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Sankofa – 12/30/2012

In the language of the Akan people of West Africa there is a word, ‘Sankofa’, which can be translated into English as ‘go back and get it’. It is a small word that evokes a large concept, of reconnecting with the past in order to continue into the future. One of the symbols for sankofa in Akan art is a bird with its feet facing forward and its neck craned to point backwards, sometimes reaching for an egg resting on its own back. It is a reminder that remembering what has gone before is a crucial part of going forward.

We come together every Sunday to do just that: to go back and get what is precious and important in what has gone before, to give us courage and solace in our going forward. But this Sunday, we are going to do it in a particular way. As the year is almost ended, we are going to return together to some of the themes and stories we have shared in our worship over the last twelve months. To remember a bit of what was as we turn towards what might be.

 

First Remembrance

“We must learn to awaken and to keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

Those words come from our ancestor, Henry David Thoreau.

Yet there are a thousand thousand reasons in life for why my expectation proves less than infinite, that lead me to fall into a moral sleep, and forget to hope. Because I was tired, because I was hungry, because I stubbed my toe. Because I was sick or in pain or because someone I love had died. Because I was worried about having enough money, or enough love. Because I was afraid of war, and the rumors of war. Because I was worn thin by the weight of the world; there is so much in it that is broken – and so much that is broken in me. Because the train was late, because the baby was crying, because I lost my favorite pair of socks.

And because of these reasons or some others beside, there were moments this year when you and I and all of us, forgot to expect the dawn. I forgot that the river of life flows out of long eons, touching trillions of hearts and minds, stretching on into the unknowable future, and that in order to get there it first must pass through me. You forgot about the fire that burns in every soul, that bursts forth anew in each generation’s hunger for freedom and for truth, and that that flame also flashes in you. We forgot, that this is no force upon this earth greater than love: no chain it cannot break, no pain it cannot salve, no wrong it cannot redress.

“We must learn to awaken and to keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

It is hard to stay awake like that; the world will make you tired. I know it wears me out sometimes. So that is why we come together, this Sunday and every Sunday: to be woken up, and to remind each other to expect the dawn.

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition counsels us to heed the products of reason and the results of science, and to trust in the practice of democracy. But if I were to point to a singular root of hope, at the center of our faith, it would be found in love. Love, to our understanding, is uniquely powerful and important. Our ancestors held a wide variety of opinions on a great many things, but they were united in their understanding that love was central to the meaning of our lives and our world.

Several months ago, one of you shared a story with me, and gave your permission to share it from the pulpit. Your story was about your Uncle Bernie. You and Uncle Bernie do not see the world in exactly the same way, you told me. Because you are an atheist, and he is a priest. Over the years you have talked about this and argued through all sorts of questions about theology many, many times. Those arguments were passionate and heartfelt, and always enjoyable. You disagreed with him, and he with you, but you never lost sight of the fact that you were family, and that you cared about each other. And then not so long ago, you went to pay your Uncle Bernie another visit.

He’s gotten pretty sick, and the medication he’s on takes its toll too. You started into the old debate and you could see Uncle Bernie had a point he was reaching for that he just couldn’t find or couldn’t get out. That was the moment that you lost your will to argue with him: it wasn’t a fair fight any more. There are other ways you and your Uncle can enjoy each others’ company now. You can still talk about this and that, and have a piece of pie together. You still love each other, and that’s what matters.

The existence of God is a point on which people of good will may disagree. It is the existence of love that matters, in a place called here and a time called now. Loving another person teaches the courage to protect them, and the appropriate fear of things that are harmful to life – theirs, or any other. Love teaches us to hope, even if just for a smile, or a kind word, or a touch. Love teaches us pain, at losing a person or a relationship; and love also teaches us how to live with that pain, and still continue to love. Love drives us to free ourselves and each other from systems of oppression: to break chains, confront tyrants, and throw open prison doors. And even the memory of love is a comfort in hard times.

 

Second Remembrance

Death is among the greatest, and the hardest constants of life. Something like 56 million of the people living on this planet die annually. This year held two memorial services for long time members of our congregation. Their eulogies have already been recited, and the stories of their lives continue as a part of those who knew them. But I want to remember just a little bit of each of them with you now.

Thelma Silsby was a member of First Parish for more than 50 years. At her service, her son Brad told a story about her which he gave me permission to share with others, and which I have been very happily retelling in the months since. Back even before they were married, Brad’s parents, Thelma and Roger, used to love to go boating. And one day they were out on the water with Thelma’s dad and they were making their way towards the Cape Cod canal. Roger was at the tiller, and when he tried to make a turn he realized that part of it had sheared off; he was no longer in full control of the boat. So he asked his father-in-law to come take his place and quietly explained the situation to him. “Make it look like you’re still steering, though,” he said. “We don’t want to upset Thelma.” And Roger went to the sails to try and tack to the nearest place where they could dock and get some help.

They made their way like this for a little while and it seemed like everything was going to be alright, when Roger’s grandfather noticed that he hadn’t seen Thelma in a while, and wondered where she was. Where she was, was below deck. The break in the rudder wasn’t the only problem, you see. They were also taking on water. So Thelma was down there running the pump, trying to bail them all out and keep the boat from going down.

Sometimes in life we make the mistake of assuming that we’re the only ones who have problems. We even try to hide the challenges we’re facing from the people who care about us, because we don’t want them to be worried or upset. But this story about Thelma Silsby reminds me that we’ve all got troubles. And in fact, even when I’m working on my worries and you’re wrestling with your concerns, the truth is that all of our struggles are woven together. We are all in the same boat.

This year also saw the passing of Sylvan Menezes, another long-time member of our congregation. His long battle with ALS was deeply felt by many of us, in this congregation which also includes members of his family and close circle of friends. Whenever someone’s life is remembered after having closed with such a harsh and terrible illness, there is always the temptation to valorize their courage and strength in the face of it. I did know Sylvan to be strong, and to have been supported by some amazingly dedicated and compassionate caregivers, but I don’t think he was particularly interested in being held up as an inspiration for how to go through a debilitating illness. He was always a lot more interested in living than in dying.

Sylvan came of age during the tumult and upheaval of the late 1960s, and graduated from high school at the top of his class. He was named valedictorian – a testament to his talents and to the hard work that he would be known for throughout his life. That same quality in Sylvan that drove him to academic success also demanded of him that he stand up for what he felt was right. So at just as he was completing his high school education he was taking his own position against the war in Vietnam, and he was not shy about where and when he would advocate for an end to the conflict. So it was that though he was named valedictorian, he was not given an opportunity to speak at his graduation, as the school’s administrators felt they could not take the risk of giving him a live mic and an open forum.

So for those of us who remember Thelma and Sylvan, and those of us who don’t, let us take from this year a deep awareness that all of our problems and trials are ultimately interconnected, and let us carry a determination to act with the courage of our convictions behind us.

 

Third Remembrance

A gracious welcome says much about the people who offer it; and the opposite is also true.

Mulla Nasruddin is a witty and clever folk character in Islamic culture. In one of his many stories he was invited to a great feast with many distinguished guests. During the month of Ramadan it is the practice in Islam to fast during the day, and to break the fast in the evening with a celebratory meal, so this was the sort of party that Nasruddin was set to attend. When the sun set that day, Nasruddin was still out working in his field, and he realized that he did not have enough time to go home and change without being late. So he dusted himself off and went to the party as he was.

When he got there, he saw that everyone else was dressed in their finest garments. And as he made his way through the house, he found that no one seemed to want to talk to him or even acknowledge that he was there. So the mulla went home, changed into his very fanciest set of clothing, and returned to the feast. The response could not have been more different: everyone wanted to talk to the fascinating and famous Mulla Nasruddin. In fact the host made sure to seat him at his right hand.

As the plates were passed, the people sitting beside Nasruddin began to notice that he was doing something rather odd. He was taking food, like everyone else, but he was not eating it or setting it in front of him. Instead, he took a few dates and stuffed them into his coat sleeve. He picked up a stuffed grape leaf and tucked it into his pocket. He gratefully accepted a piece of bread and slid it into the folds of his turban.

After watching him in confusion for a few moments, his host asked, “Nasruddin what are you doing?”

The mulla replied, “From the two receptions I received, it is quite obvious to me that it is my clothes who were invited here to break the fast, and not me. So I am simply feeding my turban and my coat.”[i]

And In the Parable of the Sower, one of the stories attributed to the teacher Jesus, the seeds the sower cast on the ground fell in four different places. Some by the way, where they were eaten by birds. Some on stone, where it sprouted but withered away for the lack of roots. Some among thorn bushes, which choked the seedlings before they could bear fruit, and some on fertile ground, where the seeds could grow and flourish. Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that in every human life there is a seed of possibility and potential. Every moment is like one of those four patches of soil, and while we never control everything about the present in which we find ourselves, we always have some choice to make, and those choices shape who we are, and how the seed within us grows or does not.

On the cusp of a new year, we are like the hosts of a dinner party where both the old year and the new are guests. It would not be right to treat one with respect, and ignore the other. Both require our attention. Today is the soil in which the seed of our heart is planted. So too is tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. For each of us, there are, no doubt, things we need to let go of. But let us not lose sight of the past in our speed to reach the future. Rather, let the year to come set its roots into what has gone before.



[i] Different forms of this story can be found in many Muslim countries; this version descends directly from the one collected in Ayat Jamilah by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004).

Birth and Taxes – 12/24/2012

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin, that great early American statesman, inventor and whit, wrote a letter to a friend which included the line, “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, and taxes”. For more than two centuries his words have been quoted again and again to express the contempt that Americans, his descendants, have for the very concept of taxation. In one classic episode of the Simpsons, the family patriarch, Homer, leads an angry mob to city hall to demand quick and decisive action against the threat of bear attacks. The mayor’s response is to fill the streets with patrol cars, helicopters and stealth planes, maintaining constant vigilance throughout the city. Homer is satisfied, until he discovers that the bear patrol is funded by a new tax on his pay check. He then leads the same mob back to city hall. So it goes.

The story of the birth of the teacher Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke begins with taxation. It explains that Mary and Joseph were travelling that night because of Roman tax policy. It makes a fitting start to the story, given how much the Gospels have to say about the evils of life under the Roman occupation, and in particular the suffering caused by Rome’s taxation. The job of the tax gatherer was particularly reviled in Jesus’ time. So much so that at one point in Matthew’s account, the prophet chastens the religious authorities by declaring that tax collectors would enter the Kingdom of God before they would.[i]

Yet there is something in this world more certain than taxation or death, and that is the other subject that Luke opens with: birth, the great prerequisite of life. And in fact, the lesson of Jesus’ life and ministry is that birth is a greater thing than death. Even Rome, the greatest empire of its age, could not extinguish the teachings of Mary’s son with all their instruments of horror and war.

What made the taxes of Jesus’ day an evil in need of confrontation was how regressive they were: how they placed a greater burden on the poor as a means of transferring wealth to the already rich. In the early decades of the first century, debt in Judea had swollen to epidemic levels, causing people to forfeit their farms and their homes to those holding their loans. Every financial crisis may be different, but each is also the same.

But the evil of those taxes was in their application and their consequence; not the concept of taxation itself. And so I would offer my own version of Ben Franklin’s famous words, “in this life, nothing can be said to be certain, except that you were born, and that you owe”. You see, while the political truth and wisdom of a statement made by another statesman earlier this year has been hotly debated, as a theological assertion it is beyond reproach: “You didn’t build that.” Each of us arrived here by the same means, kicking and screaming, bleary eyed, beautiful and in abject need, just like everyone else who has ever lived, including that famous infant in Bethlehem. We inherited a world that was not made by us. Yet, it was entrusted to us.

None of our lives could have proceeded to this point without a staggering quantity of generosity and goodwill from ancestors and friends and people we will never know. What Corey Booker, the current mayor of Newark, NJ calls “the conspiracy of love”.[ii] Because of this, we owe a vast debt to one another, to the earth that bares our weight, and to the totality of all existence, whom some name God. According to the lessons of Jesus and so many other teachers, our lives are for the paying of it. To clothe the naked, care for the sick, house the destitute and raise up the downtrodden. It is the fair tax of the universe, assessed on the gift of our having been born.

It is a bill that comes due frequently and not only when we are feeling flush and comfortable, with ample reserves of the milk of human kindness. When a child cries, when a stomach growls, when a hand reaches out or a face turns away – the world’s need does not wait for a more convenient time. People can come together to work for many purposes. Sometimes that means waging a war, or building a prison, and sometimes it means building a house for people who have none, or providing a school for the education of children. But whether or not the label ‘government’ is applied to the things that a people decide to do together, we each owe a tax on the gifts of living. In this season, it is traditional to give to others, and that is good. But remember that the spirit of December 25th is just as much needed on March 8th, or August 13th, or October 27th, or on any other day of the year. We live because we were born, and so we owe to everyone else the means to their lives as well.



[i] Matthew 21:31

[ii] Commencement address, Bard College, 2012

Accomplished and Delivered – 12/23/2012

The King James Version of the bible has many deep flaws as a translation but many beautiful turns as a work of poetry. And there is a passage from it which is no doubt familiar to most of you, as it or pieces of it are read often at this season.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”[i]

A great many things

have been said about these verses, but I want to look at just one of them for the moment. “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Mary’s pregnancy had reached full term. She was ready to give birth; the wait was over. And how much of our time do we spend waiting, anticipating this thing or that thing? Counting down the days until Christmas will arrive, or marking on the calendar the day your son will come home. Living in the dream of when you’ll get that raise at work, meet the right person, or take that vacation, or finally have a home to call your own. Spending minutes, hours, years, with our minds fixed on anywhere but here and now.

There is value in having goals and ambitions, of course, but too much focus on something we expect or hope is coming next can prevent us from experiencing the present. It’s a little bit like Zeno’s paradox, a philosophical problem about movement. In order to get from where I’m standing to the other side of the room, I would first have to go half the distance there. And then half the distance between my new starting point and my original destination, and again and again and again, so, Zeno’s puzzle says, I really shouldn’t ever be able to get anywhere at all. When we become fixated on something we want or expect, we can become almost as paralyzed. Waiting for the days to be accomplished, that our desire should be delivered to us

The story goes that the original answer given to Zeno’s paradox, the first time he posed it, was another philosopher standing up and walking around – thus proving that however interesting the argument was, it couldn’t be right. Similarly, the answer for over-anticipation is action: taking a concrete step in the direction of a dream, or simply into the present moment. But in any case, reaching out to touch what is, rather than obsessing over what will or might be. Right now, the days have just been accomplished, and this hour is now delivered. That is true every instant, every moment, every day. The present is always precious, because it is the place where we live. The past is immutable, the future is unknowable; the now is the most important time there is. We need to live with an awareness of what has gone before, and what may come after but we do that living in the present – not just the high notes and the low notes, but all of it.

In certain Christian denominations, the year is divided into different sections. We’re near the end of Advent now and Christmastide – sometimes called the twelve days of Christmas – is almost here. After that comes a stretch of days called simply “ordinary time”. It lies between major festivals and rites. It is normal, mundane. But however ordinary the time that any of us experience, each moment remains filled with possibility. It has been made possible by a vast procession of centuries that came before, and it will shape the future ahead in ways that can never be fully predicted. Life and the world are constantly being delivered to us. So it is our great task, to treat this eternal succession of deliveries, with the great

care and attention they deserve.



[i] Luke 2:1-7

Keep On Giving – 12/16/2012

I would guess that in the offices of my colleagues across the country right now there are a good many half-finished manuscripts resting in filing cabinets or hard drives. Because whatever it was that we were planning to preach on Friday morning seemed suddenly less meaningful on Friday afternoon, after the terrible news of a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Like all human beings, we preachers make our plans, and then sometimes an immediate reality intervenes. I only wish that such intervening realities were not always so bloody or so heartbreaking.

When I was an undergraduate, I went to see a student production at the school theater and was so affected by it, that I had to go back for the closing performance the next day. It was a play about school shootings, centered around a fictional teenage assailant and the psychiatrist meeting with him in prison. At one point in the play, a woman, playing a reporter trying to cover the story, stands up from the audience and interrupts the action on the stage. She has done her best, she says, to tell the facts of the case as they happened. To transcribe the names, the sequence of events and the body count. But no one really cares about any of that, she says. “The who, the what, the where, the when: they’re all accessories. The why is the only thing that matters.”[i] And it’s the only thing she cannot give.

In the weeks to come there will be much said about the ‘why’ of this tragedy. All of it will be guess work, and there will be little to prove this theory or that theory right or wrong. But there are a few things that are said over and over again in the face of such horrors and which are always wrong. Any theology that would teach that senseless and violent death is a part of some larger plan, serves some ultimate purpose, or should otherwise be filed under the heading “mysterious ways” – any theology that would make that argument is broken and in need of repair. As the biblical figure Job said to his friends, as they tried to explain his personal tragedy with similar arguments, “Your proverbs are like unto ashes, your platitudes made out of clay.”[ii] If you could not look into the face of a parent who is burying their child and say it, then it is not worth saying on this matter.

But there is a ‘why’ that I would like to talk about this morning. Not the ‘why did this happen?’, but the ‘why, in a world where this did happen, where things as awful or worse have happened before, and will most likely happen again, why is it worth going on?’ In the congregation where I was raised, we used to say these words by Marjorie Montgomery together every Sunday, both in the sanctuary and in our religious education classes: “Life is a gift for which we are grateful. We gather in community to celebrate the glories and mysteries of this great gift.”

The gift is great, but it is not simple. It is glorious, but it is not perfect. It is mysterious in its complexity, but sometimes it seems only full of pain. From the depths of grief and anger that are sometimes the sane and appropriate response to life as it is, gratitude for life can seem very hard to manage. When something is truly, terribly wrong, and nothing else feels right. Dismissing or diminishing real pain and suffering, deep loss, or hard truth, does no one any good. But the picture is always wider than our temporary and narrow view of it.

Many of you are already familiar with this quote from the Rev. Fred Rogers, who was a mainstay of children’s television for 35 years. But it is so good, I’m going to tell it to you again, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” Viewed one way, the world is full to brimming with injustice and wrong. Somewhere, right now, a child is crying. Somewhere a body is bleeding. Somewhere a heart is breaking. Yet, viewed another way, kindness and compassion fill the earth – so much so that none of our lives would be possible without their constant outpouring.

If you are looking for meaning in a tragedy, or for the will of God, if that phrase is relevant to you, it is not to be found in the violent death, the gun that dealt it, or the hand that accomplished it. Nor will you find it in the society which manufactured the gun, that failed to stay the hand and that taught its children violence as the means to security, freedom, and power. Instead, you will find the purpose, the gift of life, in the people who tried to stop the killing, and in everyone who tried to help. We are called to help others, to keep on giving in response to the gift of life – both out of gratitude and out of grief, for joy and sorrow and anger are all resources that can be put to work in pursuit of change.

We are called to keep on trying, keep on giving, even though the world isn’t easily fixed, and not everything works out the way we expect it to. Last month, a police officer in New York City saw a man sitting on the sidewalk, on a cold night, with no shoes. Feeling he had to do something about this, the officer, Larry DePrimo, went to a nearby store and bought the man, Jeffrey Hillman, a sturdy pair of boots. Nearby, someone was moved by the scene and took a picture of it, and that picture ‘went viral’, as they say. A simple rendering of a simple kindness in action.

Of course, in these days of internet celebrity, the story is never definitively over, and in the inevitable follow-up, when both the men in the photograph were identified, came the detail that Jeffrey Hillman was seen on the street again in bare feet. The boots, he explained to a reporter, were too valuable to just wear around; someone might try to steal them.[iii] Poverty and homelessness are huge, messy problems that cannot be resolved through quick fixes. Like so many other evils they are tied into systems of interlinked injustice and oppression – layer upon layer of wrong settled into the strongest possible configuration, like the atoms in a molecule. And absolutely none of that does anything to diminish what officer DePrimo did. One human being saw another human being with blisters on his bare feet, in the cold night, so he gave him a pair of shoes. It matters to work to be effective; we can always learn more and move steadily from addressing symptoms to treating the cause of injustice. But what matters first is to pay attention to the world as it is, and to let yourself be moved by it. We give back to the world because the world has already given to us. Given us life and the means to reach this moment. So there should be no need for an expectation of further reward in order to give back to the world.

Yet, there is such reward, and in amazing abundance. It feels good to help others; it lifts the spirits and it satisfies the soul. Some years ago the French photographer, Sacha Goldberger was worried about his aging grandmother, Frederika. She had not had an easy life – she was a holocaust survivor and a refugee – and now in the autumn of her years, long retired, she seemed at loose ends with herself: depressed. So he resolved to find a way to bring some more excitement into her life. He managed to convince her to pose for some portraits for him; not staid, plain affairs; instead ones full of wonder and whimsy. A few photographs became more and more until they were able to fill a whole book called Mamika: My Mighty Little Grandmother. The title comes from one of the recurring themes in these shots: Frederika as a superhero named Mamika, wearing a red and silver costume with a silver cape. In one picture this short, 90-something woman is seen walking her dog while flying, or appearing to ride on the wing of an airplane; crashing (almost) through a brick wall, riding in a tiny red car, and then lifting it, and then playing with superhero action figures.

The project has become so successful to that Goldberger has expanded it to other models and other characters. There is Mister Papika, Mamika’s costumed love interest, and Dark Papouka, a suave villain who may also be Papika’s rival for Mamika’s affections. Sacha reports that just taking the photographs lifted his grandmother’s spirits, but since their publication she has become a bit of a celebrity. She gets quite a bit of fan mail, with people writing to say things like, “You’re the grandmother I have dreamed of. Would you adopt me?” And her grandson gets amazing satisfaction of the smile on her face, and helping a woman who has seen so much, to see the world in a new way.[iv]

Now, in the midst of the holiday crush, is not an easy season for many of us, and there is never a time when all of us are without hardship or trial. One of you here this morning has been bearing an especially hard burden, and for a long while. We talked about it a bit, and like everything that is hard and real, it’s not a thing that has any easy answers. But there is something just in sharing our stories that connects, and helps us. And just this week, you wrote me a note not about what you need, but about how good it feels to give aid to others. About a connection you made with someone else around grief and loss, and how your story spread out through that one connection to reach others. And you said, if it helped “even one person to feel less alone or comforted in any way, it will be the best gift I have received in a long time.” Knowing that we have given some help to others doesn’t erase our own worries and cares, but it expands our vision beyond them; it allows us to see that life is larger, and more beautiful.

In her poem The Poet Speaks, Georgia Douglas Johnson asks:

How much living have you done?
From it the patterns that you weave
Are imaged:
Your own life is your totem pole,
Your yard of cloth,
Your living.

How much loving have you done?
How full and free your giving?
For living is but loving
And loving only giving.

We owe ourselves to a broken world; life is imperfect, and yet we could not be without it. Confronted by terrible things, we can give into fear, crawl into despair, or insulate ourselves with hollow comfort and false security. Or, we can make the decision to keep on giving: return to the people we share this world with some of the hope, strength, and sustenance which is not truly ours, but which we hold in trust on behalf of all existence. The true spirit of giving is not in what is bought and sold. It is not in tinsel and colored lights, or at least not there alone. It is giving of ourselves, one to another, in the daily work of healing the world.



[i] From The Why, by Victor Kaufold (2000)

[ii] Job 13:12

[iii] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/homeless-shoe-guy-history-rejecting-article-1.1212779

[iv] You can read more about Mamika, and see a few of her pictures, here: http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/grandmas-superhero-therapy-18

Light One Candle – 12/9/2012

The story goes that 3 pious travelers were making their way over the mountains. The journey was long, their reserves were meager, and it came to the point that all they had left to eat between them was a single slice of bread. All three of them believed in the power of dreams to provide divine guidance, and so, rather than quarrelling over the last bit of food, they agreed that they would wait until morning. They would consult their dreams, and choose who should receive the bread based on that.

The next day, the first traveler made this report, “I dreamt of a far away land of plenty, overflowing with abundance and every pleasure and experience that I have turned away from in my lifelong quest for truth. In that place I met a wise man who told me, ‘You who have renounced the world in pursuit of the divine, you who have given up more than any other, you are the most deserving of the last slice of bread.”

“How odd,” the second traveler said. “In my dream I saw the life of holiness that I have led up until now, and I also saw into the future, when I shall be a great teacher after whom many important students shall follow. And in this dream I, too, met a wise man who said, ‘You have a great destiny before you. To complete it you will need strength and sustenance, and so it should be you who receives the last slice of bread.”

“That is strange,” said the third traveler. “I envy you your great visions. As hungry as I was, I slept fitfully last night, and did not dream at all. I was so hungry in fact, that I woke some hours after midnight. And that’s when I ate the bread.”[i]

So often in life there appears to be a tension between the spiritual and the practical. Between the world of ideals and the world as it simply is. Between the wondrous possibilities contained in dreams and the harsh reality of an empty stomach. This tension is always at play when we talk about religious stories and traditions and it is particularly relevant to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah which began last night.

We heard one version of the story earlier, and you may already have been familiar with its shape. How, 2200 years ago, the Greek-Syrian king Antiochus outlawed the Jewish religion, and officially replaced it with his own. How a faction called the Maccabees led the people of Judea in a rebellion, and won against long odds. And how, when the Maccabees reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough oil to keep the eternal flame there lit for one day, and yet it miraculously lasted for the eight days needed to make more.

This is the story being commemorated this week in Jewish households all over the world, and in the homes of some of us here today. At the same time, for most of us here, Hanukkah is not a holiday that we practice in our homes and its story is not one which we feel deeply connected to. But even if you fall into that category, there are still at least three reasons this should matter to you: As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm that there is wisdom to be found in all the world’s religions, which means we need to take a spiritual interest beyond what we’re already accustomed to. And, the commitment we share as a congregation to teach, learn, and work to, from, and with each other, means that what matters to one of us matters to all of us simply because it matters to one of us. Some of us celebrate Hanukkah, so all of us have an interest in what it means. And finally, this particular holiday happens to several topics that are very dear to us as Unitarian Universalists.

Now, it is also a matter of our religious practice that when we care about something – an idea, a story, a tradition – we examine it deeply. Not to tear it down but to try to really understand and internalize it, rather than glossing it over with an easy, pat explanation. And so, I want to dig a little bit deeper into the Hanukkah story with you now, particularly around this tension between idealism and practicality.

The first item: this is a story about a struggle for religious freedom: a people’s traditions are banned, their scriptures and their holy places are seized, and so they are forced to fight in order to worship as they wish. And, the Maccabees who led that struggle were themselves examples of profound religious intolerance. The revolt, as described in the first Book of the Maccabees, began when Mattathias, the literal and figurative father of the Maccabees, was commanded by one of Antiochus’ officials to make an offering to the Greek gods. Mattathias refused, and when another Jew agreed to make the sacrifice in his stead, Mattathias killed both that man and the official who had given the order. Jews who collaborated with the Greek authorities, or simply adopted Greek customs or religious practices were targeted by the Maccabees throughout the revolt and after it.

As spiritual descendents of the early Puritan colonists here in Massachusetts, we should have some appreciation for this sort of history: a people yearning to be free, but confusing freedom with the opportunity to oppress others. And right now in several countries in the Middle East, including Syria, revolutions are in various states of progression, all of them messy, conflicted, and without any one side being entirely pure and perfect. But the human determination to be free is powerful, and enduring, and worth celebrating. Even though the chaos of revolution can be tumultuous and dangerous, it is preferable to the certainty of a profound, entrenched injustice. As Frederick Douglass said, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”[ii]

On November 17, 1989, a group of university students held a demonstration to commemorate the death Jan Opletal, a student killed fifty years before by the Nazis during their occupation. Riot police intervened to break up the event, and there was a great deal of violence. After words, the word began to circulate that a student had been killed by the police, echoing Jan Opletal and stirring up popular resentment towards the repressive government. More and more people took to the streets, and by the end of the year, the government had fallen and new, free elections had already been held.

All of that happened despite the fact that no student was actually killed during the demonstration; it was just a rumor, and nothing more. The story of what had happened before during the Nazi occupation was so powerful that just the idea of its happening again helped push the country into revolution. It didn’t come out of nowhere, of course; the government of Czechoslovakia was notoriously repressive and its people had long called for reform and freedom. Eventually, a moment and a story emerged the matched the need of the people.

Hanukkah is a celebration of this sort of moment, and of this sort of story, even if that story is more necessary than strictly true. Hanukkah is a post-biblical holiday; the Books of the Maccabees were written too late, and were perhaps too troubling, to be included in the Hebrew Bible. They still exist, though, and their account is the basis of the Hanukkah story – with one exception. The describe the injustice of Antiochus, the uprising, the war, and the restoration of the temple. But there is no mention of any sort of miracle involving oil. That item doesn’t appear in any source until about 600 years after the Maccabean revolt, in the Gemara, a section of the Talmud. When we think of Judaism today, we think of a tradition that is really defined by the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and custom. The early rabbis who created it had good reasons to dislike the Maccabees: their violence, over-zealousness and intolerance, and the new injustices that they created after they won the war with Antiochus and established their own government in Judea.

So the rabbis promoted another dimension to the holiday, beyond a simple military victory. Whether they invented the story about the oil, or just magnified an existing folk tradition doesn’t really matter – putting that question aside, think for a moment about the story itself. Put yourself in the place of the characters. You have spent years fighting a war – it is ending, but not necessarily won. You have just regained the temple, then the holiest and most essential site in Judaism, and found it desecrated. And even though you don’t have everything you need to restore it to the way it was before, you decide to try. Why? Because you just assume that if you begin the work, God will complete it for you? No. Because you have decided that it is worth attempting what is right, even if the only reasonable expectation is failure.

The man elected president in the wake of the Czechoslovakian revolution, Vaclav Havel, described such an outlook in this way. “Hope,” he wrote, “is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”  It means “an ability to work for something because it is good.”[iii]

It is said that, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ The phrase is sometimes attributed to the American politician and Unitarian Adlai Stevenson, who did say something similar in his memorial for Eleanor Roosevelt. But years before that it was the motto of the Christophers, a Roman Catholic inspirational organization, and it came to them as a translation of a much older Chinese proverb. One light may not seem to mean much in the empty night, but it may sometimes be enough. When the lonely lighthouses of New England were first installed along the coast, they certainly meant a great deal to the sailors who depended on each one to mark direction and distance. And in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when Samwise Gamgee held out the Philial of Galadriel in the pass of Cirith Ungol, its light drove off Shelob, the shadow spider, at a vital moment. (Perhaps you can tell that I am excited about the prospect of the upcoming Hobbit movie.)

For all the fanfare that Hanukkah gets in the modern United States, where one has to shout to be heard occasionally over the incredible volume of Christmas, it is basically a very simple holiday. It’s about lighting candles in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. Hanukkah begins on the last new moon before the Winter Solstice: in the Northern Hemisphere, the time when the night is longest and there is the least amount of light possible in the sky.

Lighting the candles of the hanukkia, the special menorah used for the holiday, is a symbolic act of hope. It is ridiculous to expect that some wax and a few bits of string will hold back the cold unknown of the night. Just as it is ridiculous to expect fuel to burn 8 times longer than it should. Just as it is ridiculous for a small, ill-equipped band of people to expect their revolt to overthrow a powerful, well-armed government. And yet, year after year, century after century, candles are lit, and people take to the hills or to the streets, to lay claim to the freedom that all people deserve.

The spiritual should never be used to distract from or dismiss the real needs of the practical. But nor must practicality be permitted to excuse us from following the ideals that the spiritual puts before us. Whether there can be expectation of success or not, there is always reason to hope: to seek to know what is right, and to attempt it. To light one candle, even if it must burn alone. Because only with such a beginning can one light become two, and two become three, and three become enough to brighten the dark and to hold back the night.

 

 



[i] This story from the Shattari Sufi order is attributed to Muhammad Gawth Gwaliyari.

[ii] Frederick Douglass, “Reconstruction”, Atlantic Magazine, December, 1866.

[iii] From Disturbing the Peace, 1986.

Taking Up Arms – 12/2/2012

Everything about the photograph of the man is severe. His short, dark hair seems almost to be standing on end, his ears cut away from his face with hard edges. His mouth is a solid, resolute line with his brow drawn tight into a craggy and determined knot. With his left hand he holds a flag at his side, while his right is up and out, palm open and fingers extended. The old, scratched daguerreotype is a picture of a man at war, calling to mind the oath he swore ten years before its taking, when he stood up in church and said, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”[i]

This is perhaps the most famous image of John Brown, who was executed on December 2nd, 1859, 153 years ago today.[ii] Sometimes called America’s first domestic terrorist, his killing was made legal by his government in punishment for his illegal acts – killing chief among them.

 

Perhaps

You will remember

John Brown.

 

[The poet Langston Hughes wrote 81 years ago,]

 

John Brown

Who took his gun,

Took twenty-one companions

White and black,

Went to shoot your way to freedom

Where two rivers meet

And the hills of the

North

And the hills of the

South

Look slow at one another-

And died

For your sake.

Now that you are

Many years free,

And the echo of the Civil War

Has passed away,

And Brown himself

Has long been tried at law,

Hanged by the neck,

And buried in the ground-

Since Harpers Ferry

Is alive with ghosts today,

Immortal raiders

Come again to town-

Perhaps

You will recall

John Brown.

 

Lewis Leary, the first husband of Langston Hughes’ grandmother, was one of the free black men who fought alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and died there. Hughes’ words were written directly to an African American audience, but they are more broadly applicable than that. Any American audience has reason to remember John Brown, who took up arms to end the national sin of slavery. No person, of any color, could be rightly called free while living in a country in which such a system endured.

This morning, as part of this year’s series on the courage to risk, I want to address the courage to wage war, to risk both being killed and having to kill. It was a courage that John Brown certainly had. Unlike most of the historical exemplars I have and will point to in this series, Brown was neither a Unitarian nor a Universalist. He was a died-in the wool Calvinist, a strict doctrinal Christian from the theologically conservative end of the spectrum. That faith animated his determination to uproot the injustice of slavery by any means necessary. It was an unflinchingly, uncomplicatedly holy mission for him to oppose the system of certain human beings owning certain other human beings as property. He viewed the conflict in apocalyptic terms, an iniquity so terrible that it would bring down God’s wrath – with John Brown himself among the agents of it.

So he was not in any sense ours, but his story does deeply connect with our own history as Unitarian Universalists. Many of John Brown’s allies and coworkers in the cause of the abolition of slavery were Universalists or Unitarians. It was his plan to seize the armory at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia, and use the captured guns and ammunition to create and sustain an on-going slave rebellion that led to his arrest and execution. And that plan was supported by an alliance of Boston-area notables that came to be called the Secret Six. Of those six, four were Unitarians, and possibly the most notable among them was Rev. Theodore Parker, whose ministry and theology is one of the greatest single influences on who we are as a religious movement today. In the days when the content of a minister’s sermons could make headlines, Parker was one of the most fiery voices against slavery. His views were considered radical even by many of his technical allies, in part because he supported the right of people in slavery to fight and even kill their nominal owners in order to win their freedom. His infamy, particularly among the supporters of human bondage, was such that he once quipped with a grin that he was, “the most hated man in America.”

He was also about more than talk. Parker sheltered people escaping from slavery in his home, a link in the chain of the Underground Railroad. It is said that he wrote many of his sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk beside the manuscript – there in case he was called upon to do his duty as a host and defend the freedom of his guests. Not far from that desk, on the wall of his study hung the gun belonging to Theodore’s grandfather, Capt. John Parker, who as commander of the militia that faced the redcoats at Lexington in 1775 said, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Professor James C. Scott tells a story about being a visitor and a pedestrian in a small German city. In the evening, the car traffic dwindled to almost nothing and the long waits of the traffic lights, set to ensure safety during the day, no longer seemed necessary. And yet, none of the locals seemed willing to cross against the light. They would pile up on the corners along empty streets, waiting for the sluggish signals to grant them permission to step off the curb. When he, or any other daring soul, broke from the herd and ventured out with a red sign but no cars around, the rest of the pack would call out and scold from the pavement, continuing to wait their turn.[iii]

The experience inspired in him an idea he calls, ‘anarchist calisthenics’. This is the importance of maintaining a practice of regularly breaking small laws or social expectations, though not just any: only the very most foolish and obviously wrong-headed. This is to stay prepared for the moment when you will have to choose between following the law and the crowd, and following your own conscience. As he puts it, “One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready.” You need to keep in the practice of using, “your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable.”

Any great injustice must be enforced by social order, and some semblance of law; otherwise it would collapse of its own accord. Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist leader and friend of John Brown, who made his home for many years in that hotbed of progressive thinking, my hometown of Rochester, NY., wrote, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”[iv]

I have mentioned that John Brown’s abolitionist fervor had deeply religious roots, but it was also personal for him in a way that it was not for many of his fellow white agitators. Abolitionism grew steadily in popularity in the 1800s in the North, but for many of the people who spoke or wrote or gave money on behalf of the cause, the plight of actual slaves was fairly abstract. Even if they had met someone who had experienced slavery, and many would not have, such people were not family, were not friends, were almost never neighbors. This was not the case for John Brown: he was raised in a staunchly abolitionist family that had close connections with free blacks living in the same town. Many of his closest allies and collaborators in the fight against slavery were former slaves themselves. John lived for a time in an intentional community in upstate New York where African and European-descent people lived, worked, and worshipped alongside each other. His rage against the institution of slavery was far more than charity or do-goodism: he did not see any line between himself and its victims, and so he fought for their freedom as passionately as he would have fought for his own. In this there is another small parallel with Theodore Parker, who had in his congregation some number of free black members and wrote of them in a letter to President Millard Fillmore (also a Unitarian): “There hangs in my study . . . the gun my grandfather fought with at the battle of Lexington… and also the musket he captured from a British soldier on that day…If I would not peril my property, my liberty, nay my life to keep my parishioners out of slavery, then I should throw away these trophies, and should think I was the son of some coward and not a brave man’s child.”[v]

The courage to fight is most likely to come from a sense that you are defending your life, or something that you love nearly as deeply or more so, because undertaking armed conflict is a great risk: a physical risk, and also a moral risk. The risk of losing a life, and also of taking lives. Harming a human being can be necessary: to stop them from harming others, but it is never a good thing. It is always a sad state of affairs; there is no good killing. And because of this, the decision to fight creates an enormous moral burden. It is a weight that our society largely chooses to deny, rhapsodizing about the nobility of military service, and turning away from what it costs to those who serve. Even the most careful and limited use of force has the risk of unsought harm.

The coda to Professor Scott’s story of the folly of waiting too long for the traffic light to change, is that one day he was walking on the street with a friend. This fellow was an old radical, with no time for the status quo, ready to uproot every form of prior authority and begin a new world in its place. So James Scott thought that at least this one local would understand his attitude towards the frustratingly slow traffic lights. He stepped out into the road with confidence, and the older man chided him. Deflated, he returned to the curb arguing that no cars were coming. “James,” the fellow pointed out, “it would be a bad example for the children.”

In conducting the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown took great pains to spare as many lives as possible. He took hostages by surprise, including the armory’s commander, and treated them with dignity and politeness while they were in his care. But the train passing through town posed the threat of carrying a warning to the outside world too soon. Brown and his company tried to stop it, and failed, and in the process Heyward Shepherd was shot. He was a free black man who worked as a porter on the train. He wasn’t the only person killed in the raid on Harper’s Ferry – he was just the first.[vi]

We Unitarian Universalists are not exactly a peace church, not quite like the Quakers or the Mennonites. It is possible, from our values and our history, to arrive at pacifism as an ethical position: some of us here this morning are already there. But it is also possible to draw from the same tradition a moral mandate to use the power we have, as individuals and as groups, to confront systems of evil wherever we encounter them, and to struggle against them by any means, including violence. However, if we reach that conclusion, we need each other to help clarify the decision. That is one of the key things we come together for: to help each other choose more wisely in life, and protect one another from losing our moral way. Just as Professor Scott’s friend pointed out to him that even when the law itself seemed foolish, following it served the important purpose of teaching children to be careful crossing the street.

In this, I would suggest the counsel of Mahatma Gandhi, who contrary to popular impressions did not consider violence to be the greatest wrong. The nonviolence he practiced, though sometimes called pacifism, was entirely the opposite of passive. It was active, focused, determined. Too often, his name is invoked to support inaction, to reassure the comfortable and abandon the destitute. And yet, he said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”[vii]

To those of us who would wish to avoid that choice, it is necessary to create a third option; an active peace, which entails even more risk than an active war. 235 years ago, our forebears saw fit to engage in a conflict, against the British, and stored, I am told, their gunpowder beneath the floor of an earlier incarnation of this meetinghouse. Do not think, therefore, that the era of moral urgency has passed forever. It is possible that one day, we will be called upon by justice to confront its opposite, with force or some more creative means. Our responsibility is to pay attention, to try to be ready for the challenge when it comes, and to seek to recognize when there is something so wrong before us, that it poses a greater harm than the violence necessary to assail it.



[i] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/filmmore/description.html

[ii] You can view the picture here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/John-Browns-Famous-Photograph.html

[iii] From the article “Anarchist Calisthenics”, published in Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press (2012)

goes carrying not just. And http://www.leviattias.com/buy-exelon-online-no-prescription.php and foundation skin most.

August 3, 1857

[v] http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/toolbox/session8/sessionplan/stories/109685.shtml

[vi] http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh56-1.html

[vii] From Young India, August 11, 1920

How Far Can Reach a Smile

In one of the songs in our hymnal, Marjorie Jillson asks, “How far can reach a smile, how high a helping hand can lift? How far is far enough to give?” I’ve been thinking about those words since our children and youth chose Smile Train to be the recipient of this year’s Simple Gifts project. Simple Gifts is our annual spiritual discipline, as a community, of letting our practice of giving be shaped by our values of service and love. The challenge for each of our households is to give simply to the people we love – to try out spending a little less money, to show just as much love and care in this season of gifting.

Because of this spiritual practice (of making our own gifts, finding interesting gifts second-hand, and otherwise avoiding one more trip to the mall), most of us find ourselves spending less on the Hanukkah/Solstice/Christmas/New Year extravaganza. Maybe a little less, maybe a lot less. And so, we ask our children each year, to pick some cause or agency that they think could benefit from those dollars and cents. Their choice for this season, Smile Train, operates in 80 countries all over the planet. They provide basic surgeries for children in need of cleft lip and palate repair; kids who were born with a gap in part of their lip or face.

In some ways, this is a fairly minor disability to be born with. It can sometimes cause breathing or feeding issues or affect speech development, but the effects are mostly cosmetic. And yet, the truth is that we live in a world in which the cosmetic can be incredibly important in a person’s life. Being able to smile and have others smile back at you – not stare, not turn away – profoundly shapes how someone grows and develops. The medical care needed to give children born with cleft lips a “normal” smile is both simple and cheap, and this small thing can make a dramatic difference in the lives of millions of such children.

Our children have given us the opportunity, this year, to make such a difference. So I encourage you, as you think about your budget planning for this holiday season: how much you will a lot for presents or parties, for travel or special meals. Include this project on your spreadsheet; give this cause a place at your table. If there are children in your household, make them a part of the discussion, talk with them about what your priorities as a family are. This season is a time to celebrate, a time to be generous, a time to show the people we care about that we care about them. And this practice is one way we have, together, of doing all three of those things. We will pool our contributions together in a special collection during the service on Sunday, December 23rd. I look forward to seeing your smiling faces there.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Universal Thanks – 11/18/2012

When someone does something nice for you – when your dad makes you soup when you’re sick, or your mom helps you with your homework, or your friend cheers you up with a hug when you’re feeling down – what do you say? You say ‘thank you’! Because you’re grateful and you want to show it, because you’re glad and you want them to know it. And more than just saying ‘thank you’ with words, sometimes you get so happy that you want to say ‘thanks’ by doing something nice for them in return. Maybe you do it right away, or maybe you hold onto that feeling, and save it up. So the next time they’re sick, or sad, or just whenever the time seems right to you, to paint them a picture or tell them a joke, or give them a hug to remind them how grateful you are for the things they’ve done for you, and how much you like them.

But most of us can think of at least one person we’ve known who has done so much for us – given so much love, shown so much kindness, offered so much help – that we can’t imagine paying it all back to them. And there are plenty of things that we have to be thankful for, but that don’t come with some obvious person to thank or repay. Who do you thank for rain, or for bicycles or basketball, or a song that was written before you were born? The world isn’t perfect, but there is so much about the world that is wonderful, that our natural state of being when we’re really paying attention to life should be one of gratitude. But then, once we find that we are grateful, what should we do about it?

One simple answer I would point to comes from the Sikh

Rates keep side with hair with they some user often used.

religion, which began 500 years ago in India. One element of the Sikh faith is a practice called langar: providing food to the community. Every Sikh Gudwara – each of their temples – has a kitchen where people make food every day, and serve it to whoever comes to eat. By tradition, this food is always vegetarian, even though most Sikhs are not. Their religion doesn’t have a problem with eating animals, but there are a lot of vegetarians in India, where their religion began, and the purpose of langar is that anyone and everyone should be able to eat. And if the people can’t come to Sikhs, the Sikhs will go to the people, which is why you may have seen pictures of Sikh men in the news, with their distinctive long beards and their hair worn in turbans, handing out food in New York and New Jersey in places struck hard by hurricane Sandy.

The answer to what we should do with our gratitude, for the thanks we have for the gifts we have received, is that we should give back. Not just to the those who have done the most for us, or to the people right in front of us, but to give as much and as freely and as far as we possibly can. That is how we say ‘thank you’ to the universe, to the world, to this amazing place where we find ourselves.

One of the ways that we do that here, in our community, is with the annual practice we began two years ago, called Simple Gifts. Each year as the Christmas-Hanukkah-Solstice-New Year season approaches with all of its excitement about giving and receiving gifts, we take the time to reflect on what we’ve already received. We challenge ourselves to make the gifts that we give to the people we love meaningful because of the thought and feeling put into them, instead of the price tag attached to them. And with the money that we don’t spend on the very most expensive things, we make a donation, together, to some people we do not know, to some organization that does good work, helping people who need help.

Each year, our children vote in Sunday School to decide where our shared gift will go, and this year they have chosen for us an organization called Smile Train. Smile Train operates in 80 countries all over the world. Their work is to help children who need cleft lip or palate repair – who were born with a gap in part of their mouth or face. This problem that can affect their ability to eat or to speak, and that often leads other people to stare at them, make fun of them or mistreat them because they look different, can be changed with a fairly simple surgery when they are still very young. But those surgeries still cost money, and need doctors to perform them. Smile Train covers those costs, and provides training to medical professionals to make treatment more available. Our children have chosen this cause to give us something to do with our universal thanks. In the coming weeks, as the shopping season kicks into high gear, I invite you to spend time, by yourself or with your families, thinking of ways your gifts to each other can be less expensive and more meaningful, and deciding what sort of gift you want to make on December 23rd, when we’ll gather our contributions together, into one great, big, thank-you to the universe.

Answering the Call – 11/11/2012

There’s going to be a new Pope next Sunday. Not the Pope you’re probably thinking of: I’m talking about the leader of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. Their leader died several months ago, and his successor was chosen last Sunday. The leaders of the church narrowed the field of possible new patriarchs down to three, and then placed each of those names into a crystal chalice. A child wearing a blindfold picked one of those names out – and that’s going to be their new Pope.[i] When I read about that ceremony, it made me wonder what might have been going through the minds of those three candidates as they stood at the threshold of such tremendous possibility. Coptic Christians are a religious minority in Egypt, and they have a long history of mistreatment at the hands of the government and the general population there. Tensions are particularly high just at the moment, as the appalling YouTube video designed to offend Muslims and defame their religion that gained such infamy a few months ago, seems to have originated from a Copt living in the US. The high religious office to which one of them was about to be called would be a heavy mantle to take up. So perhaps their thoughts might have been along the same lines that the filmmaker Nanni Moretti imagined in a fictional scene of Roman Catholic cardinals meeting to elect a new Pope in the Vatican. As the camera pans over the crowd, the soundtrack allows the audience to hear that each man is praying basically the same thing: “Don’t choose me!”[ii]

Most of us do not receive our callings in quite so dramatic a fashion as having our names plucked from a crystal goblet, or earning 332 votes in the electoral college, to point to another of the past week’s events. There may be no particular laurels or rays of light, no heavenly choirs or revelatory visions. But all of us are called, nonetheless. We are called because we live in a world which is imperfect and which requires the work and struggle of human beings in order to move from the way it is, to the way it ought to be. Your calling is whatever way you find to accomplish this. It is your part of the larger project of human history.

The work to which we are called is rarely easy. It is very hard just to listen for that call, the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”, as Frederick Buechner put it. Answering can be a far greater challenge. Earlier we read the words of the Rev. Olympia Brown, one of our Universalist ancestors who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rev. Brown is sometimes remembered as the first woman minister ordained in America, which is not quite right, but close to it. Today, more than half of Unitarian Universalist ministers are women, including the last two ministers called by this congregation before my arrival. That doesn’t make choosing a career that men held a total monopoly on for centuries an easy thing, but being the first person in any category obviously comes with special challenges.

Olympia came from a family that valued learning. When there was no school to serve the area where her family lived in rural Vermont, Olympia’s father built one on his farm, and convinced neighboring families to share the cost of a teacher for all their children. In an age when it was nearly unheard of for a woman to do so, Olympia attended college, gaining her BA from Antioch college in Ohio.[iii] Somewhere in there, she began to feel her call to the ministry. It was catalyzed when she met Antoinette Brown, who really was the first woman ordained in America. Antoinette came to speak at Antioch on Olympia’s invitation and years later, Olympia said of that meeting, “It was the first time I had heard a woman preach and the sense of victory lifted me up. I felt as though the Kingdom of Heaven were at hand.”

Antoinette Brown was a liberal Congregationalist, and was ordained by the congregation that called her, but never fully accepted or recognized by her denomination. Yet she became a preacher and an activist despite the numerous barriers to the pursuit of her vocation. When she was in theological school, Antoinette had to obtain special permission to speak in class, and an article she wrote defending the right of women to speak in church was only deemed fit for publication once it was accompanied by a rebuttal from one of her professors.[iv] Gnawing theological misgivings eventually caused Antoinette to leave the Congregationalist ministry. And after many years she eventually found her way to – where else? – the Unitarians.

Antoinette Brown was the first woman we know to have been ordained by a congregation, but Olympia Brown was the first woman to become a fully endorsed and ordained minister of any denomination. Her path came with barriers similar to Antoinette’s. Every theological school in the country then, and indeed in the world, banned the admission of women. Nevertheless, she wrote to several seminaries seeking permission to gain a theological education. Some rejected her outright. One agreed to accept her, but only with the understanding that she would not be permitted to attend classes with the male students. The only school that would allow her to enroll and attend classes sent a letter from the president of the school saying that he “did not believe women were called to the ministry.” Olympia later explained, “I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement.” She gladly accepted the reluctant offer of a place at the school, even when she arrived and found that no one expected her: the president declared she would never actually arrive, assuming that his letter would be enough to discourage her. Nonetheless, she persisted.

It is a powerful thing, when we know for ourselves what the most worthwhile task we can undertake is, whether it requires a moment or a lifetime to complete. But following that knowing, answering that call takes confidence in it. This is not the same as blind certainty. In certain political circles it has become common for candidates for public office to declare that they are running because God told them to, or more explicitly because God wants them to win. I’m not sure if anyone has conducted a study of how often candidates who make these claims go on to lose their races, but I would guess that the rate is not much different from that of all candidates taken together. The belief that your ambitions are divinely sanctioned not only are sets a person up for disappointment, it robs them of the creative power of risk: knowing that you are taking a chance, that you very well could fail, pushes you to try new strategies and seek new ways to reach your goals. Confidence based on delusion is a poor substitute for courage born of hopeful principles.

To succeed, the belief that what you know about yourself and the world around you is worth acting on, must be able to endure a chorus of voices trying to turn you around. Those voices don’t have to be literal hecklers and naysayers. Common sense, is often our chief impediment: in our self-interested and cynical society, we are taught to be skeptical and dismissive of grand hopes and any deep sense of purpose. Writing about some of the lofty purpose that guided her life and career as a minister, Olympia Brown said, “You may say this is impracticable, far away, can never be accomplished, but it is the work we are appointed to do.”[v] And sometimes the greatest obstacle between us and following the counsel of our hearts is our own inertia. The call of the world’s need can come at any time, in many different forms, and most of the time answering it means stepping out of our daily habits and patterns of behavior.

Now I want to turn to the other side of the coin for a moment. Some of us have jobs we’re not crazy about, or otherwise spend our days doing work that we like alright, but don’t love. Some of us are out of work, or just never found that perfect match between what we do and who we are. And some of us might feel that what we do is necessary, and important, but it doesn’t free us from doubt, and it certainly does not immunize us against fatigue. We all may have that still, small voice inside of us, but as a dear friend said to me recently, it does seem to be louder for some of us than for others. So let me say clearly that there is no necessary link between answering a call from the universe, and a sense of job satisfaction. Some of us find a purpose that wears the same name throughout our lives: as parents or partners or professionals or volunteers. And some of us don’t have that plum line running through our identities. But that does not change the fact that all of us are called, and that there is an opportunity in each moment to change the world for the better.

The voice on the phone sounded desperate and tired. Here and there, it cracked, with that ring that told you she was holding back tears. The woman leaving the message was calling, on the day before Thanksgiving, to tell her daughter that she was going to send her some money to buy groceries for her children. She was just going to have to miss her next mortgage payment in order to do it. She said her goodbyes, and hung up the phone; the message ended. When Virginia Saenz listened to that recording on her answering machine, she felt the raw emotion in that voice wash over her. Her heart broke, and it broke even though she had no idea who the woman on the other end of that phone call was.

Lisa Crutchfield was trying to reach her daughter living states away, but she had dialed the wrong number. It would have been so easy for Virginia Saenz, whose phone she had reached accidentally, to delete her message and return to the regular course of her day. But then that is the hallmark of something we are called to do: when the soul resonates with the repair our world needs, the easy answers become more difficult, and the difficult choices get easier. So Virginia picked up the phone, and she called Lisa back. She told her she had the wrong number, she told her not to worry, and she told her to make that mortgage payment. And then Virginia went to the store, and she bought a whole mess of groceries, and she took them to Lisa’s daughter and her family. [vi] The call of the world can come from many, many different places. And it may be drawing us into a lifetime’s work, or into a simple, single errand. But it is always there. There is no wasted time. There are times when we are tired, times when we are distracted, times when we really have to focus on ourselves right now. Times when we are afraid, times when we are discouraged and times when we don’t know how to begin, but still, in every moment, there is a call for each of us. A challenge and an invitation to work that is needed and real.

Both Olympia and Antoinette Brown devoted themselves to the cause of securing women’s right to vote. In the late 1800s, that was a very good way for a woman to get yourself labeled a troublemaker and a malcontent. The bumper-stickers remind us that well-behaved women rarely make history, and this, in fact, is true much more generally: history is never made through good manners, polite conduct and doing what is expected. In one obituary, it was said of Olympia that nothing “exemplified her vitality and intellectual independence,” so well as, “the mental discomfort she succeeded in arousing…among the conservatively minded.”

This week, folks across the country took to the polls in an election year when much has been done in many states to try to make voting more difficult and more inconvenient. Yet despite the barriers to participation, both intentional and accidental, the story of this election was how hard folks are willing to work to exercise their duty as citizens. Like the people in New York and New Jersey voting in the dark at polling stations that lacked power. Or Alfie Fernandez in Florida, who stood in line for six hours to cast her vote, still waiting long after the polls had closed, and after the presidential election had already been called, waiting so long that it was Wednesday before she was able to hand in her ballot. “I felt my vote was important,” she said.[vii]

That, is what it means to answer a call: large or small, long or short, the work, the mission, the purpose we take up must feel important. It might be surrounded by elaborate ritual, as a blindfolded child draws our name from a cup. It might come in the unexpected revelation of seeing something we’ve never seen before, that lets us imagine the world in a different way. It might come in the random serendipity of a stranger’s phone call. But trust that it comes: the world is calling each of us. So our work is to listen, and to answer.



[i] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egypts-coptic-church-prepares-for-ceremony-to-choose-pope/2012/11/04/4e8faecc-264c-11e2-92f8-7f9c4daf276a_story.html?hpid=z3

[ii] From his 2011 film Habemus Papum (We Have a Pope)

[iii] http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/olympiabrown.html

[iv] http://www25-temp.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/antoinettebrownblackwell.html

[v] Singing the Living Tradition, #578

[vi] http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/weird/Wrong-Number-Miracle-76368647.html?yhp=1

[vii] http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2012/11/absentee-ballot-surge-delayed-miami-dade-election-results-voting-delays-put-south-florida-in-harsh-l.html

God Can’t Vote – 11/4/2012

There is a story from the Jewish tradition set a little less than 2000 years ago. The Sanhedrin, the council of legal authorities, were debating a small point of law and one of them, Rabbi Eliezer, found himself at odds with the others. Outvoted by his fellow sages, Eliezer declared, “If it is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.” The tree immediately uprooted itself, flying through the air and out of the garden where it had been planted. But the other teachers were not impressed; “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they replied.

Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If it is as I say, let this stream of water prove it,” and the stream began to flow backwards. His fellow rabbis remained adamant: no proof could be brought from a stream, either.

“If it is as I say, let the walls of this meetinghouse prove it,” he declared, and the building around them began to quake. Another sage leapt up to rebuke the walls, saying, “When scholars engage in legal dispute, what is your relevance?” The trembling stopped, but the argument continued.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, “If it is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.” And there came a great voice from on high crying out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? All matters the law are just as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua responded, “The law is not in Heaven.” The responsibility of that legal ruling fell to the judges in that room, and to no one and nothing else. Not even the voice of the Holy One had standing to contradict the determination of the court.[i]

As Unitarian Universalists, our faith is grounded in the value of freedom of conscience and the quest for democracy. The people who are most effected by a decision, should be the ones who make that decision, together. Something like Rabbi Joshua and the other sages who ruled against Rabbi Eliezer, we do not privilege one voice or viewpoint over the many on the basis of spiritual authority, tradition, or miraculous circumstance. We are not waiting for all of our important decisions to be made for us by someone or something else. The responsibility for making the choices that shape our lives falls on each of us as individuals, and on all of us together as one community.

Our faith takes the power and the duty of the ballot seriously, which is why, for those of us who have the privilege of United States citizenship and who are registered to vote, this coming Tuesday is an important day. It is my responsibility as your minister to offer moral and spiritual council on the subjects and concerns that matter in your lives and in the larger community this congregation serves. So it is necessary that I say something to you about this Tuesday’s election.

It would jeopardize the tax exempt status that this congregation enjoys as a religious institution for me to instruct you on which party or candidate you should favor. I will not be doing that, but for the more important reason that it would run against the values of our shared tradition. From this place, I stand and offer what insight I have, according to my own limited experience, my study of our living tradition, and the stirrings of the infinite but inscrutable spirit. From your place, you receive that message and consider it, or do not, as you wend towards the truth of your own understanding. This is the covenant between preacher and congregation; I invoke no authority for my words higher than the trust you have placed in me. So rather than dwelling on the specifics of your choice for President, I want to turn instead to the five questions that appear on the ballot here in Beverly, to the values that inform those questions, and what our tradition has to say about those values.

It seems fitting that by opening with Question 1, the so called “Right to Repair” issue effecting car-owners and related businesses, we begin with just a complete mess. After this question was set on the ballot, the state legislature reached their own agreement with the folks who proposed it in the first place, so now the main people calling for a “yes” on this issue are new groups hoping to disrupt the deal that has already been made between the two original factions. As confusing and crazy-making as that sounds, it is a reminder to me of something profoundly important. Democracy is not any one system or practice: it is an ideal which we can never perfectly attain, but which we can always move towards. Any system that attempts to empower people to rule on the matters that shape their lives is always imperfect, and always sacred.

A friend of mine who is a Unitarian Universalist once told me about her experience as a poll worker in a very close and hotly contested election. Whenever you have enough people filling out paperwork, there will be some mistakes. It was her job to take ballots that had been rejected by the automatic reading machine, and examine them to see if she could determine who the vote had been intended for. If she could, then that person’s votes could be counted for their candidate, instead of being discarded as illegible. She could see on most of the ballots that folks had marked the candidate she opposed – a person she thought would be terrible, even dangerous in that position. In her head, she raged at the people who had made that selection, “What could they be thinking? How could they possibly have voted for that guy?” But all of that frustration did nothing to stop her from doing her job: to make sure that their votes were counted, as much as she disagreed with them. The methods by which we make our decisions together can always be made more fair, more open, more inclusive – and they should be made so. But, even in an imperfect system, such as one that sometimes sends a question to its electorate that it wishes it could take back, there is a holiness in following and abiding by the rules that we have agreed to, even when it means we don’t get our way.

Question 2 is the ballot measure that religious leaders throughout our commonwealth seem to have the most to say about. The asks whether or not physicians should be able to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives. The primary religious argument against it is rooted in the sanctity and protection of all human life; a near universal religious value, and one that is essential to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. There is also opposition to this measure from disability advocacy groups. John Kelly, of the organization Second Thoughts, said that the reason given for enacting this and a similar law already in place in Oregon is, “mainly about the social and emotional issues of becoming disabled, like depending on others and feeling like a burden.”[ii] As Unitarian Universalists, life is infinitely precious to us, and not just able-bodied life, not just privileged life, not just life when it is easiest to live, but also when it is hard. Suffering is not itself a good thing, but even in suffering, there is the possibility for good to occur. “To hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” as Martin Luther King put it.[iii]

Yet, it is because I am a Unitarian Universalist that I support the right put forward in Question 2: of the terminally ill to choose to end their lives and to seek the assistance of their doctors in doing so. I support it just as I support many rights that I do not expect or desire to use myself, even those that I would counsel others against employing. In the book of Deuteronomy, these words are attributed to the prophet Moses: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…”[iv] And in the Gospel According to John, the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”[v] Life is something more than a heartbeat. Unitarian Universalism affirms, in the words of Mary Ann Moore and my childhood minister Helena Chapin, that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.[vi] Freedom gives life meaning; there can be no purpose to living without the ability to say ‘yes’ or to say ‘no’.

From my time spent as a hospital chaplain, I can attest first hand that modern medicine is capable of remarkable things. I can also report that it is possible to extend life far beyond any reasonable sense of its natural boundary, prolonging it into something approaching living death. This is, and indeed has to be, the default setting for medical care in a compassionate society: do everything you can to keep a person alive, until and unless they ask that you stop. The ability to decline treatment, even if it means that death will come more quickly, is widely accepted in most religious traditions and universally protected under the law. Because our bodies are the things in this world that are most intimately our own, where our authority must be final and sacrosanct. I see the matter addressed in Question 2 as an extension of this right.

The right to choose what we do with our bodies also informs the subject of Question 3, which would make it possible to obtain and to use marijuana medicinally here in Massachusetts if passed. Now, contrary to what people tend to assume about me on the basis of my hair length, I have no particular fondness for marijuana. And I would counsel anyone to be careful with any substance, legal or illegal, popular or unpopular, whose purpose is to make you think, feel, or act differently than you otherwise would.

But my anger at the consequences of our national war on drugs far outweighs my distaste for chemical escapism. Roughly 20% of inmates in state prisons nationally are there because of drug-related offenses, and drug offenders make up about half of the federal prison population. Mandatory-minimum sentences, particularly at the federal level, result in lengthy prison terms for nonviolent offenses. The market for illegal substances is massive, and decades of brutal “tough on crime” tactics haven’t eliminated it, but have divided families and gutted neighborhoods by keeping violence and narcotics tied together and disproportionately targeting people and communities of color. Ten years ago, our association of congregation took a public stand calling for an end to the drug war as a matter of conscience.[vii] This was right in line with our long history as a voice for prison and criminal justice reform, a natural consequence of our faith’s original belief in the fundamental mercy of God. To the extent that the issue of Question 3 would do anything to push back against the harmful failure of our national drug policy, my reading of our tradition inclines me towards it.

Here in Beverly there are two more questions beyond the three listed on the state-wide ballot. Question 5 addresses the matter of whether corporations are people. Spiritually speaking, the answer is simple: they are not. We Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, meaning every human being. Other things can have value, but no object or institution can have as much value as every person does. The limit for corporate rights ought to be set by the public – that is, by actual people – according to their determination of the public good, and the need to protect the rights of other actual human beings. This would include the right to speak, to vote, and to think, without being shouted down by a barrage of television attack-ads, robo-calls and dishonest political mailers.

I’ve left Question 4 for last because this relatively minor, thoroughly local question touches on one of the central themes of this year’s election. How much do we each deserve, and just where should we get it from? Question 4 would slightly increase local property taxes to support affordable housing and public spaces, and would also allow us to benefit from state funds going towards the same purpose. Because our heretical ancestors were so unpopular and despised in most of the places they lived, there is much in our history that would cause us to favor a smaller and more limited government. But our tradition is even more clear that all people are intrinsically valuable and deserve to have their basic needs met. All people are entitled to health care, to food, to housing. Reasonable people may disagree over the limits of government and the roles we should or should not ascribe to it. You may not believe that raising money through taxation and spending it on essential services is the proper role of government. But that does not change the fact that we are all still morally on the hook, individually and collectively, for how we will meet the needs of all the people in our town, state, and nation. Government is the most powerful single tool we have for working together as a whole society; anyone who does not want us to use it to fulfill our obligation to feed the hungry, nurture the sick, welcome the stranger and otherwise comfort the afflicted, had better have an alternative prepared, and be ready to devote themselves to it.

I would say once again that none of what I have said is intended as an instruction in how you should vote in two days. Rather, I hope that it will make some contribution to your own process of decision making. Perhaps it may also provide some grist for your discussions with other folks about the matters on the ballot on Tuesday, and the larger questions that will still face our society on November 7th, whatever the outcome on the 6th. In so far as I am handing our direct assignments and specific instructions, they would be to vote if you are able, and to remain or become engaged once the election is over. God can’t vote. The world does not get better all on its own. To improve our lives and the lives of other people, we have to struggle, to work, to make hard decisions, to have tough conversations and to refuse to surrender to the seductive power of apathy or distraction. Our society needs us – all of us – to bring our ideas and our ideals into the public square of debate and decision. For if we do not carry our values and our faith into the polls with us, then they will remain absent from world we inhabit.



[i] From the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 59b

[ii] http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/518359

[iii] MLK, “I Have a Dream” (1963)

[iv] From Deuteronomy 30:19

[v] From John 10:10

[vi] From their book, Beginning Unitarian Universalism

[vii] http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/13981.shtml

Listening as Spiritual Practice

“Nature hath given us one tongue but two ears, that we might hear from others twice as much as we speak.” –Epictetus

The world we live in has a superabundance of noise. The sounds of nature layered over the din of human industry and commerce, and all of that before we get to anything communicative, anything in which one human being tries to say something to

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find a way to a holy way of living is in the give and take of dialog. Consider this, the next time you find yourself at coffee hour or in a committee meeting. The practice of listening to another person is a saving act.

[I’m mindful of the fact that I’ve been using “listening” as a stand-in for “communicating”, something which can be done quite capably by people who cannot literally hear. I beg the forgiveness of the deaf folks in the audience, and am reminded once again of the limits of language, and how much necessary personal growth is always in front of me.]

Along this theme of listening as a doorway to deeper relationship and more profound meaning, I want to mention that in October, some volunteers and I attended a kick-off event for a major effort to build relationships and collective power among congregations on the North Shore. This project begins with intentional conversations, a practice of deep listening, in each community. I and other volunteers will be looking to talk with as many of you as possible to learn more about your lives and in particular to identify the issues most deeply effecting you, as we seek to help identify needs and opportunities to work for social change in our part of the world. By listening, may we open ourselves up to the wisdom that exists within, and between, every one of us.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Wish You Were Here – 10/28/2012

When you see a rainbow, who do you want to share it with? When you skin your knee, who do you call out for? When you get a good grade in school, or you get hired for a new job, or your pet cat dies, or the doctor comes back with your test results and tells you you’re going to be alright, who comes to mind? When we see beautiful things, when we get good things or bad, when life is going very well or very, very badly, we all have folks we turn to, people we want to share those experiences with. Because the people we love make the good things better, and they make the bad stuff easier to take. We want to share our experiences with the people we care about.

But sometimes you turn to point out the rainbow or share your disappointment and the person you’re looking for isn’t there. Travel down to some sunny beach or scenic canyon or famous city, and you will find someone there selling postcards with pictures of the local sights that say, “Wish you were here”. People buy them and they send them back home or off to other places; to people they wish they could share that experience with, of being in a new place, having some new and wonderful experience.

Then there are the people we love who are further away than a first class stamp or a phone call can get us. The incredible privilege of being alive comes tied up with the fact that we also must die. So many of the people we love leave this life before us, and we remain here, missing them. We feel their absence in big ways and in little ways but perhaps most in those small moments that we would have rushed to share with them, when they were still alive. Often we come to treasure things that remind us of the people we miss. A man keeps his husband’s shirts hanging in the wardrobe they shared. A woman gives her mother’s candlesticks a special place on the mantle. A child holds onto a stuffed bunny her uncle gave her, long after its polyester fur has become matted and worn.

The author Sam Keen writes about his father’s death, beginning with a memory from long before he passed on, when Sam was a young boy. He sat beside his father one day and watched him carve a tiny sculpture of a monkey out of the hard stone from the center of a peach. The young Sam asked for the trinket and his father explained that it was for his mother, but promised to carve one for him as well. Many years passed, and his father grew ill. Two weeks before he died, a package arrived in the mail. It was Sam’s very own peach pit monkey. After his death, Sam’s father wasn’t there with Sam in the same way anymore. His body was gone, and his mind. There were no new thoughts or feelings coming from him, and he wasn’t carving any more animals out of peach pits. But that little figure of a monkey was a reminder of Sam’s father, and the ways in which he was still a presence in his life.[i]

The poet Rumi wrote of death:

I died as a rock, and became a plant.

I died as a plant, and became an animal.

I died as an animal and became a human being.

Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

We are trained to think of death as the end of our selves, or of the people we love, and that nothing more can come from us after we have died. But there is more to it than that, because there is more to us than that. You are more than your body, like a tree is more than its bark and branches. You are your voice and your words, you are your actions and choices, you are the pain that you cause, and the love that you give. And while your body, like mine and everyone else’s, will one day no longer breathe or move or live – all of the rest of what we are will continue on. The way we live now will give shape and color to the flowers that bloom from our having been alive. From what we choose in our time, new love or hurt or fear or joy will follow.

Often this happens in strange and unpredictable ways. As in the case of Sergeant Steve Flaherty, who left home for the war in Vietnam more than forty years ago, and died there, fighting in it. Just before he died, he took the time to write a few letters home to his family. And because of where and when and how he died, those letters ended up with the people he was fighting: the North Vietnamese army and they were not sent home to the people he wrote them for. But no war is forever; today the United States and Vietnam are at peace. After decades of waiting, those letters from Sergeant Flaherty finally made their way home. Messages to the people he loved in life and reminders that the connections we share with the people we care about are strong enough to outlive us.[ii]

But more often what endures after us is nothing so literal as a set of long-delayed letters. The full story of a life continues to play out from the lives of the people we deeply touch. It is possible to make an impression upon the world in this way by doing harm and causing pain, but I believe that kindness and compassion have a greater shelf-life, and in any case, legacies

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formed by them tend to be much finer and worthier things. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died when I was very young. Growing up, I had no memory of her – just a picture of her holding me when I was a baby. I have always tried to imagine her: who she was, what she was like. I listened to stories from my mother and my grandfather and uncles, and tried to piece together a picture in my mind.

Down the street from the house where my mother grew up there was another house where some family friends lived, and still do. When Sarah and Joe moved into the neighborhood, they were just beginning to start a family, while my grandparents had been at it for some time. Sarah and my grandmother became friends – the older woman lending the younger a listening ear, or a bit of simple advice, as she began to build a household and have children and go through many of the same experiences and challenges my grandmother had already faced. Sarah and Joe were like extra grandparents to my brothers and I, as we grew up. And the friendship that Sarah had shared with my grandmother, their closeness and kindness, echoed down through the years, so that in a very real way, my grandmother could keep giving love to her grandchildren even after she had died.

In the moment when we turn to point out the full moon in the sky, or to share some small triumph or loss, and catch ourselves, remembering that the person we are turning towards has died, it is not in vain. It is not foolish, and it is not empty. For the people we love, and who have loved us, are still here. Their lives, once bottled up into a single form, have spread out into a wider web of relationship. A piece of them is still with us; still shaping who we are, and through us, affecting the world. They can still hear us, so long as we are willing to do the listening for them.



[i] To a Dancing God, by Sam Keen

[ii] http://www.theworld.org/2012/07/vietnam-letters/

Risking Unpopular Beliefs – 10/21/2012

There is nothing worth doing – no story worth telling – that does not require some risk of some sort. At the opening of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the titular character, a fellow named Bilbo Baggins, lives a quiet life in a quiet part of the world. Each day begins, unfolds and ends in largely the same way, as Bilbo cleans the same little house, works the same little garden and sees the same little set of neighbors. Things are predictable, familiar, and entirely unremarkable.

Until one day he is visited by a band of strangers about to undertake a dangerous quest and hoping to recruit him to their cause. The offer is bewildering and unexpected, though not unattractive. He is reminded of the romantic stories of his distant ancestor’s journeys and exploits, and feels a pull towards the thrilling and foreign possibility of stepping out beyond his tiny corner of the world. Still, taking that first step into the unknown means leaving home, with its relative comfort and safety, behind. It means risking what he has for something uncertain. Yet, without the decision to take that risk, there would have been no story for Bilbo Baggins at all.

Whatever our ideas or values, we cannot put them into practice, cannot accomplish anything without the courage to risk. To love is to risk losing, to try is to risk failing, to struggle is to risk defeat. Without courage, our other virtues simply gather dust. So today and on several Sundays in the months to come, we will be reflecting on the courage to risk: what it looks like, where it comes from, and what it means to practice it. We’ll also be focusing on examples of courageous people from our own history as Unitarian Universalists. Today, that person is one of our British Unitarian ancestors: a man named Joseph Priestley.

Joseph Priestley was a polymath – a fun little word for someone who is learned and accomplished in many different fields of study at once. In an age in which professions are becoming more and more specialized, and following baseball teams in both the American League and the National League qualifies as “broad expertise”, it can be hard to believe the extensive range of topics that Priestley and others like him explored. He was a man of science, conducting experiments on the creation and behavior of electricity and on air and other gases. He is credited as one of the discoverers of oxygen, and invented the process of carbonation – getting fizzy bubbles into water and other beverages. He was also a scholar of history and grammar, an educator who built schools and wrote text books. He was what might be called today a political pundit, publishing articles on public policy and civic dispute and engaging in live debates with opposing figures. And Priestley was also a minister and theologian, a church founder and denominational organizer.

For Joseph, his many different interests and areas of study were connected to his determination to learn and pursue the truth wherever it took him. He believed that study and the application of reason could provide the best answers to human questions. The value of the scientific method, of which he is a pioneer, may feel at times disputed in our own age, but in Priestley’s it was held in far lower regard. Again and again throughout his life, Priestley published, preached and advocated for the conclusions he reached by applying logic to his studies of the natural world, of history, of law and of the bible. This got him into a lot of trouble.

Probably the peak of that trouble came in 1791, when Joseph Priestley was serving as the minister of a dissenting congregation in the city of Leeds. The city exploded into what came to be known as the Priestley Riots, and for four days homes and churches burned while a marauding mob made violence in the streets. But to understand why that happened, you’ll need a little background.

The idea of the separation of church and state was only in its infancy in the United States then; it had no foothold at all in Great Britain. The Church of England was the established religion of the English state; anyone who worshipped outside of its system or held beliefs contrary to any of its doctrines felt the weight of official repression. Dissenters, as the non-Catholic folks in this category were called, were marked for special taxes, barred from public office and lived with the real threat of criminal penalties for being too successful in spreading their faith. The marginalized congregations of dissenters were mixtures of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and others. Priestley spent his ministerial career serving these congregations, and his personal theology evolved relatively early in that career to a number of classical Unitarian positions. These included the view that the teacher Jesus, though a uniquely important spiritual figure, was not God; an opposition to Calvinism’s expectation that almost all people were damned from birth; and a belief that the human capacity for reason was a great gift, and should be used to discern the truth in all matters – including the religious.

Priestley’s views were radical for his day – even for the marginalized and heretical congregations he served. And while he wrote about these ideas in pamphlets and books that he published, and preached on them occasionally, he seems to have been quite content to serve as minister among people who did not share his beliefs. The reverse was not always the case however, and so he served a few different communities before eventually helping to found the first explicitly Unitarian congregation in England. Together with other leaders, Priestly began to build the beginnings of a Unitarian denomination in Great Britain, today the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. He was serving one of these congregations in Leeds when the riots broke out.

Joseph Priestley held a catalog of unpopular ideas and beliefs, and his insistence on speaking them aloud and writing them down made him a figure of public scorn in England. He was nicknamed “Gunpowder Joe” to mock his scientific work and point to extreme danger that his heretical beliefs were believed to pose. He was despised for his religious ideas, but also for his political arguments supporting the American and the French revolutions. Political cartoons of the era show him breathing smoke and fire from the pulpit, cavorting with the devil and tossing flaming copies of his pamphlets as though throwing bombs. The vilification by his opponents, including religious and civil leaders, came to a boil in the summer of 1791.

The rioters may have been directed by a local authorities, but they seem to have been triggered, at least in part, by the decision to include some of Priestley’s books in the local public library. These weren’t even his religious texts, but instead some of his books on science and history, which were extremely important works in their fields and were used by students and other scholars for decades after his death. Nonetheless, popular anger over the affront of having a heretic’s books in the public library was enough to whip a drunken, angry mob into action. They burned down or looted four churches, including Priestley’s, and twenty-seven homes, again with Priestley’s destroyed.

He had risked holding unpopular ideas, and had paid dearly for it, but he survived the attack. I am left wondering where he might have turned for comfort in the aftermath of that time. Priestley challenged the idea that the bible was divinely inspired but he still found its words to be profoundly important and meaningful. And if he did turn to scripture for a model of persisting in following beliefs that are unpopular, dangerous and costly, he would have found many to choose from. The tradition holds that Abraham, the first monotheist of his place and time, was the son of a man who carved idols for a living. Responding to the divine as he understood it not only alienated him from family and culture; it even undermined his father’s livelihood. Ruth took her mother-in-law Naomi’s god as her own, forsaking land and culture to join a marginalized religious group in a precarious geopolitical position. Stephen, traditionally considered the first Christian martyr, was stoned for expressing his beliefs.

Priestley did not give up on advocating for his positions, but he did decide, eventually, to move to the newly formed United States, where he could speak his mind and follow his conscience with greater protection under the law. And here is where our story gets sticky in an important way. I’ve spoken before and many of you know about the origins of Unitarianism in the US, how it is rooted here in New England. When Priestley arrived on this side of the Atlantic, the American Unitarians were just beginning to come together as a movement, and they wanted nothing to do with Joseph Priestley. They were still deciding about whether or not to accept the label Unitarian – it was originally leveled as an insult. Priestley wore it proudly. They downplayed their theological differences with the orthodox Christians that they shared towns and congregations with. Priestley was plain about what he stood for, and though he called himself a Christian, most others disagreed. The American Unitarians were the liberal wing of New England Congregationalists, whose congregations in Massachusetts blurred the line between church and state: receiving public funding and enjoying preferential legal protections. Priestley was fleeing the iniquity of state-sponsored religion, and did not hesitate to criticize and challenge it. So our ancestors here in New England largely disavowed Joseph Priestley, as if saying “Whoa, whoa: we might be Unitarian, but we’re not that Unitarian!”

In some sense, Priestley had the last laugh here. He settled in Pennsylvania and helped found congregations there that joined up with the New Englanders when they finally got their act together. His theology would, in some ways, be quite conservative by the standards of our modern congregations, but his ideas are still much closer to where our faith has evolved over the centuries than were his New England contemporaries’. With his belief that the universe could be holy without any need for an immaterial or supernatural level of existence, we can see traces of our present in his past.[i]

Priestley never sought to be labeled a radical, but he expressed his positions and he argued for them, and that appellation fell on him speedily enough. The New England camp were a part of the mainstream establishment when he arrived, and hoped to remain as such. This tension still exists within our movement, as it does to some extent within each human heart: the struggle between wanting to be our own truest, most authentic selves, and wanting to be accepted as a part of the dominant group, with all of the rights and privileges that entails. To choose the truth in our own hearts over what others expect or demand of us may be a danger to our reputations, to our comforts, to our wellbeing or to our very lives. But to do otherwise is destructive to the soul.

Many of our ancestors were turned away, persecuted, expelled or disowned for holding to what they believed, when people in authority preferred a different version of the truth. In fact, many of us here today have had that experience personally. That history and those experiences have led us to build communities on cooperation within difference, rather than relying on enforced sameness. It is an imperative of our faith not only to risk living out what we truly believe, but also welcome and encourage others to do so as well – even when our beliefs are not perfectly matched.

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Practicing both of those requires tremendous risk, and so both require a great deal of courage. Blind confidence will not suffice. We need to know not that we are right – plenty of people in the world are already certain of their own particular outlook – but that if we will not speak for what we love, no one else can be expected to. And so we also listen to the truths that other’s treasure, without worrying that just listening will somehow put our own hearts at risk.



[i] For more and better background on Priestley and these and other stories from his life, please see Motion Towards Perfection: The Achievement of Joseph Priestley, by Schwartz and McEvoy and Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America, by J.D. Bowers.

Our Partner Church

What a blessing it is to receive guests! They offer the opportunity to practice hospitality, they bring a fresh perspective, and their arrival creates the potential for the holiest thing there is: mutual appreciation and respect between people. And on top of it all, every now and then, they come baring presents.

So it was, this past Saturday when I received a guest from Transylvania here at the church. Laszlo Lorinczi was in the United States as a guest of the First Parish in Concord, MA – that congregation, and his congregation in Szekelykeresztur (in Transylvania) have a long-standing and very active partnership. Laszlo made a special trip up from Concord to visit us because his son is Botond Lorinczi, the minister of the Unitarian church in Varosfalva Transylvania – which is our partner church.

The Unitarians of Transylvania – ethnic Hungarians who live within what is now Romania – are the oldest continuous Unitarian community in the world. They have been in existence for nearly 450 years (a century longer than our congregation, and more than 250 years longer than our congregation has been avowedly Unitarian). Persecution and repression kept the Hungarian and English-speaking Unitarian communities of the world largely ignorant of each other until the mid-1800s, but since then many connections have been forged between Unitarian Universalists in America and Unitarians in Transylvania. Our own congregation has a history of offering moral, political and at times financial support to our Eastern European cousins going back to the 1920s. As an ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority group, the Transylvanian Unitarians have lived an inspiring history of creative survival.

The Varosfalva congregation has been our formal partner church for just over 20 years now, an international friendship that connects us to the lived experience of Unitarianism in a different place and culture, and to the global movement of which we are a part. And it was because of this friendship that Laszlo brought us a letter and a set of gifts from his son, Botond, his family, and the rest of our partners in Transylvania. The letter contained the happy news that Botond and his wife Krisztina welcomed their first child this summer, a son named Mate. Included was a framed picture of the newly enlarged family, which will go on display here at our church.

Last year, we sent to Transylvania a picture of our assembled congregation in the sanctuary, and their letter mentioned that, “We always have your picture exposed in our church, so on every Sunday we think of you with great love and respect, and we have you in spirit in our church.” What a gift it is to be connected across oceans, to be thought of kindly by people in another land, and also to able to think of them, to feel connected to them, and know that in this world we are not alone. There are many different ways to be in the world. There are many different ways to be Unitarian in the world. And it is good to know that as we are living our religious quest here, there are others in other places – different from us, and yet also alike – who are doing the same. Perhaps it may be that in some coming year, we may receive the blessing of being able to welcome some folks from Varosfalva as our guests in person. Or even that some of us may be able to receive their hospitality. As Botond and his family closed their letter to us: “We send our best wishes to you with great love, hoping that we will see you in the nearby future!”

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Disappointment As Spiritual Teacher – 10/14/2012

A few months ago, I had an errand that took me down near where I used to live, just a little bit north of Boston. It’s an area I enjoy visiting but hate driving to, so I don’t get there very often. But this trip gave me a rare and welcome excuse to visit one of my favorite restaurants in the world: a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place with five tables, three friendly and accommodating owners, and a menu full of incredible flavors. I got to be a regular there when I lived in Somerville and worked at Tufts University. I figured out that I could splurge on their extremely cheap lunch special during my lunch hour, provided that I ate quickly and ran both ways, there and back. From time to time, while I waited for my take-out order, one of the folks behind the counter would ask me questions about obscure points of English grammar, trying to make sense of this crazy language he found himself immersed in. I did my best to answer, though I don’t think I was much help.

I was very excited to get to go back to this beloved eatery. As I parked the car and walked down to the storefront, I was lost in thought, still debating with myself which beloved dish I was going to order. Torn between the crispy tofu with peanut sauce, and the spicy, garlic-y kung-pao. I reached the door, I put my hand on the handle and pushed and…nothing. The door did not open. I looked up, really for the first time, and saw that the place was dark and empty inside. The familiar sign was still over the entrance, but there was a little note in one of the windows explaining that, sometime soon, this would be the new home of some trendy new restaurant with a fancy graphic and forgettable name. The place that I remembered so fondly, the place that I had come to visit, was no more. I stood there, out in front of it on the sidewalk, staring, for what must have been a very long time.

Life does not always go the way that we envision it going, and we do not always get what we want from the world. Being human on this planet means facing uncountable disappointments, large and small. We can’t always get what we want, and contrary to what Mick Jagger may have told you, too often too many of us don’t even get what we need.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” we often ask our children, encouraging them to dream big, and set high goals for themselves. But as it turns out, not everyone gets to be president. Not everyone becomes an astronaut. Not everyone becomes rich, or famous, or powerful. Sometimes we get fired, sometimes we flunk out of school, sometimes we fail. And sometimes, particularly when loss piles on loss and disappointment on disappointment, it can become more than we can bear. The poet Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester, like a sore, and then run? Does it stink like rotting meat? Or crust and sugar over, like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”[i] Hughes was inspired by the anger and despair of racial of bigotry and oppression: he was a gay African American man, writing in 1951. Still, the feelings he described apply far and wide, and crop up in unexpected places. There is now, for instance, some thought that the chemicals released in our brains and bodies when we learn that a political candidate we voted for lost cause us so much unhappiness that many of us lose interest in voting all together.[ii]

Stick around long enough and you will be disappointed – by the world, by other people, or by yourself. But there is an opportunity for learning in each disappointment, if we open ourselves up to it. The lessons that any loss or failure can teach us are of three sorts. The first, is to remind us to appreciate what we still have.

The story comes from the Muslim tradition of a man who complained sadly to a wandering teacher about how little he had. “All that I own in the world fits into this wretched sack!” he cried. The teacher nodded at the despondent man, and then snatched the bag out of his hands, running away with it down the road. The poor man was slow, and though he gave chase the teacher was soon too far away to see. But he kept walking on, until he came around a corner and saw the bag that the teacher had sped off with, lying by the side of the road where the teacher had left it for him. He ran to it; inside everything was just as he had left it. Very happy to have all his worldly possessions again, he laughed with joy at his good fortune, and the teacher, watching from a long way off, laughed with him.

Similarly, there was the story a few decades ago of a farmer in the Midwest who loved to read, and spent the first half of his life collecting books. He had so many that he built a separate building on his property to keep them in. A private library for him and his family, built over decades, a few books at a time. But all that paper proved all too flammable. When the farmer’s library caught fire one night, he and his children tried to fight the blaze as best they could, but they soon knew they couldn’t stop it. So instead they watched, and comforted each other, and sang. Finding the bag had made him happy, but it was the loss of the bag that made him appreciate the preciousness of its contents.

Visiting a favorite restaurant and finding that it has gone out of business is a tiny disappointment by any rational measure. And after a few long moments of standing there stunned on the sidewalk, the ridiculousness caught up with me. I took stock of my blessings, including the happy memories I still had of the meals I had shared in this place that no longer was. And I was reminded of what my life was like when I lived in that neighborhood – both the good parts, and the bad.

In our movement, there is a panel that accredits ministers; they determine who enters the fellowship of our ministry, and

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so who can go looking for a congregation to serve. When I lived in Somerville, just after finishing my seminary education, I went before this panel seeking their approval. I did not get it. Instead, they gave me some advice, and some suggestions for things I could work on. If I still wanted to become a minister, I could come back and see them in a year and a half or so, and they’d tell me if they thought I was ready then.

It was a hard hit to take. I had a dream, an ambition, a calling, but my way to get there no longer seemed certain. I could keep working on it, but nothing was assured. And for at least the next few years I specifically could not do what I had been planning to do professionally: I did not have permission to look for a congregation to serve as minister. While I was reeling from that, we got some far, far bigger news: my partner Sara and I learned that we were pregnant with our first child. It was happy news, but there was struggle in it, too. I had a lot of hope tied up in my call to the ministry, but I had also been banking on it as a career, and a means to support my family. All of that was on hold now, and I had to wonder at times if it would ever move forward.

Harvard law professor Lani Guinier faced a very large, very public disappointment when she was nominated to serve as Assistant Attorney General in 1993. There was a lot of loud shouting against her in the national press, based on over-simplification and misrepresentation of some of her scholarly ideas. Eventually, the noise grew so loud that her nomination was withdrawn. The lesson that she took from that experience was to see failure’s potential as a positive and creative force. “[F]ailure can be a moment of liberation at the same time that it is a moment of sadness or despair…Success is failure turned inside out.”[iii] In the film Batman Begins, young Bruce Wayne’s father tries to teach him much the same lesson after a very bad fall: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

This is the second sort of lesson to be found in disappointment: the power within ourselves to do something we did not know we could do. Sometimes we fall short of some goal, and recommit ourselves to trying again even harder on the next go round. In my case, I kept on the path to the ministry. It wasn’t a dream I was willing to give up on; it wasn’t a call I felt I could leave unanswered. And eventually I was welcomed into fellowship, I got to become a minister and, well, here I am. But sometimes disappointment really does end a dream: what we need to remember then is that it does not end every dream. Lani Guinier didn’t get a second shot at serving in government, but she has continued a distinguished career as a scholar and activist, and now also speaks and writes about the creative possibilities of failure.

A mentor of mine tells the story of chaplaining a young man who’s spine was broken. Some of the members of his family did not accept his diagnosis: that he would not walk again. His uncle, a pastor, called on God to restore him to the fullness of life by returning full control over his limbs. The chaplain responded: “My God is bigger than that. The God I believe in can give this young man a full and complete life with a major spinal injury, and whether or not he walks again.”

A little while ago, colleague of mine asked me for a small favor. A member of her congregation was coming to Boston to meet with that panel I mentioned earlier, the one that accredits our ministers and determines which hopeful candidates will enter into fellowship. This congregant of hers would be making the trip alone, and she asked if I could support be there to support a stranger going through a difficult process – one I know pretty well at this point, having been through it twice myself. I answered ‘yes’ without thinking too much about it, and I did so because of the third learning that disappointment has to offer.

The third lesson of disappointment is the most subtle, but also the most important. It is that our losses and failures connect us to each other. Sometimes we disappoint ourselves, falling short of our own ambitions or ideals. When you lose or falter, somewhere inside yourself you should still know that you matter; that even if you are not so perfect as you hoped, you are still worthy of happiness and love. And if that is true for you, it must be true for everyone else as well. The persistent reality of our shared imperfection is a reminder of a greater reality: Each life is inherently worthwhile, and each of us has the opportunity to live out of that worth not at some distant point in the future, or back in some missed opportunity of the past, but right now, in every moment of every day. Some days – most days – we let ourselves and each other down. The world itself lets us down. But in the sting of those losses is a reminder in three parts: that we still have gifts and blessings to appreciate and cherish, that losing once does not mean we can never win again, and that the feeling of disappointment is something that touches every heart, and so should unite us, rather than dividing us.

 

 



[i] “Harlem”, from his collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred.

[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/opinion/sunday/is-america-man-enough-to-vote.html?hp

[iii] http://www.oprah.com/spirit/How-to-Learn-from-Failure-Failure-Theory-of-Success/1

Believe the Hype – 9/30/2012

The cook awoke to a noise in the night. He ran to the kitchen and caught the young monk there, stealing food from the monastery pantry. Only a few nights before, he had found the same novice in just the same place committing just the same offense. So now again, more exasperated than before, the cook went to the master of the monastery, the great Zen teacher Bankei Totaku, to report the thief’s crime in hopes that he would be punished.

Bankei thanked the cook again for his attentiveness, but he did not expel the young monk with the greedy stomach, nor did he make any public showing of his anger or displeasure with him. The cook accepted this, but the other students did not. “Why should someone who does not know right from wrong be allowed to remain among us?” they asked each other. Together they presented a petition to their master, vowing to each leave the monastery if the thief was not forced to leave.

The next day, the master assembled all of his students, including the novice who had been caught stealing food. He told them that they each had more to learn, and he did not wish to see any of them go. “But, this man,” he said of the thief, to the students who had signed the petition against him, “this man has only shown that he also has much to learn. And so he will remain here, even as my only student.”[i]

As human beings we have a tendency to divide not just ideas or behaviors but also all too often people, into the categories of good and bad. Not surprisingly, most of us tend to put ourselves in the first category, and the way we treat other people has a lot to do with whether we view them as being good or bad. That black and white way of viewing the world is pervasive, even if we know intuitively or intellectually that it isn’t right, because there is an ease and a convenience – even a comfort to it. As Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in the Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Still, because we view our lives from the inside, and everyone else’s from the outside, we have the opportunity to justify our own actions and choices to ourselves. So we can get creative in our internal explanation for why some moral or ethical rule we believe we cherish does not apply to us, or to our situation. The psychologist Albert Bandura called this “moral disengagement”. For instance: I think of myself as a safe driver, and someone who obeys the rules of the road. When people buzz by me on the highway, I shake my head and occasionally mutter unfriendly sentiments at them. But I grant myself certain exceptions. Right after you cross the Salem bridge, there’s a long straight-away before you get to the first intersection. It has one of those signs that tells you your speed, and the sign flashes at you if you go too far over the limit. Every time that it catches me, I let myself off the hook with the rationalization that the speed limit on that stretch is unreasonably low.

This process comes in all shapes and sizes; it’s the same way a person might justify to themselves cheating on a spouse, stealing from an employer or jumping off the wagon. I could certainly offer arguments for why I think any of those things is worse than going seven or eight miles over the speed limit on a clear roadway, but justifying my justifications might start to sound like the same process doubling back on itself. And in a way that’s what some new research is suggesting: that moral disengagement has a cumulative effect. In a series of studies, researchers gave subjects a questionnaire to determine how strongly they felt about cheating in the abstract. They also had participants read an honor code, followed by taking an actual test – just simple math problems. They were paid a small amount for each correct answer (a motive to cheat) and reported their own scores (an opportunity for it). Finally, they were asked to fill out the same questionnaire from the beginning.

What this process found was that, unsurprisingly, some people who participated cheated on the test. After having cheated, their answers on the ethics questionnaire tended to shift, even in that short period of time. Having broken a moral rule for themselves, they took a more casual attitude towards the same rule in general. In fact, they even showed less ability to recall the details of the honor code they were given before the test when asked about it.[ii]

Part of what may be going on in a scenario like this something called self-signaling. It hinges on the idea that rather than always understanding our own motives and reasons for every choice we make, we are actually constantly learning about ourselves in the same way that we learn about others: by observing what we do. Our sense of who we are and what sort of decisions we’re inclined to make comes from the things we know we’ve done before: our existing patterns and habits and behaviors. So if you floss your teeth every night, it’s not so much because you choose, independent of time and experience, to floss again and again, night after night. Each night’s decision is informed by and builds on what came before: you watched yourself do it before, so you’re more inclined to do it again. You become the sort of person who flosses every night by flossing every night.

But the signals we send ourselves are more broad and complicated than this. In another study, people were given a pair of nice sunglasses and were told either that they were high-end designer glasses, or that they were knock-offs, or they were not told anything at all. They spent some time wearing the glasses, and then they were given some very simple math problems to solve – with very small payments for each correct question, just as in the first study, and again they had an opportunity to cheat. People who were told they were wearing fancy glasses were slightly less likely to cheat than people who weren’t told anything about them. But the folks who were told they were wearing fakes were roughly twice as likely to cheat: 70% of them did so.

Just knowing (or thinking they knew) that they were wearing knock-off sunglasses seemed to shift the self-image of the participants towards less honest

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choices. And it also seemed to affect their attitudes towards other people: the team ran a different version of the experiment where they gave people the same experience with the sunglasses and had them answer a different set of questions. These were questions about trust, estimating how likely someone else was to cheat in imaginary scenarios, and giving their opinion of how often others are lying when they say things like, “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was terrible.” Again, those who thought they were wearing counterfeit sunglasses were more likely to assume that others would lie or cheat.[iii]

All of this points to a connection between the actions and choices we make, even the seemingly small and minor ones. Our behaviors, helpful or hurtful, kind or inconsiderate, compound each other. With every moment we live we are building and rebuilding the person we understand ourselves to be. And while we can’t go back and change our past, we are always the stewards of our present. Having made mistakes before, it is easier to make the same mistake again, but it is always possible to make a new choice, and begin to change our own story about ourselves.

In the Parable of the Sower, one of the stories attributed to the teacher Jesus, the seeds the sower cast on the ground fell in four different places. Some by the way, where they were eaten by birds. Some on stone, where it sprouted but withered away for the lack of roots. Some among thorn bushes, which choked the seedlings before they could bear fruit, and some on fertile ground, where the seeds could grow and flourish. Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that in every human life there is a seed of possibility and potential. Every moment is like one of those four patches of soil, and while we never control everything about the present in

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which we find ourselves, we always have some choice to make, and those choices shape who we are, and how the seed within us grows or does not.

The really good news here is that just as more selfish behaviors seem to feed each other, there is also evidence that the same is true for kindness and generosity of spirit. To explain this I’m going to tell you about one more study. This study began with another math quiz, and it seems possible now that I am training you all now to be extremely suspicious whenever a person in a lab coat offers to pay you to answer random math problems. After the test,

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the researcher running the experiment would grade each person’s answers, pay them according to their number of correct answers, and then shred their test sheet.

In some sessions, the grader would run out of money just before reaching the last participant, and leave to get more. While the person in authority was gone, that last waiting person would shred their sheet on their own, and explain on the grader’s return that they had completed all the questions correctly; they were then paid the maximum amount, more than anyone else in the room had earned with their incomplete exams. The cheater was a plant – they were in on the whole thing and it was carefully choreographed. So everyone who was actually participating in the study as a normal subject took a test with very hard questions that they didn’t have enough time for, and then saw one of their fellow test-takers blatantly cheat and get away with it.

In the second part of the activity, the participants were told they were studying the sense of taste, and that they had to prepare a taste sample for one of the other people in the group: the person they had just seen cheat. Creating the sample meant pouring hot sauce into a cup for the cheater to taste; the amount was up to them. Those who saw the cheating poured in three times as much, on average. But there was another variation to the study. In some groups, before the test was completed one of the participants, another plant, began to cry and asked to be excused from the study, explaining that her brother had recently received a terminal diagnosis. People who saw this happen and saw the other confederate cheat didn’t give him any more hot sauce than people who saw neither. Feeling compassion towards anyone led them to be more kindhearted towards even someone they might otherwise have disliked.[iv]

Like the students in Bankei’s monastery, each of us has different things to learn, each of us are at different stages along our path. And each of us has, and deserves, an opportunity to realize our potential for healing the world, if we only believe that it is there in us, and in everyone else as well. We are imperfect, but trainable. Just telling ourselves that we are good, or knowing in advance the right thing to do, won’t make us good. In fact, it is easy for us to rationalize our way past many moral rules. But, the decisions we make and the actions we take build and shape our moral character, throughout our entire lives. So to move towards being the people we aspire to be, that we need to be in order to work toward a finer world, we need opportunities to practice compassion and cultivate a generous spirit. As your spiritual community, this congregation offers you numerous opportunities to do just that by volunteering with our Tuesday Night Supper program, teaching a class in our Sunday School, connecting with others in one of our Small Group Ministry circles, or just building a practice of being in community by joining us for worship each Sunday. As we live out the covenant we share as a congregation, we signal each other in the direction of our best and highest selves.



[i] This version of an old story about the historical Zen teacher Bankei is based on a version from Sarah Conover’s collection Kindness (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001).

[ii] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/02/23/why-we-cheat-the-science-of-morality.html

[iii] http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/streams-of-consciousness/2012/06/08/why-wearing-fakes-makes-us-cheat-more-excerpt/

[iv] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html

The Weight of Forgiveness – 9/23/3012

There is an old story that takes place in a shtetl – a Jewish village in Eastern Europe – that was afflicted one year by a terrible drought. Crops were withering in the field, nothing new could be planted in the dry, dusty earth; the people were desperate for rain. The holiest folks in the town, the rabbis and sages, had prayed and bowed for days and days, and yet the sky was empty of clouds. The leaders, and the wealthy folks in the community joined the gathering in the synagogue and traded their fine clothes for sackcloth, but still the rains did not come.

Finally, the drought ran so long and grew so bad that the whole community was assembled in the place of meeting. Each took their turn at the front of the congregation, to offer prayers for the wellbeing of the town. And so it was that one of the poorest people in the shtetl, a butcher, rarely seen in the synagogue, an illiterate man who could not read the prayers in the prayer book, came to stand with his neighbors behind him to argue their case before G-d.

“Holy One,” he said, “I am a simple man. I am not learned or wealthy, I do not pray to you daily, or practice every one of your commandments. I do not know all the words in your book, or even much more than a few. But I know my profession; I am a butcher,” he said, and he held aloft the smallest of the scales he used to measure the produce he sold. Two bowls hung from either side of a lever, balanced equally with each other. “My scales are true, Lord. I deal fairly with all who come to my shop. I do not weigh out one amount and charge for another. So you must deal fairly with us, Holy One. So that no one must say that the Lord of Hosts is less honest than this humble butcher.”

There came no immediate answer to the butchers challenge to G-d. He took his seat again in the congregation, and later in the evening the people went home again, still wondering when the terrible drought would end. But privately, in the quiet of the night when no one else could see them, people all through the village were busy at work. Merchants made secret deliveries, under cover of darkness, to repay customers whom they had shorted. Farmers moved fence posts they had moved once before, to return land that rightly belonged to their neighbors. Accounting ledgers were opened and corrected, and the scales of many other shops were set aright, as every person who had been shamed by the butcher’s declaration was determined that before the sun rose again, they would be at least as fair and as just as the most humble of their neighbors. And on that night, it rained.

We human beings are imperfect. We are capable of great kindness and we are also all too capable of causing injury and suffering to those who share the earth with us. We make mistakes, yes, but we also make choices, and sometimes the choices we make do harm to other people. And when we do harm, we need to be forgiven, just as a dry field needs rain to water it. Like the people in the butcher’s village, we may not always know that we need it – the force of habit, the power of self-deception, and ignorance of how our choices affect others can keep us from recognizing our thirst for forgiveness, but is there nonetheless.

Because we are human beings surrounded by other human beings, we are both givers and receivers of forgiveness. There is a burden to carrying around someone else’s wrong, just as in the story of two monks who had taken vows of celibacy and sworn never to touch a woman. They came to a river and found someone standing there, trying to find a way across – a woman – and the older monk offered to carry her over on his back. After they had made the crossing together, and the woman had gone off on her own way, and the two monks had continued on their journey some distance, the younger scolded the older. “How could you break your vow so easily?” The older monk replied, “I set that woman down back at the river bank. Why are you still carrying her?”

This day is a sort of in-between place. Today is one of what is known in the Jewish tradition as the Days of Awe, the ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a time for taking stock of and settling accounts, though not so much in the financial

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as in the moral sense. Rosh Hashanah marks the ending of one year and the beginning of another, and the days that follow it serve as a sort of grace period. The Days of Awe are a time to make amends, restore relationship and seek forgiveness for the wrongs and failings of a year gone past. It is an opportunity to earn forgiveness – and to grant it.

The individual practice of taking stock of and making amends for the wrongs you have done to others is not limited to Judaism, of course. Many religious traditions make some formal practice of it, and in particular it calls to mind numbers eight and nine of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps. The theme is common; it is the details that are specific. There are many particular features to this sacred time in the Jewish tradition, and one of these is that this is not a practice that one person does alone. Each member of the community seeks forgiveness from those they have wronged; everyone, all at once. As the first seeks the forgiveness of a second, the second will have at heart a desire for forgiveness from a third, and all the while each will be looking to the Source of forgiveness, the Source of compassion, to find the strength to live the next year better than the one before. Each person, and the community as a whole, seeks to make itself more worthy of forgiveness, both before and after receiving it.

Sometimes we imagine the act of forgiving or being forgiven as taking away the weight of the wrong that we have done, or that someone else has done to us. But forgiveness does not take make the weight disappear. Whatever happened, happened. We cannot simply return to the world as it was before. This is why forgiveness, real forgiveness, is not a simple or an easy thing: it has a weight of its own. That weight is necessary in order to begin to balance the scale, and that is what creates a sense of a burden being lifted. So the weight of forgiveness must be matched to the heft and seriousness of the thing to be forgiven. It is not a passive thing; it is an active choice to begin the work that will restore some wholeness between yourself and another. It cannot be muttered quickly or grudgingly between gritted teeth; offering forgiveness is one of the hardest things we can do as human beings.

Yet it is something that we need to be able to do, again and again and again. The absence of forgiveness means the presence of sorrow, anger, or fear, and when we can truly remember the pain that we have felt when others have denied us their forgiveness, or when we have denied forgiveness to ourselves, it becomes very difficult to deny forgiveness to anyone. It is like the story of a group of people who were travelling together across a deep, wide sea. When one of them took out a drill and began to bore a hole in the bottom of the boat. The other passengers asked, “Why are you doing this?” But the one with the drill simply responded, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling only under myself?”[i] Of course, one hole in the bottom, and the whole ship will sink. It matters to all of us how each of us fares, whether we sink or whether we float. Whether we can forgive, in ourselves and each other, what it is that needs forgiveness.

There are times, however, when forgiveness is beyond our ability. The writer, philosopher and holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel argues that there are some things terrible enough that not only can no one forgive them, but no one should. Forgiveness cannot come at the expense of the real and necessary feelings of grief and of anger at the experience of injustice. Sometimes we need the anger that we would start to let go of by forgiving: we need to use it in order to struggle for some greater transformation. The oppressed cannot be expected to continually forgive their oppressors, and if a blanket amnesty for systemic injustice is constantly offered, no system will ever change. And then sometimes, it is not that we need the anger or the grief exactly, but just that they are too great to find any counterweight for. When forgiveness becomes a burden for the person who has been wronged, when it is something society expects or demands of you no matter how great your suffering, then it becomes a force not for healing but for harm.

One of the scriptural passages read during the Days of Awe is called in Hebrew the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In the story in the book of Genesis, the great patriarch Abraham is instructed by G-d to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. At the time and in the place that the story is set – about four-thousand years ago, in South West Asia – human sacrifice was a relatively common practice. At the last minute, Isaac is spared by God, and Abraham is rewarded for his unswerving faith and loyalty; and of course that does nothing to allay the horror inherent to the story.

There is much to study and explore in the Akedah, and for those who wish to read it in full and go deeper, please join in our scripture study session in my office after the service. But for now, take a moment to think of Isaac in this situation, who comes within a hair’s breadth of being killed by his father. It seems like exactly the sort of thing which would be impossible to forgive someone, and some commentaries imagine that at the end of the episode Isaac leaves his father’s company: in the book, it is the last moment when the two are seen “on stage” together before Abraham’s death.

But even in the cases of truly heinous and terrible crimes, there are still examples of the hard work of forgiveness being done. Six years ago, the nation temporarily turned its attention to a small corner of rural Pennsylvania, and the old order Amish community there. The Amish are a humble, pacifistic and intentionally anachronistic religious group, and though there is little likeness in our outward practices our current theology, as Unitarian Universalists we share with them a common set of ancestors. We are second cousins, you might say. Sadly, in 2006 this particular Amish community was in the news because a disturbed individual who was not a member of their sect, but who was a familiar face to the community, attacked the one room schoolhouse where local Amish children were instructed. He took five lives before his own. It was the sort of nightmare scenario that seems so wildly beyond the pale as to eliminate even the discussion of forgiveness. And that is why what followed seemed so strange, and so captivating.

That Amish community, whose religion teaches humility and pacifism, made a conscious, sustained effort, in the midst of their extraordinary grief, to practice forgiveness for the crime. After burying their own children, Amish families attended the burial of their killer, to express their sympathy for his widow. They raised money for her and her children. They built a relationship out of the ashes of despair. Forgiveness does not live in any one particular set of words; it is practiced in our actions. It is not to forget what has happened, or to pretend that things have not changed. It is not the end of anything – it is the opening of the way towards new relationship: less fractured and wounded, more whole.

No matter the size of the harm forgiveness is not only about the way things are between “us” and “them”. It is about the way things are between each of us and the whole of existence. When we are defined by how hurt we are, it contorts our relationship to everything; it saps our trust that the universe is a place where joy and beauty abide. So offering forgiveness, even when it is hard, even when it seems undeserved, is ultimately something that we do not do to heal the other person; it is something we do to heal ourselves.

Inspired, then, by the practice shared at this season by our Jewish friends and neighbors, I call on you now to rise in body and or spirit, to take up your hymnals and turn to #637. This litany was prepared by the esteemed Unitarian Universalist minister Rob Eller-Isaacs. As we read and listen together, I invite you to reflect: for what do you need to be forgiven at this moment and by whom, and how shall you begin to seek it? For what do others need forgiveness from you, and how might you begin to open the door to it? I shall read the plain text, and yours will be the italics:

 

#637 A Litany of Atonement[ii]

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time we have struck out in anger without just cause

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For losing sight of our unity

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 



[i] Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 4:6

[ii] From Singing the Living Tradition, Beacon Press, 1993

Same City, Different Hill – 9/16/2012

Owing to the historical focus of my message to you this morning, I will begin my remarks with the same sort of opening that my first predecessor 345 years ago might have: with a passage from the Christian Bible. These words come from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 5, verses 14-16. They are attributed to the teacher Jesus, a fragment of what is commonly referred to as his “sermon on the mount”. Here are the words:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Last year on Christmas Eve, I said something that one of you called me out for. Contrary to what you might expect, I like it when someone takes issue with what I say from the pulpit; it lets me know that at least one person has been paying attention. It was the second service of the evening – it was a bit late, and I was feeling a little punchy. And I brought up the fact that our Puritan ancestors, the folks who founded this congregation and from whom we have inherited it, would likely not be pleased to find their descendants celebrating the festival of Christmas, since they considered the observance to be somewhere between a foolish spectacle and an act of heresy.

After the service, you sought me out and with kindness and good cheer you reminded me that as tempting as it is to poke fun at our forbearers, we owe a great deal to the New Englanders of four centuries ago. You were, of course, quite right about that. So I resolved to say something from this pulpit about just how great is our debt to the people called the puritans. This sermon is the result.

The puritans began as a dissenting faction of the Church of England. They sought certain reforms and changes to the doctrines and practices of official English Christianity – in order to purify it, as the name we now know them under suggests. They were not treated well, under English law, where the puritans where a persecuted ideological minority. But their ideology was not exactly one of live and let live, they did not seek an equitable society in which different religious outlooks, including their own, would be permitted and included. They still wanted society to favor one set of doctrines and beliefs over all others; they just wanted it to favor their outlook. When the prospects looked poor that they might win the religious argument in Britain and change the official church, the puritans began to look for a place to build their own separate social and religious order.

And this brought a great many of them to the land on which we are worshipping this morning. The British Crown had no right to any piece of the continent we call North America, as it was already occupied by several million native inhabitants. But that did not stop Charles I from issuing a charter for the new colony of Massachusetts to a group of puritans in 1629. On the two-month journey from England across the Atlantic to the brand new settlement of Salem, John Winthrop, the man who had been named by the puritan expedition as their governor, gave a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity”. In it, he charged his people to be ready for a great undertaking, the project of establishing a new community, a new society, grounded in their faith. And he warned them that, “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

The order that they established in Massachusetts, first in Salem and in Boston and a little later in many other towns, including Beverly, did try to live up to this lofty goal: to be a shining city on a hill. They believed that there was one objective truth about the nature of God and the purpose of life and they held that the people who believed that truth and who practiced it were better than those who did not and that God would favor them over their enemies. They drew no distinction between church and state: to vote you not only had to be a man, and to own property, but you also had to be in good standing with your congregation, attending services every Sunday, following a strict religious code of conduct, and publicly declaring your belief in a detailed set of doctrines. And everyone had a congregation, of course, because each town had an official church, supported by public funds collected from every resident whether they believed in or enjoyed the worship there or not.

John Calvin Kimball, who served as minister of this congregation was among several speakers who delivered remarks on the puritan history of Ipswich at the town’s bicentennial in 1884. I want to thank David Shawn for bringing this piece to my attention. We had, by then, long since ceased to think of ourselves as puritans any longer, and Kimball offered a list of the distinctive characteristics of that religion. His list included hard doctrines, rigid virtues, the practice of seating men on one side of the congregation and women on the other, and the timing the preaching with an hour glass – necessary because sermons were expected to last for at least an hour, and the ministers salary might be reduced if that minimum was not met. Kimball also noted an episode that occurred in Ipswich in which a man and woman were pressed by the authorities to explain why they had not been attending church. The couple gave the excuse that their farm was too far from the meeting house to walk, and so the selectmen of the town solved the problem by selling the property, on their own initiative, so that the wayward souls could be moved to a residence closer to the church.[i]

That is the early history of most of the towns in this part of New England, of many of the Unitarian Universalist congregations here, and of this congregation in particular. We were founded by theocrats, who wished that all people should think and believe and worship as they did. People who held that you could determine whom God loved more by seeing who was the most wealthy or successful in life. Who believed that the vast majority of human beings were destined from birth to eternal suffering after their death. And you may be wondering now, why it is that I said at the beginning I had come to praise the puritans, and instead I seem to be in the process of burying them.

Family is not a word that means the same thing to every one of us. Some of us have families we are very close to, others of us are estranged. Some of us rely and depend upon those bonds of kinship, others of us, it is painful but true to say, do not have the families we deserve. But all of us have people to whom we are connected, by blood or by upbringing, who have affected who we are. And no matter how much we might love our families and everyone in them, each of us can think of at least one of our relations that we struggle to be in relationship with.

For myself growing up, that difficult relationship was with my Uncle Charles; some of you have heard me talk about him before. I called him Uncle Charles like Uncle was his first name and Charles his last because that was the name I always heard my mother call him by. He was her mother’s brother, my great uncle, technically. The kindest true word I can think of to describe Charles as I knew him is ‘cantankerous’. The man liked a spirited argument, which was good, because he was very good at starting them. Political, theological, grammatical. All of the above. We butted heads more than a few times, and he passed away several years ago without any particular resolution.

Now I think about him quite often, and when I do, it is not out of frustration, but as inspiration. Uncle Charles was a priest. We had different ideas about God and scriptural authority, and how best to organize a religious institution, but we still both basically chose the same job. I never really talked to him about his work, or about my ambition to become a minister. But I feel connected to him by the role we share, across time. Sometimes I think about the decades that he spent serving congregations, and the love that he must have felt for the people in his care. Nothing else will sustain a person in this profession, other than deep caring for the people who depend on you. Though my great uncle and I were very different people, in this way I know that we are the same.

So, too, are we, like our puritan ancestors. Not so much in the content of our faith, as in its form. Yet that form is also what has led us to our content, to the deep truths of Unitarian Universalism. The French science-fictionist Jules Verne once wrote about a family which began with a marriage in 1340. And each time that one of the two partners in that marriage died, the other remarried someone who in turn outlived them long enough to remarry again. So that the same household lasted for five hundred years; the players turned over again and again, but the shape of the relationship remained.[ii]

Here is the blessed inheritance that we owe to the puritans. They may have had rigid and narrow ideas about religious truth, but they believed that those beliefs had to be arrived at freely. Every person needed to study the bible for themselves, pray for themselves, search for themselves in order to reach the truth. From the liberty, in fact the duty, to study and to reflect grew voices to challenge the status quo: voices of equality and skepticism, and of an understanding of what it means to love they neighbor that transcends the barriers of doctrine and creed.

The puritans were far from fully democratic, given how they limited the vote and tied their government to a strict ideology. But they made each congregation an authority unto itself: there were no bishops to answer to, no councils of elders to control religious affairs from afar. Just as it was up to each individual to seek a righteous path for themselves, it was the responsibility of each congregation to assist their members in that holy work, to discern together what the holy spirit and the needs of the community were calling out for, and to act from that.

The puritans held that each person must seek holiness for themselves, but that this needn’t and shouldn’t be something undertaken alone. A community of other people, similarly engaged, is required to find the way to a purposeful existence. And so, also, they believed that such communities shouldn’t have to toil alone either. Their congregations banded together for mutual support and assistance, in a network of equals. So they built a system that was egalitarian almost despite itself. It proved to be a poor means of keeping their cold dogmas fixed in stone. Instead it has kept us seeking out new truths.

The puritans built their faith around their scriptures, searching through them daily to try to find the message that they held; not only ancient and eternal, but immediate, for they believed that their sacred documents were constantly speaking and offering new lessons they needed to learn. As Unitarian Universalists we no longer have a single scriptural canon – we no longer draw a line and say, on this side is the inerrant word of God, and on this side noise and meaninglessness. But this is because our vision has grown to find wisdom and meaning in a vast variety of sources: in the direct experience of our own lives, in the natural world, in poetry or prose or the newspaper or teachings from many different religious traditions, and yes, most definitely from the Bible as well. It is as though the city has remained basically the same, but the hill underneath it, the thing that elevates it, this is what has changed over time. If history is any indication, it will continue to change, and if we seek, one day, to finally be worthy of that image of a shining city on a hill, let us pray, friends, that we never stop changing.



[i] From his remarks at the Celebration of the Two-Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, August 16th, 1884.

[ii] From his short story, Dr. Ox’s Experiment, 1872.

Be Like Water – 9/9/2012

The first apartment was a second floor studio in Oakland, California. My partner Sara and I lived there for three years while I was in seminary. It was a big change for me: I’d only ever lived in one house growing up and I’d never lived on the West Coast before. I’d lived on campus in college, but that was basically just a much less rustic version of camping: everything was temporary and rootless. Downtown Oakland was the first neighborhood I got to know as an adult.

A few blocks from our old apartment, in the middle of that busy city sits Lake Merritt, this great, big, human-made body of water. It is not a perfect illustration of natural splendor. The water is not crystal and clear. There are all these geese that live there, who eat the grass on its banks and whatever else they can find and then they do what all animals do, after they’ve eaten, eventually. If you go to the lake you’ll find trash, floating or lying around, and you’re likely to have to dodge some of the serious-faced joggers who run the circuit around the water with headphones in their ears.

And you would also find great beauty there. You can watch the sun rise and set there, enjoy the park land, this oasis of green life amidst the concrete jungle. There are lampposts all around the shore with strings of glass bulbs strung between them; they call it the necklace of lights, and it is gorgeous in the dark.

The neighborhood that surrounds the lake has its own abiding imperfections. Injustice boils in the space between the occupants of high rise offices and the people who sleep on the streets. But it is also a meeting place of languages and faiths and cultures and the people who carry them. Our old apartment was just down the block from an African American arts center, around the block from the Islamic cultural center, surrounded by Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean businesses and Latin bodegas. On Saturdays we walked to the Reform Synagogue, and on Sundays to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The water I bring to our water communion this morning comes from Lake Merritt, a place that reminds me that beauty comes from the mixing and intermingling of differences, and gives me the courage to help build communities where such beauty can thrive.

*****

There is a very old, very famous story, about a man named Odysseus, who set out to return home after being away for a long time. To get there he had to cross the sea, but in this story the god of the sea was angry with him, and the water itself turned against him. Every time he set his course towards home, the wind would change and the waves would turn, and he would be taken some new place further from where he was hoping to go. So he faced storms and monsters, had daring adventures and narrow escapes and spent ten years, trying to make it home. Water is a powerful force. We all need it to live, and yet it is a dangerous thing when the tide turns against us.

Some years ago, a teacher

In all happened seemed 3-in-1 great expensive Good.

spoke these words, “Be formless, shapeless – like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”[i] These words come from Bruce Lee, the famous actor and martial artist. But they build on an idea from the Tao Te Ching: that the greatest strength is the ability to change, and that water can teach us this lesson.

To make his way home, when the sea had turned against him, Odysseus had to be clever. He fought giants, escaped sea monsters, and survived shipwrecks. He had to adapt to the new places where he found himself until, at the end of his ten years of wandering he made his way home when not even water could stop him. By setting out to destroy Odysseus, the god of the sea had only managed to make him stronger – teaching him new ways to survive.

The courage to change is the greatest strength there is. Not to remain stubbornly the same in the face of new problems or new needs. Not to surrender and become what someone else wants to force you to be. But to bend yourself towards the need of the world. To learn to speak, because the truth must be said. To take up a paint brush, because the world will waste away for lack of beauty. To let go of old grudges, because otherwise the house will collapse under the weight of unforgiven wrongs. When others turn away in fear, to hold your ground, because you have chosen to become someone who will not run.

Each moment in time is a different vessel: a cup, a bottle, a teapot. Unchanging and rigid, we cannot enter fully into any moment. We cannot reach the possibilities that the moment holds. But when we practice flowing like water, we reimagine what our limits are. We put aside everything we have told ourselves, or been told by others, that we cannot change, and focus instead on what needs changing. We stop turning away from the things we don’t want to see, and start facing them, so we can address what’s wrong. We stop being quiet, and start getting loud. We stop shaking our heads and sighing, and start rolling up our sleeves. We stop saying, ‘You can’t fight city hall,’ and we start looking for allies.

Today, and every day. This year, and every year. Be like water, my friends. Find the strength to flow. The power to crash. The courage to change.



[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46jO96bz_Fo

Dwelling Together

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for people to dwell together.” – Psalm 133:1

 

With the end of another summer we come once again to our season of returning. Of course, many of us never left at all and stayed connected to our spiritual community through Facebook, our suppers program and informal gatherings, and the excellent lay led services that we held together at Dane Street Beach, these past few months. We Unitarian Universalists are among the last hold-outs of the “summer recess” approach to congregational activity. (And that trend seems to be on its way out even for us, if this article is any indication.) Still, there is an ebb of sorts in the life of our community during the summer months. But now we are back!

And it is good to be back. There is much that we can accomplish as individuals, but the possibilities become greater in community, almost magically so. Simply to build and maintain a community of any sort is an accomplishment and a good in and of itself, as the line from Psalm 133 (above) counsels us. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (among others) all teach that the spirit of the Holy becomes most present when people gather to serve a purpose greater than their private interests.

But it is not selflessness or abstract goodness that draws us together into community. It is really and truly good for us to be in relationship with one another. To have people we can turn to in times of crisis and hardship. To be among folks who can remind us of who we want to be. There’s a fable from Aesop about a body whose constituent parts decided that all would go their own way, and look out only for themselves. They did this to spite the stomach; the feet refused to walk to where food could be found, the hands declined the action to feed, the mouth refused to eat, etc. But eventually, each of those pieces had to realize that they were all a part of the same self, as each began to waste away because they would not work together for nourishment. Together we have a wholeness that cannot be found apart.

This is not simply true for our particular community: it applies to the whole of humanity. As we gather into groups to practice compassion and support towards each other, we become more spiritually healthy – our souls are better nourished. And likewise when our groups find ways to work together, and be in relationship with each other in life-giving and constructive ways, there is a new level of wholeness. We gain something we might not have noticed we were lacking before, but which we are glad for once we have found it. Each Sunday we remind ourselves and each other that our covenant includes the commitment to dwell together in peace. This means that we have a duty to each other to be together – to come to worship or a small group meeting or any other chance to connect – and a duty to help each other be there as well.

On the subject of groups working together, the Essex County Community Organization, a network of congregations working together to effect positive change in their communities here on the North Shore, is in the midst of a project I’m personally excited about. ECCO is engaged in a campaign to draw in new congregations and foster a dialog about what the critical issues effecting lives lived in our area are, in order to build power together to move beyond addressing symptoms to addressing the causes of injustice. If any of that sounds like something you’d be interested in learning more about, please contact me. As our new church year begins, however you engage with our beloved community, I look forward to working, and dwelling, together with you.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Church in the Wild

It may be that some of you follow the oeuvre of contemporary hip-hop more closely than I do, but for the benefit of those who follow it less closely (that is, not at all), I’ll provide a little background. Enormously successful recording-artists Jay-Z and Kanye West had a single on the radio earlier this year titled “No Church in the Wild”. It’s a song about a lot of things: philosophy, hedonism, and non-monogamy among them. It’s a catchy number and if you decide to look it up after you read this, just know that its themes “may not be suitable for all audience members” – a warning that would apply equally well to the likes of Bizet’s Carmen or Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. What I’ve been thinking about recently is the complaint against religion implied by the title, which I’ll summarize this way: “Your rarified ideals may have their place in dusty sanctuaries, but they do not speak to life as it is actually lived. The content of a sermon loses its meaning in the context of the street. There’s no place for church in the wild.”

Messrs West and Z are hardly the first to make this criticism of organized religion. The American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt that the religion of her time disregarded and denied the experience and even the dignity of women. During the French revolution, the clergy became targets of popular outrage because the doctrines they taught had supported the iniquities of the deposed regime, and ignored the needs of the poor and dispossessed. We might go back all the way to the character of Job, in fact. In the book of the bible named for him, Job’s friends respond to his heart-breaking loss of family and health by quoting the overly-neat, almost smug theology of the day, and he answers them: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are hollow as clay.” (Job 13:12) A faith which seeks for people to serve it, to bend themselves to its immutable form, is irrelevant, at best, and harmful, at worst.

But that is not the only way that religion can be. Every human faith has a finer calling: to respond to human need; not to seek to be served, but to serve instead. To offer wisdom that guides life as it is lived here and now; not as it might have been in some far off or imagined place, once upon a time. To give comfort to the real pain of actual people. To confront the injustice in the world, and in each heart – not to look away or hide in platitudes, but to struggle alongside those who are struggling. Your religion, at its best, should challenge and reassure you just as fully when you are sitting on your daily commute as when you are sitting in a pew. It should

Which any first be, the fill tea-tree upset.

help you to be your best self when you are overwhelmed by grief, or by bills, or by the challenge of being a parent, just as surely as when you were overwhelmed by awe and wonder. Your religion should guide your life when you are struggling to find hope, or to find a job, or to simply get along with the people you live with, just as well as the sound of the organ might guide you through the tune of a familiar hymn.

This is what religion ought to be – there are and have been countless communities, of many different faiths, seeking this same goal. One of these foolishly ambitious congregations is our own. We aspire not only to take church into the wild with us, but to forge church out of the wild, out of the unkempt, the ignoble, the modest and the every-day. To take the story of your life, the story of mine, the stories of each of us and of our neighbors and strangers besides and build out of them a path towards what is true and right. I know that many of you are off in the more literal wild this summer, when we meet less frequently and in smaller numbers. But remember friends: wherever you go, your church goes with you, for it is made out of you, and it exists to be of service to you, and to the world of which you are a part.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

All You Need To Know – 6/17/2012

And so we come to the close of another church year together. Our liturgical cycle opens each September with the communion of the waters, the mingling of the different rivers and streams that feed our common spiritual sea. And now in June, we arrive at the communion of the flowers, as each of us will take with us from this place a blossom to symbolize the shared wisdom and commitment of this congregation. Water feeds the earth, and the earth gives forth its wonder and abundance. Each of us comes to this community with our own stories, our own gifts, our own dreams and insights, and mixed together they serve to nurture new hope and possibility.

Today is also the last Sunday before the official beginning of summer, and while we do not close for July and August, there is no arguing that we have a different mode than in the autumn, winter and spring. Lay leaders will be leading worship services for us at Dane Street Beach this summer, and I am looking forward to attending and being spiritually nourished by them. But this is the last time that I will be in the pulpit for a few months as I take my annual vacation and study leave, which this year also doubles as paternity leave. So this is my last chance for a little while to say something of value to you.

As you may already be aware, people of my vocation are known, generally, for being verbose. And I think often of Kurt Vonnegut’s rule that any scientist who cannot explain to an eight-year-old what his research is about is a charlatan.[i] Since my work requires neither lab equipment nor higher math, I can hardly claim that I deserve more leeway than this. So I thought that I should find some simple summary to offer you all – something to suffice if you take just one scrap of theology to heart from this year of church. And I very nearly found it, on the internet, that staggeringly powerful force in so many human lives that seems at times capable of solving any problem, other than fire and too much internet.

A colleague of mine pointed me to a quote from Marcus Aurelius, the second century Roman emperor who was also a noted philosopher. Here are the words:

     “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

That quotation summarizes quite ably my own understanding of what living is for. For many different reasons and in many different ways Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have, for as long as we have been, hewed to some version of that statement. Most took the first route – that God is just, and loving – but however the many voices of our tradition got there, they sing together in grand consensus: we ought each of us, in every moment, to do what is right, because it is the right thing to do. Nothing satisfies the spirit like the struggle for justice. Nothing quenches the thirst of the soul like the project of peace. Nothing nourishes the heart like the work of love. Treating all people with fairness and mercy and confronting evil in the world around us and in ourselves may not lead to wealth or to fame. It can cost a great deal, in fact; friends and family, the esteem of our neighbors, our safety, our security, and even our lives. But still to live a good life remains the highest reward; it cannot be bought for any price.

But I said that this quote almost summarized my central message to you cleanly. It might have fit together in a fairly pretty package tied with a much better bow than I can produce in real life, except that Marcus Aurelius never said it. He never said anything particularly like it. As nearly as I could determine, it is a set of sentences conceived by some anonymous modern person that came to be attributed on the internet to the famous philosopher. This does not mean that the words themselves cannot contain truth – the fame or anonymity of their author should not affect whether or not we take them to heart. But it makes their story a little less elegant, and it points to how complex the work of living justly is. In order to do what is right, we need to understand what is. There is always more to learn about the situation that we find ourselves in, and each new fact can change our understanding of what we ought to do.

Every day that we do not spend together, my partner Sara and I will call each other and ask, “what would you like to have for dinner tonight, honey?” Because food is a fundamental need, and we are each concerned with the other’s wellbeing, and our own. So we are ready to work together, to meet that need.

The need to find the compassionate, loving choice, at every juncture in our lives, is no less essential. Doing that requires a clear understanding of the world we inhabit and insight that extends beyond our own limited perspective. And that, friends, is what we have spiritual community for. To assist each other in finding what the moment demands of us. To listen together for what we are being called to do by that still, small voice in the heart that some call God and which draws us in every instant towards a greater wholeness for ourselves and for all the world.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote this:

 

A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

 

No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.

 

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

HANDLE WITH CARE.

 

His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.

 

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.

 

The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.[ii]

 

Though we should never stop seeking to improve our condition, we also must not expect that our problems will simply go away. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling. The work of compassion, of living with an attitude of justice, even in an unjust world, is constant, and challenging. But it should not be lonely. None of us is marked, FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE, though all of us ought to be. The delicate, breakable quality of ourselves and the world we inhabit directs us to what is right in each situation. We must be ready to carry one another across the road, and we also must be ready to ask for help when we are the ones who need carrying. If that is all you take home with you from a year of church, I will choose not to be too offended. Because, if you truly hold it in your heart, it will be all you need to know.



[i] From his novel, Cat’s Cradle, 1963.

[ii] From her collection Red Suitcase, 1994.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

As May turns into June and the transition from spring to summer approaches, you may be thinking of some of the joys that summer holds. Swimming, perhaps, or the smell of fresh-cut grass. Time off from school, for some of us, or a chance to laze in the sun with a good book. As the weather gets warmer, I find many things to look forward to. But the fruit of summer is a particular treat, with such an abundance of it here in New England.

Melon and grapes and peaches and plums and blueberries, strawberries and blackberries – a personal favorite. The natural world seems to celebrate life with a festival of flavor and color; a shared reward after the trials of winter. (Though this year’s winter was far less trying than normal, I find myself anticipating the reward of summer no less.) The months ahead offer so much to experience, and enjoy.

There is a passage in the Gospel According to Matthew that says, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” The author reminds the reader that the health and goodness of a tree or a bush can be judged by the fruit it gives; so too with people, the reasoning goes. Certainly it is our actions and the legacy of our living that attest most clearly to what lies in our hearts. As you live out the summer ahead, I know that many of you will be away – far from our meetinghouse, or simply on leave from it. You may not have as many reminders of your own best self, from your spiritual community, to rely on. So please do not forget that the tree of your soul bears its fruit in every season. There is an opportunity to seek justice and practice mercy for every one of us in every moment – even when we are on vacation.

But also remember that the goodness of the fruit reveals the goodness of the tree. Go out and taste life, experience the world. Search for whatever it is that you need in order to know the sweetness of existence. We are each the produce of our living planet home. Let us be reminded this summer, that we are fruit of a good and wondrous tree.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

 

P.S.: Three things to say by way of special announcement.

The first is to offer you my deep thanks for all of the care and support and encouragement and love that you all have shown to my family and I as we prepare for the arrival of our fourth member. If all goes well, we expect to have a new baby with us by the end of June – this coincides roughly with the vacation I normally take in July, but please be aware that I will be less available than usual during this time. (Though as always, in the event of a sudden illness, death or other serious crisis, please call me.)

The second item is to congratulate the congregation on your unanimous decision, at our annual meeting in May, to become a host congregation for Family Promise North Shore Boston’s Interfaith Hospitality Network. Expect to hear much more about this in the fall.

And finally, I want to remind you that while we have a reduced schedule of worship and other activities during the summer months, the congregation is far from closed. Services, led by members of our congregation, will be held every other Sunday, beginning on the 24th of June, at 10am at Dane Street Beach on Lothrop Street. We began this practice last year, and its a wonderful way to get fresh air, spiritual sustenance and the pleasure of each others’ company. I hope to see you there.

At the Water’s Edge – 6/3/2012

[This homily for our annual Music Sunday preceded our choir’s performance of John Rutter’s Deep River.]

There is a moment in every night, hours before the dawn, when the quiet of the dark is at its peak. A time when everyone who was ever going to sleep through this night has already gone to bed, and none of them are yet awake. A time when even the sleepless grow quiet, and the world itself seems to be alone with its thoughts and waiting. It is a moment most often experienced by folks who work the third shift, by the parents of crying children, and by people who are worried about what the morning holds for them.

In a few minutes, our choir will favor us with a cycle of songs drawing on biblical themes and images, some of which come from the Book of Joshua. For those of you who might appreciate a reminder, Joshua is the 6th book of the Hebrew Bible. Its story opens just after the death of Moses, who led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through forty years in the desert, to within sight of the promised land. Leadership has passed to Joshua, and at the start of the third chapter of the book named for him, he leads the people to the river Jordan. They have only to cross it, and they will be in Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the place of freedom they have been seeking for generations.

But before they cross over, the whole wandering lot of them spend the night camped out on the banks of the river. And so I have to imagine that there were a great many of that nation of former slaves who shared that night’s moment of utter quiet and uncertainty. Forty years and it comes to this: standing at the water’s edge, about to cross over. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Life holds many such moments, for each of us, when we find ourselves perched on the cusp of something hoped for, or feared, or both. Seeking a new job, or just giving up the current one. Beginning a new marriage, or ending an old one. Becoming a parent; enrolling in school; telling someone you love them; putting the bottle down – the more that the change matters, the more likely that it will wake you up in the night.

As much time and work as it took you just getting to that riverbank, it doesn’t make the crossing any easier. Because it’s not just milk and honey on the other side. When Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan they knew they were in for a fight, and the first stop on their itinerary was the city of Jericho, with its mighty walls. There is always a way forward, in every moment, but there are also a million ways to stand still: just keep quiet, or back down, numb yourself, and keep doing whatever you were doing, and being just as unhappy about it. You can only take that first step into the river when you are ready to reach out to the struggle ahead. When you can say, “Give me some new trouble; I’ve had enough of the old.”

Some of us here today are standing at the water’s edge, about to take some great risk, or not. And some of us are already in it up to the hip. And it might just be that one of us here today is exactly one footstep into the river, and it’s the step you took when you came through those doors this morning.

The songs we are about to hear come from the African American Spiritual cannon. The stories of the Hebrew Bible loom very large in that tradition because the experience of a people living in bondage seeking and ultimately winning freedom spoke profoundly to the everyday reality of human beings living in the inhuman institution of slavery in America. Crossing Jordan was a metaphor for the passage to the North, and often on to Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply. Crossing any river, in fact, had benefit for a person escaping slavery because the water broke up your scent trail, and made it harder for the dogs to follow you on the other side. Things were a little different in the biblical story of Joshua, however. It is said that as the people entered the water, the river stopped flowing, and they walked across dry-footed.

So whenever you find yourself in such a predicament – when you wake in the quiet of the night and ask yourself, “Lord, is going forward any better than staying put?” – remember that you are not alone in that moment. Your problems may be personal, and no one else’s struggle identical to your own; but there are others, all over the world and stretching back long before Joshua, who looked out over their own rivers, and wondered about how they were ever going to make it on the other side. If your heart lies in another land; if there is only slavery in one place, and the possibility of freedom in another; if the only thing more frightening than pressing on is going back, then press on – with such courage and determination that the river had better get out of your way.

Download RE Enrollment Forms, 2012-13

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Follow the Evidence – 5/13/2012

The truth is an elusive thing. It is something we desire, but also often fear. We cannot live without some understanding of what we know to be true, and yet there are some truths in life that seem hard, or even impossible, for us to live with. As Unitarian Universalists we are dedicated to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But that search is rarely easy, and it almost never leads where we expect it to. Read More >>

Through the Dust – 5/6/2012

A century ago, a university professor visited the Zen master Nan-in, to ask him questions about his teaching. As the two sat down to talk, Nan-in served tea. He began by pouring his guest’s cup, and after it was filled he continued to pour until it overflowed. The hot tea crested the top of the cup and spilled out over the surface of the low table, spreading from there over the second edge. It began to soak into the floor-mat and still the master continued to pour. His guest was struck dumb at first, with surprise, and then he kept his tongue because he knew the teacher’s reputation: whatever he was doing must be for some purpose, and he tried to puzzle it out rather than speak up and admit that he did not understand. But after enough time and enough tea had passed, the learned scholar could no longer help himself. “It’s overfull,” he said. “No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”[i]

As we enter into this morning’s message together, I would ask you to take a moment now to check your level. Is your cup half full? At the brim? Overflowing? What space is there in you now to receive something new? Where, in the cluttered attic of your mind, might you be able to make room for fresh understanding?

Earlier in our service we

BLAST smelled well since and hair series rx pharmacy one a gets smell smudged.

heard from members of our Diaconate, a group which has a history stretching back to the early days of our congregation. Its root origins are actually far, far older than that. A Diaconate is a group of deacons, and the office of deacon has its beginnings in the early days of Christianity; by tradition, it can be traced back to the sixth chapter of the book of Acts. The disciples – the leading students of Jesus who had taken responsibility for his community of followers after his death – were receiving complaints from that same community. The early Christians held their property in common: each person was supposed to receive what they needed from the shared resources of the group. But some of the least fortunate members of the very early church were not getting enough to live on.

So they convened a meeting and declared that, and this is a quote, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” That is, in order to feed the hungry. Their sentiment suggests to me a powerful misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching that “Whatever you [do] for the least of these brothers and sisters, you [do] for me.” This gives the lie to the idea that there is a single, fundamental interpretation of the Christian tradition, or any other religion – from the earliest times, people have always chosen certain verses and teachings to weigh over others.

The leaders of the early church had determined that they needed to focus their efforts on “prayer and the ministry of the word” and so they appointed seven people considered to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom to whom they would entrust the responsibility of caring for the needy. Tradition considers these seven to be the first deacons, though they are never called by that name in the bible. So the first diaconate was established by the first disciples as a seven-person, non-member subcommittee for feeding the poor.

The word deacon is an English rendering of the Greek diakonos, a word that can be used for both for servants and for messengers. From the original charge to aid the poor, the office of deacon came to include any sort of work that supported the work of the church, and in particular, any effort to carry the message of the religion to new places and people. Today, in a variety of Christian denominations, people with the title deacon maintain some version of these dual mandates: acting as servants and messengers on behalf of their faith.

The original etymology of the word diakonos is uncertain, but one common explanation is that it derives from a Greek phrase meaning “through the dust”. This would encompass both uses of the words, whether it is the dust that settles over a house, for a servant, or the dust of the open road for a messenger.

When I was just starting out in my first apartment, there were a lot of things I had to learn. How to sign up with the electric company, for instance, how to file taxes, and how to clean. I don’t mean to give you the impression that I’d never done any cleaning up to that point. But that first apartment was the first place I’d ever been wholly responsible for that wasn’t my parents’ house or a temporary dorm room. And besides, I was sharing the space with my fiancé – a new level of cleanliness was called for.

I ended up reading a book on how to clean things more efficiently and effectively. It taught me some embarrassingly basic lessons, like how not to leave streaks on a mirror. But one of the other things that it emphasized was the importance of being able to see “though” dirt. When you’re scrubbing something – a dish or a floor or a countertop – there’s a layer of soap and water and grime that you’re working away at, and there’s the actual surface you’re trying to get to underneath. You become better at cleaning when you can see past that mess on top and intuitively know when it’s all ready to be rinsed away.

This points to a key quality for a deacon to possess: the ability to see through the dust. Specifically to look beyond the dust, the cruft, the spiritual detritus that covers over human beings and their imperfect institutions and see the fresh promise contained therein. A deacon is a servant of something bigger than themselves, a messenger of something that goes beyond their personal wisdom to a truth inherited from and shared with others.

We Unitarian Universalists have a certain constitutional aversion to ranks and titles and special clubs. Somehow, over the centuries, as we grew out of our roots in the Christian tradition to something overlapping but distinct from it, we managed to retain an ordained class of clergy. Retained it only just barely. We accepted the common Protestant affirmation of the universal priesthood, and extended it to the priesthood and prophethood of all people. My own ordination was a profound and humbling moment for me, but it marked no shift in the atoms of my body, no transfiguration of my soul. The power of my language and action to curse and to bless was the same before it as after it; this is our theology, that all people share the same potential holiness. By going directly to priest and prophethood, we seem to have skipped over the rank of deacon all together.

But why not, the diaconate of all people? The ideal set forth by the teacher Jesus is one of service: one leads, one worships, one practices religion by serving needs greater than one’s own. Compatible messages are found in many other faiths as well. A deacon is a person devoted to a purpose, a thing worth living for. Agent Smith, the dark-suited villain of the Matrix trilogy of films inadvertently says something very true in the middle of one of his menacing dialogues: “Without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guides us. That drives us. It is purpose that defines us. Purpose that binds us.”[ii]The world needs deacons – people who have discovered what they believe in, and are ready to work for it. Not for glory or reward, but because it is gives meaning to their lives.

As I thought about the role of a deacon in the world this week, the first person that came to mind was Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a social activist in the 20th century. He is not remembered often enough, but he was tireless and devoted in his pursuit of justice. He was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement from the late 1940s on, and is given partial if not major credit for the commitment to intentional nonviolence, a tactic he had seen used by Gandhi when he travelled to India a worked with the movement there. He was the chief organizer of the March on Washington, and he was never afraid to be out in front of the banners and behind the microphones. Bayard advocated on behalf of all his identities: not just as an African American, but also as a gay man and a socialist. He lived at a time when carrying any one of those labels was a profoundly dangerous thing. Yet he did not stop working for justice and positive change throughout his entire life, saying, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.” He exemplified the role of a deacon because his effort was always bent towards the social impact of his work, rather than any attention it might garner for him personally.

When the stories of great leaders are told to quickly or too carelessly, the people who supported them most closely, without whom they could never have succeeded at all, are often left out. So let me tell you briefly now a story with the critical supporter, the deacon of the tale, left in. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was a middle-aged merchant when he was called to transmit a divine message, as the tradition tells it. He had a practice, from time to time, of going up into the mountains to meditate. One day, the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision, placed before him a huge set of words written in fire, and demanded that he read them aloud. These were the first verses of the Qur’an – a name which might be translated as, ‘The Recitation’.

Muhammad was overcome by the experience and returned home from the mountain shaken and afraid. He did not know what was happening. He could not believe that he might be chosen for such a mission; he worried that he was losing his mind. The first person he told of his experience was his wife, Khadija. Khadija was a successful merchant – it was her business interests that Muhammad worked to support. She was student of religion, and she knew her husband well. He doubted himself, but she did not: do not worry, she told him. You are a good man; if someone had to carry this message, why not you? I believe in the truth of the message you bring. For this reason, Khadija is remembered as the first Muslim: because she believed before any other, including Muhammad.

To be a deacon, spiritually, requires a willingness to get down in the dirt of the way things are, and to work for the way things ought to be. Like the story of the man who owned a tree that came down in a heavy storm. He went out into his yard with an axe and set to chopping it up for fire wood. As he worked, some of his neighbors passed by and offered their advice on which branches he should tackle first, and how he should swing his axe. Only one of them lent their own arms to the work, helping to cut the wood and making the work lighter and faster. The Rev. Clinton Lee Scott told this story to explain his proverb, “If thou wouldst give good advice to the wood chopper, bring along thine axe.”[iii] The world does not suffer entirely from a lack of people of good will; there are enough of these, even if there could be more. What the world needs is folks who are ready to lend themselves to a cause they believe in, a purpose and a need that goes beyond the boundaries of their own mind or skin.

So I say to you, you elders who are members of our own particular Diaconate, you folks of any age gathered here, and most of all to myself: all of us have a charge as deacons – all of us are called to serve. But to get there we must empty ourselves enough to make space for that purpose in our hearts. Wendel Berry said that the music of our dance is “so subtle and vast that no ear hears it, except in fragments.” We gather in community in order to compare our notes on those fragments and together to discern precisely what we are supposed to be doing with our wondrous potential as human beings.



[i] From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

[ii] The Matrix Reloaded, by Andy and Lana Wachowski

[iii] Parish Parables, 1946.

Love and Chickens

In northern California there’s farm of sorts. It has barns and pens and pastures, and there are a whole lot of animals – cows, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and others. They all live there, but the farm doesn’t generate anything for humans to eat. Those animals aren’t for sale or for consumption; they have been rescued from factory farms and other abusive living situations and brought to this particular place of safety called Animal Place, a farm sanctuary.

In his book, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, Jeffrey Masson includes a story about two of the chickens who live at Animal Place: Mary and Notorious Boy. The two were very close. They would walk in the yard together, peck for food together, and even slept right next to each other at night, outside the coup, away from the other chickens. One day, there was a sudden, heavy rain. Most of the chickens were in their coup, but Mary and Notorious Boy were not, so their caregiver, Kim Sturla, went to help get them out of the rain. She found the two standing on top of a picnic table, huddled together. Notorious Boy had his wing out over Mary’s head, and he was shielding her from the worst of the rain.

Remember that these are two chickens that we are talking about here, and then take a second. Think about the people in your life that you would be willing to stand in the rain to protect. Think about the people who would be willing to stand in the rain to watch over you. That’s love. It might not be everything that love is, or all that it can be, but it is love. This world is not always easy, it is not always fun, it is not always good, and love is the thing that holds people together to care for one another and to face the world despite its difficulties and failings.

Love unites people. It breaks down the barriers between “I” and “you”, and helps to form a “we”. Particularly in our ever-more individualistic and isolating culture, love is the most dynamic force there is; the one most likely to change the way in which people live and relate to one another. When we affirm together each Sunday that “Love is the spirit of this church,” this is what we are getting at: to look out for one another, to offer aid and comfort to one another, to make the world a more merciful place for each other and as many other people as we possibly can.

There are lots of different ways in which we live out our commitment to care for and about each other. We do so simply by showing up to share in a worship service or other event, to participate and enjoy each others’ company. We express our care in our support of the congregation as a whole, through volunteer efforts and financial donations. We let each other know that we aren’t in this alone by reaching out, at coffee hour or any other time; starting a conversation, or offering a warm smile. And we also strive to live out our loving spirit towards one another by offering support in times of challenge and crisis. I and your Pastoral Care committee want to know whenever you might need us: when you’re sick, or in need of help, or just could use a listening ear. If you find yourself caught in the rain, we want you to feel like our community has its metaphorical wing over your head.

 

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

minister@firstparishbeverly.org

978-922-3968

A Crack in the Wall – 4/29/2012

Last year, James Mitchell, a dedicated member and supporter of this congregation, stood where I am now and told us a story about how he had sat out where you are in the congregation one day and looked up to see a crack in the wall. That crack, right up there, where the wall begins to become the ceiling. Curiosity about that crack and the cause that lay behind it led folks in this congregation to address a structural issue in the roof at the rear of the building. And figuring that out helped people focus on some larger problems with our beloved church building, eventually leading to the restoration of all of our outer walls. We have that little crack to thank for the renewed beauty of our church home, and for the vibrant yellow of our building. Read More >>

My Day In Sunday School

On most Sundays, we gather for worship as one common family, but somewhere around the 15 minute mark something changes. Our children and their teachers leave the sanctuary to begin their religious education classes, as the rest of the congregation sings, ‘Go now in peace…’ As your minister, I have a call to serve that whole group that’s worshipping together in those first 15 minutes. But I rarely get to see the wonderful and important things going on in our RE classes, because I haven’t yet figured out how to be in two places at once. Read More >>

sunset

First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

Office Hours: Mon 8:00 - 11:00 am & Tue-Fri 8:00 am - 12:00 pm

office@firstparishbeverly.org

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