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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).

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.

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


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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