its forward-looking vision speaks very much to the ethos of that time, naming what he called three essentials of religion:

Freedom, which they said implies respect for the past, but reverence for the future, for the continuing unfolding of truth,

Fellowship, opposing exclusivity in religion, and seeing unities of human experience across traditions,

and Character, the view that morality, how we are to treat one another, is the focus of the religious life.

As a statement, it was none too popular with these men’s colleagues back East, since it lacked any specific reference to Christian teachings. Jones insisted there was no need, since the principles they endorsed embraced the heart of the Christian message. That argument, unfortunately, got him exactly nowhere with his opponents, and in time he found himself increasingly marginalized.

When headquarters in Boston finally got around to starting new churches, they invested their money in buildings in university towns where they could send preachers who were schooled to address this educated clientele. Jones regarded this as elitist nonsense that ignored his own efforts that in the course of a decade had helped found 40 congregations across the Midwest and Plains states.

The downside of Jones strategy, though, was that many of the congregations he helped get started were desperately poor, and lack of support for Jones from headquarters made their continued existence that much more precarious.

In time, increasing conflicts with conference leaders and Jones’ own weariness with travel led him to refocus his work. Now located in Chicago, he turned his gaze to a struggling congregation in town, Fourth Unitarian Church. He gathered the dozen remaining members and it grew rapidly, changing its name to All Souls Church. Again, he was a dynamo in the community: sponsoring weekday lecture series, helping to found the Chicago Peace Society and starting the first Post Office Mission, similar to our Church of the Larger Fellowship today, that mailed sermons and tracts to people in distant places.

Arguably, Jones’ most spectacular success was as general secretary of the group the planned the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Other more prominent religious leaders captured the headlines in the event that provided the first exposure that many Americans ever had to Asian religions. But it likely could not have come about without Jones as the sparkplug to make all the logistics work.

The glow of the parliament left Jones less inclined than ever to compromise with what seemed to him a hide-bound bureaucracy in Boston and soon after he withdrew All Souls from the American Unitarian Association. He tried building another alliance of liberal religions, but it crashed.

Instead, he turned his attention to creating the Abraham Lincoln Center, a settlement house modelled after Jane Addams’ Hull House. Designed by his nephew, Frank Lloyd Wright, it included apartments for Jones and several teachers, a 900-seat hall, classrooms, a library, gymnasium, art rooms and space for all sorts of gatherings. It proved to be an important gathering center on Chicago’s South Side, where it continues to operate today, one of Jones’ most enduring legacies.

With war on its way, Jones – the avowed pacifist – found himself marginalized even more. He was among the few clergy in America who publicly and urgently opposed it, reminding his hearers of the horrors he himself had experienced a half century before. Many ministers who shared his views, including Unitarians, lost their pulpits, but Jones remained at All Souls.

In 1918, shortly after the U.S entered the war, Jones died, cared for near Madison, just down the road from a chapel his family had built at a summer camp he had created at the site of an old Civil War tower used to make shot for rifles. It is now a state park. The epitaph on his grave at the family cemetery was from a quote of Abraham Lincoln’s, a favorite of Jones’: “He sought to pull up a thistle and plant a flower wherever a flower could grow.”

I guess you can tell that I have some affection for old Jenkin Lloyd Jones – untiring activist, Welsh farm boy, visionary leader. Back when I was a student intern at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin I impersonated Jones as my closing sermon for that congregation – complete with bushy, white beard and 19th century frock coat.

It seemed a good choice, both because of Jones’ connections to Wisconsin and because the Madison church was another of those building’s was designed by his nephew, Frank. And the connection is not a bad one to raise here too, since our member Bill Moore was deeply influenced by Wright in his design of this building.

As at the Madison church, the natural materials in this structure – wood and stone – give you a sense of place, an organic connection that links us and all things in one world, and the windows from many angles that bring the outside in, that let in the light, uncolored, unaltered that reminds us how widely truth is to be found.

I also I turn to Jenkin Lloyd Jones as I wonder what our future as a congregation might be. News reports are full of speculation about the decline of religion in this country. Churches are closing, denominations are scaling back, polls show fewer and fewer identify with institutionalized religion in any form. Like every religious body, we, too, must make our case – what are we here for: what are we here to be, what are we here to do?

These are questions that your Board of Trustees and I will invite you to be asking and answering this coming year – not because we fear for the future but because we want to be clear, and we want for that clarity to drive our work together. There will be different venues to do this, but when the time comes I hope you will all be part of the conversation.

One of the abiding charms of Jenkin Lloyd Jones was his unstinting hope and optimism, derived simply from a faith in what we humans are capable of achieving, the conviction, in his words that, “salvation lies in the unmarked possibilities of the soul.”

Part of what we exist as a congregation to do is to persuade each other, and sometimes ourselves, of this truth. As Wislawa Szymborska puts it, we are each “coincidence(s) no less unthinkable than any other,” each with our own gifts and our own quirks, and all of them added together have created this incredible confluence of events that is our life. What an astonishing thing, this life, hurtling along on the knife-blade of time. How shall we use it?

Well, here again, Jenkin Lloyd Jones offers some instruction. “Nothing in this world,” he wrote, “stands alone.” Rather, all of us are measured by our expanding sympathies. And so it is by the gesture of opening, of inviting, of embracing that our measure is made, that our hopes are made real, that our destiny is realized, so that at our life’s close we might be left with that one gift that is ours alone, that realizes us better than any other: our amazement.

The Allure of the Golden Calf (text & audio)

 

Where were you when you first felt it, that plaintive tug of alluring, almost painful pleasure? Something that grabbed you like nothing had grabbed you before, that filled you with longing and got your heart pumping like crazy.

Debussy’s “Syrinx,” it seems to me, captures that feeling about as well as any piece of music does – thank you, Bradford. That haunting series of chromatic cascades that begins it invites us out of the conventional world where we live into a seductive place of mystery and possibility.

The piece evokes the Greek myth of the satyr Pan who was smitten by the wood nymph Syrinx and pursued her into the woods. The story goes that Syrinx, wanted nothing to do with Pan’s advances and fled. Eventually, though, she was trapped at the edge of a river and implored her sister wood nymphs to help her escape. They obliged by turning Syrinx into a reed – a waterside plant – so that when Pan reached out to grab her he found himself hugging an armful of rushes.

Defeated, Pan gave such a deep sigh that it resonated through the reeds and created a melody. Pan was intrigued by this sound and so cut some reeds and made the first set of pan pipes. He played them wherever he went and their haunting sound was said to have delighted the gods. Debussy’s piece, which he wrote in 1912, became famous as the first piece for solo flute by a European composer in about 300 years.

Beyond its cleverness as a kind of “just so” story, this myth also offers some illumination for our topic today – an old word we don’t bandy about much these days – idolatry.

Pan is hardly the first to have had a monomania around an alluring figure he chased through the woods. I’d venture that most of us have had the experience at some time in our lives of falling hard for some unobtainable person somewhere. The “chasing” we do may involve direct contact with that person, but more often I think it’s likely to be something like watching his TV show or buying her album.

It’s fun, but in time most of us recognize it as the pleasant little diversion that it was. We move on. Reality sets in. We get our priorities straight, get a life and make a way in the world. For those who can’t let go, they, like Pan, eventually discover an armful of rushes where they had thought to find the object of their affection.

That image on your order of service harkens back to one of the great moments of crisis for the early Hebrews described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible. The story is that while the people are camped at Mt. Sinai, after Moses has delivered the 10 Commandments, God calls Moses back up the mountain for another 40 days to give him further instructions.

After he is gone for some time, the Israelites get nervous and urge Moses’ brother, Aaron, the high priest, “Come, make Gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

So, Aaron directs the people to take off all their gold rings and bring them to him, and from them he crafts the image of a calf. The people declare, “These are your gods,” and Aaron calls for a festival to be held.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain God is enraged. He urges Moses to return to his people, and vows to destroy them all. Moses dissuades God from doing that, but on returning to the camp he angrily smashes tablets he brought down, onto which God had written his covenant with the Israelites, and destroys the golden calf. He rallies supporters to his side who move through the camp killing several thousand people who had reveled before the golden calf.

A grim episode, right? And it’s one regarded among Jewish scholars as the greatest scandal during the Israelites’ passage through the wilderness. There are debates over what the calf really represented, whether this text represents some kind of internecine conflict in later times. And the fact that it is not Aaron, but the people who demanded the calf who suffer, tends to support that take.

Still, it is fascinating to find this event appearing in the text where it does, just a short time after God was said to have pronounced the 10 commandments, an event accompanied, so we are told, with thunder and lightning. Pretty impressive!

And yet, no sooner is Moses out of sight than the people are ready toss these commandments aside, beginning with the first: “you shall have no other gods before me.”

It’s telling that this prohibition against false images for the divine runs across religious traditions. In Islam it is one of the greatest sins a person can perform. This explains why Muslim art permits no images of any living thing, lest believers mistakenly worship it as an image of Allah. And in Buddhism, a famous Zen story warns against mistaking a finger point at the moon for the moon.

A caution against idolatry also led our Puritan forebears to build plain meetinghouses without images, icons, even stained glass. Nothing, they felt, should distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. And, of course, that takes us to the heart of the question, a puzzle that resides with every religious tradition. How does one come to know the holy?

Texts are written, disciplines are taught, teachers are recognized, prophets are honored. But in the end, religion, if it is to mean anything, must connect with us, must touch some place deep inside. It must evoke from us an affirmation that is life-giving, that lifts us out of our personal worries and awakens us to how deeply we are connected to each other and all life, how blessed we are simply to be.

But, as we’ve already established, there are so many things that can get our blood racing, that can give us, at least for a time, a sensation of fulfillment. How, then, are we to distinguish this feeling of deep connection from other feelings that can lead us to paths that are unfulfilling, even destructive?

One way we can read J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth is as an extended reflection on idolatry. The ring of power that Bilbo chances on in Gollum’s cave, in the passage Bob read earlier, is at the center of the tale, a character in itself really. Created, so the story goes, by a powerful figure in a craven attempt to dominate the world, it seeks to enthrall anyone it comes into contact with to the same vain end. So, in a kind of reversal of the holy grail myth, the point of the journey that the Lord of the Rings books tell is not to find an icon that will bring great spiritual power, but to destroy an evil idol and so release all beings from its curse.

For two decades Chris Hedges, author of our first reading, was a distinguished foreign correspondent for the New York Times, covering wars in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia. He writes, though, that when he returned to New York City at the end of his tours he was exhausted and unsure of where he was headed. The experience of war in all its confusion and depravity had wrung him dry.

Before entering newspaper work Hedges had studied in seminary but in the end concluded that the work wasn’t for him. Returning to the states, though, he found himself revisiting the themes of his religious studies that now put his experience in sharp relief.

And so in one of his books in the years following he used the prism of the 10 commandments, words he first learned growing up the son of a Presbyterian minister, to put his experience into focus and also help find a measure of peace.

I say that Hedges explored all 10 of the commandments, but throughout his book, Losing Moses on the Highway, it is really the first that seems to weigh most heavily on his mind. And I think that’s because, as he sees it, our human inclination at times to hitch our wagons to unworthy stars can loosen whatever other mores may guide us and open the door to some of the worst mischief of which humankind is capable.

Still, this is tricky. Remember that the error, the problem at the heart of idolatry is confusing something of small value with something of large value. This sounds like it ought to be easy to spot, but it isn’t necessarily.

How does one come to know the holy? As Chris Hedges points out, in traditional religious terms the holy is ineffable, hidden. Its mystery, he says, “frustrates and defies us.” We are left with no certainty or security. What do we do?

Well, we seek out comfort, but we find treacherous ground. There is an allure to a way of living that assures us of convenience and ease, complete with pre-packaged judgments and confident trajectories. There are, of course, compromises we make to get there, but we accept them for the security they seem to bring.

It is only when we chafe against them, or find ourselves pricked by their consequences that we learn their limits and the hollowness of the conformity that they demand. In that light, we can see them as the idols they are – images, ideas that we adopted or affirmed to protect and calm ourselves.

As Chris Hedges points out, the fundamental flaw with idols is that they “are always about self-worship.” We’re taking care of number one here, and if the messy world can’t see fit to make that happen, well, I’m going to organize my life to make sure it does.

Really?

Hedges says that one of the chief lessons he learned on his tours through war-torn countries was that the idols we humans create have no mercy. They may, for a time, bring us pleasure; they may bring us consolation, but in the end they simply consume us.

So, how to escape? We begin, he suggests, by exiting the bubble of self-affirmation and self-approval that we live in. We begin listening to the prickling of our conscience, the voice of a deeper wisdom in our hearts, and begin paying attention to and extending ourselves to others with humility and compassion.

There is no point in grandiose gestures, Hedges says. “Only the small, mundane acts of life save us,” he said. “They hold at bay the crippling power of death and despair. They allow us to live, allow us to be human, allow us to affirm others and ourselves.”

How does one come to know the holy? In such acts: in acts of compassion and sacrifice that reach beyond our narrow circle, in acts that affirm the abundance of this world, this life, and don’t feed on the fear of scarcity.

We come to know the holy through love, and love, as Chris Hedges points out, “means living for others.” Many parents, he says, “know this sacrifice, not the temporary sacrifice made to assist another, but the daily sacrifice to create life at the expense of our pleasure, career and dreams.”

“There is drudgery and difficulty in this self-denial,” he says, and yet it is in this self-giving that we create and preserve life: Life on life and ever greater life, and in this life we find a peace that goes with us even as we move through darkness and confront our greatest fears.

You may recall that last fall I introduced you to a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold that was centered on the Hebrew phrase in a verse from the 23rd Psalm that expresses this sense of abundance, of life on life and ever greater life. The passage usually translated as “my cup runneth over” or “my cup overflows.” This image invites us to imagine the blessings of our lives as an unending flood pouring over us, so great they exceed even our boundless need.

I’d like to invite you to sing it with me again, and in your singing, as you can, unburden yourself of the fears that clutch at you, that might incline you to build idols in your heart. You yourself are enough, and the beauty, the wonder, the joy of this life is so great, and the love you hold is so powerful as to overflow all bounds.

The phrase is, “Kosi r’vaya.”

Photo credit: the Providence Lithograph Company / Foter / Public domain

A Faith for the Few? (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward
I am learning that I need to be careful of the topics I choose for worship, lest I be given lessons I’d just as soon not have. This week is a good example. As I began mulling over how I would address the topic of class this Sunday, I promptly lost my wallet. Actually, it turned out it wasn’t lost – thanks to a reminder from my wife, Debbie, I discovered it eventually in a coat pocket. But for a good hour or so Monday morning I was tearing around frantically, convinced that it was gone. What would I do now?

 

I am learning that I need to be careful of the topics I choose for worship, lest I be given lessons I’d just as soon not have. This week is a good example.

As I began mulling over how I would address the topic of class this Sunday, I promptly lost my wallet. Actually, it turned out it wasn’t lost – thanks to a reminder from my wife, Debbie, I discovered it eventually in a coat pocket. But for a good hour or so Monday morning I was tearing around frantically, convinced that it was gone. What would I do now?

It took a while to calm down after I found it, but when I did, I reflected on the experience and how I had reacted to it. Why was this such a big deal to me? I don’t carry much cash in my wallet, so I wouldn’t have lost much money, and just about everything in it of any importance can be replaced, even if it is a pain to do so. No, there was something more than that, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it has something to do with class.

Open my wallet and you can learn a good bit about my class status. Prominently displayed is a driver’s license: no big deal, right? A matter of course for most of us here, but a credential that already puts me in an echelon above many other people in Asheville, and as accepted identification gives me access to everything from an airline seat to a bottle of wine.

Then, you’ll find a credit card and debit card, evidence that I have sufficient income and assets to persuade at least a couple of banks to take a chance on giving me credit. Again, not especially uncommon, but a credential that puts me in even more exclusive company.

And then, ah, a health insurance card, evidence that either I or my spouse are employed – probably full-time or nearly – at a company large and bountiful enough to provide this coverage.

And then you’ll find a random collection of cards that round out the picture – from a library card, not especially exclusive, to a triple A membership, a little less common – and then cards for things like Ingles, the Biltmore, the North Carolina Arboretum, 12 Bones, Ultimate Ice Cream, and more.

OK, all this may be interesting at some level. But it doesn’t really address what had been the source of my distress. When I thought about it, I realized that all those things in my wallet speak not only to whatever my class status may be; they also remind me of my privilege. They give me access and entrée that make my way in the world easier, more enjoyable and less stressful. And they command some level of respect among other people.

What’s tricky, of course, is that the respect is tied to the credential, not to me. Without the credential, where would I be, who would I be? If I couldn’t get someone to vouch for me, if I didn’t have some record that I was who I said I was and was deserving of that privilege, what would I do? That’s part of what I found myself thinking about as I mulled over having to replace the contents of my wallet.

These were not the sorts of things I spent must time thinking about when I was growing up. I was raised the oldest son of a psychiatrist, lived in a nice house, took vacations, had my way paid to college, and lived with the expectation that my adult life would follow suit.

And, why not? That was the script that my social circle followed, and an important part of that circle was the Unitarian Universalist church my family attended. This was Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1960s and early ‘70s and the baby boom was booming. The church was growing quickly with many families like ours – young professionals or people associated with the university. It appealed to people looking for alternatives to their childhood churches, and the UU dedication to freedom of belief and religion responsive to reason felt right to them.

This trend was repeated across the association. Indeed, it was the heart of its growth strategy. As early the 1950s Unitarians had made a point of targeting growing suburbs near universities as the most promising sites for new congregations. Princeton was one of a number of the places where that strategy proved right.

Yet as Mark Harris, one of our eminent historians and minister of the UU congregation in Watertown, Massachusetts, points out, as suburban churches grew, urban and rural churches declined and with them the hope of cultivating the kind of diversity in our movement that we said we sought. Congregations still insisted they wanted to appeal to people of all races, classes and ethnicities, but as a rule it was white, middle- to upper-middle-class whites who found a home there.

In his book, Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History, Mark notes that the two strains of our movement followed different paths to this place. Our Unitarian forebears succeeded in the theological debates in early 19th century Boston, and for years they occupied many of the high pulpits there that drew the elite. While there were reformers among them, as a rule, Mark says, “Unitarians tended to sacrifice social justice for the need for harmony.”

Leading families of Boston joined Unitarian congregations as did the educated elite. In the 1850s, he says, two-thirds of the wealthiest Bostonians were Unitarian, as were 80% of the faculty at Harvard University and three-quarters of its student body.

After the Civil War, though, their numbers began to decline, so the Unitarians began a campaign to expand. Once again, they targeted the educated elite, seeking to found churches in college towns. They had some success before the program ended at the turn of the century.

Universalism followed a different path. It first took root among farmers and tradespeople in the hill country of northern New England in the early 19th century and then spread mostly to small towns in the Northeast and Midwest. Intellectual rigor mattered, but educational achievement didn’t as much. And this had its roots as much in theology as the social situation of its people. Unlike the Unitarians, who saw religion as a matter of self-culture, Universalists had the goal, as Mark Harris puts it, of drawing the entire human family in “one moral community.”

Both denominations struggled in the early 20th century, and many churches closed. In the post-war boom, it was the Unitarians who put a priority on starting new congregations, and like their forebears a century before they targeted college or university towns. The “fellowship movement,” as it was called, was a huge success, resulting in the founding of dozens of congregations, including this one.

But unlike their predecessors a century before who sought to cultivate congregations of the elite, planners of the fellowship movement projected a vision of their new starts as egalitarian centers, drawing people from many backgrounds and making a religious home for all. In an early report, Lon Ray Call, who led the Unitarian extension work, argued that the faith was “now growing most rapidly among those without college training or any religious background.”

And yet, it is hardly surprising that these congregations started in college towns, led by college faculty or other professionals, attracted people of similar backgrounds. And, again, hardly surprising: they were less welcoming to and generally rarely recruited into membership people of other educational or cultural backgrounds. And so it remains in many of our congregations. A national survey of religious identification 20 years ago found that of all religious identifiers Unitarian Universalists had the highest level of what was called “socioeconomic attainment,” essentially education, employment, income, and property ownership.

Now, on one level this is hardly anything to complain about. That people of means and educational achievement find a home in our congregations is a good thing. But another aspect of that survey is worth taking note of. Of all the religions asked about in the survey, ours was by far the smallest in size. And not only that, but since then our numbers have continued to dwindle.  So, the question arises, are we just a boutique religion, a convenient gathering place for some progressive folks of privilege? Is that our vision of ourselves? Are we, as Mark Harris puts it, a faith of the few?

Well, clearly not if we take seriously how we describe ourselves and our aspirations, not if we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth – to quote just the first three of our seven principles.

We know that the appeal of this religious movement is broader than those demographics would suggest because many people who don’t fit them are coming to us now and have been for many years. The problem is that some have a hard time finding a home here, and we lose when they leave.

Successes in life – wealth, education, professional achievement – are to be celebrated – Ph.D.’s and Priuses are grand things – but they only get us so far. The famous passage in the Book of Mark in the Bible where Jesus declares, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” speaks to this.

The point I take from it is not that there is anything wrong with riches. It is that riches get you only so much, and a couple of things they won’t give you is peace of mind and heart.

My experience losing my wallet was a good reminder of this. As I was scrambling to find it, I was suddenly aware in an almost existential way of how vulnerable I was.  I depend on the privileges represented by the cards stuffed in my wallet to ease my way through the world, to expand my options when opportunity presents itself and to shelter me when the storms come. Without it, the world was suddenly a scarier place. And it reminded me of how for so many people, that scarier place is where they live. By dint of luck or circumstance they lack the privileges I carry in my back pocket.

For those of us who carry such privileges, it’s easy to make them a lens through which we view the world. But they give us a distorted picture, one that overlooks how fragile our hold on such things is.

There are those among you, I know, who have first-hand experience of this. Job loss, illness, divorce – you name it – can unhinge your life and with it all the assumptions you held about how you would make your way in the world. But more important, they separate us from each other.

This takes us back to an important gift from our Universalist forebears – the understanding that our hopes, our values, our very identities are realized in relationship, and all that we do to divide the world into sheep and goats only serves to estrange us from ourselves.

Our congregations, then, if they are to be successful, must become places where we are invited to imagine a different way of being, a way of being that begins with our ultimate commonality, the truth of our unity. It can be a hard place to get to, and sometimes we run up against each other’s sharp edges along the way. But we are called from that deep source within us that we name in many ways – hope, love, God – to return and reengage.

The work that this religious movement, this faith calls us to needs all of us – as I say each Sunday, whatever our heritage, whatever our history, whomever we love – if we have our hope of making an impact on the world. And none of us brings a privileged perspective to that work because we are all of us, however we make our way in the world, fragile and fallible beings with our own struggles and our own fears.

In the end, as Annie Dillard reminds us, that will have to do. There is no one of purer heart or cleaner hand who can do this for us, no one who won’t stumble or get their tongues tied with awkward faux pas. We have only the simple balm of humility and gratitude to offer each other in the hope that in our fitful ways we can find healing and a way forward toward the promise of peace.

photo credit: http://theseattlesalmon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/prius-stickers.jpg

Wonder More (text & audio)

 

The path began on packed, dun-colored soil leading into a grove of eucalyptus trees, winding along the edge of a suburban development and then into a narrow ravine. As we hiked, we looked into the trees and occasionally spotted a bit of fluttery motion up in the highest branches.

But it wasn’t until we reached a kind of glen at the center of the grove on the edge of the ravine and sat quietly on the trunk of a fallen tree that we really began to see them. Clustered on branches and flitting lazily between them, hundreds of Monarch butterflies came into view. They were soundless as they dived and soared or simply perched in the cool shade of the massive trees, redolent with their primal perfume.

Debbie and I had spotted the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, just north of Santa Barbara, California, one of the largest wintering sites for Monarchs on the west coast, in our guidebook, but we had no idea what to expect. What we found was somehow both less and more than what we expected.

We had watched those nature specials on TV about the Monarch wintering sites in Mexico where millions of butterflies coat the branches of trees, and experienced butterfly exhibits at museums where dozens of butterflies dance in the air around you and even land on your clothes.

This was nothing like either of those. The butterflies, to be honest, had no interest in us at all, and their numbers were far from overwhelming. And yet, I found I wanted to hold my breath, not quiet believing I was seeing what I saw.

In fact, I think that the fact that this spectacle hadn’t been ginned up for our benefit – other than the town choosing to preserve the space and blaze a trail into it – added to its magic. The human impulse to wonder, we know, is easily tripped. Entertainers across the ages have perfected many ways of making that happen, and we play along. It feels good to experience a “Wow!” every now and then.

But we also learn to calibrate our responses when that impulse is stirred. In the movie theater, the chase scenes and special effects may make our blood race, but in the end we know we’re being manipulated. We’re careful, though, because there is something credulous in our impulse to wonder, something in us that unconsciously wants to believe what we have just seen.

Parents often are surprised to find that a film they remember as heart-warming and fun contains a scene that strikes terror in their child. I, too, have learned to avoid certain kinds of films that I feel are likely to contain images that I would just as soon not have imprinted on my memory.

But in our increasingly visual culture we seem to be going the other way – with more and more graphic and heart-racing images being thrust into our field of view. Some people seek shelter from this assault on the senses, while others increasingly seek it out, finding in the stimulation a way of enlivening the dull routine of day to day. Whatever our response, it takes its toll on our impulse to wonder, something our culture teaches us either to distrust or exploit.

So, into this maelstrom comes Mary Oliver with her musings on a summer day. She begins her poem with these questions – “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear, and the grasshopper?” These are the questions not of catechism with foreordained answers but of credulous wonder. They are open and opening – they set the mind meandering – and they are specific, at least the last one, because it is addressed with an eye to the grasshopper that Oliver has lured into her hand with a few grains of sugar, the one who – Look at that! – is moving her jaws back and forth, instead of up and down, the way that we do. I wonder why that is. And, huh! It has these enormous and complicated eyes. I wonder what that must be like. And then, those pale legs that so thoroughly wash its face, and wings that, zzt! carry it away.

She says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” but then she goes on to offer a suggestion – strolling through the fields, falling down into grass, lying idly, and paying attention.

Jeffrey Lockwood knows a bit about grasshoppers. A member of a UU congregation in Laramie, Wyoming, he is also an entomologist – expert on insects – at the University of Wyoming. In his book, Grasshopper Dreaming, he notes that grasshoppers are a topic of great interest for the farmers of the west, primarily because they want to kill them. Grasshoppers, after all, can decimate crops.

So, Lockwood tells of a project he undertook shortly after arriving at the University of Wyoming to learn more about how grasshoppers behave.

His strategy was not very different from Mary Oliver’s: he sat in a short-grass prairie not far from Laramie and simply videotaped a particular species of grasshopper – and not just on a summer afternoon, but for hundreds of hours from June through September. As you might imagine, spending that much time with grasshoppers gave him a keen insight into how they spend their time – their behaviors, their interactions. In the scientific paper he wrote afterward, he was able to conclude categorically that the main thing that grasshoppers do each day is – nothing! That’s right – nothing!

For 43 minutes out of every hour, Lockwood found, grasshoppers did not appear to be “doing” anything. They simply sat there – perhaps taking in the scenery, perhaps digesting their food, perhaps in Zen meditation – who knows! In his paper, he called this “resting.

This, of course, makes no sense under our present day theories of ecology. After all, he said, he discovered that the daily mortality rate of these insects was 2%. That means that only about a third of those born in the spring will survive to reproduce as adults. Wait a minute. Isn’t survival supposed to be the prime instinct? What are they doing just sitting around? Shouldn’t they get at it: you know, eating, mating . . . whatever? Time’s a’wastin’! But, no. As Lockwood puts it, “grasshoppers are incredibly blasé about reproduction or feeding.” No big fight for survival. Hey, chill, dude!

Where Lockwood goes with this is not to rewrite Aesop’s fable – maybe the grasshopper had it right over the ant to begin with – but to invite the move to wonder. In looking over the landscape, we humans can become so intoxicated with our ability to define and describe that we can fail to acknowledge how much mystery and randomness surrounds our lives. As he puts it, “unable to manifest humility or reverence, we conquer the void by dint of language and faith.”

Lockwood explains this by pointing to our proclivity to assign names to things. As in Genesis when God invites Adam to name the creatures he has made, we fit what we experience into a framework we create, which enables us to explain it. This certainly has some utility, but we fool ourselves if we miss the circularity of that process and what it leaves out.

Like Meg Barnhouse’s uncle, in our reading, who assigned the hand of Providence to every event, we can tie ourselves into knots when we insist on jamming all that we experience into a box of our own creation. The fact remains that every explanation we make is limited by the information we have and the imagination we can bring to the task – both of which are always finite and incomplete. In the end, most of us learn to hold our conclusions lightly, aware, even expecting that they will be adjusted if not contradicted in time.

I have always felt that Isaac Newton made this point best. “To myself,” he said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, 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.”

It occurs to me now that Newton’s observation really is not a lament of all he hasn’t uncovered but a declaration of wonder at the beauty and mystery of the world. Jeff Lockwood, too, finds a great sea of wonder in the resting grasshopper, remembering, as he puts it, that in the great scheme of things, the grasshopper exists for no particular purpose. It just is, he says, “and that’s enough.”

So Mary Oliver would say, and so I found myself saying about the Monarch butterflies tracing loopy flights over my head. The sun at high noon, the stars in dark space, from the hymn we sang earlier: they exist for no purpose. They simply are. The glad joys that heal, the tears in our eyes, the longings we feel, the light of surprise – they exist for no purpose, but to enliven us, to awaken us.

I have been intrigued in the last year or so to follow the emergence of a group that has chosen to promote wonder as one of its founding principles. The Sunday Assembly, which describes itself as “a global movement of wonder and good,” has been gathering what it calls “godless congregations” mostly in Britain and the U.S.

The group was started by a pair of British comedians, and it convenes what they call Sunday “events” that include talks and music that, they say, “celebrate life” and seek to “make the world a better place.” Their motto: live better, help often, wonder more.

The group’s debt to Unitarian Universalism is easy to see – we’ve been using the phrase “celebration of life” to describe worship since the 1950s – though they also offer the twist, at least when its founders are leading, of merging worship with improv together with pop songs. It’s a fascinating thing to watch.

I’m not especially concerned with The Sunday Assembly as a potential competitor – organizing congregations, its founders will discover, is challenging work whatever your grounding. But they do have some interesting ideas and perhaps a few things to teach us, so let a thousand flowers bloom!

Beyond that, though, I appreciate how they are joining us in holding up wonder as a religious value. Thirty years ago, when our association came together to identify the sources of the rich and living tradition from which we arose, we began here: “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

The move to wonder is essentially the first step in our spiritual or religious lives. It is that in us that steps away for a moment from the quotidian details of our daily comings and goings and reaches for a vision of the whole, that opens to us a sense of the larger context in which we live.

And the thing about wonder is that it doesn’t take diligent work to achieve it. In fact, the opposite is usually the case: strolling through a New England meadow on a summer day, or a grove of eucalyptus trees in a California suburb. It’s the kind of thing we don’t always give ourselves permission for – good ants that we are, busily checking things off our lists.

But Mary Oliver doesn’t let us get away easily. Tell me, she says of her romp through the meadow, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Do we have time, maybe, to wander and wonder a little more? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Youth Sunday 2014

Below are the speeches from some of UUCA’s youth at the February 16 Youth Sunday services.

 

Olivia Patterson

As humans, and, perhaps more relevantly, as humans living through an age blossoming with industrial science and exploration, we are continuously taught the values of comparison. My generation, born to become accustomed to the mundane normalities of an unprecedented age of technology, have been bombarded, over time, to look first at our surroundings before coming back to congratulate ourselves on matters both pressing and insignificant. Since I was an underclassman of elementary school, teachers, mentors, and other role models have encouraged me to measure my sense of success upon the successes of others. Vices to promote comparison–even healthy comparison–surround us on an hourly basis. It’s impossible not to compare ourselves and our accomplishments to those of others when we live in a time where the tools to find almost all of the information that we could possibly ask for are as accessible as couple clicks on our smartphones to grasp and internalize.

Paralleled with the growing importance our society is continuing to place upon self-love and the growing awareness we have for the consequences that develop due to a lack of it, the reality of just how much comparing we really do between ourselves and others is confusing and overwhelming. In the end, however, like most problems we have to solve, the answers ultimately lie within us. Finding personal satisfaction is so difficult in a society that measures each individual success in a quota or a goal, but when we learn to accept ourselves, both for our strengths and for our shortcomings, we can begin to own the truth that it is not up to others to determine the things that make each of us beautiful, unique, and valuable.

May we light this chalice today as a reminder to strive towards satisfaction with the little things that make each of us special without the nagging voice of a comparison.

Kenzie Himelein-Wachowiak

Way back on the other side of this winter, amidst warm days and back-to-school fervor, before the words “Youth Sunday” had ever left any of our cynically crinkled mouths, I was presented with a challenge that required more insight than I had time for; My governor’s school essay endowed me with significant power: specifically, I was to identify a problem that plagued society, and detail how I would go about correcting it.

The essay was quite open-ended, leaving the array of applicants an opportunity for political rant, contemplative spiritual discussion, or intense analysis of human nature. While I try to allocate a specific slice of my effort towards considering the needs of others, I admit that I can be quite selfish at times. This state of mind can be forgivable, since it is the default setting of being; that is, the only thoughts and feelings you are acutely aware of are your own. Still I am slightly ashamed to admit that I bypassed the most obvious and the most rampant plagues on the population and selected one from the very short list of problems that I am, in my excessively comfortable lifestyle, familiar with.

One snowy morning, I was absent-mindedly flipping through my psychology textbook when I came across an interesting paradox. According to numerous surveys, those who valued happiness tended to be less happy than those who didn’t view it to be important. Though the finding was presented as one of the science’s many conclusions that contradict common sense, as a person who is practically living the concept described, I can’t say I was even remotely surprised. Just flip the words around a bit and I think you’ll see: Those who are the most unhappy, the most dissatisfied with their lives, view the trait they lack as being the most crucial to their actualization. In the end it’s just another vicious cycle of wanting what you don’t have.

The night before it was due, and not without excessive use of the backspace button, I constructed an essay that I hoped would be taken as original rather than trivial. It detailed a looming dissatisfaction that I have noticed not only in myself but in others as well, fueled by a society in which worth is measured by letters on a report card or digits on a paycheck. The feeling of inadequacy that results from such assessment has a way of eating you from the inside out, making you question what not too long ago you thought to be happiness.

To those of you who are still wondering how I proposed to solve this persistent problem: It was really quite simple, and reading back through, I hope not too naive. I am not arrogant enough to assert experience where there is none, and I have been sparing, at best, with the phrase “I understand.” Yet I believe sympathy can be a worthwhile substitute for empathy, and thus the essence of my solution could be summarized in one word: Listen.

I encourage you to listen to the reflections today, intended to address a concern that is common despite its ugliness. General unhappiness is an intricate phenomenon, yet one that can often be at least slightly alleviated not with grandiose or material musings but with genuine connections to oneself, others, or a higher power. I miss the days when smiles would frequent the faces of those close to me, and perhaps it is my discontentedness that actually fuels my capacity for hope, but I am not willing to accept the notion that those days are behind us.

McKenna Sarae

This reading comes from Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World. In this scene, the “Savage” refers to John, who by birth is considered an outsider to both the utopian world of technology and the Reservation where so-called primitive people live. He is having a debate with Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, about his disillusionment with utopian society. He argues that its technological wonders and soulless consumerism are no substitute for individual freedom, human dignity, and personal integrity. Reading follows but cannot be published on our website due to copyright laws.

Molly Horak

“Life isn’t measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  When I first heard this quote, it stuck in my mind.  Why is life not measured like this in the first place?  Why had it taken me 16 years to realize it?  So I promptly went home, searched Pinterest for a crafty idea, and painted a sign that is now hanging above my bed.  It’s the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night, and I swear, in the few months that I’ve had it hanging, it has certainly changed my thinking about my life.

Earlier this year, in our YRUU class, we watched a TED talk entitled “Before I die, I want to…” In it, a New Orleans woman turned an abandoned building in her neighborhood into a chalkboard wall, where people would write their dreams and goals for their lives.  This poignant video got us thinking, and the next week, when we walked into class, one of the walls in our Jefferson house classroom was turned into a “Before I die…” board.  Over time it filled up with dreams large and small, as a tangible reminder of what we should strive for in life.

But while the wall was supposed to be a positive reminder of our life’s ambitions, it quickly began to have a very different connotation to me.  Instead of making me feel encouraged about where my life was headed, it made me feel like none of my dreams were attainable.  I couldn’t just hop on a plane and travel the world; I was no closer to moving into a perfect house in a big city, or getting a job that I love and starting a family.   I began to realize that though my dreams were big, and always will be big, they might not be accessible at this moment.

So then, what do I strive for?  Where does my life go now?

I don’t think that we should give up our big dreams because they won’t happen tomorrow.  But, I do think smaller, more manageable goals are the way to go.  Each day, I try to do three things- make someone laugh, help someone in need, and do something fun for myself. Maybe I’ll talk to a friend that I don’t see any more, or I’ll invite a girl in my class who just moved to America to sit with me at lunch. Some days I succeed, and others I don’t, but I’m constantly trying, and that’s what matters.

I also began to notice the little things that made me happy during the day—the simple, mundane, everyday activities that make me smile. When my favorite song comes on the radio; laughing hysterically with my friends.  Acing a test at school when I had been convinced I was going to fail or cooking dinner with my mom.  I began to see that while I wasn’t going to drive off in a new Ferrari anytime soon, my life was pretty great.

We live in a materialistic world that equates happiness with success.  The bigger your paycheck, the larger your house, the more people think that you have it all.  But that’s not necessarily the case.  I think that personal happiness comes when you yourself are satisfied with your life, not what other people think is the ideal lifestyle. By appreciating what occurs in my life, I’ve begun to see that while my life may not be perfect, it’s what I’ve got, and I should make it count.  I’m grateful for the positives, and I know that the trials I face are only going to make me stronger.  I say thank you more, I frown less, and I understand that while it’s not always going to be a walk in the park, I’m going to make sure that I embrace whatever happens with open arms and gratitude.  Because life isn’t measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

Quincy Kitson

Do you feel like something’s missing from your life? Do you feel sad, blue, or unhappy? Do you feel trapped or caught? Are you dissatisfied with your life? Well, chances are popping a Prozac is not the answer. Instead, I’m here to tell you about the wonderful new discovery that is human interaction. Now while this may seem a little odd coming from a 16 year old that uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Ask fm, Snapchat, Path, and Tumblr, I’m here to give a speech on human interaction. Lol.

Before I begin, I want to dismiss one major idea. As we proceed through life, we become increasingly self-sufficient. This can eventually lead to the idea of “rugged individualism”, which roughly means you think you can go through life and be totally satisfied without the help of others. I’ve come to the conclusion that this idea is #bogus.

Let’s start with the assumption that you’re happier when with your friends. Yes this is true, it’s been proven, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you’re probably happier when you’re with other people.  Remember this doesn’t mean you have to always be socializing, it’s also ok to occasionally spend a day binge watching breaking bad. It only means you need to occasionally leave your bedroom and share your happiness with other people. It’s often said that happiness is contagious. Well, it just so turns out that the people that said this may have been on to something. On multiple occasions, scientific studies have shown that there is a correlation between your happiness and your friends happiness. One study by Psychologist James H. Fowler even found a correlation between your happiness, and your friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness. So next time somebody gets onto you for having 900 Facebook friends, you now have an answer.

That brings me to my point about technology. [Mira Skit]. Instances like the one Mira just portrayed, are becoming more and more common as we attempt to “modernize” ourselves. I think it’s important to address this, as it seems to be an intergenerational issue. The other day I was scrolling through my twitter feed when I noticed something by a friend of mine from middle school. It said “The day you reach 10,000 messages with someone is pretty special:) we’ve grown so close these past two months. #younglove #forever”. This is just one of many examples of the sad reality of some teenage relationships. Basing any kind of human relationship off of your connections of a social networking site is no substitute for real communication. I mean, if you chatted every day on Facebook with Anna Long from Taiwan, that wouldn’t make you best friends. So cross off creating a twitter account for yourself from your to do list for satisfaction.

As a final point, it’s important to note that family and friends have a lasting impact on your satisfaction with life. Real sciencey people describe this as “hedonic adaptation” : our tendency to quickly adapt to our changing circumstances. This is why people who win the lottery, for instance, usually find themselves at the same level of satisfaction they had before they won. Basically what happens is, you win the money, you buy some stuff with that money, and in a relatively short time, you’re fairly accustomed to your new life style, and your levels of satisfaction return to normal. Close relationships on the other hand, appear to have lasting impacts on levels of satisfaction for years to come. Instead of quickly returning to their previous levels of satisfaction, people engaged in close relationships tend to remain happier for longer periods of time. Now Federal law requires I list the side effects of this new medication for dissatisfaction called human interaction so I’ll list them for you now. “Side effects may include: being content, happiness, and above all satisfaction.

Larissa Wood

It was one of those cold November days where nobody’s used to the below-freezing chill, or the fact that the sun sets at practically 4 o’clock, and three of my friends sat cuddled before a fire sipping hot cocoa.  Yet, somehow amidst the cookies and music, we got to discussing global warming and the ever-impending doom of society.  I flicked off every single lamp in the room, and now our little huddle was solely lit by the flickers of the fire.

Our little quartet was made of three UUs and a Southern Baptist—Emma, Kenzie, and her boyfriend Bear. Kenzie leaned back on the couch and said . . .

“Oh, Bear, I’ve been meaning to ask you this—what do you imagine Heaven to be like?”

He leaned back on the couch, taking in the long inhale of a good question.  He tasted the air, it was laced with the lingering scent of cookies and wood smoke.

And then he told us about how his heaven would be like Earth but with everyone you never met, but if you had met would have been your best friend.  And how everyone you missed would be there, except the people who hadn’t made it there yet, but they would come later, and how there would be plenty of work, because he couldn’t imagine the idea of never having to work—because that would be boring.  And I looked at the fire, as it quickly dwindled away; the coal embers wavered like shreds of pastry.  I smiled; it was beautiful.

As UUs, I think Emma, Kenzie, and I can all attest that we listened . . . wistfully.  We have never had such faith in an afterlife like the one he spoke of.  Yet, I know that I also listened with ever-constant skepticism—wondering what work wouldn’t get boring in eternity, and what about all the people he loved who he believed would go to hell.

But, my point is not that he believes some of us may go to hell, or that heaven would get boring, but that this Heaven he spoke of was beautiful and grounding. When he spoke of heaven, he stared off into the fire with a sense of contentment that I have rarely ever seen on Bear’s face.  I sipped my hot chocolate, tasting that luminescent happiness of heaven.

One of my friends once said that Atheists wouldn’t be so bad if they could stop condescending religious people as stupid. I’m pretty sure I slapped him, but his blatant generalization, as most stereotypes are, is rooted in a truth.  A truth I find very sad.  For, ignoring the many flaws my skeptic-raised brain can nit-pick in every religion including our own, faith as a whole has the power to give so much support, hope, guidance, and community to people.  There is a reason humanity has created religion after religion.  It is not, and will never be, stupid.  With all of our critical thinking prowess, perhaps this human species thinks a bit too much about this universe that we are inexplicably dropped into.  Spiritual satisfaction is hard to come by.

When one dies, there are always two sets of three letters – one, being RIP. Rest in Peace:  in a world of such tension, turmoil, and dissatisfaction, death if anything seems to deserve rest. With peace goes the other three letters. “He was at peace with GOD.”  God.

Please don’t cringe.  I know how the occasional Unitarian tends to wince at this word, but we really shouldn’t be too avoidant.  The word itself is just three letters, right?  And yet, dang, those three letters are undeniably the three most powerful scribbles in human history.

But, when we think “at peace with God,” I think that really means at peace with yourself and your morals: to be satisfied with the way you have spent your life, to forgive yourself for your sins (and I don’t mean Biblical sins as much as the regrets of all poor decisions made), and to accept death.

I find that pretty formidable as a 17-year-old high school student that has not really done much with her 17 years.  And honestly, writing this speech feels horribly inadequate when half of my friends suffer from recurring depression, and two of my friends have seriously contemplated suicide.  Who am I to profess to you, to this wealth of memories, pain, and wisdom, that I know the secret of satisfaction?  The idea of that makes me feel sick.  I don’t know if I believe satisfaction is possible, furthermore, I don’t know if I believe it is desirable.  For, generally speaking satisfaction breeds complacency, and complacency breeds stagnancy.  In such a broken world, being satisfied with everything would either be naive or sociopathic.  Rather, I think it is spiritual satisfaction, sanity and survival that I stand here striving for.  I have no instructional manual for satisfaction; I think that’s something one has to construct for themselves.  But personally, I believe that accepting the dichotomy of joy and pain, understanding the lack of definite answers, and finding peace with what is solid is integral to at least part of that manual on satisfaction.

I laugh when I say my best friends, the mountains, and my favorite books are my spiritual rocks.  But to me, the fact that they actually exist in such meager perfection is reassuring and humbling. Someone’s rock may be the promise of heaven, and I think it’s important for all of us to respect it. But as much as we need solid rocks of core beliefs as sources of guidance and satisfaction, finding the beauty in transient, temporary, and even painful things is just as important. Heaven cannot be the only place of perfection, and if we only cling to perfect things, there is a danger in regarding everything else as broken.  As beautiful as Bear’s heaven was, that moment by the fire, drifting with wood smoke and oncoming twilight, was just as beautiful.

And I think spiritual acceptance and satisfaction comes from knowing that death may await us, but this broken life right here is full of heavens.  The taste of hot cocoa is magic. Crying is a reminder of the infinite capability we have to care. The hand of a friend is Godly perfection. The sunshine that comes through those windows may land on faces lined with wrinkles and precancerous freckles, but that sunshine is heaven.  And that ought to, it must, be enough.

Emma Himelein-Wachowiak

 One of my favorite childhood memories is of picking violets for my Grandmother. The memory is really just a blur, but it’s a pretty blur; one of purple flowers, green grass, and my mom’s smiling face.

I was happy, and she was happy, and my Grandma was going to be very happy. So why does looking back on this memory make me sad? It could be because I miss having that same “carefree” type of relationship with my mom. It could also be because I miss my Grandmother, who I now know saw this beautiful day as one of her last. But maybe it’s just because I miss looking at this reality, one made up of violets, grass, and smiles; and being able to call that “enough”. Maybe I just miss the satisfaction of being a kid.

Childhood is painful to remember because of our societal knowledge that it is temporary. Despite what “Back to the Future” and other brilliant films have taught us, we cannot go back in time. Our spontaneous acts of throwing bread crumbs to ducks, jumping in leaf piles, and flying kites have come and gone; and are now to be filed away in a drawer we call “remembrance”. Childhood is temporary.

Or is it?

Author Patrick Rothtfuss once spoke the following words:

“When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.”

I think what Rothfuss is trying to say through this quote is that maybe, deep down, we’re just all kids who one day decided to be adults. We used to live in the present, -we used to live in the now-, and then one day “the now” was simply not enough. Our futures were hung over our heads like meat being dangled to dogs, and we salivated over their irresistible temptation. School, college, work, family, we had to check them each off our lives as items on a grocery list. Life became a game of chess and we had to contemplate our next move before we even finished the one we were on.

What so many of us fail to realize is that while childhood is temporary, the concept of childhood is not. This philosophy of “spontaneity” has no age limit. We can still throw bread \crumbs to ducks, run through leaf piles, and fly kites in the sky. And yet we can do so much more, because now we have enough coordination to ride our bikes, hike up mountains, and light fires to toast marshmallows in. We have enough patience to sing in the shower, do Sunday morning crossword puzzles, or watch the sunset. We’re loving enough to have relationships, spiritual enough to go to church, and childlike enough to be satisfied with this now that we are so lucky to be given.

Maybe one day Doc will show up in his time machine, (and I’m still counting on that). But until then, it is through spontaneous acts like these that we are truly transported back to that magical realm of violets, grass, smiles, and being a kid.

Kenzie Himelein-Wachowiak

While fighting horrendous writer’s block for this very composition, I stumbled upon a quote by Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you’ve ever known.” I liked it so much that I turned it into a sub-par T shirt for my dad, but that’s beside the point. Perhaps it’s the way I was raised, in a church that shied away from definitions, but I don’t appreciate endless clichés or glittering generalities. I believe that writing should be a series of insightful, provocative, and entirely true sentences. And if you leave this service today with anything at all, I don’t want it to be that you need to find more friends or give more money to charity, or even that teenagers really are capable of critical thinking. Instead, when you leave today, I want you to pick up your pen and your paper, physical or metaphorical, and I want you to write your own, true story. Here’s mine:

I don’t have the secret to satisfaction. I don’t even have a hint. I care too much what people think of me, I plan extensively for a future that I often doubt I’ll ever succeed in, and sometimes certain things happen that make me feel as though I’m completely unprepared to deal with the frequently monotonous and occasionally heartbreaking occurrences that make up what we in high school like to refer to as “the real world”. By no means am I asserting that these qualities are unique to just me, or my generation, or churchgoers or the impossibly privileged or anything like that. If I have acquired any knowledge through my humble observations of the human race, it’s that we all, no matter how different, share relatively the same hopes, desires, and fears. Perhaps we all strive for satisfaction, for love and security and day-to-day joy, but it’s our fear of failure, of inadequacy, of that looming panic that surrounds the idea of being on our death beds and running through our waning minds everything we SHOULD have done; perhaps it’s that fear that holds us back in the end.

I may not have the secret to satisfaction, but I know what makes me happy. Long hugs, warm trail runs, late night phone conversations, genuine words between friends, making someone smile who hasn’t in a long time. And maybe I’m being naive, but I can almost convince myself that if I witness or I partake in enough of these small, worthwhile things, I can become content.

I assume most of you are familiar with David Foster Wallace, a brilliant man who, judging by the fact that he committed suicide in 2008, never achieved this rare state of satisfaction. I recognize when my own words are becoming inadequate, so I hope you’ll allow me to quote from his most famous work, “This Is Water”, a commencement speech given to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon college.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”…

Foster Wallace continues, and then concludes with this: “What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water. This is water.”

And while it’s hard for me to follow the painfully true words of a genius, I will leave you with this: to all the fish out there, myself included in this somewhat childish comparison: This is water. It may be murky, it may be nothing or it may be exactly like what you expected it to be, but through it all, you are never, ever alone.

God, Again (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The writer Eric Weiner tells of how one day he found himself doubled over with abdominal pain in a New York City emergency room. As he shivered in his paper gown waiting for the doctor, a nurse arrived to draw some blood. The woman, about his age with features and an accent that seemed to him Caribbean or West African, paused and said quietly, “Have you found your God yet?”

 

READINGS

Self Portrait by David Whyte

http://www.davidwhyte.com/english_self.html

Job 38:1-7; 12-13; 16-18

Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

Speak, if you have understanding.

Do you know who fixed its dimensions, or who measured it with a line?

Onto what were its bases sunk?

Who set its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy? . . .

Have you commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place, so that it seizes the corners of the earth and shakes the wicked out of it?

Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Have the gates of death been disclosed to you?

Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth?

If you know of these – tell me.

SERMON

The writer Eric Weiner tells of how one day he found himself doubled over with abdominal pain in a New York City emergency room. As he shivered in his paper gown waiting for the doctor, a nurse arrived to draw some blood. The woman, about his age with features and an accent that seemed to him Caribbean or West African, paused and said quietly, “Have you found your God yet?”

Taken aback, he stammered, “Why?” Did she know something he didn’t, he wondered. She didn’t reply but just gave him what seemed like a wise, knowing look and left.

Weiner’s medical episode ended uneventfully – turns out to have been just a severe attack of gas – but the nurse’s question weighed on him. Had he found his God . . . yet? It set him wondering. She wasn’t asking whether he had found a God or the God or just plain God, but his God, as it there were one out there for him, waiting.

For a while he put it aside. It wasn’t a question he felt was relevant to his life. God, religion: he had left all that stuff behind in his youth, growing up in a culturally Jewish but not especially religious household. And besides he very much saw himself as a rationalist – someone who looks to science and reason as a guide to living – and he saw little about the notion of God that seemed rational to him.

Still, he wrote, he had to admit that in his experience, while “reason is an excellent tool for solving problems (it) offers little guidance in identifying which problems we should solve and why.” In the words of G.K. Chesterton: reason doesn’t account well for those moments in life that “bewilder the intellect, yet utterly quiet the heart.”

There was something about that nurse’s question that nagged at him, but he had no notion of how to begin to answer it. Searching for a spiritual category where he might plant his flag, he gave up, declaring himself simply a “confusionist” armed with this credo: “We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected, and believe – no, hope – there is more to life than meets the eye.”

For Weiner, this puzzlement was the goad for a journey that he recounted in a best-selling book, Man Seeks God. The book tells of Weiner’s travels around the world to learn about and experience eight religious traditions, ranging from Sufism and Buddhism to Franciscan Catholicism and Kabbalah.

Few of us have the resources for such an adventure, but for many of us Weiner’s label of “confusionist” rings a bell, especially when it comes to this notion of God.

I remember when I was around 9 or 10 years old playing with a friend by a stream near my home when he casually asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I didn’t know what to say, but to hide my embarrassment I just mumbled something like, I did, and that ended the conversation.

So, I guess I could date my own history of wrestling with the notion of God from that moment. It wasn’t as if I had never heard of God. In my Unitarian Universalist religious education classes I had encountered God and gods from many cultures in many guises. But I had never instructed on an answer to that bald question: Do you believe in God?

I know now that the stories I heard and the lessons participated in were intended not to deliver received answers on the mind-boggling questions that religion poses – who am I, what matters, where did I and all of this come from – but to encourage my wondering mind to work through them and come to answers that made sense to me, answers that surely would change as I changed and grew, but that were rooted in my own understanding and experience.

That has been true of this religion since the days of its founding in the early 19th century when William Ellery Channing declared that “the great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own.”

And it remains true of us today. When a volunteer teacher in our Spirit Play classes reads a story, he or she will invite the children to comment on it with a reflection that begins with the words, “I wonder . . . .” I wonder how that felt, I wonder what they meant, I wonder why she said that. And you’ll recognize that I’m inviting you as our worship theme for the month to do some wondering of your own.

Looking back on my childhood encounter, though, I see that there was something more than puzzlement behind my confused answer at the streamside: something that I now recognize as shame. Young as I was, I had lived long enough to perceive that at the time in the larger culture there was really only one socially acceptable answer to my friend’s question, and I gave it.

Things have loosened a bit since the early 1960s, but the presumption is still strong, especially here in the South, that when asked, one will respond as I did. So, if nothing else it challenges people like us who find integrity affirming a range of responses, from “yes” to “no” to “Well, tell me what you mean by God,” to broaden the conversation and work to find some clarity for ourselves.

Karen Armstrong begins her book, The Case for God, by declaring, “We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile.” God, she says, is bandied about by so many people in so many settings that we are left with the presumption that the concept of God should be easy. You know, God: Supreme Being, Creator of all Things, infinitely loving, ultimately inscrutable, utterly transcendent, and yet counting every fallen sparrow. Simple!

Wait a minute: did you say simple? With so many imponderables wrapped around it, this tiny word quickly expands beyond our common capacity to make sense of it, and so it becomes a convenient screen on which we humans can project our hopes and fears; our aspirations and ambitions, pinning on attributes, such as pronouns – him, mostly; and motives – smiting these people, blessing those others.

Probably no work offers a more effective caution against this practice than the ancient Book of Job that I quoted earlier.  You’ll recall that the book begins with God looking down from on high and praising his good servant Job, while Satan insists the Job is only good because he’s treated well. Test him, Satan says, and you’ll see him curse you.

So, God does, inflicting him with every measure of disease and misfortune. But Job insists that he holds to his faith. Friends arrive, and while they commiserate, they suggest that Job must have done something to deserve all these ills, for God only punishes those who deserve it. This goes on for some time, and Job bemoans his outcast state until the figure of God breaks in with a long soliloquy, part of which you heard.

It is an amazing passage. As the writer Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, God speaks, not apparently because Job has been irresistibly persuasive in arguing why he has been ill-served, but, she says, “because God cannot stand one more minute of his yammering.”

The language in these questions is lyrical – “Where were you when the morning stars sang together? Have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” I can imagine the writers pushing their imaginations to the limit – how to express the inconceivable? how to communicate how infinitely unknowable the ways of the universe are?  The question that the book seems set up to answer – why do bad things happen to good people – is blown out of the water, and along with it the neat image of a friendly God who watches over us and finds us parking spots.

Forget that! The wisdom that Job offers us is that suffering happens, and we are left to make of our lives what we can. But, God? Well, back to the drawing board.

Karen Armstrong observes that theology, literally the study of God, “is a very wordy discipline.” People, she says, “have written reams and talked unstoppably about God.” (Speaking from the experience of four years of seminary and 10 years of ministry, I can only say, “Oh, preach it, sister.”) And while much of it is impenetrable and some of it is actually beautiful, it doesn’t necessarily take us much closer to making sense of God, if there is any sense to be made.

Armstrong argues that the trouble began when in our modern age, the Christian church and its scholars took to applying the language of science – which she describes as “logos” – to the study of religion, which she says had been the imaginative realm of what she calls “mythos.”

One unfortunate result of all this, she says, is that it pulled religion out of where it originated, as a rich and metaphorical guide to living, and set it up in the academy as an artifact for arcane study. The old image of scholars counting how many angels can dance on a pin was the product of this way of thinking.

In fact, Karen Armstrong argues, religion holds the most promise not as a place of proof texts, but as “a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.” The notion of God, too, she says, works better when it comes out of the clouds, loses its pronouns and invites us to reflect on what is most deeply real and impinges on us most profoundly.

My colleague Galen Guengerich has argued for describing God as, in his words, “an experience that intimately and extensively connects me to all that is.” And a consequence of this experience, he says, is to invite us to see ourselves as agents of the best there is, call it the divine, call it all that upholds life and love in the universe.

Could that be “your” God? Perhaps, perhaps not. The sense of transcendence that Galen describes is something that all of us experience in one form or another, but there are many ways of framing it that need have nothing to do with God.

Our music today offers a sense of the variety of ways that transcendent appears to us. Joan Osbourne invites us to find the holy in the scrubby stranger on the bus, the other we avert our eyes to avoid. Pete Seeger believed he found all he ever needed in the songs he used to break through the boundaries that keep us human beings apart. And Mendelsohn’s beautiful chorus lifts us up with its bounteous imagery of God as the unsleeping source of compassion that quickens our languishing hearts.

So, in answer to Eric Weiner’s nurse, must we expect that at some time we will hitch our own spiritual wagon to some understanding of God? No, not necessarily, and really that’s not the central question. I think that David Whyte’s poem, which Bob read earlier, comes closer to the point. Called “Self Portrait,” it is, I’m told, something he wrote one night in a period of spiritual crisis while he was looking in the mirror. So, the person to whom he is speaking is one he knows well.

When you let go of the labels, the clever scripts that you’ve cobbled together for when the “religion” question comes up, when you are fully present to yourself: what do you see? To what, to whom do you belong? What is your answer when despair visits you? As the world pushes and prods, wheedles and pleads, how do you find your center?

Are you prepared to give yourself fully to the truth that lives within you? I love the vividness of his imagery – do you know how to melt, holding nothing back, into that fierce heat of living that feels like nothing less than falling toward the center of your longing?

And how will you live day by day with the consequences of all the commitments you have made in your life, the love that both nourishes and tears at your heart, knowing that one day all of it – you and I, too – will be gone?

Oh friends, let us set to wondering. Let us be good company, and let the space we create and hold here be the crucible for our work.

It matters not if there is one God or many Gods or any Gods, when it comes down to it. What matters is that we be witnesses to the beauty and wonder of the world, that we live with integrity and compassion, that we honor that ineffable transcendence in which we and all things participate, the stream that, as Tagore put its, runs through the world, that shouts in joy through the grasses and is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, moving through us this very moment.

Photo Credit:  Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

The Arc of the Universe–MLK Jr. Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The figure of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Civil War colonel who collected this beautiful spiritual you just heard the choir sing, evokes the kind of story that we Unitarian Universalists like to tell ourselves about our historical engagement with civil rights.

 

READING
From “Justice and Conscience” by Theodore Parker

“Look at the facts of the world.  You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure that it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.”

SERMON

The figure of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Civil War colonel who collected this beautiful spiritual you just heard the choir sing, evokes the kind of story that we Unitarian Universalists like to tell ourselves about our historical engagement with civil rights.

A crusading abolitionist and Unitarian minister, Higginson made his churches in Newburyport and then Worcester, Massachusetts focal points in the fight for freedom for America’s enslaved blacks. He helped harbor runaway slaves and was a member of the Secret Six in Boston who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Theodore Parker, author of the quote at the center of our service today, was another member of that group.

When war came, Higginson joined as an officer. Then he got word that the Union was looking for a leader of its first regiment of freed slaves, the 1st South Carolina, and even though he had little military experience, he jumped at it. He joined the regiment in November 1862, and it set off for its first engagement the following January. As the regiment was leaving, Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew – another Unitarian – furnished Higginson with a supply of copies of Lincoln’s newly signed Emancipation Proclamation. Higginson later wrote in his memoir, “Army Life in a Black Regiment,” that many in the regiment couldn’t read, but that, in his words, “they all seemed to feel more secure when they held it in their hands.”

The regiment took part in no major battles. Instead, it was assigned to raids to capture supplies, but even then they engaged in some sharp combat and, Higginson reported, acquitted themselves well. It was the first time in the Civil War that blacks had taken part in combat, and their success persuaded the Union to muster more black regiments. Higginson later recalled in his memoir, “it was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

You see what I mean? Great story!

And then there’s Theodore Parker, whose words recast by Martin Luther King Jr. became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. In that sermon on justice and conscience, he declared that there is a moral law in the universe as inexorable as physical law and that justice is its demand. It is something, he said, that we feel like a physical tug on our conscience. We may falter, we may quail, we may turn aside, but there it remains. And when we pay attention, in Parker’s words “in (our) cool and personal hours” when we are most ourselves, we cannot help but acknowledge that we “love justice with a firm, unwavering love.” It is, he said, the “natural fealty” of our conscience.

It was both the spirit and the theology of Parker’s words that appealed to Dr. King: justice was not a convenient or conditioned concept. Its demands are woven into who we are and ever have been, and it will out, it will push relentlessly to be realized. In Parker’s words, “things refuse to be mismanaged long.”

Inspiring words, inspiring story. And yet, it turns out that even Theodore Parker had his personal reservations about just what abolition might bring. Toward the end of his life, he wrote “an Anglo-Saxon with common sense does not like the Africanization of America; he wishes the superior race to multiply, rather than the inferior.”

I have been reading Theodore Parker for years, but I only read those words in the last year or so, and I have to say that when I did my heart sank. Really? Even Parker, the radical, arch abolitionist whose 3,000-member congregation in the 1840s was the most integrated Boston had seen, underneath his defiant public stands was privately mired in prejudice?

But let’s be honest, in that time how many weren’t? Even as Thomas Higginson cut across the grain in his defense of African slaves, there was a noblesse oblige to his crusading, and even then he was regarded as a renegade among Unitarians. Both of the churches he served before the war eased him out after just a few years in favor of preachers who were less inclined to rock the boat.

We cast about for figures whose purity makes them idols to emulate and find that they all have dirt on their hands. And that makes it all the easier for us to throw up our hands in defeat. “See, even Parker was a racist. What hope do we have of changing this?” What hope?

It’s a question that resonates in my mind this Martin Luther King Sunday. We have each struggled in our own ways with the pall of what has been called “America’s original sin,” racism that is marbled so deeply into American life that none of us escapes its stain and its wound. And we Unitarian Universalists are not exempt. It has taken us some time to accept that. To see that even nice, liberal-minded folks live amid, benefit from and sometimes inadvertently advance practices that demean and oppress other people.

It is a hard learning. It’s not the way we want to be. And yet, there is a release in coming to terms with it, a chance for us to shift our perspective, to open our eyes to things we previously chose not to see, to shed our hubris and open our hearts.

Many teachers are available to help us in this work. Today I want to tell you about two who have been helpful to me. I begin with a professional colleague, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed. Mark has told his own story of growing up in Chicago and ultimately entering our ministry as, in his words, an “integration baby.”

His most recent book, Darkening the Doorways, collects stories that answer the puzzling question of why we Unitarian Universalists learn so little of African Americans in our movement. The answer is not that African-Americans have not been among us, but that most of their stories have been lost or never told. And so Mark has made it a practice to seek out and raise up those stories. It was in Mark’s book that I read that dismaying quote from Theodore Parker, a common opinion at the time that may help explain the result of an early encounter.

In October 1860 at their annual meeting Unitarian ministers were joined by an African-American Baptist minister, the Rev. William Jackson. Jackson had been active in the abolitionist movement and likely had come to know Unitarian ministers in that way. But even more he had found himself drawn by the message that he heard from them.

So toward the end of the day, Jackson stood and declared that from what he had heard at that assembly he had been converted to the Unitarian perspective and stood ready to preach it. When he was done, one of the Unitarians, William Potter, rose to say that the ministers should raise money support Jackson and his congregation. A collection was taken that garnered $49, a respectable sum at that time, but there the matter ended. As historical accounts put it, “Mr. Jackson was sent on his way.” That ended his contacts with the Unitarians.

Sad to say, for much of the next 100 years while African-Americans still came, that chilly reception was pretty much the norm for aspiring clergy. Even though as early as the 1840s black candidates were graduating from the Unitarian seminary in Meadville, the trick was finding congregations that might ordain and settle them. And, aside from a few abortive attempts, that didn’t happen. Exceptions included churches in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Harlem, New York, both founded in the early 20th century by determined African-American ministers. Neither one, though, was fully recognized by the denomination, and both closed after a matter of decades.

Universalists also attracted interest from African-Americans, who were among the charter members at congregations in Philadelphia and Gloucester, Massachusetts. But with the exception of a long-standing mission settlement in the Tidewater area of Virginia, Mark reports, the movement’s appeal to African-Americans proved limited.

The story of our denomination’s struggle with race in the 1960s and 70s is a bigger tale than I have time to tell today. Still, Mark Morrison-Reed offers one telling anecdote that opens a window on it. Shortly after our two movements joined in 1961, the denomination embarked on creating a new hymnal intended to represent our radically inclusive faith.

Unfortunately, that hymnal, while innovative and expansive, failed to include, as Mark puts it, “one word or song written by an African American or reflective of that experience.” Our current hymnal, printed in 1993, corrected that omission.

Still, that incident speaks to a blind spot that has haunted us. Deeply and authentically committed as we are to racial justice, we have not always done a good job of living it, of making room for experience beyond our ken. These days, anxiety over how we respond to racial oppression tends to focus on the relative lack of diversity in our congregations. I’ve heard it raised in this congregation.

Mark offers counsel on this point that I find helpful. We are caught in a paradox, he says, because while we say we want diversity, the truth is that emotionally we really don’t want to change. We like our congregations as they are, the people we know, the things we do. Promoting diversity involves welcoming and even seeking out people who are different from us, and that will change our community – perhaps in good, even necessary ways – but change us all the same, and it’s bound to be uncomfortable.

So, why do it? Not to meet some self-appointed authority’s notion of what is morally appropriate for a liberal religious congregation. No, we seek out and welcome diversity because of who and how we understand ourselves to be.

As Mark puts it, this drive is spiritually rooted in an intuition central to our religious identity: that “we are deeply and inextricably connected to one another and all that ever was or shall be. We want one another. We yearn to feel connected – and whole.” And in the end, it’s not about who we hope to bring in our doors. “It’s about healing ourselves.”

So, that brings me to my second teacher – actually not just one teacher but many involved in precisely the sort of work Mark was talking about.

Shortly after moving to Asheville, I was looking for ways to get oriented to this town, and several people encouraged me to consider signing up for a program that would introduce my to a side of this city most people don’t see.

It’s a gathering where people of many different backgrounds and experiences, white and black, talk about their experience with racism and the effect it’s had on their lives. Building Bridges, it’s called, and over each nine-week session participants learn much about how racism works – about the stereotypes we all carry, the privilege that we with white skin live with, the way racism is promoted through institutional practices and how it appears in schools and housing and even the simplest economic transactions.

There are readings and presentations, but the heart of the program is found in small groups, each facilitated by two people, one white and one black, who invite participants to share their own stories, their own struggles.

It is a place where white people like me get to hear for the first time what it’s like to have store clerks follow you around with suspicious eyes, to have landlords lament that they have no openings, to have police officers pull you out of a car and search you for no apparent reason. And it changes you to hear it.

Building Bridges took shape here in the early 1990s. Our member Sue Walton, one of the early organizers, says there was a lot of skepticism, especially among black leaders, that Asheville was ready for this. But one of the African-American ministers offered his church for a starting place. That first night, she says, the organizers were overwhelmed with the turn out, scrambling for space wherever they could find it. They were off and running.

Our member Dawn Klug, a long-time small group facilitator, says the program appealed to her because it taught her Asheville’s unique story around race. “As a white woman, I grew up never talking about race,” she said. “It’s helped me start to learn.”

Jackie Simms heard about Building Bridges while attending this congregation. She and her husband, Fred, had been in Asheville a few years and were feeling isolated, wondering if they had made the right choice. The program, she says, gave her access to people she never would have met, and also a new vocabulary and a constellation of friendly faces that made opening and exploring feel safe. Asked at the time to say something in a service here about her experience, she wrote and delivered this poem:

PREJUDICED – ME?         NOT MUCH

A Bele Chere Festival some years ago –

My husband, my daughter, my mother, me –

Genetically sun kissed all.

Having fun, Exploring this possible new home.

Very hot July day, A cool drink – good idea!

Hmm (yummy). A frozen fruit drink,

Small paper parasol in it.

Good drink.              Cold, refreshing.    Slowly sipped.

The last few sips.                The drink gone but enjoyed.

The parasol – pretty. Bright colors, tiny.

I wear it in my hair.                     No one knows me here.

More to see.  More to eat.                        Tired now. Let’s leave.

Hmm. A single guy – white face, black pants

black shirt, black motorcycle helmet.

Does he have on a black leather jacket, too??

Stay away.  Stay away.

A gust of wind. Parasol swept away – toward the guy!

Don’t go near him – Hell’s Angel.

He stoops to reach parasol. Now what??

Parasol inches from his hand! Another gust.

Parasol swept farther.      Far away.

He looks at me. . .  Kindness in his eyes!

Realization: He wanted to retrieve it for me!

I’m touched. I thank him for his kindness.

His caring – more important than the parasol.

Parasol gone. It’s OK. Caring stays. I hope he knows. . .

He walks forever – chasing parasol.

In his clasp – returned to me. Emotion rises –

Tears fill my eyes.

Prejudiced, me?     Wrong, me?     Touched, me?

A lesson here. How to live it.

A need for bridges.

You see, I happen to believe that Theodore Parker, flawed and fallible as he may have been, had it right when he is said that there is a moral force for justice that is inherent to our nature, something that works on us and will not let us go. The only error in his great metaphor – the arc that bends toward justice – is that it omits the benders.

Yes, justice is imminent in the world, but agents are needed to bring it into being. I think that he knew that; indeed, he was a great bender himself. But it needs to be said. We cannot wait for justice to happen. We need shoulders brought to the wheel, and they may as well be ours.

I have told you about Building Bridges, a good place to start, and the group’s next session begins next Monday. Check the flyer in Sandburg Hall for details. If you can’t make this one, another starts this fall. And there are other opportunities for good work that you can learn about at our social justice table.

My colleague Rosemary Bray McNatt was right: it is hard work, but in the end if there is no justice, there will be no peace. We can read and applaud all the good and noble thoughts of inspiring leaders, but if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe.

So, I close with her admonition: Nothing that Unitarian Universalists need to do is more important than making justice real – here, where we are.

It’s All Good (text & audio)

 

It usually comes at the end of a list. A list of bad things. Like this: Well, at least one of the kids has been sick since mid-December, I got in a fender bender yesterday, and I just found out that my company is outsourcing my whole department. But it’s all good. Usually followed by a half smile and a rapid change of subject.

It’s all good. It makes me think of the famous scene from the Princess Bride – that word? I do not think it means what you think it means!

It’s all good. I can’t say I don’t appreciate what the phrase is trying to accomplish. I think it comes out of a wish to appear strong and capable – to be “looking on the bright side.” When things are really going badly, we don’t want to be a downer. We don’t want people to think we’re not competent, or that we are falling apart at the seams. We think we want or need privacy.

This glossing over our lived reality may help us hold it together in the short term, but in the long run, we are losing an important opportunity. We lose the opportunity to pull off the mask of attempted perfection and show our true face.

What would it look like, do you think, if we told each other the truth? So often, we know, through conversations with other friends, or through social media that something is “up” with a friend. But we aren’t sure how to broach the subject, and so we say nothing. Perhaps we ask something general, like, “are you ok?” And then our friend says, “I’m fine,” because how do you begin to answer the question when it feels like everything is falling apart around you.

When I worked as a chaplain, a colleague and I developed a shorthand that was very helpful – we’d say “good morning,” or “hey, how has your day been?” and if one of us answered, “oh, I’m fine,” without thinking it through, the other would pause, and say, “Hmm… are you? Or is this, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine?’” Because we had learned that when either of us said quickly, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” we usually weren’t.

Why are we so set on convincing each other that it’s all good? That we’re just fine, really. Is it some kind of competitiveness or one-upmanship? Or is it something else? Perhaps we have an honest wish to not be a “downer,” a need to go unnoticed. But if you are truly self-differentiated, you can say, “things are difficult, but I’m in a strong place.” “All of those things – about my sick kids, my job and the rest of my life – are true, but we are coping.” Or, “you know, this has been a really hard time for me, and I’m having a hard time getting back on my feet.”

This is NOT glossing over the truth, but diving deep and allowing the truth to stand on its own.  And when we are not trying to avoid our lived reality, we can more easily move through it.

We might also say ‘it’s all good’ because we aren’t sure the listener has the courage to hear what we have to say. Did my friend ask me how I am as a perfunctory conversational trope? Or did she really want to know the answer? Will he listen as I tell him the truth?

Telling the truth requires us to risk vulnerability.

Hearing the truth requires us to acknowledge that we can’t fix or change another person’s pain.

And neither of these is easy to do.

When we risk vulnerability, we are exposing a soft underbelly that is actually full of possibility, full of depth and potential relationship. I am not suggesting that we bare our souls to every person we meet. The first step is being a good listener – when we allow ourselves to practice, we can model the response we wish to receive.

Try it. Ask a friend how they are, and really mean it. Make eye contact. Pause. And listen.

Remember the Velveteen Rabbit of children’s nursery fame? What is it that made him “real?” Living. Fulfilling his life’s purpose, which for the rabbit, was to inhabit the dreams and imagination of a little boy. In the story, it is called becoming “real.” Brené Brown calls it authenticity. She says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” [1]

My life’s purpose is to risk being present with people, to hold up a mirror, to be available to truly see you when you need to be seen, to hear your story and listen deeply.  With that in mind, being real, for me, is accomplished by showing up as fully engaged and fully committed to my ministry as I can be in a given moment—risking the experience of vulnerability with you at the same time I am listening deeply to your lived reality.

In my first sermon here at UUCA, I used a reading that includes my favorite quote, “What you risk reveals what you value.” Some moments the commitment is clear and simple. But sometimes it isn’t easy. It has been especially difficult to stay present these past few months since the second minister call process began. It’s an odd process, to be sure. It is kind of like having a performance evaluation done by 600 people. Well, no, it’s not kind of like that. It is that.

As the process unfolds, there is a fair amount of anxiety in the system – which is related to many different things. Some of you are not sure what the process exactly means. Others of you are so close in the middle of it that you can’t imagine thinking of anything else. There are questions on the table about whether I am a good fit for this congregation and questions about what it means to commit to a second called minister.

And through it all, I am getting an extended object lesson in vulnerability. I have no action to take at this point but to continue to show up and do what I do. To continue my ministry of presence. To continue to risk. To lean into the uncomfortable moments and let the discomfort remind me who I am and why I am here. I am here to witness and honor your moments of discomfort and struggle, to celebrate your joys and to help you dive deeper. And as you dive deeper, I am reminded of my own experience of depth, my own ability to stand firm in the midst of chaos.

I am made real by my engagement in this process.

We each have an opportunity to reflect upon our own life’s purpose. How do you become real? How do you find a way to express your own authentic experience in a fast-moving life? The vulnerability required to do this can feel impossibly daunting, and so you can start small. Start by looking at your own experience and being honest about where you are in it. Do you feel grounded? What are you dodging or avoiding?

This month’s theme is “Capital T Truth.” If we risk sharing our “lower case t truth,” which is whatever happens to be true for us in a given moment, we open the door to finding the capital T Truth. We live in a consumer culture that teaches us that the capital T Truth is an idea or a concept we can learn how to do and once we master it, we are fixed.  But this is not accurate. You are true when you allow yourself to be all of who you are. The capital T truth is YOU. Do you have a face you show to the world, and a face you are afraid for anyone to see? The more you are able to peel away the mask and show your true face, the more the two faces begin to be the same face.

It’s NOT all good – is it really OK to say it? The line between being a downer and being honest is, again, about authenticity and self-differentiation. It’s NOT all good, so try something like this, instead, ‘You know, I’ve got to be honest, this is a hard time, but I am doing my best to stay grounded. To remember the things that are good. And to let myself feel how I feel.’

Perhaps the line between honesty and obfuscation can be our engagement in trying to shift what can be shifted. What are your coping mechanisms? How are you getting yourself through? It’s ok to say that you are struggling without being stuck. And sometimes you are stuck.

The Real You is worthy of honor. The real you is capable of being stuck and OK at the same time. The real you is strong and bold and can push forward with the same force and commitment you used to use to avoid the feelings of vulnerability. The real you can handle the capital T Truth. And only you can decide who in your life can hold this truth with you.

What are the consequences of true honesty? “you know, things are pretty difficult these days, but we are coping.”

What would you lose?

The illusion of perfection?

A self-protected place that feels safe but is really quite lonely?

Authenticity requires vulnerability, and “it’s all good” shuts down all possibility of either vulnerability or connection.

Part of the problem is our fixit culture. If you are talking to someone who is going to try to fix your problem and won’t be able to hear your full experience, then of course you won’t want to share what’s true. But what if we interacted in a different way. There is a different paradigm. A paradigm based on connection and honesty instead of fear of exposure

According to Brown, “One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.”[2]

And if we are both offerers of help and needers of help, then the truth is that we can learn from one another. We can sit together in the midst of the capital T Truth

The true cost of honesty is connection. It is the risk of deeper relationship.

Brown “…defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” [3]

I feel this same kind of connective energy in our weekly candle lighting ritual. It is such a beautiful dance. There is a profound power in the silence – in the honoring of our joys and sorrows without speaking them aloud. These profound moments, shared in silence, sometimes with a tear or a smile, the touch of a hand, a pause as the candle is placed in the chalice. These moments are pure and authentic and have a depth to them – it seems as if I can feel the currents of your lives as you come forward and share the light that represents your heart.

And yet, even in those moments of deep connection, we do not know the substance of one another’s lived experience.

Joyce Sidman tells us

“It is time to look into

each other’s faces,

we who glide along the surface,

time to dive down

and feel the currents

of each other’s lives.

Time to speak until the air

holds all of our voices.

Time to weave for each other

a garment of brightness.

To dive down and feel the currents of each other’s lives.

This requires presence and attention.

To speak until the air holds all of our voices.

This requires strength and trust.

And so I trust you with my voice today.

Promise-Making, Promise-Keeping (text & audio)

 

READING

Click here to read “Directions” by Billy Collins

SERMON

“Do you promise?” The question always catches our granddaughter for a second: then her reply, with a sober expression framing her big brown eyes: “Yes, I promise.”

The request is never anything of particularly great moment – thankfully her life is not yet that complicated – but even a five-year-old recognizes the weight of that question. And she’s never shy about making a similar request of us and expecting a response that is equally as serious. It is a part of our bonding with each other, the testing and trusting that creates intimacy. But it’s also an introduction to something larger and deeper that is within and between us all.

Martin Buber famously declared that we human beings are the “promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing” animal. Promising is not just something we do; it defines and creates us as social beings. And, as Buber’s formula suggests, it can be a challenging  thing to negotiate. Not all promises are easy, not all promises are wise, not all promises are kept, and even when promises are broken that doesn’t necessarily end a relationship.

And still, promise-making is at the heart of who we are, of what we do as human beings, and, I want to argue today, something we liberal religious folk can offer up as a source of hope for the world.

Last week I told you that this is a community where you are invited to discover what your heart and mind and soul declare must be true about how the world is and our place within it. We frame that in the first half of our congregation’s mission statement, which I remind us of each Sunday – “we nurture individual search for meaning.”

The second half of that statement reminds us that we do this in community: not simply for our own edification, but with an end in mind, that we work together for “freedom, justice and love.” And it’s important to remember that those words at the end are not tagged on as an afterthought – “hey, join us here and figure yourself out and, oh, if you have the time you might want to help us out in this other work.”

We believe that this other work is integral – no, even more: necessary to any hope we may have of finding integrity and peace, of knowing who we really are. And it’s bound up in a process of promise-making that we call covenant.

This notion of covenant is very old with us and so, as you might gather, has followed some twists and turns along the way. It dates back to the 1550s in Great Britain to a religious reformer named Robert Browne who pushed for a radical shift in church life. Inspired by leaders of the Reformation in Europe, he drew on the image of God’s promise-making in the Bible to argue that churches should be gathered in a similar way. Churches, he said, should be formed based on a covenant among persons.

And instead of agreeing to a common doctrine, he said, people could agree to walk together on the basis of certain religious principles. They could choose their own ministers and teachers, put forth and debate issues to learn the truth and welcome diversity of opinion, even protest and dissent.

This notion took root and crossed the Atlantic with the Puritans and guided the formation of those first congregations in New England. In 1648 this arrangement was codified among the gathered churches in something called the Cambridge Platform, which both described and defined how covenant worked. Essentially, it laid out the practices that congregations followed that reinforced the ties within, among and beyond them through regular worship, meetings and mutual care.

In the years that followed, though, the role of covenant faded in many congregations as disputes over belief began to divide them. More conservative congregations began to set high bars of orthodoxy for people to be admitted into membership, and some congregations – including many that were later to become Unitarian – put aside the old covenants to avoid religious disputes.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that, once again, reformers in our movement called attention to this covenantal tradition and offered it as a way of reestablishing who we were and what we had to offer to the world.

What they discovered is that this notion of covenant addresses a fundamental tension in our movement. In a way, that tension is represented by the two halves of our congregation’s mission. On the one hand, we encourage and defend the right of each person to make up her or his own mind about what is true on religious questions – the search for meaning that we take to be a lifetime’s work. But if the gatherings of our congregations are to be anything more than the fitful herding of cats we must also agree on some principle that unites us.

Historians of our movement went digging into the files of some of our older churches and discovered these old documents with such expansive sentiments as these: Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.

Covenants like these do nothing to inhibit the wide ranging explorations that we as individuals or congregations may undertake to learn and come to terms with what is true and right. But they do provide some context for the work and some understanding of the spirit in which this work is done.

So, it’s no surprise that in the mid-1980s when calls came to revise the founding documents of Unitarian Universalism to make them more inclusive, the words that were chosen were framed as a covenant. The language that we proudly point to today, that you will find mounted and framed in the foyer outside this sanctuary, is presented as principles that we as member congregations covenant to affirm and promote. They are not statements of belief; they are promises of how we will behave with each other and in the larger world.

A little over a decade ago a task force was gathered in this congregation to take us to the next step. As a member congregation of the UUA, we agreed to affirm and promote the principles it adopted, but how about with each other? What promises do we need to make to each other to make this safe space for us to be about the often challenging and emotionally risky work of building a spiritual life?

The result of that process was the covenant that we read together last Sunday as we welcomed new members and friends into this community. I invite us to read it together each time we widen the circle of this community both as a way of bringing newcomers into the promises that unite us and of concentrating our attention for a moment on the work we try to do here.

Because the fact is that we all have rough edges that can damage others, and conflict is a fact of life in any gathering of people. We serve ourselves and each other best when we acknowledge that and commit ourselves to finding ways to work through those conflicts or find healing for the injuries we do to each other. It’s tough work and can make for some uncomfortable moments, but our hope is that we will come together again and recommit ourselves to this path.

But, when you think about it, what really leads us to choose this path? The way we usually frame the answer to this question is to say that as individuals with free will we decide that it is in our interest to commit to others and bring a community into being.

Now, that’s fine and there is probably some truth to it, but, to be honest, if that’s all that underlies our commitments to one another, it’s pretty tepid broth. If my decision to enter into covenant with you is based simply on my calculation of how it will benefit me, it won’t take much for that calculation to change. I may decide that I just don’t feel like it any more, and, hey, don’t give me grief, I get to decide what’s in my interest or not. OK, but then this covenant we thought we had really doesn’t stand for much, does it?

So, what else might guide our promise-making? Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, offered a way of thinking about his in a talk she gave to General Assembly about a dozen years ago.

She suggested that the covenants we make are centered in the covenants we inherit. The fact of the matter, she said, is that “we receive who we are before we choose what we will become.” Our very existence, after all, emerged out of a web of relationships that were simply given, and everything that we do or achieve is woven together with persons and forces that ebb and flow throughout on lives. We can elect to drift on obliviously pretending that nothing we do touches anything else, but plainly that’s not the way it is. And thinking this way puts us deeply out of touch with the world before us and the very source of meaning and strength that might awaken and transform us.

When my granddaughter and I trade promises, we are not negotiating contracts to achieve our mutual interests. We are building connections of love and trust that help realize a deeper hope in both our lives.

In her book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard compares the work of writing a book to raising a child, and she could just as easily be talking about the place we move from in shaping our covenants with each other.

“Willpower has very little to do with it,” she says. “If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, the baby will starve. You do it out of love. . . .  There’s nothing freakish about it. Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature. It’s what we’re here to do.”

This is something that I think our liberal religious notion of covenant has to offer the world. We don’t create covenants with each other out of mutual self-interest. We don’t do it for fear that God will hate or condemn us if we don’t. We do it because it’s what we’re here to do. It is how we best realize the hope that we as human beings are for the world.

We are given the opportunity to tap a well in our hearts that is wider and deeper than we can know but that many of us learn to keep sheltered and hidden. We might imagine that the promises we make limit us, but in fact the opposite is true. The promises we make release the latches that make the love that we shelter away available. The testing and trusting we do with each other takes our commitment to greater depth and opens previously unimagined possibilities.

Of course, some of the promises we make are not kept or turn out to have been ill advised. So we take a step back and look for ways to reconnect. As a community we offer consolation, care, and space for healing and renewal. In the end, we remember that, while we may have been wounded, the heart is a muscle that is strengthened by being used.

Opening our hearts to each other, Rebecca Parker points out, prepares us to open our hearts to the world, to make our communities centers of resistance to oppression and injustice. The work can be challenging, but we gain courage from knowing that we are leading from the source of our strength, joined as communities gathered not out of convenience or artifice but out of our understanding of a truth at the center of our being.

It is hard, as Billy Collins puts it, to talk of all the ways we are touched and shaped in this brief snatch of eternity that we are given, where we take the vast outside into us before the lights wink out. It can be frightening, lonely.

We look for travelers to share the way with us, people who will walk along side, who will be there when we knock on their doors, hoist a pack and join us for a bit. In our promises with each other we build a structure that supports us all, that creates a crucible for our striving and searching and a shelter against the storms. Each person who joins our covenant adds a brick to that structure that, it is our hope, in time may help heal the world.

A Wild Delight (text & audio)

 

When it comes to spiritual guides, I have admitted to you before, I have a weakness for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, his webs of prose can be enigmatic, even infuriating. “What on earth are you getting at here?” I want to shout at times. But at other times I am grateful for the graceful beauty, fresh insight, and brilliant extravagance of his writing.

Perhaps nothing that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote has been more frequently quoted than the passage that Bob read from Emerson’s first book, Nature. The image of the “transparent eyeball” taking in “the currents of Universal Being” is striking and unusual. And, apparently some in Emerson’s own circle at the time thought so, too. There is a famous caricature of Emerson drawn by Christopher Cranch, an artist who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, that shows an enormous eye with a kind of pork pie hat on, perched on a small torso, complete with morning coat, striding on long legs over the countryside.

After all, from what we know of Emerson, a sweet, avuncular sort of fellow, it wasn’t the kind of expression that one would expect. In all of Emerson’s writing, outside of his journals, it is really his most personal testimony of his own spirituality.

But, of course, when we consider the project that he had in mind in writing Nature, we can understand why it is there. Nature was in many ways Emerson’s declaration of his own rebirth. With the death of his first wife, Ellen, he had given up his pastorate at Boston’s Second Church (Unitarian) and traveled to Europe to clear his mind and find a way forward in his life.

He was deeply impressed by the art and architecture of ancient cities, and he was intrigued by poets and philosophers who were challenging old ideas about biblical narratives and finding the roots of religion in personal experience. But when he got back home, rather than enlist himself with any particular thinker or school, Emerson took off on his own.

But what did that mean? The pulpit had little appeal, even if he did do supply preaching now and again for most of the rest of his life. Instead, he fashioned a notion of himself as a kind of free-lance scholar – one who would read and think and write  – whose work, he later declared would be “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.”

In this time of talking heads, we think that we have a pretty good idea of what that meant. We can imagine him appearing on Oprah, writing a blog on the Huffington Post. But, no, there was something more. Even though he had given up the preacher’s robe he still had something of a longing for the preacher’s vocation.

He was interested not merely in “facts” but in, as he later defined the preacher’s work to new graduates at Harvard’s Divinity School, “converting life into truth.” That is, he hoped to persuade his readers that merely by attending deeply to the elements of their experience they might discover insight that would thrill their souls. And that that experience would awaken something great and holy within them, that it would, as the poet Mary Oliver said of Emerson’s hope, “turn all the heavy sails of one’s life to a moral purpose.”

So, it is no surprise that the image that came to Emerson in Nature was that of an eyeball, for the thrust of his urging is always, “Look, Look!” For, in looking we might for a moment erase that boundary between us and the blithe world. We might taste for a moment the erasure, not of the self but of egotism, that preoccupation with self, and become, in his words, “the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”

It’s because of passages like this that some see Emerson here proposing a new form of American mysticism, and that’s not far from the truth. When Emerson gathered a cadre of Unitarian ministers and like-minded folks that became known as the Transcendentalist Club, his goal was to clear the decks of what seemed to him the stodgy theological debates that prevailed at the time over such things as the nature of Christ’s divinity, Original Sin, the meaning of biblical miracles and all that.

In many ways he was speaking to himself as much as graduating students at Harvard’s Divinity School when he urged them to cast aside what he called the “secondary knowledge” they had taken in during their years in seminary.

“Let me admonish you to go alone,” Emerson said, “to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost – cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”

What exactly he means by “deity” here is unclear. It is given no specific image or essence. It is more like the welcoming sense of warmth and exhilaration that he describes back in his book Nature. “In the presence of nature,” he wrote, “a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says – he is my creature, and (in spite of) all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.”

If this is mysticism, though, it is mysticism with a twist. Unlike, say, with the Christian or Sufi mystics, who find communion in giving themselves over to the divine, Emerson views the “wild delight” we find as something more like a reunion. In Nature he writes, “the greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable. I am alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me, and old.

“It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly and doing right. Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”

Emerson sees nothing especially privileged about this experience. It requires no special study or preparation, no incantations or physical exercises. As Emerson’s biographer Robert Richardson puts it, “Experiences of the kind Emerson here describes have happened to nearly everyone who has ever sat beneath a tree on a fine clear day and looked at the world with a sense of momentary peace and a feeling, however transient, of being at one with it.”

And yet, the question remains, once you have had such an experience, what do you make of it, what do you do with it? For Emerson it is more than a pleasant moment on a sunny day. It is the doorway into a deeper way of living.

In many ways, Emerson opened the modern conversation around something that we have come to call spirituality. Like many people today, Emerson looked at the landscape of leaders and institutions making claims about how the world works and our place in it and what he saw seemed merely rehashed and derivative.

“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” He was not disputing the testimony of Jesus, or Moses, of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Mohammed.

Worthy guides, all. But, in his turn of phrase, why should not our experience also count? Indeed, if our spirituality is to be authentic, how could it not? Critics who see in Emerson’s argument for what he called “self-reliance” a kind of go-it-alone bullishness miss the point. Emerson himself makes the point in his essay by that name, “Self Reliance,” and please excuse the language of his time that uses male gender to make a point that universal to all:

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

The point is not that we have nothing to learn from others or that we can only find wisdom by wandering off on our own. It is that in the end we simply must make sense of it ourselves, and for that work we can trust our own faculties, our own minds and hearts. In this he was less a scholar than a provocateur: take ownership of the vision that living in the world gives you; look and see and act on what you learn.

The religions of the world, today as in Emerson’s day, are full of those who warn us of our fallibility, of our error and our sin, and so would have us distrust what our minds and senses teach, who urge us to give ourselves over to settled doctrine, to a way long trodden by others.

From the title of his first book, we imagine Emerson raising up the natural world as the great source of all inspiration. While I’m sure it’s true that he enjoyed his constitutionals in the brisk air of Concord, what we know about Emerson the man is that, unlike his friend Thoreau, his true home was not so much the woods, as his study. What he received on walking out of doors was literally a breath of fresh air, the vision of a world broader than his mind could ever encompass that put to shame the limited orthodoxies and philosophies that peopled his books.

“Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe. The sun shines today also.”

The words are old and a little high flown, but I find they resonate with me still. I’m a bit more of a nature boy than Emerson was and so the natural imagery definitely connects, but I also recognize the larger point here. It is not that by wandering in the woods you will find your spirituality. It is that we should be wary of facile of theories of the world that are cooked up in closed rooms.

The world in its astonishing beauty and complexity can be trusted and the world will ever surprise us, and we will each engage it with our own genius and on our own terms. It is this perspective that makes Emerson one of the founders of a modern liberal religious sensibility, what has been dubbed the “Spiritual Left,” and to my mind makes him relevant to us today.

Those of you who are new to us know that in some settings communities like ours are lampooned as places where, as they say, “you can believe anything you want.” In fact, the bar is much higher. Joining this community, you are invited to believe what you must, what your heart and mind and soul declare must be true and to engage with this community in sorting out the implications of those convictions.

It’s a process that I’ve abbreviated in this month’s worship theme as “choosing to choose”: taking ownership of what calls to you, whether it be in the woods or the town, and following where it leads you.

We offer this place as a crucible for all of us to work this out, to learn and grow and raise our children in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust where the blithe winds of the world and the brainstorms and controversies of centuries can blow through, where we hope to awaken something great and holy within you that will enable you to turn all the heavy sails of your life to a moral purpose.

Photo credit: craighagan / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Staying Put (text & audio)

 

I have to say it’s been interesting hearing people’s reactions to this week’s sermon title. “Staying put, huh?” I wouldn’t say the response has been entirely positive. Viewed from one perspective, “staying put” sounds a bit like “being stuck,” a kind of hide-bound view of the world that is stubborn and inflexible. We live in a culture that celebrates change and novelty. So, who would want to “stay put?”

That’s certainly true of us here in Asheville. We are a place on the move. Most of us here are transplants. We pulled up our roots from wherever we were and decided to give Asheville a try. We saw it as a nice place to retire to, or maybe just wanted to be near the natural beauty of this place, the agreeable climate, or the funky vibe.

It’s not for nothing that several years ago a writer surveying what he called the “geography of bliss” identified Asheville as a place where you could find it. Now, I do think it’s a little over the top to describe Asheville as “one of the happiest places” on earth, but people keep coming, and here we are, and, yeah, it’s true, it is pretty good.

This is also true of us as a religious community. Few of us grew up as Unitarian Universalists. At some point in our lives we fell away from whatever tradition we were raised in, if any, and set out looking for something different, something that more clearly matched our view of how the world worked and what matters, and here we are.

Of course, it’s also true that the hunger for change can turn into a kind of mania – skipping from place to place, from relationship to relationship, from religion to religion without really taking time to get to know, or to invest oneself in any of them. This kind of living leaves us scattered, shallow and unfocused, ultimately out of touch with others and even with ourselves as we scurry about frantically.

And the consequences of this way of living can be even deeper. If we’re always on our way to the next thing, we never truly value the things we have. We find ourselves unmoored morally and spiritually, searching for meaning without knowing how to find it.

So, yes, change is important, letting go what no longer serves us, what is destructive, dysfunctional, worn out and oppressive, but in doing so we need to have an eye for that which is life-giving, enriching, generative and hopeful, a way of being that can sustain us and support us for the long run, a place in our lives where we can stay put with integrity and joy.

This topic has been knocking around in my head for a few years, after reading a book by my colleague Michael Schuler on, in his words, “making the good life last.” He begins by disputing the assumption in popular culture that equates “the good life” with material abundance and personal stimulation.  Instead of finding personal satisfaction, he says, we become more like what the Buddhists call “hungry ghosts.” We long for happiness and contentment, but we seek them in ways that only dull our cravings and never satisfy us. We compulsively seek out pleasure and prestige, but our discontent remains.

Life that is truly satisfying, Michael argues, is life that is sustainable. That is, it contributes to our own and our community’s wellbeing; it promotes a healthy earth home and fosters enduring relationships; it contributes to the common good and restores our minds and bodies.

But in order to make life sustainable, he says, we must be prepared to shift our priorities, to leave off doing some things and adopt or emphasize others. He boils down the work ahead of us to what he calls four keys of sustainable living: pay attention, exercise patience, practice prudence, and stay put.

Attention, patience, prudence . . . OK. But stay put? Let’s spend some time with this. We can begin with some thoughts from the novelist Wallace Stegner, who observed that in American culture we tend to be divided into what he called “boomers and stickers,” boomers being the folks who pull up stakes and head out to the boomtowns, and stickers being the ones who stick around for a while.

Historically, the boomers who itch for greener pastures tend to be the ones who are celebrated. But, Stegner observed, “neither the country nor the society we build out of it can be healthy if we don’t stop raiding and running. We must learn to be quiet part of the time and acquire the sense not of ownership, but of belonging.”

And belonging, of course, comes from more than just plopping down and calling some place home. It involves taking notice of where we are situated and sending out tendrils to make connections with others.

Michael Schuler points out that in earlier times there was a process of what he calls “entanglement” that came with moving to a new neighborhood. You’d be invited to someone’s porch to learn the local history or chat at leisure over the raking of leaves. Thread by thread you’d come to know each other, with relationships sealed by holiday gifts of brownies or spiced nuts, agreements to take in each other’s mail, or watch each other’s children, so that when sadness or hard times came, help arrived unbidden.

Scott Russell Sanders points out that the word “common” at the heart of community, communion, and communicate grows from two roots, “the first meaning ‘together’ or ‘next to’ and the second having to do with barter or exchange.” So, he says, “embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving.”

He noted that even Ralph Waldo Emerson, our famous Unitarian forebear, while preaching self-reliance, “lived in a village, gave and received help, and delivered his essays as lectures for fellow citizens, whom he hoped to sway.”

Man of the mind though he may have been, Sanders says, you would have found leather buckets hanging by Emerson’s door in Concord, for he belonged to the village fire brigade.

For many of us, there were good reasons for uprooting ourselves from the soil where we were planted, and, as Sharon suggested, it is healthy for all of us to be wary of settling in, to retain a little restlessness so that we never are content to accept the unacceptable. But Emerson’s leather buckets also remind us that at some point we are called us to send out tendrils that can entwine with others, that bring us into a web of community and find there the treasure that our heart seeks.

Feeling entangled with a place also can build deeper connections. When asked what the most important thing was that every person could do to help resolve the environmental crisis, poet Gary Snyder is said to have replied: “stay put.” When we develop a commitment to a particular piece of ground, we can better understand, not just intellectually but almost viscerally, as it were, how we are linked to the land.

Last summer when I was looking for a way of deepening my own understanding of my connections to the Earth, I came upon an adult education class developed by the Northwest Earth Institute called “A Sense of Place.” Currently, Christine Magnarella Ray and I are currently leading about 20 people from this congregation in an eight-month class based on that curriculum. We blend classes discussing readings from the curriculum and discoveries that our class members have made about different natural systems with field trips to places as various as the Cherokee Indian Reservation and Craggy Gardens to center ourselves in this part of the world.

This sense of place is part of what staying put can give us, a deepening appreciation of how we are linked not just to this land but to all life. Among the readings I have turned to for this class is a book called The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, a biologist at the University of the South. Haskell spent a year visiting almost daily a patch of old-growth forest that is about a meter square in eastern Tennessee and documenting everything he found there.

For his entry at around this date, toward the end of his year, after he has already documented insects, birds, spring flowers, trees, mushrooms and much more, Haskell turns to the most unseen realm of all: the microbial community under the leaf litter.

It is the earthy smells more than the visual clues that tip him off to what is happening in this microscopic scene, he says. With billions of microbes, many still unknown to science, interacting in that tiny spot of forest soil it is only an impressionistic glance, the least precise of his examinations all year. And still, laid out before him is this vast panorama – bacteria and fungi breaking down nutrients of all sorts and interpenetrating the tiny rootlets of plants.

It shows him, Haskell says, that Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” needs to be updated. We apex predators attend to the competition at the top of the food chain, but lower down we come to learn about the sharing and collaboration that hundreds of millions of years of evolution woven into the chain of life.

And that correction translates all the way up the chain to us as well. We are not fronting the world on a lonely crag; we are in community from the moment of our births until the days of our deaths – community that grows and deepens as we extend ourselves to it, as we interpenetrate the world and each other’s lives in ways greater than we can know.

And that carries us back here. One of the great gifts that we give each other in this community is staying put, staying in the game, being “long-haul” people, in Rudy Nemser’s words. It is, as our worship theme this month suggests, “choosing to choose.” That is to say, giving care and intention to the commitments we make, grounding them in something solid, and sticking with them

We enter this place affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but only over time do we learn all the wonders that each of us has to offer the other. The gift of community is something that improves with age, as we watch each other’s children grow, share each other’s triumphs, mourn each other’s losses.

For the past 10 years here I have been in a privileged place to watch all that and to see some of the virtue of staying put, the strength that we find when we stay with each other and treasure the depth of relationship and commitment that comes with that practice.

I told you earlier this year that I would make a practice of sharing with you some of the stories of how this congregation has made a difference in people’s lives, and today I’d like to share with you some of the people who have been among our long-haul players. Today I want to tell you about the Unicorns.

You have to go back about 40 years to find the origin story and even then it’s surrounded in some myth. I’m depending on the memories of a few of the originators, hoping I get it right.

It was said to have been a snowy December evening in 1972 when the minister at the time, Tracy Pullman, invited some younger parents to a gathering. The congregation was quite a bit smaller at the time, and Tracy hoped that these folks might form some sort of organization to get young parents like themselves involved.

They liked the idea and began organizing parties. The question came up early as to whether the group should have a title, and they agreed it should. Different iterations were tossed around until someone suggested that they were a kind of corny group of Unitarian Universalists, and so they were dubbed: the Unicorns.

It had, and still has, no official status. It was just a way to get people socializing, and from the start that was what attracted people to the group. They were young parents who got together for parties and picnics as well as “advances,” not retreats, at area YMCA camps and then an annual beach trip that I’m told continues to this day.

As the congregation grew, though, the Unicorns also took on other projects, raising money through bake sales and other ventures. When the time came in the late 1970s to construct the addition that doubled the size of Sandburg Hall and added a suite of offices and religious education classrooms downstairs, it was funding from the Unicorns that paid for schematic drawings of the project. Their initiative also helped bring in a professional fundraiser to raise money in the congregation for its construction.

Over the years the group has grown and shrunk as some members were added and others left. They have been present at the weddings of each other’s children and memorial services of each other’s loved ones and even one of their own.

They include three former congregation presidents, several former trustees, a religious education director, many RE teachers, a long-time treasurer, canvas chairs, search committee members, auction committee chair, social justice chair, a former UUA Board member, one member who arrived as a minister and another who was ordained into ministry by this congregation and later came back to serve it.

Among those still with us are Larry and Lisa Holt, Patsy Keever and Jim Aycock, Pat and Ron Godbolt, Doug and Jean Kean, Bob and Ann Lewis, Patty and Randy Vanderbeek, Clark and Anna Olsen, Chuck Campbell and Sarah York.

Individually their involvement has waxed and waned, but they have stayed put. They have watched ministers and other staff come and go and seen membership numbers rise and fall. They are long-haul people who have been here when we needed them and are with us still.

Walt Whitman, who knew the language of the heart as well as any, captures it best: Will you seek afar off? Surely you come back at last, in things best known to you, finding the best, or as good as the best – happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place – not for another hour, but this hour.

Photo credit: djwtwo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Caution: Perishable (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
I’ve been a gardener for as long as I can remember. It was a passion I picked up from my father, who, despite a busy career as a psychiatrist, always managed to be cultivating something. Digging in the dirt was a good antidote to the heady work of his day job, as it is for me. His gardens, though, would wax and wane depending on how much time and energy he had to devote to them, and I’ve found that’s true of me, too.

 

“Perishable, It Said” by Jane Hirshfield
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/236974

SERMON – Part 1
I’ve been a gardener for as long as I can remember. It was a passion I picked up from my father, who, despite a busy career as a psychiatrist, always managed to be cultivating something. Digging in the dirt was a good antidote to the heady work of his day job, as it is for me. His gardens, though, would wax and wane depending on how much time and energy he had to devote to them, and I’ve found that’s true of me, too.

Usually by the end of the summer everything in my garden is growing pretty wild, but then the first frosts of autumn come and shut everything down. I actually enjoy the fall clean-up that follows: unraveling the withered tomato vines from their cages, pulling up the brown stalks of basil or zinnia, and cutting back the spent branches of perennials. All tossed in the compost heap to nourish next year’s crop.

It’s a spiritual discipline of sorts. I knew as I set out those tomato seedlings in May that some five months later I’d be ripping their withered remains out of the ground, hoping in the meantime to get a bounty of delicious fruit.  So, there they are, the wise words of Ecclesiastes, coming to life in my back yard – to everything there is a season, a time to sow and a time to reap; a time to live and a time to die.

Still, these philosophical reflections are often interrupted when I discover that in that frost last night that knocked down the tomatoes I inadvertently left some tender plant outside, a fern or something that in the spring we had brought out to the porch from inside, that I had meant to, but forgot to bring inside, and there it is, crumpled and grey.

Shoot! A stab of sadness and guilt. That wasn’t supposed to happen, and if I’d paid any attention to the weather it wouldn’t have happened.  I would have brought it inside and the plant would be ensconced happily in our heated home. Instead, it’s finished: more fodder for the compost heap.

It’s always a reminder to me that this business of perishability is serious and often unpredictable stuff. We watch the autumn leaves turn color and fall and wax about the circle of life, but we are less philosophical when the chill winds have our loved ones in their sights, or even ourselves.

Perishable, yes, but not him; perishable, OK, but not yet. There must be some warm, protected place we could go to, something I could do, we could do to stave off that catastrophe. None of us has a “use by” stamp on our foreheads, but with Jane Hirshfield we find ourselves examining the backs of our hands, the bags under our eyes from which our young self views in the mirror the improbable pouches and wrinkles that emerge on our faces.

As time marches on we see the signs of impermanence everywhere we look, and we feel something sinking in the pit of our stomachs, a vanishing we can’t see how to fathom. Some of us withdraw and separate ourselves from the stream around us, whose pace seems to be ever accelerating.

And yet, there is Jane Hirshfield suggesting that we might find in the “perishing perfumes and clashings” of the world around us, a “strange happiness” that comes to us not outside of but from within that world, indeed within ourselves. What might that be about?

WORLDLY WISDOM?            By J. Barrie Shepherd

SERMON – Part 2
Our theme groups this month have been wrestling with the notion of authenticity. What do we understand to be our authentic selves? How might we come to know them? And how might that contribute to living with a sense of integrity and peace?

It’s tricky work because really what we are seeking is not to discover what makes us each unique, special people, but to know and feel ourselves fully as we genuinely are. Let me tease out that distinction a little because it’s not obvious in the culture we live in today.

Garrison Keillor sizes the situation up with his description of Lake Woebegon as a place where “all the women are strong all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” We grow up in a culture that teaches us to link our identity with excellence and achievement. We are celebrated for how we excel and what we achieve.

Growing up we give attention to the good student, the poised dancer, the nimble athlete. Childhood is full of awards and certificates. It is what makes us “special.” As adults, we stake our claim to some vocation or perhaps some characteristic or skill that helps set us apart in some way. She’s a hot-shot lawyer; he’s a terrific cook. It gives us standing.

But the old wisdom warns against this viewpoint.

Here’s the Tao Te Ching:

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm.

She who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.

He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. 

Because, here’s the thing: few of us are so confident in our skills that we want them to define us. Instead, dwelling on what makes us “special” inevitably feeds a secret sense that we’re not good enough. Praised for being special we are haunted with the feeling of just how special we aren’t. A kind of quiet shame pervades our perceptions like a low-lying fog.

These feelings often lead us to a kind of antic behavior, either working to be super achievers or skipping from place to place from job to job from relationship to relationship looking for . . . something. As the poet J. Barrie Shepherd puts it, “scanning, skipping to the end at times, searching for the one, the word, the sentence that an tell me what it’s all about.”

But the author Brene Brown, in one of the TED talks you’ll find referenced among the resources for theme reflection on our Web site, argues that beneath all that activity is something else: a numbness that separates us from ourselves.

We don’t like the feelings of fear and shame that bubble up at the edge of our consciousness and so, in her words, we numb ourselves. When something difficult arises or some conflict emerges, we withdraw. The problem is that we can’t selectively numb our feelings. In her words, when we numb guilt or fear, we also numb happiness and gratitude.

And we do that numbing in different ways. We may pull away, or turn to some sort of addictive behavior. Another way, she says, is to adopt a rigidity that in our minds makes everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion, she says, can be part of that. We move from an inquisitive sense of faith to a dogmatic one. As Brown puts it, “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. That’s it.”

We liberal religious folks like to make this observation about this kind of behavior among conservatives, but the fact is that we can be just as narrow and self-righteous in our own ways. But I think it can help to recognize that response as the voice not of confidence or authority but of shame and of fear, and it doesn’t have to be there.

For, what is authentic about us is not our academic degrees or lack thereof, our artistic gifts or lack thereof, our physical beauty or lack thereof: you get the point. What is authentic in us is that which engages and participates in the blooming, buzzing world around us.

And the way that we gain access to it is we allow ourselves to be seen, not as the reflections of icons or images, but as we truly are. It requires, as Brene Brown puts it, that we be vulnerable: hard to do, but that’s part of why we exist as a religious community, to hold each other in covenant as persons of inherent worth and dignity, offering safe space for healing and exploring, where in time we teach and learn from each other the disciplines of love.

That’s the key to our release from our fears and to coming to know our authentic selves. As Brene Brown puts it, we need to learn to love with our whole hearts and practice gratitude and joy, even when we’re worried and afraid.

It is a place, as poet J. Barrie Shepherd writes, “beyond the unrelenting streaming of words,” where we are attuned to a deeper strain of life, something “without any hope or need for explanation, (that is) moving on, while we stand wordless, gasping in its tumbling wake.”

DROPLETS                 by C.K. Williams

SERMON – Part 3

A few weeks ago in the middle of the morning while we were both at work Debbie and I each got a disturbing call from the woman who periodically does cleaning at our home. She noticed that some rooms in the house were turned upside down and some things seemed to be missing. We both drove home quickly and discovered that, such enough, we had been robbed: TV, computers, cameras and the like gone, and the backdoor, which likely I had inadvertently left ajar, was wide open.

We did what you do – called the police, inventoried our things and made plans to secure the house and replace what we could. Describing the incident to others, I turned to a bit of gallows humor, saying that I had been planning a service on impermanence and so was now given an object lesson. Philosophically, I would say, oh, it could have been worse, and, after all, it’s just stuff.

And still. Those of you who have been through something like this know that the loss – including in our case some irreplaceable family items – while significant doesn’t compare with the sense of violation that haunts you for some time afterward: The vision of someone ransacking your lovingly appointed space, tearing through drawers and closets, and unceremoniously hauling your stuff away.

It leaves you feeling spiritually damaged – suspicious, wary of others, more protective of your space and loved ones: Yeah, a lesson in impermanence, but at first an experience of grief.

I found it interesting that my personal response to the theft was to sort through my remaining things – clothes, books, household items I hadn’t used in some time – and look for things I could clear out. It fits with an urge I’ve been feeling lately to shed stuff. The less I have, after all, the less I have to worry about someone taking. But more, it echoes the kind of visceral sense I’ve experienced of my own impermanence and the folly of attaching myself to the stuff around me, since I won’t be taking it with me.

That passage I quoted earlier from the Tao ends this way:

He who clings to work will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,

just do your job, then let go.

And perhaps letting go is the answer. I’m not happy having lost the things that we did, but most of them were mere conveniences.  They can be replaced or perhaps even done without.

But in the process of this mess I also got a window into a deeper bounty in my life that I don’t attend to often enough with the response of empathy and compassion from our friends and loved ones.

Even when the rain is hard, C.K. Williams observes, it only disturbs one leaf after another on the little tree planted by his friend or lover. Instead, of alarming him, the downpour mingles with his partner’s piano playing into an intensity of feeling so powerful it tames, at least for a moment, that most existential of dreads, the fear of one’s own death, until, transformed into a transient mist, it falters and fades as the music goes on.

What an improbable wonder this fleeting, heart-breaking, soul-stirring life can prove to be!

A RESCUE       by John Updike
https://uuasheville.org/wp-content/uploads/ARescue.pdf

Debbie and I started planning for our Thanksgiving celebration, coming up the week after next, some months ago. All of our three daughters had announced they would be unavailable for one reason or another, so we mulled over who we might ask join us for a simple meal. In the end, we invited Debbie’s sister, Suzanne, from New Jersey and envisioned a quiet day. Then we received an invitation from Stephen and Susie Jones here to join them and their son, Drew’s family. We loved the idea, and so, the gathering started to grow.

Meanwhile, about a month ago my mother, Cynthia, a member of this congregation living at Brooks Howell Home, fell while transferring to a wheelchair and broke her hip. The surgery to repair it was simple, but her frail health and lack of stamina have impeded her recovery to the point where we are unsure of her future.

In conversation with my sister and three brothers we decided that it made sense for them to visit soon, and, well, Thanksgiving was on the horizon. So, perhaps it made sense for them to come then. Three of them agreed, along with my mother’s youngest sister. We contacted Stephen and Suzie with the news, and they insisted on bringing everybody along. So, what started as plans for a quiet meal has grown to a gathering of 15.

It is an occasion I look forward to, but one also tinged with impermanence. Indeed, Thanksgiving for many of us is a kind of thermometer of change. Each year for various reasons different faces appear at and disappear from the table. So in the gathering before the sweet potatoes are passed there is always a moment to take stock of where we are. This year will be a special moment for many in our gathering.

I’ve long been a fan of the piece the choir sang for you today, Copland’s “The Promise of Living,” but for the past several weeks I’ve come to know it quite a bit better, thanks to Debbie. Diligent new choir member that she is, she has found myriad moments to practice her part – playing it through on our piano at home, or plugging in the MP3 recording Milt supplied so she could practice as we drove in her car. It has become a kind of sound track of our lives, and so it’s on my mind.

The song closes out the first act of Copland’s opera “The Tender Land,” and the lyrics, written by Copland’s one-time partner Horace Everett, constitute a hymn of praise centered on that cycle of change we began with this morning: sowing and planting, and the labor of harvest. But it adds another dimension.

Things vanish all around us. Circumstance brings us down. And still, as Jane Hirshfield puts it, there is a “strange happiness” that rises in our breasts, a happiness centered not in the things we surround ourselves with, things of “perishing perfumes and clashings,” but in something else, in the fragile fallible world we inhabit.

Late in the day that we discovered our robbery, having visited my mother in her declining health, I had a moment where I felt weighed down and exhausted. A church meeting was scheduled to start in a half hour, but I had no energy for it. Impulsively, I turned to the computer and Googled the only thing I could think of at that moment that might bring comfort. A pianist slowly began playing Copland’s distinctive open chords and then the tenors and basses entered, “The promise of living with hope and Thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

As in John Updike’s rescue, we have the opportunity to set free an agitated essence of air within us, to release it like a self-flung ball to the lovely, perishing outdoors. There is no avoiding the perishing of so much in our lives – the stuff we treasure, the people we love, even ourselves in the bargain. And yet, there is a promise to our lives that we realize in giving our authentic selves to them. It is, as Copland’s farm family sings, born of our loving, our friends and our labor. And it is enough.

Another View of Hope (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward
We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”

 

We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”

Wallace’s words echoed in my mind earlier this year as I read news reports about the South African leader Nelson Mandela lingering near death, as he still does. Now, two decades since his release after 27 years in prison, Mandela has been lionized on the world stage. He has been celebrated in films like “Invictus” and widely praised by world leaders, including our own President Obama.

It’s worth remembering, though, that at the time of his release there was much uncertainty about what Mandela’s new freedom would bring. The collapse of Apartheid in South Africa, the 40-year-old system that had codified racial oppression in every way that country’s white leadership could conceive, left a vacuum that no one knew what would fill. Mandela himself was in his 70s and long absent from the politics.

And so it was all the more amazing that from the moment he emerged Mandela took his place not only as a vigorous leader of an anxious and expectant nation but also as one of the world’s preeminent advocates for racial reconciliation. Despite a lifetime under the heel of virulent racist oppression, Mandela opened a path for healing and renewal for all people, one that adroitly took account of just the sort of default settings that Wallace pointed to.

We Unitarian Universalists have made a practice at this time of year at around when the United Nations was founded of widening our vision a bit and considering what the larger world has to teach us about the possibilities for peace and freedom. So, today, as we near the 68th anniversary of the UN’s founding, we turn to the story of Nelson Mandela and the hope his life offers humankind in its long walk to freedom.

Mandela writes in his autobiography that he began his life feeling that he was free, or at least, in his words, “free in every way that I could know.” He grew up in villages in the Transkei, a South African province bordering the Indian Ocean, many miles from the major cities of Pretoria, Cape Town, or Johannesburg, and was raised in relative privilege. His father was a local chief and advisor to the king of the Thembu tribe.

Seen as a boy with promise, he was sent to a Methodist boarding school, where he was given the name, Nelson. But shortly afterward, when he was 9, his father died, and he was sent to live with a family friend who was the area regent. He attended classes at a British boarding school – which helped make him a lifelong Anglophile – but he counted some of his most important education as witnessing the regent, his protector, as the leader of area assemblies.

These were occasions of great ceremony at which any man, rich or poor, was given the opportunity to speak – sad to say, woman weren’t given this privilege. Issues were discussed, and when a consensus was reached, the regent would sum up the results, a poet would deliver a song full of both praise and satire, and the evening would end with the regent leading the crowd in a roar of laughter.

Mandela headed off to college at 19, seeing a future for himself in the government’s Native Affairs office, and got involved in student government. On returning home, though, he found his protector had arranged a marriage for him to a woman who he knew was in love with a friend of his. He fled to Johannesburg, but later reconciled with his protector, completed college by correspondence course, apprenticed himself to a law office and later entered law school.

Friends counseled him against getting involved in politics, but he was drawn in all the same. As he wrote later, “it was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion . . . that I began to hunger for it.”

The African National Congress had been organized in 1912, and as early as 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, at the Versailles peace conference, it had voiced the grievances of African people. By the 1940s, when Europeans adopted an Atlantic Charter asserting the dignity of each person and arguing for democratic reform, the ANC responded with a similar charter calling for full citizenship of all Africans, the right to buy land, and the repeal of discriminatory legislation.

In 1944, Mandela and his allies, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, helped organize a Youth League of the ANC, to advance its goals. But in 1948 Afrikaner Nationalists came to power and brought with them the policy of Apartheid. Blacks in South Africa were already essentially non-citizens in their own country, without the right to vote or hold property. But Apartheid codified that oppression as never before. It regulated who could live where and forced blacks to move from some areas. It restricted who could hold what jobs and who would receive what education and instituted a policy of police terror and political persecutions for those who opposed it.

Mandela and Tambo worked as lawyers to help people navigate the system and helped organize the ANC response – a Defiance Campaign that broadly challenged the Apartheid system. The results were thousands of arrests and ultimately an epic trial for treason against Mandela and 29 others that lasted from 1955 to 1960 that resulted in their acquittal. Later that year, though, police in Sharpeville fired on a massive protest demonstration, killing 69 and wounding at least 180 others.

Shortly afterward, to avoid being arrested, Mandela went underground. During that time he even went on an international tour as an ANC leader and was chosen to head an offshoot group called the Spear of the Nation. That group led a shift in the ANC’s tactics, for the first time organizing acts of sabotage in the hope of weakening the state’s resolve. After two years in hiding, Mandela was captured and put on trial for crimes against the state. In 1963 he was sentenced to life in prison. He was 45 years old.

Social scientists argue over the origin of racism, but I think a credible claim can be made that it originates in something like the default setting that David Foster Wallace identified: “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Carried further, it’s easy to see how this way of thinking morphs into an attitude that sees my interest as trumping all others. So, I need not concern myself with others’ welfare, even their humanity.

It’s not something we’re likely to confess, as it is, as Wallace observed “so socially repulsive.” Ugh! I hate to confess it, but I think Wallace is right. It’s an impulse that each of us struggled with. I can certainly find it in myself. And Nelson Mandela could see it, too, not just in his oppressors but also in himself.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey after his release, he said that it was certainly a tragedy that he spent most of his adulthood in prison. But, in his words, “if I had not been to prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself.”

Yes, sitting in a narrow cell or breaking up stones in the prison yard on Robben Island, he thought deeply about the future of his nation and how he would like to change it. But he also gave attention to what he considered the flaws in himself: his impulsiveness and pride, the hunger for vengeance. To help temper that, as the grind of prison life went on, he began to get to know his jailers and study the Afrikans language and history as well as that of his own people. He came to appreciate the fear that underlay that racist state that oppressed him, and to see something else: another and very different default setting within us.

“I always knew,” Mandela wrote, “that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. (Human) goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished.”

Two decades after its demise, it’s hard to fathom how oppressive the Apartheid state was, how hard it worked to demean, even to deny the humanity of every non-white resident, but mostly blacks. Leaders who emerged were intimidated or assassinated, and reform groups, both black and white, were infiltrated with spies and troublemakers who worked actively to undermine them.

And still by the late 1980s the state itself, one of the most poisonous purveyors of racist oppression ever to have arisen, recognized that its days were numbered. So, in a remarkable turn of events it turned to the man it had demonized as the chief agent of its woes to negotiate a way forward. And he, despite enduring a prison term that snatched away a third of his life, agreed.

The iconic event of Mandela’s release in February 1990 was just a start. It took another four years to negotiate a new constitution and arrange new elections, which resulted in Mandela’s election as president. Soon afterward Mandela appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to investigate many decades of human rights abuses. The years since have seen the disbanding of the National Party, which had created Apartheid, and the continued success of the ANC, but political turmoil, grinding poverty, corruption, and the country’s many intransigent divisions make South Africa still a work in progress.

As Mandela put it in his autobiography, “when I walked out of prison, my mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case.

“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficulty road. For, to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

It may have been because Mandela’s words were ringing in my ears, but I thought I heard them again just this past week in a very different context. The occasion was the Campaign for Southern Equality’s latest action at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds to end the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to be married. It was shortly before 10 same-sex couples accompanied by about 80 of us supporters were to walk over to request a license to be married and, for the first time ever, not be denied.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the campaign’s executive director, was talking to the group gathered in the sanctuary of First Congregational United Church of Christ. “I look around this room,” she said, “and I see people who are willing to go a step farther, to say this law is wrong and I know it, and I’m willing to believe that something I do in my life can help change it.

“I see people who believe that if we stand up against these laws again and again and again and return to the counter again and again and again to say I am equal, I am human, this is who I am, this is who I love, that it will change things.”

“We dare to believe what we know in our hearts, that those truths are more powerful and transcend the brokenness of laws that treat any people as inferior to other people.”

The circumstances may be different, but the end is not. It is simply the language of liberation that calls to us across cultures, across decades, across the world, language echoed in religious teachings from the parables of Jesus to the dharma talks of the Buddha.

We cannot be free, we cannot be whole if we would countenance the oppression of others. It may be, as Nelson Mandela observed on his inauguration as president that, “there is no easy road to freedom,” but in the end it is also the only path to peace. Nelson Mandela’s life and work embodied that, the combination of steely resolve and undying hope in what is possible among us, hope that the fear within us can be quelled and the love within us can be stoked: that the world’s liberation can be our own.

Entering Another Story – Native American People’s Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

 

So, today we return to this month’s worship theme of “default settings,” an opportunity for us to examine some of those untested assumptions and routine ways of thinking in our religious lives that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace.

In that context, many of us grew up learning a narrative of history that told of plucky European explorers who came to this continent in the 15th and 16th centuries on voyages of discovery, finding a new world, which they then settled and civilized. Of these figures, Christopher Columbus was singled out for special status as early as 1792, the 300th anniversary of his arrival. Columbus was not the first European to arrive, but his travels established the first lasting European contact with North America. Celebrations of his arrival culminated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision in 1937 to grant the request of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal group, to create a federal holiday in his name on the second Monday of October, tomorrow.

Left out of that narrative, of course, were the stories of the peoples who occupied the land that the Europeans claimed to have “discovered,” people who lived in rich and complex cultures that were thousands of years older than those of the European settlers. Also left out of the lesson plans was the depravity of those early settlers, men like Columbus who murdered, raped and enslaved native peoples for the sake, not of discovery, but of enriching themselves.

In recent decades as the stories of indigenous people have finally begun to surface in our Western culture and the true history of those early days is being told, a window has opened on a different way of marking those days. It began with events in October 1992 – the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival – that was celebrated in some places as Indigenous or Native American People’s Day, and has been honored since. Today, we ally ourselves with that movement, recognizing the old Columbus Day narrative as a default setting in our culture that we need to abandon for the sake of our own ethical integrity.

As a religious movement with its roots in Europe, we recognize that we are part of the culture that has benefited from this narrative at the expense of others. So, we have some catching up to do. We need to learn the larger history that embraces the full story of those indigenous peoples as well as our European ancestors. But to make ourselves available for that story we also have to open ourselves to different ways of seeing and being.

The deeper default settings that challenge us here are bits of the cultural patrimony that we carry unknowingly, settings that, for example, depict humankind as the crown of creation, given the natural world to exploit as we choose, or as rootless creatures whose destiny is not of this Earth.

Today to assist in that opening we will center our service on some of the stories of our neighbors, the Cherokee, people who have occupied these hills longer than white people have occupied Europe.

We’ll invite you to enter those stories, not as quaint myths of another time but as living testimony to a way of being present to the world while remaining in relationship with it, with a sense of place and deep time that our hyperactive culture works against. There are surely lessons in that testimony for people like us who seek to live fully and responsibly, who hope to know this world we occupy as sacred and our lives together as blessed.

PRESENTATION: ENTERING ANOTHER STORY
THE ORIGIN OF LEGENDS

Long, long ago people lived in the world with animals. They could talk to one another and everybody got along. But one day, as people will do, they started to fight. One thing led to another, and this person wasn’t talking to that person. Somebody wasn’t very nice to someone else, or stole from someone else.

They got so angry that the Creator was afraid they were going to kill one another. So, he divided them up into four groups and sent then off in different directions – the north, the south, the east, the west – to the four corners of the world. When they got there they were confused because they didn’t know how to live there. They didn’t know the plants, didn’t know where the water was and didn’t know what the seasons would be like.

The Creator felt sorry for them, so he sent them dreams that told them about each of the animals, what to eat, what to do, what the plants were for, and so on. They began to learn and grow, and then he sent them another gift so they wouldn’t forget. He sent them legends about all these plants and animals, and the world, so that each time they told the legends they would know how to be with the plants and the animals, and how to be with each other.

ENTERING THE STORIES

It’s hard for us to know what to make of Cherokee stories. To our ears they have the sound of children’s fables, and yet they are likely older than our European fairy tales, with roots perhaps older, even, than Genesis.

Last week I joined our adult education class on “Discovering a Sense of Place” on a trip to Cherokee, where we were hosted in a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian by its education director, Barbara Duncan. In seeking to learn more about the Cherokee, she told us, it is good to begin with stories, since historically among the Cherokee stories served as both school and religion.

Stories held lessons for how people got along with each other and the larger world. So, the message behind them often boiled down to simple advice like don’t be greedy, don’t steal, don’t brag: lessons for getting along.

Years ago Joseph Campbell argued that the motif for legends in the west was the hero’s journey, the individual prevailing over daunting odds. For the Cherokee, the motif is different. As Barbara Duncan put it, the typical end of a Cherokee story is not the triumph of an individual, but an achievement for the community. Individuals may be sacrificed along the way, but the community prevails.

Stories also communicated a world view. There is no corresponding Cherokee word to the western word “wild,” referring to things outside of our control, in a natural state. Instead, the Cherokee see themselves as part of the world’s natural state, living in community with plants and animals, and responsible to them.

Nor is there any a separation between the sacred and the profane. Some places are considered especially holy, such as village mounds or places where community fires are kept, because of how they are used or what legend or history says has happened there, but every part of land is to be cared for.

In foraging, for example, when looking for a particular kind of plant, one would pick only every fourth one, assuring that more remained for future foragers. A river was called a “long man,” with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea; people were prohibited from soiling them, assuring that the water would be clean.

The ethos underlying Cherokee stories is finding balance, implied in the Cherokee word Duyukta translated roughly as “the right path.” But the feeling in the community was that no instruction, no preaching was needed to learn this. It was something that everyone knew if he or she just paid attention.

HOW THE WORLD WAS MADE

The earth was a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault. All of the animals were in the sky place, Galunlati, but it was very crowded, and they needed more room. They wondered if there might be something on or under the water. So, the Beaver’s grandchild, Dayunisi, the little Water-beetle, offered to go and see what it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then, it dived into the water, swimming down and down and down, until it came to the bottom and found some soft mud, which it brought to the surface. Immediately, the mud began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth.

This earth was still fastened to the sky with four cords in the cardinal directions. At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet. The animals were anxious to come down, but they didn’t want to sink in the mud. They sent out different birds to see if it was dry, but they found no place to land and came back again to Galunlati. Then the buzzard had an idea. He flew down close to the land and flapped his great wings, which started to dry out the mud. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and flew still lower. His wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.

ORIGINS

The Cherokee origin story is set here in the mountains because as far as they are concerned they have always been here. Kanati and Selu, first man and first woman, were said to have made their home in the Shining Rock Wilderness near where we gather blueberries these days, as the Cherokee did before us, at Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Archaeological records date human occupation in this area back at least 10- to 12,000 years ago. When Cherokees emerged as a separate tribal identity is unclear, but the Cherokee language appears to have appeared distinct from other tribes around 3,500 years ago and permanent, well-built villages date back at least 1,000 years or so.

Historical records say that the Cherokee nation once encompassed a population of some 36,000 over more than 140,000 square miles – covering much of what today is Kentucky and Tennessee as well as western Virginia and North Carolina and northern South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. This nation, though, had no central government, but instead consisted of a federation of towns.

One of the nation’s “mother towns” was at Kituhwa, near present day Bryson City, the site of a prominent mound. Unlike in the burial mounds of some cultures, there are no bodies buried in these places. Instead, they are said to be places where members of the community brought soil in baskets or even turtle shells to a common location in the center of a village as a symbol of their coming together, and because of that they are held to be holy. The mound was also the site of a sacred fire that was always kept burning, symbolizing the presence of the Creator among them.

Another important location was what the Cherokee called Kuwahi, or Mulberry Place, which we call Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As John mentioned earlier, this was also the location of the Gall Place, the magic lake that to human eyes looked merely like clouds filling a valley, but was where sick and wounded bears, and other animals, could go for healing.

During the forced removal of Cherokees in the mid 19th Century, it was also said to be a place where people hid away from the soldiers, seeking healing of a different kind.

ON THE ORIGIN OF STRAWBERRIES

At the dawn of time, the first man and the first woman set up their home together by the side of a great broad river. They had everything they needed for a blissful life: fruit, meat and fish, plenty of wood and fresh water, and, of course, each other. They lived as happily as any man and woman have ever lived together, until they began to quarrel. First it was the small things, like “Why didn’t you cook this?” and “Why didn’t you tidy that?” But then the insults, and a few wooden plates and bowls, began to fly.

The first woman was so upset that she decided to leave the first man. At the break of day, while he was still asleep, she set off down the valley, heading towards the rising sun. She walked and walked, always looking straight ahead of her, and not once turning back. When the first man woke up and saw that she was gone, he waited for her to come back. She did not come back. He found her tracks along the valley, but she had a long head-start on him, and she did not stop or look round.

The sun was now high in the great blue sky. It looked down upon the first man, as he followed after the first woman, and it saw that there was sadness on the face of the world. The sun asked the man what had happened, and when the man told him, the sun asked if he would like to have her back. He said that he would. So, the sun took pity on the first man and decided to help him. His gentle rays touched the ground along the woman’s path, and a huckleberry bush sprang up. Its fruit was shiny and enticing, but as she passed her eyes remained fixed on the distance, and she did not see the berries.

And so the sun shone again on the ground up ahead of the woman. And he caused a clump of blackberries to grow up beside her path. She refused to even glance at them.

And then the sun thought that he must create something entirely new: something so vivid, fragrant, and delicious, that even the first woman would not fail to take notice of them in her resolute and unhappy mood. And so he shone his rays, and the first patch of strawberries spread over the ground.

Their sweet scent filled the woman’s senses, and her mood became lighter. She began to look around her, and she saw the bright red fruit hiding beneath he leaves. She picked one and ate it, and as she tasted the strawberry on her tongue, she began to remember the happiness she knew when she first set up home with her husband. She found she no longer felt the pressing desire to leave him. She sat down on the ground and wondered what she must do. At last she gathered a bunchy of the finest berries and started back along the path to give them to him. He met her kindly, and they went home together.

WOMEN’S WORK

It is said that one of the greatest shocks that westerners faced when they came to negotiate treaties with the Cherokee was that women would be among the leaders of the negotiating parties. From the Cherokee perspective, though, this would be expected. In the matrilineal culture of the Cherokee, women had control of the houses and fields. Men traditionally were away hunting and fishing, which left the women to tend the gardens and run the family. They were the ones who passed their clan affiliation to their children. Unlike the nuclear families of the Europeans, Cherokee families were often large, embracing many layers of relations.

This shifted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when, after recovering from their defeat at the hands of Europeans, they set about to make themselves a “civilized tribe” of farmers and businessmen. With European “civilization” came a patriarchal social structure of disparate households with male breadwinners and women tending the home fires.

With all those transitions, though, what didn’t change was the Cherokee sense of connection to the land. Having been rooted here so long, one Cherokee is said to observed, “even the dust of this place is from our ancestors.”

THE COMING OF THE GENTLE PEOPLE

They say that if you go out in the woods and hear some music or some people talking but don’t see anyone around you might have caught a glimpse of the gentle people, the Nunnehi. One time the Nunnehi came to the Cherokee people and told them, “you’re going to have to come with us now. All of you pack up your belongings, and in seven days you will have to come and live with us.”

“But why?” the people asked. “Where are we going? Why do we have to go?”

“Because,” they said, “Something terrible is going to happen: worse than any flood, or any famine that you have ever known before. You have to leave to save yourselves.”

So, they packed up their belongings and followed Nunnehi for miles until they came to a big stone way deep in the mountains. As they watched, the stone rolled away, and they rushed to see what was inside. It was such a beautiful place. The air seemed to dance with joy.

So without even thinking, many families rushed in. As the turned to close the door forever, they saw a group standing away in the back. The chief asked them, “Why aren’t you coming in? We’re ready to close the door.”

But the people said, “We were born here, and no matter what happens we want to stay.” The chief was torn. He wanted to go in, but he also wanted to be with his people. He decided he needed to stay and help lead his people.

The stone rolled back, and the people who stayed were the descendants of today’s tribe. Those other people have never been heard from again, though they say if you’re out in the woods, you might hear some music or some people talking. It’s the Nunnehi, and they’re reminding us that they’re always with us.

INTERCHANGE

The greatest irony in Europeans celebrating Columbus Day is that for the native peoples of North America the colonization of their land was a catastrophe. This is so not merely because within the space of three and a half centuries Indians were tortured and abased, militarily defeated and driven off their home lands, but also because the diseases the Europeans brought with them cut like a scythe through their numbers. By one estimate, 95 percent of Native Americans were killed by disease epidemics like small pox within a little more than a century after the arrival of Columbus.

The first contact the Cherokee had with these people was an expedition by Herman DeSoto in 1540 in search of gold and slaves. But full blown trade with Europeans didn’t start until the beginning of the 18th Century. There were benefits to the Cherokee from this trade – introduction to new crops like apples and sweet potatoes as well as livestock, and goods like pots, weapons, plows and cloth. But by the end of that century, the Indians also experienced several killing epidemics, warfare with European settlers that included multiple atrocities on each side and in the end wiped out dozens of villages. The Cherokee also saw the loss of 75% of their former territories through treaties with their conquerors.

It was George Washington and his secretary of war, John Knox, who in 1789 proposed a solution to the continuing tit for tat of warfare between Indians and settlers, a policy of what he called “civilization.” Indians would be taught to live like white people, even encouraged to intermarry with them. The Cherokee ultimately agreed and succeeded grandly, developing schools, churches, and businesses, creating a written language, a constitution and a representative assembly.

But the settlers weren’t satisfied. They wanted the Cherokee land and pushed to remove them. The now “civilized” Cherokees responded with the tools they’d learned. They lobbied, petitioned and even filed a lawsuit that eventually won them a Supreme Court ruling allowing them to stay.

It didn’t matter. President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and called out federal soldiers and state militias in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina to drive the Cherokee out. Troops rousted people from their homes, gathered them in rough stockades and drove them west to Oklahoma on what has become known as the “trail of tears.” Some 15,000 Cherokees were driven from their land; between 4,000 and 8,000 died on the journey.

Here in the mountains of North Carolina, though, a small group living along the Oconaluftee River maintained a toehold on their land by persuading state legislators to accept their petition to stay. In time the federal government recognized them as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Another several hundred hid out in the mountains and eventually joined them.

Having the right to stay, though, didn’t prevent rapacious logging in the next 60 years or so that clear cut their land twice and left a nucleus of about 1,500 people living in poverty. The 20th Century also saw the arrival of federally-funded boarding schools that punished children for speaking the Cherokee language. In time, the schools closed and the tribe began its own schools that teach Cherokee language and culture.

A shift in the Cherokee’s fortunes came with the Indian Gaming Act in 1988. It gave the Cherokee a source of income, first with bingo and in 1997 with casino gambling, as well as jobs from the attendant tourist industry that has raised the standard of living of tribe members and funded health, education and other support services.

Meanwhile, the stories are still being told. Barbara Duncan from the museum has collected many of them from current day story tellers, people who learned them from relatives and tell them to school and civic groups.

She quotes a story that one those tellers, Freeman Owle, told to a group surrounding the trail of tears. Owle notes that, despite all the brutality the Cherokee experienced, the survival of the Eastern Band was due at least in part to the kindness and support of some of their white neighbors.

He concludes by saying, “You know, I came here tonight to tell you that the Cherokee people don’t really hold any hatred or animosity in their hearts for the things that happened in our past. We can take our hats off to the past, but as one great gentleman said, ‘We should take our shirts off to the future.’ The reason the Cherokee people survived is because they loved their neighbors and were good neighbors.”

It is a remarkable conclusion, an act of grace, really, that offers us an opportunity to enter these stories, to see in them links to our common humanity, a glimmer of hope for us all. Even today, the Cherokee are composing stories that end with something good for the people, for all people. And it is cause for us to be grateful.

Two important sources for this presentation were:

Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan, University of North Carolina Press, 1998

Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, Barbara R. Duncan & Brett H. Riggs, North Carolina Folklife Institute, 2003

Photo credit: http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll5/id/1160

We Don’t Stand; We Move – Association Sunday (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

 

On a bright fall morning more than a decade ago, Sam Zurich began the day as he usually does with his radio tuned to NPR. As he was getting breakfast together, his ears pricked up to an item on the news: a couple of jetliners that had left Boston’s airport for the west coast were unaccounted for, and authorities were puzzled as to where they could be. Only minutes later, he heard that apparently one of those planes had smashed into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center, and within 15 minutes the other plane had plowed into the south tower.

Sam knew the World Trade Center. For some 30 years, before he and his wife, Elaine, had moved to Asheville, he had commuted from his home in Westport, Connecticut, to a radio announcing job in Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan. The twin towers were unmistakable landmarks, looming in the distance. He and Elaine had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary only a few years after the towers had opened with lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower.

As he listened to the rest of that day’s horrifying events unfold – the collapse of the towers, the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the fourth augering into a Pennsylvania forest – one of his first calls was to the church. Sam had been helping out on the worship team, and he asked what the church would do and volunteered to help in any way he could.

Before long he got a call from the minister, Maureen Killoran, to say that there would be a service that evening and asked him to call local radio and TV stations to let them know. A large poster was prepared announcing the service and propped on an easel in our front yard with the words prominently displayed – “Everyone is invited!”

Sam says he recalls the service that night that packed this sanctuary as the moment he was proudest to be a part of this congregation. And the responsive reading that he led in that service tells why: “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted,” it began. “We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.”

Seven years later on a late summer Sunday, Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, and his daughter were having breakfast with Debbie and me, getting ready for a day at Bele Chere, when Chris’ cell phone rang. The signal was spotty, but he could make out enough to hear: “shooting at church.”

He dashed off not knowing what he would find, and we jumped on the Internet. Before long we learned about the man who had entered the sanctuary that morning with a shotgun hidden in a guitar case, pulled it out and began shooting while children of the church were putting on a production of “Annie, Jr.” Two people were killed; several were injured.

A little later I got a call from Taryn Strauss, our religious education director, who had grown up in that congregation while her mom, Lynn, was minister. She came over, and as we commiserated in shock we resolved that we needed to hold a service in solidarity with the Knoxville church. The service was set for Monday, a time when Womansong usually rehearses in our space, and they not only gave up the rehearsal space but performed in the service. Taryn told a story; we sang “Spirit of Life” and “One More Step.”

I began my remarks by quoting remarks that Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, gave in their service after the events of 9/11. “I am so grateful to see you, each and every one. How profoundly we need one another, especially now, but more than just now. We are not human beings because we think. We are human beings because we care. All true meaning is shared meaning. The only thing that can never be taken from us is the love we give away.”

So, what is religion about? Many tend to associate religion with edifices of various sorts: edifices like this one of stone, wood, and glass, some grand and some simple. But we also associate religion with edifices of another kind: structures of words that organize the world in certain ways, that separate the world into the sacred and the profane, that outline a prescribed path to peace, to salvation, that state of final happiness that we humans imagine in so many ways.

It is in these sorts of words that most faith traditions locate their identities, words intended to inspire, to frame a sometimes hostile word in understandable terms, to offer comfort and serve as bulwarks in times of doubt and need. And yet, as Monika illustrated in her exercise to begin our service, edifices of any kind resist the natural motion of things. Those that endure must find some way to adapt to that motion.

Nearly a century ago, Lewis Fisher, dean of the Ryder Divinity School in Chicago, a Universalist seminary, was struggling with this issue. The denomination had recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of one of its founders, John Murray, in America, and launched a campaign to double its membership. In truth, though, the denomination was in decline, split between conservative rural churches and progressive-minded urban ones.

In his book Which Way? Fisher argued that every religious tradition evolves. Words take on new meaning in the light of new circumstances, and denominations must learn to move with them. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”

This famous quote has a new currency among us Unitarian Universalists with the announcement that our denomination’s iconic headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street, off the Boston Public Garden and right next to the Massachusetts State House, and several other buildings nearby have been put up for sale. Headquarters will be moving to an up-and-coming but less prestigious neighborhood at 24 Farnsworth Street.

There is much to recommend the move. The old buildings are hopelessly out of date, and it would cost enormous sums – more than we can afford right now – to retrofit them. The sale of these buildings during a booming real estate market in Boston is likely to net the UUA a handsome profit to help pay off debts and put us on a strong footing for the years ahead.

And yet . . . it causes some pain to lose that prominent and historic address that has been home to the Unitarian side of our tradition for nearly 90 years. And there are those who see in this move signs of trouble for our movement at a time when we, like other progressive-minded religious, are, again, struggling. But here I want to affirm the UUA’s use of Lewis Fisher’s words, written for a different time but applying to a surprisingly similar circumstance.

It is not a prominent edifice that defines us as a religious body; it is the way we are in the world that opens the path to life-giving hope, that raises us above our self-concern and helps us see the possibility of a greater life, that creates connections among people centered in an affirmation of each person’s inherent worth and dignity and our kinship with all things.

It matters that we are joined, not by unalterable words, but by a covenant of principles and ways to be together that we learn by living. It matters that the sources of our tradition, some of which you heard the choir recite this morning, are a gift to draw on, not iron strictures. It matters that we have room to move, because it gives us space to breathe, to grow. So, it is a good day to join with other UU congregations across the country to mark Association Sunday as we celebrate the future that awaits us.

This month in worship I am inviting you to examine the “default settings” that you find governing your religious life – untested assumptions, routine ways of thinking that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace. And today I want to suggest that attachment to these kinds of edifices I’ve been talking about is one of them.

Oh, we certainly need them. This lovely edifice that we occupy makes possible the gathering of this community in light-filled, aesthetically pleasing space. But we have also seen it evolve and know it will continue to evolve as this congregation and its needs evolve. We also have our own edifice of words – our mission statement, covenant, by-laws, governing document, as well as the wise words of celebrated women and men. All that gives needed structure to our life together, and it, too, continues to evolve over time.

The life of a congregation, though, is something more. It is embodied, not in its edifices, but in its people and how being part of a gathered community has changed them and changed the world: in short, not so much what we stand for, but how we move.

I began today with two stories of such change, of how our way of being in the world opened doors, opened hearts and made possible something life-giving and good. Sam recalled how the 9/11 service made us both a force and a voice for a community coming together. Our service after the Knoxville shootings not only served to offer comfort in the face of meaningless violence, but made room for an interfaith conversation that we hosted on how faith communities respond to violence.

And there are many more stories to tell. So, to make a start at this I invited people who have been a part of this congregation for 10 years or more to share some of their stories. Sam’s was one; here are some more.

Arthur Poultney recalled the camaraderie of growing up in the 1950s when barely more than a couple of dozen people met at the old YMCA and then a large home on Vermont Avenue. An oasis of liberal religion provided a welcome respite for progressive-minded people, and their gathering sparked community involvement, such as recruiting Eleanor Roosevelt to speak to a U.N. Day gathering here, such as serving breakfasts to African-American kids and registering their parents to vote at a time when the schools here were still segregated.

Bob MacPherson recalled his wife, Ann, bumping into UUA President Robert West in a trip to Germany and recruiting him to speak at a banquet before the dedication of this building. Among the 250 or so present at that dedication on October 15, 1972 were Paula Sandburg, whose gift help make the building possible, and Reuben Robertson, who donated the land where it was located, both of whom died within the year. Those present dedicated this building where we sit to “the life universal, that it may bring blessings to many people: guidance to the young, consolation to the troubled, encouragement to all.”

Nels Arnold remembered an all-church project in the 1990s to support the Helpmate domestic violence center, with congregation members taking part in everything from fund-raising, to child care, and building playground equipment.

And in perhaps no other way we have brought about the change we seek than through religious education that, in William Ellery Channing’s words, aims “not to stamp our minds on the young but to stir up their own.” I couldn’t begin to weigh the impact that dozens of volunteers have had on the hundreds of children who have taken part in our classes, yet I see it resounding in the joy of those who have been touched by it. Anna Olsen says she has taught religious education here for 24 years because she gets so much out of it.

“My theology is open to self examination,” she says. “My patience is increased, my appreciation of wonder at the small details of life and relationships are experienced.  I become more of the best part of me because that is (what is) expected.  I feel accountable for who I am.”

It is a measure of what a crucial role we play that so many of you have supported this community over the years to preserve a liberal voice in religion in this part of the world. Michael Lord will be returning to his native England within the year, but before going he has contributed $25,000 to our endowment in a bid to help assure that this congregation not only survives but prospers.

Take a look over the fireplace in Sandburg Hall before you leave today to see who else has given or plans to give from the abundance of their lives to sustain the promise we hold for the world. When that list is next updated, you will see my name and Debbie’s there as well. Won’t you join us?

This is important, but in the end we will be measured as a religious community by how we realize our hope for all humankind. It is why our members were key organizers of Building Bridges, a community anti-racism training, and why we are life members of the NAACP. It is why we hosted overnight undocumented workers campaigning for immigration reform, and why we have had teams of visitors, donated books and served as reading tutors to prisoners at the county jail.

It is why our building has been a host of advocacy groups for transgendered people, and gay, lesbian and bisexual teens; for guardians ad litem, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Cathy Agrella recalls one evening more than a decade ago when she was in the foyer outside the church office and heard a group in the RE common area downstairs singing traditional Christian hymns. She says, “I thought, ‘What in the world?’  These songs, filled with references to Jesus and salvation, were certainly not being practiced by our own choir.  And yet, the sound was so beautiful, and so heartfelt, that my eyes filled with tears.  When a staff member came by, I asked about the music, and was told that members of the Metropolitan Community Church were having services.

“At that time, when it was still rare for gay people to be welcomed in Protestant churches, where else but in our building could these singers have felt so free?  We had offered them a safe and open haven for a spiritual gathering. I was never so proud to be a member of our congregation as at that moment.”

And, of course, the welcome that we provide for others makes that much sweeter the welcome we can offer to each other. I offer you these words of our member Carol Taylor:

“This Christmas, Betty and I are flying to Portland, Maine, to get married—because we can. After 40 years together, we figure it’s going to last. Betty says it will turn us from an old couple into an old married couple.

“Maine in December isn’t exactly what I want. I want to be married here, in this sanctuary, where, for 13 years, I have been moved to laughter, tears, and action. I want to be married by Mark Ward.  I want a reception in Sandburg Hall, with champagne and a big cake, surrounded by family and friends, including many in this congregation. I don’t think this will happen soon. When you’re both in your 70s, you can’t afford to wait around.

“When Mark asked everyone who’s been here 10 years what impact UUCA has had on their lives, I had lots of answers. Most of them were about community. This community clarifies my thinking, nudges me outside my comfort zone, draws me out of my shell, brings me friends, and makes me happy. But the clearest and most dramatic impact has to do with who I love.

“When the state of Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a lesbian friend who lives in Seattle said she was surprised by the effect on her, since she had no plans to marry. It changed everything. As she rode the bus, dined in restaurants, shopped in bookstores, she looked around and thought, ‘These people voted me into existence. I’m a citizen of this state. I’m real. I belong.’

“I know how she feels, because I’m a member of this congregation. Oh, this is how it feels to be accepted as just another person. Accepted casually, as a matter of course (“say hello to Betty”). This is what it feels like not to be a category. It’s wonderful to know that if you dislike me, I have earned it. I was rude, or insensitive, or unkind, or stupid, or you haven’t gotten over the checkout lines at last year’s auction.

“When you live in a culture that despises you, it’s impossible not to take that inside. When you belong to a community that affirms you, that brings you in, that accepts you with no particular interest in who you love, you take that inside, too. The hard-edged defenses dissolve, and you can move on.

“In a diverse congregation of 600, there have got to be people who oppose same-sex marriage, and who think that the least I can do is shut up about it. I suspect they don’t talk about it much, because it’s so clearly contrary to the ethos of this congregation. Bless their hearts. In their own way, they’re in the closet. They belong here, too. Community matters. It is comforting. It is transformative.  It is life-giving.”

My friends, never doubt the power of religious community, of this religious community. Never doubt that in how we move we are changing the world, even if one silly brick at a time, even if it takes far longer than it should.

But we can trust in the process, in the hope that, as the crusading Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” because we can see it at work, slowly moving in the world at large, and moving in ourselves as well.

Moving, with all that has ever lived or will live in infinite space and infinite time, letting go of false assurance and giving ourselves over to possibility: emergent, vital and alive, arising in us now.

Let it Be a Dance (text & audio)

 

REFLECTION 1: “I’m dancing with myself”

Okay. Full disclosure: I can’t dance. At least not the way they were dancing during the prelude. Give me a driving rock & roll drum beat and I’m all over the place. But I love this other music; this music that begs for a partner. My feet start tapping and I want to dance, but my body just doesn’t know how to move like Lauren & Able. Why is that?

When I was a teenager and living in southern California, I was part of an awesome United Methodist youth group. Throughout the year, each church in our district would put on a dance and all the youth (and our friends) would flock to them. It was the 80s and dancing was something anyone could do. You didn’t have to know any special steps or how to be coordinated with a partner. You just got in a circle or a clump and moved to the music. If you were like our friend Mike, you’d just stand in one place and bob your head, or if the music got thrashy, just jump up and down. Safety Dance! Or like our friends Rob or Tami, you’d flow your arms and head like this. Or, if you were me, you’d travel around and avoid all eye contact.

It was great! Moving with the music, being with people, but then not really being with them because

I was wrapped up in my own space. I remember one dance when Billy Idol was playing and I was out there “dancing with myself oh oh oh oh” and this poor boy had the gall to come up to me and… ask me to dance! “I don’t like to dance,” I said— as I kept on dancing. I could have said, “I’m already dancing, dope! Why don’t you dance!?”   or something nicer….But I was embarrassed and then the poor kid was embarrassed.

But most of the time you could avoid that kind of thing which was great as a teenager and young adult because you didn’t have to have a partner or know any special steps or be especially coordinated. Until, of course, there was a slow song….bleh!  Time for everyone to leave the dance floor…. except the couples who basically just entwined themselves in a full body hug while swaying a little to the music.

But luckily the slow songs were few and far between so we mostly “rocked the house!” And no matter what group you were in —geeks or freaks or mods or the popular crowd —everyone was equal on the dance floor. Even in Pretty in Pink, outsider Ducky owned the dance floor.

What’s so great about dancing? In some ways, I suppose it’s like any kind of physical movement.  My dad always use to talk about the euphoria he got when he hit that point in his running or biking when he pushed past the point when he didn’t think he could go any farther and there was this release of endorphins. That’s definitely part of it. The physicality. But dancing is different. In large part because it’s combined with music. With that beat that beckons us to get to our feet. It’s ironic that many world religions involve movement or dance as a spiritual practice while many others see dance as evil. The real irony is that I think it’s for the same reason. Dance makes sense as a spiritual practice because you can lose yourself in it—in the music and the movement—such that you forget about your conscious thought and go to a different place. That losing of conscious thought, of letting go, can seem scary. In some ways it’s a lot like sexual desire, giving over to the feelings of your body. Again, probably why the various fundamentalists aren’t so up on the dancing thing.

I’m not sure all the reasons why, but for me and the people I grew up with, and danced with, there was something suspect about traditional partner dancing—in whatever form it came in. We associated it with conformity and patriarchy, with putting the woman in a subservient position, draped on her partner like a supermodel on a sports car.

Though in schools there was still the formalism of the prom and all the crazy trappings that came with it, you could still go “stag” or with a  group of friends. But my friends just wanted to get together and dance and wear whatever we wanted, not have to have a partner, but just hang out with each other while grooving to the music we really liked.

I remember my parents talking about the dances they went to when they were young—of the elaborate clothes they had to wear, the anxiety over getting a date, or being a wallflower waiting for someone to ask you to dance. Because you couldn’t dance if you didn’t have a partner. And I think that’s what we refused to accept. And so we had to push everything away that hinted at that kind of structure.

But is it really so freaky to dance with others? It’s good to be independent and to dance to your own drummer, but we have to find a way for it to not cost us our connectedness to others, our ties to community. We say we’re more connected than ever via the world wide web… Email, Facebook, Twitter—but aren’t we really just finding more ways to disconnect from others? to be less aware of our bodies and of others? to retreat into ourselves? I think today we’re still struggling with how to balance that.

But you don’t “dance with yourself” by yourself, right? I mean, I can turn on some great music and feel like jumping around to it, but it’s really not the same as if I was in a big group. Just like meditating by myself can be a good spiritual practice, but it can be easy to neglect if I’m doing it alone. We all want to be connected to the larger body. We can’t help but want to go to the dance. We need that pulse that connects our heartbeat to the larger beat. That helps us feel connected.

Why dancing with ourselves is really best done … with others.

Anthem: “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne; David Ray, vocal and guitar

REFLECTION 2: “Two Left Feet”

Early on in our marriage, Rik and I went to a dance at our church in Brooklyn. We had not read the flyer very well, but just heard “dance” & our 80s brains said “whoohoo! Rock Lobster, let’s go.” We got there and found out they were doing some kind of swing dancing thing; there was a caller and one person had to lead and the other follow…we tried but…..  It was… horrible. We ended up grousing at each other and getting in a fight. We stomped upstairs to the sanctuary and sat down and talked about it and ended up laughing. We realized we both had two left feet so we guessed that meant we had 4 between us which was just far too many. We vowed never to try dancing like that again.

Rik and I may suck at dancing, but we’re pretty fabulous partners. It hasn’t been easy. No long-term relationship is. It takes patience and honesty and willingness to make mistakes and forgive them. We both suffer from personal tendencies toward depression … And different things set off our tempers but usually they’re related to each of our sense of inadequacy about something in ourselves. Sound familiar? But most of the time, we can dance the relationship dance— when one of us is down, the other one compensates and takes up the slack; when one of us is agitated, the other one works to diffuse. When one of us is sulky or closed off, the other one works to pull the other one out of their shell.

Of course there are times when our rhythm is off. When family or work stress is high and we falter; when we’re both too tired to pay attention to the cues of the other. This is of course when a blow up occurs. We bump into each other; step on each other’s feet. There were more of these earlier on in our marriage than now, but they still occur from time to time. Mostly we’ve become aware of what triggers the other and keep ourselves from pushing each other’s buttons. We may not be able to figure out whose hands or feet go where when it comes to dancing on a dance floor, but when it comes to the relationship dance, we can waltz like the best of them.

What if we thought of all of our relationships as a dance? From our family members to our longtime partners to the stranger we run into in the hallway or street and every time we each take a step we get in the way of each other… We can get frustrated and just push past them. Or, we can laugh it off and weave back and forth before dancing on our way. It can be so easy to fall into our default setting of forward thrust, of ticking off our list, and going about our business. But if we remember that in the dance, we step forward while the other steps back, and then they step forward and we have to step back. Sometimes we lead and they follow. Sometimes we have to let go and be the follower.

Back and forth, around and around. Listening to each other’s cues. Remembering we’re in this together; we’ve all got our own form of left feetedness…

When we choose to let our interactions with others be a dance, instead of a duel, something changes.

And it’s a whole new dance floor full of possibilities.

 

REFLECTION 3: “Dance this dance with me.”

With busy lives, it can seem hard to just “let it be a dance.” Just finding time to dance can be impossible. Inspite of our two left feet, Rik and I still yearn to dance. Not with each other, we’ve got our own private moves for that. But to dance in community. Why?

I think it’s because as geeky introverts, we secretly desire more meaningful ways to connect with others. Ever since we moved to Asheville, and even before, back in Brooklyn, we kept hearing about Contra dancing. From old people to teens and everyone in between. This seemed like something really different. But could we do it?

Finally we decided to break our old pact and check it out. We went to the YMCA downtown that had a Family Friendly contra dance, taking our 10 year old son with us. It really was a lot of fun, until they got into some more complicated dances where it was really important that there be a “leader” and a “follower.” It was fine as long as we were all dancing with other people who knew what the heck they were doing, but trying to dance with each other we had the same problem—we couldn’t keep track of who was trying to lead and where our hands and feet were supposed to go. All those crazy left feet!

Still, we went back several times since most of the dancing was pretty simple and involved lots of people who didn’t know what the heck they were doing either, including lots of rowdy kids. So we didn’t stand out like sore thumbs, or 6 left feet.

I think one reason Rik and I struggle with traditional partner or group dancing like Contra is the use of gendered language. So when we hear “men on the left” and “women on the right,” we start getting twitchy, which doesn’t help us pay attention to all our left feet very well. This is the one flaw of the Contra Dance movement.  I know the dances go back to the 1700s, but this is the 21st century! The dances are great mixers and people of any gender are welcome to take either dance part, so just lose the gender binary language already and just line us up as “leaders” and “followers” and let each individual decide.

But we so want to find a way to join this dancing community. We know enough now to understand the draw— You can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it virtually. You need other people… in the same place…. together. You have to touch each other. And you have to have live music. And a caller. So it’s okay if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do; someone will tell you; and if you don’t get it right, you’ll have another chance because all the moves get repeated multiple times.

And if you and your partner both have left feet, that doesn’t matter either because you switch partners throughout the dance. It’s really a completely different thing than the dancing I grew up with.  There’s a social contract involved. You can’t just focus on your own enjoyment. You have to get people where they’re going—across the circle or down the line; you have to pay attention to each other; be aware of your surroundings.

Some people have described contra dancing as a “kaleidoscope, a weaving, a quilting with humans.” I like that.

And guess what? The people look at each other…. while they’re dancing. They make eye contact. For me, that’s the hardest…and yet, the most wonderful. Because isn’t that what we all want the most? Someone to see us so we can truly see?

Let it be a Dance.

This is the last song sung at final worship service of SUUSI. SUUSI is the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, a yearly UU summer camp our family goes to. And no matter what the theme or the particular experiences of that year—Ric Masten’s “Let it Be a Dance” is always the right song to be sung. Because it exactly expresses why we come. Why we gather together year after year—and perhaps why we come here—to this place—to gather around this chalice fire, for the first time, and then again and again—week after week—to dance this dance; to feel the rhythm, feel the need, fill the need.

We need to be, to know and be reminded, like repetitive dance steps, that we can teach each other—that no matter who we are or where we come from, whom we love or how we dance, we are welcome around this flame; we are welcome to dance this dance; to let it be a dance; with ourselves, with our partners….with a circle of others, but always embodied—our full selves—mind, body, and spirit—always in community; this seeking of hands, of rhythm, of need and heartbeat. So that we know—we do not dance alone.

We never have to dance alone.

So come, sing a song with me and dance this dance with me.

No Hell, No Way (text & audio)

 

READING

From “A Treatise on Atonement” by Hosea Ballou

“There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away with sin, but love; and we have reason to be eternally thankful, that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of humankind . . . . O love, thou great physician of souls, what work hast thou undertaken!”

SERMON

My colleague the Rev. Jake Morrill, minister of the UU church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, recalls that the other day he was stopped at a traffic light when he noticed that the car he was facing going the other direction had a front license plate with a cartoon of a Confederate soldier holding a rebel flag.

Beside the cartoon he read the words “Forget Hell!” At that, Jake says, his Universalist heart swelled, and he thought to himself, “That’s right. Even you, Johnny Reb, who fought to sustain the fathomless misery of countless enslaved people, even you see that you can’t escape the all-conquering power of love. Forget hell is right!”

It was then, he says, that he saw the comma. Forget, Hell!

You don’t hear an awful lot about hell these days, but that’s not to say that it’s been forgotten about. Gallup polls show that about three-quarters of Americans believe there is a heaven, and slightly less, about 70%, think there is a hell. What’s interesting, though not especially surprising, is that most people figure that when they die they’re going to the first place, and not the second: 64% feel they’re going to heaven, while ½ of 1% think there’s any chance they’re going to hell.

I must say that it’s an interesting commentary that one is willing to posit ever-lasting torment for some other guy, but, heavens, not for me!

We’ll get back to that, but first I want to tell you a little bit about some folks in North Carolina who sowed the seeds for a Universalist faith that forgot hell and whose lives stitched together a community and even helped make possible an unexpected gift to this congregation.

American Universalism arose in New England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was founded fundamentally on a simple premise: a loving God would not consign those he created to eternal torment. Sure, he may get mad at them now and then, but it would be not through punishment, but through the force of his loving nature that he would draw us back to the good. If God truly is love, they argued, there cannot be any such thing as hell.

In the face of the prevailing faith, a grim Calvinism that preached that each person was born depraved and likely destined for the fires, this Universalism found a ready audience and spread quickly, if haphazardly: Most of the early preachers who set out on the road had little education, but great enthusiasm, and congregations gathered fitfully. By the 1830s enough churches had been formed in North Carolina to start a state convention, and around that time Universalism seems to have moved into these mountains.

It’s hard to be precise about these things because there were strains of Universalist belief among many of the early immigrants who were making their homes here. One especially strong influence was a tradition of German Baptists who had popularly become known as Dunkers.

What we know is that the first Universalist presence in these mountains seems to have begun next door to us in Haywood County, begun by a man by the name of Jonathan Plott. Plott had come here to serve as the first teacher at Bethel Community School. He was of German heritage and may have grown up a Dunker, but he claims to have been converted to Universalism by one of those saddle-bag preachers.

Plott was a community leader of sorts and drew people to him. One of those people was a young man by the name of James Anderson Inman, who at 17 moved in with Plott as a hired man of sorts. While there, Inman met and fell in love with Plott’s adopted daughter, Mary, and the two were married.

James and Mary also were drawn to the Universalism that Plott had adopted. It wasn’t an easy choice in a community where fire-and-brimstone preaching was the norm. For preachers who saw the threat of hell as the only check against sinful living, Universalism was a path to perdition.

There’s a story that Hosea Ballou, who we heard from earlier, was out riding one day with a Baptist preacher, and the two were arguing theology. At one point the Baptist minister said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, and feared not the fires of Hell, I’d hit you over the head and steal your horse and saddle.”

Ballou then looked over at him and replied, “My brother, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”

And so Inman believed, too. He was reading deeply in the Bible and found the Universalist message affirmed wherever he looked. The heart of the gospel as far as he was concerned was that love overcomes all. It’s said that the Bible he carried throughout his live opened to one of those passages, these words from Isaiah: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

A group of people in the area began meeting regularly as a kind of Sunday school, and by 1859 they had recognized Inman as a Universalist preacher at the age of 33. The gathering Civil War, though, disrupted all that, and Inman and his four younger brothers enlisted in the Confederate Army.

By what was probably a happy accident, given the terrible carnage of war that killed three of his brothers, Inman was captured and spent most of the final years of the Civil War in an Illinois prison camp.

Now, here’s where the story of this tiny Universalist church in the mountains intersects with our modern day. If you read the book or saw the film “Cold Mountain,” you may recall the figure of Monroe, the father of the female lead character, Ada. The author, Charles Frazier, describes him as preacher who scandalized the mountain folks by preaching that in the end they could forward to being “immersed in an ocean of love,” and who was shunned for his “failure to believe in a God with severe limitations on His patience and mercy.” Frazier has since acknowledged that the figure of Monroe was modeled on James Inman, who was his great-great grandfather.

Shortly after Inman returned from the war, in 1868, the Universalist Church of Haywood County was organized. The church had no home, though. Inman’s services were held in the homes of members, under a hospitable tree, or occasionally public gathering spots, and his wife, Mary, served as midwife and healer. It took another 30 years for its members to raise the funds and find the land for a church, which was completed in 1901. Inman, though, only lived to serve the church for another decade, before he died in 1913.

The church foundered for a while before the Universalist Women’s Missionary Association adopted it as a project. In 1921 they recruited Hannah Powell, the first woman minister most of those people had seen, to serve the church.

Some leaders of the church, not to mention its neighbors, were skeptical of seeing a woman in the pulpit, even though Powell was 55 years old with a divinity degree and had already served several churches in Maine. But she had grown up in a logging family and knew what those communities were like. As it happened, by the time she arrived, many of the loggers in western North Carolina had already cleared the best stands and were moving out, leaving the people behind impoverished. Powell moved quickly to raise funds from the Missionary Society for construction of a home, built in 1924, next door to what was now know as Inman Chapel. Dubbed “Friendly House,” it served as a kind of community center, with day school for kids and night school for adults, health clinic, emergency shelter, and library created by a gift of 1,000 books donated by the city library of Newark, New Jersey.

All this made for a vibrant community, but it couldn’t have survived without Hannah Powell’s fund-raising appeals. When Powell finally retired in 1943, the contributions began to falter, and, though a couple of other preachers were called there, none worked out, and the community dwindled in the 1950s, around the same time this congregation got going.

In 1957, Friendly House was sold and Inman Chapel was closed by the state Universalist convention. The chapel would have been sold too, but for the fact that Inman himself had deeded it to family trustees. Since then, the family has maintained the building, and a few years ago completed a major renovation. The chapel now holds photos and exhibits from its early days. In a couple of weeks, Elly Wells, a UUCA member with family ties to Inman Chapel, and I will lead a tour of the chapel that was offered as an item in our annual auction.

Several years ago, Phyllis Inman Barnett, a great granddaughter of James Inman who moved back to the Pigeon Valley with her husband in retirement, collected much of the history around these early Universalists in a book called “At the Foot of Cold Mountain.” I used it as a source for this sermon, and you can find it in our library.

She reports that while many of James and Mary Inman’s descendents still live in the area near Inman Chapel, interest in Universalism has pretty much died out. It’s also true that in the final years that Inman Chapel was a Universalist meeting house, folks in the larger movement lost interest in it. By 1961, when the Universalist and Unitarian churches joined, there was little interest in tiny, moldering backwoods churches.

So, all these years later it’s worth asking what we today might claim from the story of Inman Chapel. We should begin by acknowledging that culturally and theologically there is a big distance between us. It’s hard for any of us to fathom that early pioneer life, not to speak of the rough times of the lumber camps. And, though the faith of the Inmans differed radically from that of their neighbors, they all agreed on one central point: religion was strictly centered on the Bible.

We Unitarian Universalists today honor the Bible as one source of religious wisdom among many, but not the one and only guide to a religious life, nor is the notion of a personal God necessarily a part of our own sense of faith. Still, it seems to me that at the heart of that old Universalist faith is the possibility of common ground and perhaps a source of inspiration for us.

And that carries us back to Jake’s license plate. What does it mean to “forget hell”? Well, I think it suggests more than just that we disagree with the proposition that there exists some place of eternal fire that awaits all who commit unredeemed evil. I think it implies a stance that says “forget heaven,” too.

Forget this image of the cosmic court that weighs us one way or the other and the bifurcated path to judgment that it offers up to us, that we ourselves slip into so easily and that makes us such high and mighty judges on behalf of some vision of the Good.

Here, I know, I’m crossing a boundary that I expect our forebears at Inman Chapel could not abide, but it seems to me unavoidable. Hell is merely the fury of our unrequited fear and shame given form, and heaven but the vision of our yearning aspirations.

We are, all of us, lacking any definitive knowledge of what follows our deaths, but those ancient tropes, in truth, do us no good. Trusting in the great by and by or depending on the devil to do our dirty work merely keeps us from the work of living fully while we can.

And this applies to any of us however we may understand our ends when we self-righteously presume to impose judgment, when we dismiss the humanity of another, or demand another’s suffering as recompense for our pain.

Hosea Ballou was right when he said that the greatest hell that any of us need fear is that of our own making, the torment we create by our heedless actions. And the path to redemption, whatever our offense, is always the same. It is centered in love: love that, in Ballou’s quote from the Song of Solomon, will not be quenched, will not be drowned, that has the power to remove the moral maladies of humankind: Love that is stronger than death.

Yes, death stills our beating hearts, but it will not stop what love has started, what love ignites, what love gives energy to. It is the story of life and of all that is good in our lives, the source of hope for each of us: that our lives will not have been in vain because of what we gave out of love.

This is what I take from our Universalist forebears in Haywood County, people who, in Charles Frazier’s words, imagined their hopeful end as being “immersed in an ocean of love.” What we know about our forebears at Inman Chapel settled at the foot of Cold Mountain is that they did their best to help make that happen, as loving, faithful people who served their community and each other.

And here’s how this story touches us. You’ll recall what I said about Hannah Powell, that she was a dynamo who developed strong connections across the community. Apparently, among her acquaintances was Reuben Robertson, owner of Champion Paper and Fibre Co., a major land-owner in the area.

I’m not clear on exactly how it happened – though I can’t help believe that the memory of Hannah’s good works played a role – but in the late 1960s when this congregation was looking for a location after it had outgrown its home in a large West Asheville home, it was Reuben’s son, Logan Robertson, and his wife – who were members of the congregation – who showed the way by offering to give the congregation this property where we are now located.

At the time it consisted of a vacant lot, on the corner, and three homes. Architect Bill Moore, who is still a member of this congregation, designed the building where we sit, and in 1974 it was dedicated. It had been nearly 20 years since Inman Chapel had closed as a Universalist meeting house, but it’s hard not to believe that in some way the good will that those people worked helped make possible our own rebirth.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s true, as the Sufi story I mentioned a couple of weeks ago says, that what water is to fish, love is to humans – that by which we live and breathe. So then, ought we not to give our time, our energy to finding ways to bring it to our awareness and into our actions, that we might find wholeness and peace?

In that case, forget about giving any energy to that terrible gyre of fear, shame and doubt that arises at times in our fragile, fallible selves; forget about the tantalizing tug of prejudice and easy judgment; the tooth-grinding demand for vengeance.

No hell! No way! Let love have its way!

This is Water – Ingathering Sunday (text & audio)

READING

A Thirsty Fish
by Rumi

I don’t get tired of you. Don’t grow weary
of being compassionate toward me!

All this thirst equipment
must surely be tired of me,
the water jar, the water carrier.

I have a thirsty fish in me
that can never find enough
of what it’s thirsty for!

Show me the way to the ocean!
Break these half-measures,
these small containers.

All this fantasy
and grief.

Let my house be drowned in the wave
that rose last night out of the courtyard
hidden in the center of my chest.

I don’t want learning, or dignity,
or respectability.

I want this music and this dawn
and the warmth of your cheek against mine.

The grief-armies assemble,
but I’m not going with them.

SERMON

It arrived, as it seems such things do these days, as a posting from someone I distantly know on Facebook: a video that was recommended as intriguing. I clicked, and the video began with some jaunty music and a disembodied voice over an image of two goldfish swimming in a bowl:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet on older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

“And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What’s water?”

Yeah, cute, I thought. I’ve heard the story before: one of those old Sufi teaching tales that I’ve always liked. The speaker goes on, and I realize that he’s talking to an audience – turns out to be a college graduation address from some eight years ago, and the speaker is the one-time literary phenom David Foster Wallace.

What is arresting is what he does with the story, and what the video does with his words. Wallace acknowledges the obvious – using his word – “platitude” that the story offers up: that, as he says, “the most important realities are often the ones that it’s hardest to see and talk about.”

But he cautions that these so-called platitudes can actually be significant. They can even have a life-or-death importance for us, and to demonstrate he invites the graduates into a kind of eerie flash forward to a less than glamorous moment of the lives that await them.

“Let’s say,” he begins, “it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate  job, and you work hard for eight or 10 hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple hours and then hit the bed early, because you have to get up the next day and do it all again.

“But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job – and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because, of course, it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping.

“You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people. And when you get your stuff it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open, even though it’s the end-of-the day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.”

Our response, says Wallace, is to find all this “stupid and infuriating.” But, of course, it does no good to take our fury out on the people in line or the harried checkout lady. So, we pack the flimsy plastic bags of groceries in our cart, with – he adds with a sly touch – the one wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, through the crowded, pot-holed, littery parking lot, and head home through slow, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic.

Something like a modern version of one of Dante’s circles of hell, no? But, in a sense that’s the least of it, Wallace says, when you consider that in our lives this scene will be repeated, day after week after month after year. And of course, it may not be this moment that gets our goat, but another one of the many infuriating, routine tasks that swallow up the precious minutes of our lives.

So, what to do? One option, of course, is to follow what Wallace calls our natural “default settings”: to pop off at the next guy, give the check-out person a hard time, or just bury ourselves in numbness. Another, though, is to entertain the possibility of seeing these moments as an opportunity for choosing.

I came upon Wallace’s talk at about the time I was mulling over what might be themes for worship this coming year. It was also a time of a new crop of commentaries predicting the downfall of religion. You’ve seen some of these, I expect. Churches across the spectrum are emptying, denominational numbers are down, and the numbers of those who affirm no religious affiliation are rising. Some of these people express no interest in religion, although as a percentage of people surveyed this group hasn’t grown particularly in recent years.

What has grown, and significantly, is the number of people who affirm an interest in religion but are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, or who identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious. We Unitarian Universalists have tended to look at those trends and crow that these are folks are ripe to join our churches, people like many of us who abandoned the religious homes of our childhoods for this one.

This may be true for some, but we would be wise to note that when these people say “not religious” they tend to have places like us in mind, as well, and this may be problem that we have contributed to creating.

Diana Butler Bass is a long-time observer of religion who has spent a good deal of time looking at this boundary between the religious and non-religious. She notes that in the West, at least, the path to faith across traditions has taken a particular shape with three stages, which she identifies as: believe, behave, belong.

That is to say, the threshold question to be answered when one enters a church usually is, what do you believe? This comes after many centuries of schisms and conflicts over theological doctrine, resulting in religions defining themselves in terms of where they stand on certain religious propositions. This tends to be true even for us, a non-creedal religion. Though we have no uniform doctrine, we tend to raise questions of religious belief early in our orientation process.

In the traditional model, once you orient yourself to a particular belief structure, you reshape your practices in certain ways: attend worship, enroll in religious education, take part in social justice work, and so on. Finally, then, you decide to become a member.

But Bass says that there’s something odd about this arrangement. It isn’t really the way the rest of the world works. For example, she said, if you decide you want to join a knitting group, you don’t spend a lot of time reading up on knitting doctrinal statements or knitting history. You just dive in. You find someone who can teach you the basics, go to the yarn shop, and find a knitting class. In time, if it appeals to you, you get to know the others there, and you find that the group makes you feel better about yourself, gives you a sense of service, and maybe a deeper sense of meaning.

In her words: “relationship leads to craft, which leads to experimental belief.” So, how would it be if churches followed a similar path: Moving not from belief to behaving to belonging, but from belonging to behaving to belief?

Belonging to a community starts with a flash of recognition – “I fit with these people; this feels good.” We make friends and find that being a part of that community makes our hearts lighter and the world more interesting. After hanging around a while, we see how they do things, how they act with each other, what they do in the world, and we find that it resonates with a deep place in ourselves. Then, engaging the questions raised in that community and the wisdom it holds dear, we come to a more settled sense of our place in the world and our responsibilities to it, a faith of sorts that shifts and grows amid the trajectory of our lives.

And here is where I connect again with David Foster Wallace, but with a twist. So, remember? There we are in that slow-moving check-out line, where, say, one person in front of us is talking loudly on a cell phone, another is a frazzled mother with a shrieking child, another has this deadened, cow-like expression and this guy in front of us has a Confederate flag stitched to his jacket.

I can dwell on all the reasons this scene upsets or frustrates me, or, Wallace says, “or I can choose to consider the likelihood that everyone else in this line is just as bored and frustrated as I am. . . .

“If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” he says, “you can choose to look differently at this fat, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid. Maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights with her husband, who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”

It may even be in your power, he says, “to experience this crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things.”

And how do we put ourselves into a posture where we’re willing to consider such possibilities? Well, Wallace, in this college graduation address, argues that it is a benefit that education gives us: we are taught, in his words, “how to think,” to appreciate what he calls “the capital T truth” that you get to decide for yourself how you will see the world and how you will orient your life toward it.

Now, being a college graduate who gained much from that experience, I wouldn’t deny that much of the wisdom that can turn us in that way is certainly present there. But in truth, I think, whether or not you are a college graduate or have any other kind of fancy education is not enough. We need something more: we need community.

We need a community that will provide a crucible to help us figure out where we fit and how the world works while we struggle to make our way. We need a community that will hold us when things fall apart and those brilliant ideas sound so hollow. We need a community that will celebrate and help make connections for our kids and our partners, that will invite us to consider new ways of opening ourselves and introduce us to amazing people who share our hopes for the world.

That is what we are building here. It’s a community that offers no litmus test of belief but invites you to bring your our own journey of religious discovery and join us in the work of building freedom, justice and love. And central to that, I believe, is the work that Wallace points us to – developing disciplines and looking beyond distractions in order to see the truth and beauty around us. Challenging work, but critical to the peace and spiritual centeredness that I think we all seek.

So, this year in worship I plan to use many of the elements that Wallace introduced in his provocative speech as themes that will help us do that. We’ll touch on these in worship, but I also invite you to join us in one of our Theme groups or Covenant groups that are forming right now to carry the conversation further. Or, bring it into other settings in this community, or just dip into the Worship Theme resources you’ll find on our Web site.

Finally, let’s return to Wallace’s little fish story. Another version of the story imagines one of the fish returning to his mother at the end of the day, confused and frightened about what the older fish had said.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “What is this water? Is it dangerous? Is it going to hurt me?”

“Oh, sweetie,” his mother said. “Don’t worry. Water is everywhere we go. It’s all around us and inside us. It’s what we live in.”

As his mother spoke and stroked his head, the little fish began to calm down, and, as he did, at his mother’s side, he began to feel a little current of water in his gills, and on his scales. He really had never noticed it before.

For the Sufis, the story points to a deeper wisdom. What water is to fish, they say, love is to the human being. It is all around us, inside us, and everywhere we go: available to us if we can allow ourselves to experience it.

In gathering resources for you to reflect on our themes, I invited a number of you to act as curators to provide books, poems, quotes, videos as well as personal reflections. You can find many of them on our Web site. One reflection on our first theme, awareness, came from Sharon Van Dyke. She gave me permission to share it with you.

Sharon wrote that she was 34 when she and her husband, Chris, lost their first pregnancy. “I had been a really tough time,” she wrote. “I spent months trying to hold back a lot of negative feelings about losing the baby, primarily because I wanted to be able to move on, so we could try again. But it was exactly that – the holding back of feelings – that made it harder to move through it.”

Coaching in a meditation practice, she wrote, helped her wake up to her feelings and even embrace them. Things turned out OK in the end. They now have three rambunctious boys. But Sharon still reflects on what a struggle it was to make room for that deep discomfort within her, to see that attention needed to be paid to it.

“To me it’s about the bigness and smallness of life, which coexist at the same time,” she wrote. Of course, those feelings “mean a great deal to you. But while you’re there can you also see the smallness of it? Can you see how you are surrounded by others, 7 billion others, people just like you, in their own moments?”

As Rumi said, we truly are all thirsty fish, struggling to find enough of what we’re thirsty for. All this fantasy and grief around us: Which way to the ocean?

Well, let the armies of those wrapped up in their grief be on their way. I’m not going with them.

No, as David Foster Wallace puts it I want to open myself to what’s present before me, to bring my awareness “to what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

Resources: This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown & Co., 2009; and Christianity after Religion by Diana Butler Bass, Harper Collins, 2012.

Finding Common Ground (text & audio)

Debbie and I arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1984. I had taken a reporting job at The Milwaukee Journal, an afternoon paper, which, in that blue collar town, made it the leading paper in town. It was an unrepentant liberal daily that Time magazine only a year or two before had identified as one of the 10 best papers in the country.

At the time, Milwaukee was still known as the machine shop to the world, a place where vast acres of the city were covered with big-bay manufacturers that heated, pressed, bent and shaped metal into countless shapes for industries of all sorts. It was a place of many tidy neighborhoods of cheerful bungalows or well-built duplexes packed into tight blocks with barely enough room for a driveway to separate them.

Milwaukee at the time had a reputation as a comfortable, middle-class city. For many years, factory jobs were plentiful and pretty much handed down from father to son. There wasn’t a lot of wealth, but most people – as long as you were of European, white heritage – could be assured of getting work, and, at least for a time, minorities did well, too.

Milwaukee, after all, had once been the site of what was called the Bay View massacre. This was an incident where in 1886 seven people died when National Guard troops fired on some 14,000 workers at a steel rolling mill who were marching for an eight-hour day. It took another 50 years until New Deal legislation actually gave workers the right to an 8-hour day, but the shooting sparked a movement in Milwaukee of what became known as the “sewer socialists.”

This Socialist Party was made up not of fire-breathing revolutionaries but of labor-friendly progressives who emphasized honesty in government, public works, and coalitions with others working to build the middle-class. These Socialists held the mayor’s office from 1910 to 1960.

Even the paper where I worked exemplified this spirit. It was employee-owned, and for a couple of generations its privately-held stock enriched not just top management, but all employees. While I was there, many a pressmen retired with a million bucks and bought a retirement cottage on some northern lake.

By 1984, though, the bloom was coming off the rose. Many of Milwaukee’s high-income jobs were being shipped overseas, and the big-bay manufacturers were shutting down, emptying many inner city neighborhoods of those reliable wage earners. The lay-offs hit minorities first, who moved into lower-cost homes abandoned in the inner city, setting off a blizzard of white flight and establishing a pattern of hyper-segregation that continues to this day.

My reporting, first at City Hall, then at the courts, kept this story in front of me. Politicians were sure the city could come back. They recruited developers to turn empty factory buildings into malls and kept streets even in some of the most desperate inner city neighborhoods well paved. But real estate sharks were moving in, buying dozens of once well-tended homes, squeezing out what they could and putting nothing back in.

Like a bicycle tire with a leak, energy slowly drained from the city. The business district and stunning lakefront – one of the chief gifts of the sewer socialists – received attention, but its center was hollowing out. The newspaper, too, suffered with declining circulation and loss of advertising. Eventually, it went public, but the disappointing performance of its stock left most employees with little to show.

Debbie and I left in 2004 to come here, wondering what would become of it all. I got a chance to see recently in a PBS special by Bill Moyers. He followed two Milwaukee families – one white, and one black – over the last 20 years. The picture was familiar: In 1991, when the story began, the husband in the white family and both husband and wife in the black family had recently lost their jobs at Milwaukee manufacturers. Both families were homeowners with several small children.

Each hoped to find other work and managed to secure what they were sure would be “temporary” employment at a fraction of their former wages. But, of course, “temporary” turned into the way it would be, and in the end wasn’t enough to sustain the lives they had created for themselves. They endured visits to a food pantry and days without electricity when they couldn’t pay utility bills. Bouts of illness became big financial setbacks, and worries over money tore at the fabric of relations between husband and wife, parent and child. But eventually both managed to accommodate themselves to a new reality, even if their incomes never approached what they were making 20 years before.

Remembering much of what I saw as a reporter over the years covered by the Moyers program I have to say that in many respects these two families were lucky. As the show ended, both were still intact and the kids were mostly OK, though struggling. For many others during that time, the story was much grimmer.

Whatever your vantage, this one-time prosperous city slowly but surely was being depleted and hollowed out. And Milwaukee was not alone. Other great old manufacturing centers also suffered, and in the days since, their grief has been shared by many in the suburbs, the South, Silicon Valley: all of the supposed hot new centers of economic activity. Wealth was being created, money was being made, but fewer and fewer people benefited from it. Stocks have soared in recent years, but employment has barely moved all.

The result has been a historic shift in this country that has seen the wealth created in our economy, once spread widely, accrue to a tiny fraction of the richest people. Here are a few numbers: From 1947 to 1979 wages of all workers at all salary levels grew roughly the same percentage, but between 1979 and 2007 63% of total income growth went to the top 10% of households.  Wealth became even more concentrated, to the point where today the top 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 80% owns just 7%.

With wages essentially frozen the only way to make headway economically today is by owning non-cash assets – stocks and bonds, and so on. But, of course, most people own few such assets and have little prospect of acquiring them, and even for those who do, the real money is made in executive suites and corporate board rooms.

The author George Packer describes this period we’re going through as an “unwinding,” a time when cultural moorings are being loosed and long-standing assumptions are turned on their heads. In the past, he says, these periods have brought great disruption but also an uneasy kind of freedom. “Each decline,” he observes, “brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”

If it is an unwinding we are experiencing, one notion that seems to be in play is that there is some fundamental value to human beings and thei