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Born Right the First Time – 12/24/2013

In Lawrence Stern’s great satire of the English novel, his narrator, Tristram Shandy, attempts to show to his audience why his life has been such a muddle by beginning before the beginning – before he is even born. He explains that a legal agreement between his parents entitled his mother to give birth in London, where greater comfort and medical expertise were available. But if there were any false starts – if she made the expensive journey to London, but then had to return because the baby was not ready, then the entitlement was forfeit, and she would have to give birth at home.

This clause was invoked during Tristram’s mother’s pregnancy, and so he was born at home. And because one thing so often leads to another in life, Tristram’s being born in his family’s country home resulted in his having a rather a flat nose, due to the pressure from the forceps that were used somewhat clumsily during his delivery. This thwarted his father’s hopes of having a son with a prominent, distinguished nose, and more disappointments followed from there. Assessing the justice of the legal agreement Trisram’s father made with his mother and held her to, refusing to pay for more than one trip to London, Tristram declared it to be no less than reasonable. “[A]nd yet,” he said, “as reasonable as it was, I have ever thought it hard that the whole weight of the article should have fallen entirely, as it did, upon myself.”[i]

That author, Lawrence Stern, was a clergyman of the Church of England, and he was playing here a bit with a familiar, long-running debate within the Christian tradition: are we humans born broken or whole? For most of their history, the followers of Jesus, or at least their most powerful leaders, have held the former position: that we are, as a species, sinful, degenerate, or otherwise wrong from the beginning, and that some special activity or grace is needed to correct this. This is the primary justification given for the baptism of both infants and adults: that this affects or at least affirms a transformation in the heart. A new spiritual birth to overcome the limitations of that first physical one.

In this belief, the teacher Jesus, whose birthday gathers us here tonight, has long been held to be the exception to this rule: the only person in human history to have been born right the first time – his mother Mary sometimes being given as the other exception. my butters And I online pharmacy pretty the Thanks.

when he should be specific, and then specific when he has not yet learned to be expansive. It is this tincture of brokenness, common to all humanity, that makes the teacher’s lessons learnable, and the example of his life relevant to my own.

There was a time before I was called to be here when I served as a hospital chaplain in a neonatal intensive care unit, where I met a lot of very beautiful, very sick children, and their very tired, very brave families. That’s where I met Agnes. At more than a year old, she was the elder woman of our floor. She and her family had come more than a thousand miles for a surgery that would allow her eyes to see for the first time. It would address only one of the many ways in which her body worked differently than the bodies of other little girls who did not have to live their lives in hospitals. No one would have suggested this little girl, who loved to play, and be hugged by her dad, wasn’t born right. No one could have said that of any of the children whom I met that year. Parents might rage, and cry out to Heaven for the pain and the hardship, faced by their newborn kids. But they were still always their kids, and to be loved most deeply not despite, but because, of all that they were.

Against the tide of history, though by no means alone in that stand, our tradition as Unitarian Universalists tells us that the nature of our own births was not so different from that of a certain child born a little over two thousand years ago in occupied Palestine. Born right enough. Right enough to be loved, and also to love, if we are lucky. Right enough to know that we are flawed – to not only make mistakes, but to learn from them, and to make amends for them. Born right enough to wait in the dark, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “for the hour when a new clarity is born.”[iii]

My friends and spiritual companions, this Christmas I wish for you the courage and the beauty, to let go of those old stories about why you never were what you or somebody else thought you should be. Instead, may you look towards the birth of new hope and understanding, and with patience and humility, go out and meet it. May we each, moment by moment, grow to become the wonder beyond imagining that it is within us to be. Amen.

[i] From The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

[ii] Between the 5 and 9 o’clock services, one of you pointed out to me the case for Mary. I am grateful, as always, for the correction.

[iii] From Letters to a Young Poet.

The League of Miraculous Children – 12/22/2013

As most of you are already well aware, I am a fan of comic books. The stories of costumed crime fighters and strange visitors from distant planets are sometimes referred to as our modern mythology: our answers to the stories of ancient heroes like Hercules or Sundiata. The stories that we tell and retell speak to what we hope and what we fear and who we are. You can tell a lot about a people by the stories they keep.

On this day each year, our young people work together to tell us one particular story about the early life of the teacher Jesus. In comic book terms, it is an origin story: some people are bitten by radioactive spiders, others are born in barns. I do not say that to be flip: Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists counsels us to take seriously the ideas and messages of a story – any story – whether or not we believe it to be an exact literal account of historical fact. And just as comic book superheroes have certain themes and

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ideas that occur again and again in their stories – wearing a cape or a mask, training for years in a far-off land, or gaining strange powers through an industrial accident – themes also recur in the stories of the world’s religions. So that the miraculous qualities of Jesus’ origin story puts him into a prestigious club with many other great figures of human faith.

Some of the other stories of strange and wondrous nativity include Sarah, the first matriarch of the Hebrew Bible. When she heard the prediction that she would have a child, she laughed. It was a very reasonable reaction: she had lived 90 years without ever conceiving a child. But then she had her son, Isaac. Just as Jesus’ mother Mary was said to be a virgin at the time of his birth, the same is reported of Devaki, the birth mother of Krishna, the 8th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The three wise men who attended Jesus’ birth have a parallel in the Buddhist tradition. It is said that eight sages were consulted when Siddhartha Gautama was born, and predicted that he would either become a great king or a great religious leader – only one of the eight was certain that he was destined to become the Buddha.

Japanese folklore contains a character named Momotaro, who is said to have been cut free from a giant peach by a childless couple grateful to have found an adoptive son. And there is an even quirkier story about Lao-tse, the mythical founder of Daoism. The tradition is that he never was a child, but was born an old man, already profoundly wise and experienced. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button, however, Lao-tse did not age backwards – he just stayed old.

The roster of religious figures with spectacular nativity stories is so impressive that it would make for quite a team-up issue – to further extend the comic book analogy. Especially because so many of these teachers and prophets are reported to have had spectacular childhoods as well. The story goes that young Krishna started an argument with the storm god Indra, who was abusing his power over humans. Indra hurled a torrent of wind and lightning at the boy and his neighbors, but Krishna just picked up a nearby hill, and held it over them all like an umbrella. In the Gospel According to Luke, a tweenage Jesus manages to lose his parents on a family trip to the temple in Jerusalem, and spends his time schooling the priests and sages he encounters there. And in some of the Apocrypha – the books that never made it into the canonical bible – the boy Jesus tosses around miracles left and right, sometimes giving life: animating a clay bird, resurrecting a dried fish; and sometimes taking life away.

We human beings tell a lot of stories about the births and beginnings of great and inspiring people

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and characters. This makes sense for reasons of drama and suspense: we are never more vulnerable than at the very beginnings of our lives. But more than this, I believe we tell these stories, like the one we are about to hear, because we recognize the phenomenal promise contained in new life. Each child unfolds and develops without possibility of prediction or certainty. At the beginning, nothing is fixed. No one could have said, at the hour of our birth, that we would never grow up to be prophets or heroes. But remember one more thing, friends: no matter the age we wear, no one can say that of us now, either. No person’s future is fixed. The promise that entered the world when each of us was born, is always with us. We were all of us miraculous children, and we remain miraculous children still.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part – 12/15/2013

The celebration of a holiday – any holiday – is marked by traditions both big and small, both common and uncommon. There are rituals we perform, formulas we recite to one another, signs with which we adorn our houses or our persons – and then, there is the food. In the family I grew up in, my mother had a particular challenge each Christmas, after our family had driven out to Illinois to be with her dad and her brothers for the holiday. She’s a great cook, and she always wants to make sure everybody gets what they like. At Christmastime, this meant both preparing a sort of generic American Christmas dinner – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes – and the elements of a traditional Swedish Christmas – tiny meatballs, and a type of beef, pork, and barley sausage called korv. Everybody seemed to have something they wanted and something else that they didn’t want on the table.

But at the end of the meal, there was one item that everybody looked forward to, even her most notoriously picky child [points at self]. The famous chocolate wafer dessert. It’s not particularly complicated: it’s just a log made out of these chocolate wafers – like Oreo cookie caps – alternated with whipped cream and left in the refrigerator long to get the cream a little stiffer and the wafers a lot softer. The recipe is hardly unique – you may consult Google if you would like to see several dozen versions of it. But my grandmother used to make it for her

family at Christmas, so my mom made it for hers. There were plenty of other things to look forward to in my family’s celebration of Christmas, but that was always what the holiday tasted like, for my brothers and I.

And then one day, several years ago, my mother was making plans for a party sometime in the middle of the year. She said she might make that chocolate wafer dessert and one of my brothers heard this with a great deal of surprise. “But you can only get those wafers in December, though.” “Oh no, they sell them all year round.” “But they only have them in Illinois, right?” “No, they’re just in the baking aisle; I’ll get some when I go to the store later.” “You mean, we could have had this anytime we wanted to?” The look on my brother’s face at that moment spoke of hundreds of moments, hundreds of holidays, wasted. Of birthdays and Halloweens and 4th of Julys, Groundhog’s Days, Arbor Days, of any conceivable excuse to celebrate – when he could have asked my mother to make the famous chocolate wafer dessert, but didn’t. All those years spent looking forward to that treat for months, when he could have been enjoying it right then.

This sermon is the last in a series on the spiritual dimension of the eight basic human emotions described by Robert Plutchik. The emotion we are considering this morning is anticipation. We are in the midst of a season of anticipation right now – most of us are looking forward to the arrival of Christmas, whether with excitement, or dread, or a little bit of both. In the Western Christian calendar, today is the third Sunday of Advent, the season for anticipating the birth of Jesus and the hope and renewal that story represents. Waiting is a huge part of living, but it is not always easy, and as my brother’s story demonstrates, it can sometimes feel like there’s no point to it at all.

The skill and discipline of waiting can be life-saving and meaning making. The King James version of the book of Isaiah reads, “…[T]hey that that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” When we point ourselves towards a purpose that is deep enough to sustain our efforts, it allows us to wait to act until the time is right, and to keep struggling, even when it is hard and the end is not in sight. And yet the virtue of patience is also the tired excuse of every voice that would postpone the work of justice and shirk the struggle for what is right out of complacency or fear.

When considering what sort of waiting we are doing and whether or not it is the sort we want to be about, it may be helpful to think about cookies. When you make cookies – just as when you make the famous chocolate wafer dessert – there’s a bit of waiting involved. In fact, the waiting is most important part, because the time they spend baking is what makes the difference between sugary goo – tasty, but risky if you used actual eggs – and actually ready-to-eat cookies. But if you never make up the batter, if you never spoon it out on sheets, if you never put those sheets in the oven, well then it doesn’t matter how long you wait: the cookies ain’t coming. Now there’s always the outside chance that while you are waiting patiently with an empty oven, a friend might call you up and say, “Help, come quick; I’ve got too many cookies and I need you to eat some!” But that should be chocked up to the generosity and mercy of the universe, not the fact that you were aimlessly waiting. So you can draw a dividing line between anticipation and just waiting around by asking yourself, “Are there cookies in the oven?”

In one of his sonnets, the poet John Milton wrote about doubt and patience at a time when he was losing his sight, and finding that he knew how to do less and less without it.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who


Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

At a time when he found he could do little more than wait, a voice of comfort came to Milton to remind him that there was something sacred even in the waiting.

The ability to wait to wait towards a purpose – the virtue of patience – is affirmed throughout human religion and culture. The story of the would-be pupil who must wait for days exposed to the elements before being allowed to enter a school or monastery appears in Chinese Buddhism, in early Egyptian Christianity, and in the book and movie Fight Club, among other places. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the six perfections – the stages of purification on the route to enlightenment – is kshanti. Kshanti means patience, particularly the ability to endure in the face of harassment or violence. It is a particularly hard thing to master. In one story of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Patrul Rinpoche, he happened upon a cave in the mountains where a monk sat by himself. He shouted into the cave, “Hello there, what are you doing?”

The monk tried first ignoring him, and then he tried giving back his own questions: “Who are you, where do you come from?” But he only got puzzling, unsatisfying replies: “I come from behind my back, and I am going in the direction I am facing.” Eventually, the monk gave in a bit and explained that he was cultivating perfect patience.

“Ah,” said Patrul. “That sounds like a worthy scam. The locals must be very gullible around here. How much do you make in the meditation racket?” Exasperated, the seated monk burst out angrily, “How dare you? This is my cave, this is my holy work, no one invited you in here, now kindly leave!” “And where,” asked Patrul Rinpoche, “is your perfect patience now?”[i]

We Unitarian Universalists have a story from our history that is really all about the power of anticipation. I want to give credit here to my colleague Seth Fischer, because while I’ve heard and told this story many times before it didn’t occur to me to connect it to anticipation until he did so himself. The story may be familiar to many of you; I’m going to try to tell it in a way it’s not usually told, and if you recognize it right away, I invite you to try to hear it with fresh ears. In 1760, there was a farmer living near the New Jersey coast who was a Universalist. By Universalist I mean in this case that he believed in a God too loving and too merciful to condemn any person to an eternity of suffering, and so held that all human beings share the same destiny: we are all one day, one way or another, going home. Exactly how he came to be a Universalist is a little bit uncertain. He had friends and family who were Baptists and Quakers, and seems to have been influenced by both. There were a few communities of both groups that seem to have been anti-Hell, and he might have been influenced by these. There was even a Universalist missionary active on the east coast in those days, and it’s fascinating to think that he might have met with this isolated farmer. We know that the man could not read, but he did have folks in his life who read the bible to him. So it might also be that he came to his theology, with a little help, through the single most common means by which Universalists have been made, historically: actually reading the bible for yourself.

This man, a Universalist in America, was a novelty because in 1760, according to our history as we usually tell it, there were no Universalists in America. This illiterate farmer had the gumption to join our movement even before it had begun. Although, as I’ve said, he was not the only person then alive who contradicted the idea that Universalism in American had not begun yet, he does seem to have been fairly lonely in his beliefs. He was isolated enough that he built a chapel on his acreage, which was free and nonsectarian and open to worship by just about anyone. But his hope was that one day a Universalist minister would preach a Universalist sermon in that place. That farmer’s name was Thomas Potter, and it just so happens that there came a day when he met another man named John Murray.

We sometimes call John Murray the founder of American Universalism – he was the founding minister of the first Universalist congregation in North America, not far from here, in Gloucester. So when we tell this story, Murray usually takes the lead. It is sometimes said to be our one-and-only miracle story. Murray was a Methodist preacher who had lost his community after becoming convinced of Universalism. He left England alone and in disgrace, determined to ‘lose himself in America,’ and with no religious ambitions. But his ship became stranded off the coast of New Jersey. He and the other passengers went ashore. Asking where he might find supplies, John was directed to Thomas’ house. It is not clear how the one recognized the other as a fellow Universalist; John had been tormented for it, and was not likely to be wearing it on his sleeve. But once Thomas knew that this stranger brought his way by a strange chain of events was a preacher of Universalism, he was convinced that his vision for his little chapel would be fulfilled. He eventually wore John down, and he preached his first sermon in America on September 30th, 1770.[ii]

Told from John’s perspective, this is a story about the force of history – perhaps the hand of Providence – winning out against all odds and driving a famous man on to an important destiny. But told from Thomas’ perspective, it is a story about patience and bold anticipation – the wherewithal to build a church with no minister or congregation, and to wait ten years still hoping to see it put to use. The playwright-turned-politician Vaclav Havel said that “Hope 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.” Even against impossible odds, conviction is enough to turn waiting into anticipation.

When the things we hope for, long for, plan for – anticipate – when one of these things comes to pass, the moment can taste very sweet. So sweet, in fact, that there is a powerful temptation to rush it along, to convince ourselves that the moment has arrived when it is still as yet far off. The history of a number of religions, including Judaism and Christianity, offers many examples of millennial thinking. People certain that the end of history was just around the corner and that the world was about to be completely upended and transformed. These predictions seem, so far, not to have come to pass. And less you think of this as just a habit of fundamentalist minds, I would remind you of the way in which some folks, perhaps some of us here this morning, viewed the first election of our nation’s current president. Just as my brother might have wanted to eat famous chocolate wafer dessert every night for a month in the middle of summer, it is tempting to think that we can rush what we can only actually contribute to. But the things that are truly worthy of our anticipations, the struggles that deeply deserve our energies, require patience to achieve. If you have the treat in August, it might taste good, but it will never be everything that it would be in December. Anticipation is not a good all by itself, but it is good for how it can point our living towards a more meaningful life, and for the sweetness that it adds when the own visions finally begin to take form.

[i] From Sarah Conover and Valerie Wahl’s collection of Buddhist stories, Kindness


Hosting Hope for the Holidays

Folklore and sacred stories love the trope of the mysterious visitor: someone who comes to a town or into a home as a stranger. Usually they are judged harshly by others: they are unclean or foreign or frightening or all three. But someone takes them in, or shows them kindness, and then somehow the story turns. The stranger is revealed to be a king or an angel or a prophet or a spirit or a saint. Through wisdom and miracle some crisis is averted or injustice undone. The hospitable are rewarded or the indifferent are punished. In one way or another, the moral follows the famous quotation from the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing.”

There are a great many good and inspiring stories in this genre, but what about all those paupers who aren’t royalty in disguise? What about the strangers who aren’t angels, and the vagabonds who are only and simply vagabonds? The core values of our tradition instruct us: every person is precious and worthy and it is an honor and a joy to come to the aid of another. We don’t need to be looking for the magical Secret Shopper, who will report to the celestial head office on the quality of our customer service. It is miracle enough to get to welcome or to help someone else who is just as wonderful and mundane and beautiful and imperfect as we are. The quotation might be amended: “Do not neglect hospitality, because through it we make life possible and worthwhile.”

Each year in the late fall-early winter season, we engage in a project together called Simple Gifts. It’s an annual discipline of trying to refocus our celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice or what have you, towards the generosity of spirit and hospitality of heart that is too often lost in our consumption-driven world. This year, we are following this practice by joining the Guest at Your Table program. Guest at Your Table is an annual fundraising effort by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee – our movement’s global aid and development organization. Each household or family is invited to take a small paper box to be a guest in their home throughout this season. At meal times, or whenever you do something special for this time of year, think of having an additional guest in your house: someone else to feed or buy presents for. Then set aside the real cost that welcoming someone into your home would mean, and place this money into the box, to be collected in January and sent on to the UUSC.

This is not meant just to be abstract: there are real people all over the world whose lives will be impacted by your contribution. Each year, the UUSC collects stories from the people its efforts touch as part of the Guest at Your Table program. This year, they are featuring some of the amazing activists and organizers that they partner with around the world – you can check out some of their stories here. If you don’t already have a box, you can get one at church throughout December. This is an opportunity we are eager to share not because the UUSC is an organization worth being proud of and worth supporting (though it is both), but because sharing with others and inviting them into our lives helps us realize the holy potential in us as human beings. It makes us more ourselves in a world that too often wants to make us less. And it allows us to practice giving without having to practice buying first. I hope that you will join me and my family in welcoming a guest to your table this holiday season.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Why We Fight – 12/8/2013

In April of 1917, the United States entered the First World War. When the Unitarians of the US and Canada held their General Conference in Montreal a month later, tensions ran high. Their congregations were not of one mind on the subject of this or any other conflict, according to a report presented at that meeting by John Haynes Holmes, a prominent minister from New York City. Many supported the decision to go to war, but many also had reservations about it. In particular, there was grave concern about the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal for any person or organization to speak out publically against the American war effort, or to encourage conscientious objection or draft resistance. And there were also some, like Holmes, whose faith called them to stand against war in all of its forms.

At the conference, John Haynes Holmes said, “I am a pacifist, a non-resistant, I hate war and I hate this war; and so long as I live I will have nothing to do with this or any war.” Aware that he was in a small minority within the denomination, Holmes did not argue that all his fellow Unitarians should adopt his same position, but called instead for a free expression of belief and opinion, to work towards a “ministry of reconciliation” between conflicting positions, in order ultimately to realize a “gospel of peace.”

On the other side of this debate stood William Howard Taft, a Unitarian layman and former president of the United States, who was once a worshipper in this congregation – he liked to sit in that pew over there. Taft was then serving as the president of that year’s general conference, and believed that the Unitarian movement needed to make clear and certain its strong support for America’s entrance into the war and made a motion to that effect. He said, “Our house is afire and we must put it out, and it is no time for considering whether the firemen are using the best kind of water.” Taft’s motion carried overwhelmingly, and the American Unitarian Association ultimately voted to deny aid to congregations served by ministers who opposed the war. For many, this meant that they were forced from their pulpits. For John Haynes Holmes, it meant that he and his congregation both officially broke from the wider Unitarian movement.[i]

This morning’s message is the third in the series, “Why Should We Care?”, on the theological roots of our faith’s great social concerns. This morning’s topic is the dilemma of war and the quest for peace, and I began with this story about Taft and Holmes to illustrate how great our divisions have sometimes become in this area. We have never all seen eye-to-eye on when or whether the waging of war was permissible, and our tradition contains many differing voices on the subject. Yet, it is one of the greatest ethical questions faced by humankind, and though we have spoken with disparate voices, we have never been quiet about it. International conflict and the conduct of war are the subject of nearly 100 statements and resolutions made by our association in the last fifty years. These include opposing wars before their beginning in South-East Asia, Central America and the Carribean, Africa and the Middle East, seeking to end conflicts already in motion there and elsewhere, and calling for the abolition of certain highly destructive weapons and tactics, including nuclear, chemical, and biological arms, land mines, and depleted uranium munitions.[ii] And, at the same time, many Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists serve in the military and we, including members of this congregation, have fought in every American conflict from the present battles in Afghanistan back all the way to the Revolutionary War.

The sixth principle espoused by our movement is, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” As is

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the case with each of our seven principles, this is not something we believe because it is in our statement of principles; it is in our statement of principles because it is something we believe.

This is our shared eschatology, friends – eschatology being a ten-dollar word for one’s belief about the ultimate goal of history. It is the same thing, essentially, as Christianity’s Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, the Olam haBa or “World to Come” in Judaism, or Hinduism’s Satya Yuga or “Age of Truth.” Our plain and simple wording – world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all –describes none of the grand pageantry found in other religious visions of the future. There are no angelic trumpets or boiling seas; no mention is made of the great monster fish Leviathan being caught and served as a meal for the righteous, or of Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, banishing all ignorance from existence and filling the universe with light. Which is not to say that any of that is entirely unimaginable or unwelcome in our understanding. As long as we get where we’re going, I don’t particularly care whose car we take. A final end to all violence and war is common to the dreamed-of futures of nearly all human religions. Though, in light of our experience as a species up to this point, that one simple goal seems as much a matter of hope and belief – rather than of reason – as mass resurrection or the moon turning red.

If international, universal peace is among the chief goals of our movement, how then can there be justification for war of any kind? The same question could be asked in its own way for most of the religions of the world. How is any Christian to take up arms when the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “If a man assaults you on your right cheek, turn and offer him your left”?[iii] How could any Jew go to war, when the Talmud declares that the destruction of a single soul is equal to the destruction of the entire world?[iv] How can any Muslim stomach violence, when the Qur’an proclaims that the killing of even one person is as wrong as the slaying of all humanity?[v] There is a very serious answer here and it is nothing as simple or easy as hypocrisy. It is that peace is not the only ideal or cause worth struggling for – not in our religion or in any other. And when life or the freedom that gives life meaning is threatened with violence, pure pacifism becomes more difficult to justify.

Still, some of us have justified it – John Haynes Holmes was neither the first, nor the last. Possibly our most ardent anti-war ancestor was Adin Ballou, who began his ministry as a Universalist and eventually migrated over to the Unitarians. His interpretation of the Gospel – what he called, ‘non-resistance’ – left no space for physical violence of any kind, under any circumstances. He was deeply critical of all nations and the very idea of nations, for they require soldiers and police and the use of force in order to continue to exist. He eventually withdrew from civic participation and argued against voting, though he did continue to pay taxes because refusing would lead to another manifestation of violent conflict. Adin eventually led the founding of the Hopedale community in what is now Hopedale, MA – an intentional, collective utopian farm. Their community’s covenant included the lines, “I hold myself bound…never, under any pretext whatsoever, to kill, assault, beat, torture, enslave, rob, oppress, persecute, defraud; corrupt, slander, revile, injure, envy or hate any human being—even my worst enemy.”[vi] Though that experiment did not outlive Ballou, his influence did. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, was an admirer of Adin’s writings. The two men corresponded for a time, and Adin was an important influence on Tolstoy’s own Christian pacifism. There is a chain from there – not of direct transmission, but of influence.

Mahatma Gandhi read Tolstoy’s work, and also corresponded with the Russian author. Gandhi credited him as helping to shape his own philosophy of Satyagraha and the nonviolent campaign to free India. Gandhi, of course, was and is an inspiration to nearly a billion people in India alone, and among the most famous activists he helped to influence were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who sadly passed from life just a few days ago. What an amazing network to have a relatively obscure figure from our own religious history connected with.

Particularly in the wake of the man’s death, however, it is important to remember that Nelson Mandela believed in minimal violence, but not the absolute absence of it. He said, “Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance

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of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[vii] Mandela, in fact, advocated for and eventually founded an armed wing for the African National Congress during the struggle to liberate South Africa from a brutal whites-only regime. His group’s violence was measured – it focused on sabotaging military infrastructure, careful to avoid civilian and even military casualties. But the pursuit of freedom, for him, outweighed risks and evils of violence. Even Gandhi, possibly the first person who comes to mind when you think of a pacifist, wrote, “Nonviolence…is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance. But vengeance is any day superior to passive…and helpless submission.[viii]

The problem is as Frederick Douglass described it in a public address about the fight against slavery in 1857: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”[ix] To refuse to act, in the presence of tyranny or injustice, is to be a party to those same crimes. While there is always some alternative to acting through violence, the person or the people who are most in harm’s way have to be able to decide on the response for themselves.

Our tradition is not uniform on the matter of pacifism: you can find in it justification for conscientious objection and the total renunciation of violence, and you can also find there a call to oppose the most egregious injustice by any means necessary, including the force of arms. Yet we can never neglect the truth that war is hell – a literal manifestation of some of the most awful suffering the human beings are capable of experiencing or causing. Seventy-One years ago yesterday, an attack by the Empire of Japan on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor prompted American entrance into World War Two. It is often offered as an archetype for a “good war”. The Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut was among the veterans of that conflict. In his most famous book, he makes plain the shocking wrongness of war through a little thought experiment. His character sits down to watch a movie and through a quirk in the time-space continuum, ends up watching the thing in reverse:

It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

War in reverse can only be so magically, impossibly good, because war in its normal course, is hell.

All human life is valuable, so the taking of a life is always a tragedy. In a nation with a volunteer military, any of us who has a vote has a dire responsibility only ever to support calling upon those volunteers to fight and to die when the only alternative is some truly greater form of violence and suffering. The ultimate goal has to be peace – true peace, according to the definition used by Martin Luther King: not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.

Though John Haynes Holmes and his congregation did leave our association, ultimately both did eventually return. And after almost 20 years had passed, our leadership eventually recanted their decision to punish congregations whose ministers opposed the war. If we are serious in our pursuit of peace, it requires the ongoing work of an outflowing reconciliation: beginning within ourselves, then between each other, and then out into the larger world. It is not a matter of perfect agreement between each part of the whole, but the ability of each to accept and abide with the other. Peace can never be attained without forgiveness. From the largest scale to the smallest, then, in this season that celebrates peace and goodwill – from the mountains of Afghanistan to your holiday table, may the work of reconciliation begin anew.



[iii] Matthew 5:39

[iv] Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

[v] Qur’an 5:32



[viii] Young India, August 12, 1926, quoted in Gandhi: All Men are Brothers, edited by Krishna Kripalani

[ix] From his address, “West India Emancipation,” August, 3, 1857, Canandaigua, NY

[x] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

The Thanks That Bind – 11/24/2013

Laura Bohannan was an anthropologist, which means she was a person who studied people. In order to study people she was interested in learning more about, she had to talk with them, work with them, live with them. One of the groups of people whom she studied were the Tiv, who are a cultural community who live in Nigeria, which is a country on the west coast of Africa.

When she first moved into a Tiv village in order to begin learning there, her neighbors started to come around to bring her small gifts – a few pieces of fruit, a couple of vegetables, a handful of peanuts, that sort of thing. She wasn’t quite sure why they were doing this, or what she was supposed to do in return, but she wrote all of their names down, and made a note of what each person had brought her. Later, some of the women of the village explained the custom to her: for the Tiv, neighbors are expected to exchange small gifts with one another. One day, someone will give you something, another day, you will give something to them. It is very important, though, not to attempt to match their gift exactly. It should not be a return of the same type and number of items – five tomatoes for five tomatoes, say. And on no account should it be a clear repayment – “Here is the cost in money of the five tomatoes you gave me last week.”

The reason for this is that so long as the value of the gift is never exactly returned, there is still a relationship there – still a connection. But if you treat it like something that needs to be paid back exactly, no more and no less, then the relationship is over and the connection is lost. It means you don’t actually want to be a neighbor, you want to remain a stranger.[i]

In this country, most of our exchanges are designed to help us remain strangers to each other. Think about a vending machine. I go up to the glass, I pick out some colorfully wrapped snack among the candy bars and salted carbohydrates. I put some money in the slot, and press buttons for “B13”. The machine whirs, the coil turns, the item falls. I scoop it up and walk away. The machine has some money, I have something to make my taste-buds feel good and my stomach feel lousy. The relationship is over – and throughout the world we inhabit, our relationships are moving ever more in this direction. On Black Friday, this Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving, millions of people are going to line up in front of huge stores all over the country and wait in line to trample in, buy stuff, and trample back out again. No deeper connection is to be made with their fellow shoppers, and certainly not with the people selling; that would slow things down enormously. The machine whirs, the coil turns – nobody gets to know anybody any better. Certainly, no one is more likely to trust anyone else because they have met under the neon lights at 5 in the morning.

What is present in the ritual among the Tiv that is missing in most of the hours of most of our days is gratitude. Gratitude exists in every gift, every mercy, every kindness that we know we cannot repay. Think about who you are most grateful to: your parents or the people who raised you or are raising you. Perhaps other people who love you come to mind: siblings, lovers, friends, your own children if you have them. The deepest relationships of our lives are built on gratitude – on knowing that we cannot return all that we have received from them, but still wanting to manifest that connection in our actions.

In a world that defines itself through buying and selling, this thing for that thing, and the balancing of accounts, it is up to us to refuse to be strangers. To make ourselves neighborly. To practice being grateful to one another – not just to the people we already know, but to as many people as we can possibly reach on this impossibly interconnected planet. That’s what our Simple Gifts project, and this year’s Guest at Your Table program are about: manifesting our gratitude for the lives we have in the way we treat others.

[i] As recounted in Tiv Economy, coauthored with her husband Paul Bohannan, 1968.

Other-Reliance – 11/17/2013

One merchant went to another, seeking a loan. The other merchant was willing, but sought some reassurance. “Who will be the witness to our transaction?” he asked.

“There can be no greater witness,” the first merchant answered, “than the Holy One, who surveys the whole of the universe and takes note of every detail.” The second merchant agreed that this was the case, but asked, “Who will be the guarantor of this loan, to take responsibility if you cannot pay me back?”

“There can be no more reliable guarantor,” the first merchant replied, “than the Source of All, to which everything that is owes its existence.” The second merchant could not find fault with this either, and so agreed to the terms and granted the loan.

Now with the money he needed to undertake it, the first merchant set off on a journey across the sea, to sell his wares in a distant port. His voyage went well, and he was able to sell his goods for the price that he had hoped, making enough money to pay back the loan. But he could not find another ship that was sailing back where he had come from. The next would not leave port for several weeks; he would not be able to pay the loan back on time. Determined to do all that he could, though, the merchant placed the pile of coins he owed into a hollowed-out log and sealed them in with a cork. He then tossed the log into the sea and prayed – if he could not fulfill his obligation, it would be up to the one who had guaranteed it.

When the merchant finally did return home, he went at once to the house of the colleague who had made him the loan. Begging for forgiveness, he explained the situation and offered to pay the overdue debt in full. But the other merchant refused, explaining, “On the day when your debt was due, I went down to the sea to watch for your ship. When none arrived, I went for a walk along the beach, and spied a few good pieces of firewood. I took them home, and when I cut into the first, a pile of coins fell out from within it. So you owe me nothing, friend; your debt has already been paid.”[i]

There is a plain reading of this story which is sweet, perhaps, but not very practical. What about all the deals that really do go sour? The agreements that are never honored? The promises that remain broken? One cannot base an economy on throwing money into the sea. It is an observable fact that things often do go wrong, that we prove unable or unwilling, time and again, to fulfill our obligations to each other. This truth gives the lie to any theology that says that some otherworldly power will take care of everything single thing, no matter what any of us do. The necessity, and the limits, of whom and how much we can trust are major themes throughout the world’s religions. The story of the two merchants comes from the Muslim tradition, but it should not suggest an unconsidered surrender to fate. In another story from the same faith, this one from the hadith – the sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad – the attitude seems much more pragmatic. Someone asked Muhammad, “When I leave my camel for the night, should I tie it up, or should I trust in God?” The prophet replied, “Trust in God. And, tie up your camel.”[ii]

This is the second-to-last sermon on Robert Plutchik’s eight essential emotions. Next month’s emotion will be anticipation – so we have that to look forward to – but today’s topic is trust. Trust can be said to be our belief in the benevolence of someone or something. When we trust something, we are relying on its truthfulness, its fairness, or its positive orientation towards us. There is evidence now that connects the presence or at least the strength of trust in humans to oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, a chemical in the brain. In one study, test subjects played a game where they had to choose to keep a small sum of money or to loan it to another player for the potential of a larger reward and also the potential of a total loss. After they were given the results of the first round of games – in which their trust had been betrayed about half of the time – those who were given oxytocin were more likely to continue to make the trusting choice in subsequent rounds. And I read about this study in an online publication of Scientific American which was edited by Jonah Lehrer[iii], the science author who admitted last summer to having falsified quotes – betraying the trust of his audience. Two-thousand and three hundred-odd years ago, it is said that the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope walked the streets of Athens carrying a lantern even in the bright light of day. He said that he was looking for an honest man – there is no record of his having found one. In his age and in our own, it can seem at times that we have no one in whom to place our trust. In such an environment, the very meaning of trust only diminishes over time.

Haddon Robinson, who is a long-time professor at Gordon-Cromwell Theological School, not far from here, relates a story about Monroe Parker, a renowned Baptist preacher. Rev. Parker was out in the country on a hot summer’s day and stopped at a little store. He wanted to buy a watermelon, but the cost was $1.10. “I’ve only got a dollar,” he told the shop keeper. “I’ll trust you for it,” the store owner replied. Monroe thanked him kindly, and turned to leave with the fruit. “But you forgot to give me the dollar!” the merchant pointed out. “You said you’d trust me for it,” came the reply. “Yeah, but I meant I would trust you for the dime!” Parker answered thusly, “You weren’t going to trust me at all. You were just going to take a ten-cent gamble on my integrity.”[iv] Trust means risk: some real need must be served if it is born out, some real loss incurred if it is broken. This is just one of the reasons that the major financial arrangements that govern our economy are so badly out of whack. The lenders, those with the money, no longer need to trust their debtors to repay them – they have the machinery of the courts to extract whatever they are owed on paper, and the certainty of a public bailout should they suffer any major private loss. Those same institutions also have little need to care about earning the trust of their customers, since we have so few alternatives to the banks deemed “too big to fail.”

All of this can lead to an attitude that all we have to rely upon is our own private selves. Years ago, our theological ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay, Self-Reliance, and our tradition and many others besides have been greatly impacted by it. It was an ode to nonconformity, to following your own truth and doing what you know is right even when tradition and social expectation and the whole rest of the world is against you. “Trust thyself,” was his refrain:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.[v]

There is, I believe, a kernel of great wisdom in those words which our tradition has taken to heart. That it is the duty and calling of every person to serve as a guide, a redeemer, a benefactor, that we each have unique and valuable insight, and that there are times when tradition and common sense and the status quo are the enemy of what is true and right in life, and so must be opposed. But you can also hear, I hope, a troubling strain in his words and one which undermines his own message. He declares his audience to be men because he is speaking only with men in mind. He says that they must not act like “minors and invalids” because again his words are not meant for these groups, and he has discounted their lives, their experiences, and their truths in constructing his thoughts. And that is particularly unfortunate because if Emerson had more closely consulted and considered women, children, disabled people, or any other group outside his social location, he might have realized what he was missing about his own predicament: His life and your life and mine, like any other, privileged or oppressed, renowned or marginalized, depends entirely on the lives of others. The world we inherited at birth was built by countless others before us. The selves we possess today did not spring, self-created into existence with no help or influence from anyone else. Each day, we depend on the passive and active assistance of others in order to continue being and becoming who we are.

In fact, the more privileged our lives, the greater our dependence on others, since living in a state of oppression means navigating and surviving hostility, mistrust, and betrayal. There is some evidence that we are trained to trust – or not to – by our experiences. There’s a famous psychological study in which a researcher offered nursery school children a snack treat. They had the choice to eat it right away or to wait fifteen minutes – if they waited, they got an extra treat. The study linked children’s ability to delay gratification to several different measures of happiness: health, academic and professional success, relationship satisfaction, etc. One more recent study suggests added a preliminary step to establish a precedent of trust between the child and the person administering the test. The researcher first made a promise which they either kept or failed to keep, before offering the snack and explaining the deal. When the researchers had kept their earlier promise, almost all of the children waited for the extra treat. When they had not, nearly every child ate the first treat right away. This all suggests that some of the behaviors we associate with self-control may actually be about trust, and our ability and inclination to trust others is, at least in large part, a product of our circumstance. Trusting is a habit, and it is formed or broken down, like any other habit, through experience and practice.

There is a Buddhist story about this. There was a certain king of a certain country who had a certain prized pet elephant. The animal was large and powerful but gentle and kind. That was, until one day when her handler came to feed her – before he could get too close she picked him up with her trunk and flung him against the side of her stall, breaking his arm. Upset at the news, the king set one of his wisest courtiers to solve find the reason for the elephant’s sudden violence. Patient investigation revealed that a band of thieves were meeting in the stables each night to plot their robberies. They quarreled often, and sometimes came to blows. Surrounded by violent, mistrustful people, the elephant had learned their habits. The wise counselor recommended inviting the most gentle souls that could be found to meet in the royal stables each day to share a meal and each others’ company. After some weeks, the king ordered that his elephant be released from her stall again for the first time. She stepped out carefully, and greeted her handler with a gentle touch, caressing the healing arm she had broken. She had built a new set of habits – she had learned how to trust again.[vi]

In our tradition, congregations choose their ministers: there is no greater or higher authority directing this Reverend to go here and that Reverend to go there. But there is a council of people, both lay and ordained, who oversee a sort of licensing system for our ministry and those who wish to enter into it. We call this stamp of approval fellowship, and to some degree it is a sign of trust – the people with this heavy responsibility have declared by granting a person fellowship that they can be trusted with the role of minister. Though it should be said, of course, that no person is above scrutiny, and when one of our ministers does falter or transgress, this same body considers how and whether they can remain in our ministry. After we start out and begin our service in congregations or hospitals or prisons or anywhere else where ministers are called to be, this committee still keeps in touch with us. They give advice and direction, and help us towards the goal of final fellowship – the point of permanent trust without any asterisk, the transition from the minister who does ministry to the minister who might hope to teach ministry by example. A little over a week ago, I got some very good news in the mail: I have been welcomed into final fellowship. It is the last great milestone of ministry I hope to see for a long time, since the next one is retirement. I want to express, this morning, my gratitude to you: I could not have arrived at this point without great partners to do ministry with, or a location I which to do it.

And as is more generally the case, what is true of ministry is true of life. We each have a context and some amount of community on which we depend. Sometimes the bonds of trust that form those networks are strained or broken – because we messed up, did harm, or broke faith with others, or because others betrayed the trust we placed in them. Wisdom and self-preservation demand that we exercise some care in the people we deeply trust: who we choose to be most vulnerable to, to depend most deeply on – that is, of course, in those cases where we have a choice in when and how to be vulnerable. But we also cannot wait around for perfect people to arrive: such animals do not exist. Rather, we are potentially great, possibly loyal beings who mess up, and sometimes make very bad choices. The lives we lead, and the world we build together, will be better the more that we are able to risk trusting one another. The more that we are able to practice making amends for our wrongs, and forgiving enough to rebuild bridges of trust that have cracked but not yet collapsed.

This, to me, is the deeper meaning of the story that we began with, of the two merchants and the money cast into the sea. We cannot just wait on the shore for a piece of driftwood with what we’ve got coming in it. But we must risk trusting one another with what is most precious to us, even when some of our hopes are disappointed and our expectations go unmet. Because sometimes great possibilities do drift to us on the unknowable currents of the ocean of the cosmos, and the more open we are, the more available to trust and to be trusted, the more frequently such gifts find their way into our hands.

[i]  Based on a traditional Muslim story collected in Ayat Jamilah, by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane



[iv] This anecdote can be found in a great many sermons (from a number of different denominations) available online, probably because of its presence on searchable “sermon illustration” websites, like this one:



Sex and the Sacred – 11/10/2013

Romantic affection, sexual interaction, and reproduction – three spheres that overlap greatly but not completely – have always been of deep concern to human religions. Religion cares so much about them because they are so essential to what it means to be human, and to the very existence of humans, in fact. This sermon is the second in the series, “Why Should We Care?” on the theological roots of the social concerns and justice commitments of our tradition as Unitarian Universalists. Today our subject is sex, and we are going to cover our association’s public positions on sexual education, sexual ethics, same-sex attraction, and same-sex marriage. Reproductive health and freedom will be covered in a future sermon, but know that it’s coming. That’s a lot, so let’s get started.

Our tradition finds deep grounding in respect for and wonder at the capacities of human beings. William Ellery Channing, the greatest of the great names among American Unitarians, did not invent this reverence, but he did articulate it loudly and clearly and at a critical moment. In his sermon, “Likeness to God,” preached in 1828, he described how everything of which the human mind and body are capable is a reflection of God’s attributes. Through learning and growing and doing, cultivating our own innate abilities and putting them to just and holy use, we grow in our likeness to God. We have, from the beginning, divine qualities and we can – and must! – strengthen them in order to become more and more divine. Channing’s particular understanding of God, which some of us might agree with and others not, isn’t as important here as his understanding of humankind – because that is really what we have inherited from him. All human beings have inherently worthy and sacred capacities which need to be worked at and built up.

Among our capacities, it should be clear from even the most basic assessment of human bodies and human behavior, are sexual affection, sexual pleasure, and in many cases sexual reproduction. I am not aware of this dimension of humanness getting much positive attention from our ancestors in the first hundred years after Channing’s sermon. Many of our roots are set in the Puritan soil of New England, and the Puritans are literally synonymous with fear and hatred of all things sexual. It’s an attitude which is neither inherent nor unique to Christianity, but is still very common within it. Most sex, or even all sex, is considered to be sinful and unclean in a number of Christian theologies. Sex is sometimes associated with the doctrine of original sin, and virginity as a state of being completely disconnected from sex and sexuality, is frequently held up as the spiritual ideal. Some Christian sects, including the ancient European Cathars, and the more recent American Shakers, have taken this to the extreme of forbidding their adherents from sexual relations of any kind: celibacy not only for their clergy, but for the laity as well. The early Latter Day Saints movement – the Mormons – encountered sweeping prejudice and mob violence here in the United States in the 1800s because of their original practice of polygamy. This was explicitly not because of any popular feminist concerns about the rights of women in a system where men could have multiple wives, but women only one husband. It was because their practices broke from the specific sexual rules then expected of all Christians and any decent folk.

Coming as we do out of the Christian tradition, all of those influences played a part in our historical relationship to sexuality. It has become one of our signature areas of public commitment. The rights and worthiness of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks, the critical importance of reproductive freedom and comprehensive sexual education – these are perhaps the areas of public policy on which we are most frequently at odds with most other faith groups in our nation. Most of our work in this area, however, is less than fifty years old.

Some years ago, I got to hear the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean preach the story of his life as he was chosen by his colleagues to represent those ministers celebrating 50 years of service. He told us of the fear that he felt as he sought to enter our ministry – fear that the psychological tests required would have discovered him to be a gay man. That was still a disqualifier in 1960. Luckily for us, those tests failed in their bitter intention. Our denomination’s commitment to tolerate, and then accept, and then welcome, and then include, and finally celebrate gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks did not emerge nationally until 1970. That year, our association of congregations publicly called for an end to discrimination against homosexual and bisexual people. The first ordinations of out gay ministers followed soon after, and in 1979 the first few out ministers were called to serve Unitarian Universalist congregations. One of these ministers was the Rev. Mark Belletini, and while he did find a pulpit, it cannot have been an easy process, as one of his poems suggests:

And so one of the members of the search committee asks me “But why do you

people”-he really said that, “you people”-“have to talk about it?”



Well, because


Because if I fell in love,

you know, with sonnets and everything,

and wanted to name all the stars of heaven

one at a time with a goofy smile on my face

I’d like to be able to.


Because, if I didn’t fall in love,

I’d like to grouse a bit,

or work up a bitter Theory

to explain it.


Because if my lover got run over

by a drunk driver (it happens, you know,

remember blue-eyed Stewart?)

I’d like to be able to take a few days off work

to cry and stuff, OK?


Because, if my partner-in-life

whom I can’t legally marry because

it upsets someone’s stomach or something

suddenly developed an infection

and got Job’s sores all over his body

and had to go to the hospital

(you know, just like my friend Stephen)

I’d kind of like to take him there

and hold his hand for a few days

and still get paid on family emergency leave

so I could eat food and pay rent and all.


Because if my lover left me

after fifteen years I’d like to be able to sob

without consolation

and feel suitable depressions

and not have to smile a lot

and pretend to be stunned for months.

Because lying all the time is still wrong isn’t it?


Oh, and because, whether you believe it or not,

my life is just as important to me as yours is to you.[i]


That insanely basic yet incredibly radical assertion, that the life of any one person is just as important to them as yours is to you, is at the heart of our movement’s waking up to the rights, value, and basic humanity of everyone who does not identify as straight. It is the natural companion to the Universalist theology which says that every person’s life is as important to God as any other. We were starting to understand that if sex and romantic love are such huge elements of human life, then our capacity for them must be just as divine as the other faculties of our beings.

In popular culture, scripture is often invoked to justify homophobia and heterosexism. There is actually less material for this in the Hebrew bible and Christian testaments than most people think; it’s a matter of a handful of phrases. Even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – which is so synonymous with homosexuality that nearly all sex acts that do not involve both a penis and a vagina at the same time have been referred to, collectively, as sodomy – even that story isn’t actually about same-sex attraction or intercourse. It’s about hospitality and contempt for the stranger. The citizens of Sodom are so unabashedly evil that they seek out travelers visiting their city in order to rape them. The rape is the problem here, not the fact that it is being attempted by men against other men. A friend of mine recently shared an article on this interpretation of the passage from Genesis, marveling at its novelty. I pointed out that it is basically the second lesson taught in any Hebrew Bible 101 class at any non-fundamentalist seminary. This is not a controversial interpretation – it is generally accepted by scholars, yet it remains largely unknown in the wider culture.

But sex between two people of the same sex is explicitly called out in a few places in the bible. Words in Hebrew and Greek that our commonly translated as ‘abomination’ and ‘reprobate’ are used to defame such behavior. For those denominations which take the bible as the inerrant word of God, this poses a challenge for adherents who also believe the essential message of the bible is infinite mercy, magnanimous justice, and all-encompassing love. Some creative and impressive counter-readings have been developed by smart, faithful people in order to work around this problem, and if you’re interested I’ll be happy to walk you through some of them sometime. But as Unitarian Universalists, we do not need to rely on these, because our faith allows a particular freedom which I deeply, deeply treasure: when the bible is flatly wrong, we are free to say it is wrong.

Sexual behavior – of many different kinds, not only between people of the same sex – is referred to in certain biblical passages as making one unclean. That word abomination crops up again. Judaism and Christianity, among many other religions, have a long fascination with purity, so that certain actions and behaviors can render one impure, unfit, and inherently unclean. These things go beyond mere badness or even evil, provoking a basic spiritual disgust. By my reading, our tradition does not permit us this attitude. Wrong is still wrong, evil still needs to be confronted, justice still needs to be restored, but we do not have the luxury of treating any person as an abomination, no matter what they have done. As the great Universalist evangelist Hosea Ballou laid out the question, “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled.  You cleanse it and array it in clean robes.  The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it?  Or, did you wash it because you loved it?”[ii] The idea of spiritual pollution is at best a minor distraction from the prevailing truth of our lives – everyone of us is precious, everyone of us is lovable. The challenge is to face the world without losing sight of this.

Acting together as congregations we have, since the 1970s, ordained ministers regardless of sexual orientation, and called these ordinands to our pulpits. We have stood publicly for the full rights and dignity of people who love people of the same sex. We have been performing religious weddings and unions for same-sex couples since even before 1970, establishing it as a general practice of the association in 1984 and calling for equal marriage under the law in 1996. And in case you need to be reminded, the first same-sex marriage recognized by state law was performed by the then-president of our association at our national headquarters in 2004.[iii]

The goodness we are capable of as human beings is holy. Among these sacred capacities is our sexuality, which can be used variously to create intimacy, share pleasure, and to bring forth new life. As with any other human practice or behavior, the only measure of wrong in regards to sex is when it does harm. So two consenting adults enjoying each other cannot be said to be bad, no matter how “icky” someone might think it is. Consent – clear, definite, uncoerced, unimpaired, fully-aware and fully-informed consent – is the only measure of right and wrong here. Like anything else, sex is something that you should only do in ways that respect yourself and anyone else you are doing it with. So the need for accurate sexual education is pressing, which is why it has been one of our movement’s priorities for over forty years. There is no separate but equal in our theology – as the Rev. Forrest Church said, “Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.”[iv] So our theology of marriage has to include all couples: it is a covenant for loving, enduring commitment. It is a means – not the only means, but a powerful one – of expressing and expanding the divine sexual capacity that has been entrusted to each of us.

We are healthiest when we learn from each other. The opportunity to acknowledge our differing relationships, affections, and infatuations – straight, gay, or otherwise – makes us more whole. The specific example of same-sex marriage is so far from being the be-all and end-all of LGBTQ-civil rights, but it also addresses fundamental needs and rights of real people. Which is why our tradition has been so bound up with the cause. But in addition to just being the right side of history, letting same-sex couples take their rightful place at the table of full respect and reverence can and should help reshape how we understand marriage as an institution. Its origins are violent, coercive, and patriarchical – more on this, again, in a coming sermon in this series. If we hope to redeem broken but precious institutions – and as a Universalist, I am never inclined to think anything precious is too broken to be redeemed – such an effort requires reimagining them. And personally, my friends and neighbors who are in same-sex marriages have taught me some of the most important lessons about how to be the partner and husband I ought to be. The framework of partnership – the word partner, which I and my spouse use in describing each other – is a practice we absorbed from friends who were used it because they were being denied the right to say, ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. Our sacred work as human beings is to realize our divine potential: to build justice, struggle for peace, and share love. Doing so requires not only flexing those spiritual muscles, but also being open to the lessons of our lives and the lives around us.

[i] This poem’s title is, “Because”.

[ii] From his essay, “Salvation Irrespective of Character,” as quoted by Janeen Kelley Grohsmeyer in, “A Lamp in Every Corner”.



The Form of Eternity – 11/3/2013

The story is told of three religious leaders, from different faiths, who met in the course of their work. Adam, a Rabbi, met Musa, an Imam, through an organization for Muslim-Jewish dialog. Musa introduce him to Father Matthew, a priest who had reached out to Imam Musa’s congregation to stand with them in solidarity after their mosque was vandalized. The three men found opportunities to work together, and bring their congregations into relationship. They grew close. They shared with each other about their lives, their hopes and fears. Confidentially, each confided in the others their private theological doubts. They admitted to some uncertainty about what, if anything, awaited after the great mystery of death. But each agreed that the other was a virtuous man, and deserved a share in whatever reward might await.
It happens, that all three men died on the same day, and so were able to face the great revelation at the same time. Standing together before the throne of glory, they fell to their knees before the Holy One. A voice, powerful but kind, rang out, asking who approached. They were awed into silence until one of them spoke – and who can say which one, “We are Rabbi Adam Schuler, Imam Musa Ibrahim, and Father Matthew Reilly.” At this answer, the heavens around them began to tremble, and the same voice replied, full of anger, “What is this, some kind of joke?”
What do Unitarian Universalists believe happens to us after we die? This is a question that I get asked from time to time. Many other religions have very specific ideas about what follows death, and those ideas are very important for them. We happen to be much clearer about what we don’t believe than what we do believe: we don’t believe in hell, or any other bad place where you go to be punished when your life is through. Some of us believe in a literal heaven, a future life of relief and ease for the spirit after the body has died. Some of us point out that there is no scientific basis that idea. Our tradition prefers to welcome such differences of belief, rather than forcing all to conform to the ideas of some. But when we think of those we love who have died, or when we face the prospect of dying ourselves, it is natural to wonder and to want some answer we can make peace with. ‘When my life has ended, what next? What will remain?’
Here are the two most certain things I know about being alive: lives begin, and they end. What comes in between is far less predictable. Some of us have brief lives, most of us live longer, and some of us live longer still. But none of us live forever. Our bodies grow and change – throughout our lives they do different things well and different things not so well. But no matter what, one day, they stop being able to live.
Yet the ending of our lives does not mean the ending of who we are. Many of the earliest novels written in English begin with the birth of the main character, and follow them through life, sometimes to death or a time just shortly before it. Dating back to that time and even before that, there is a common consensus in storytelling: when the main character has died, the story is most certainly over. But when the lives of real people end, our stories are only in their early chapters.
The people who have known and love us continue to do so, and that knowledge and love continues to shape who they are, and how they move in the world. The consequences of our having lived continue on. The cartoonish Zach Weiner writes and draws the story of a person who gets a package in the mail. The package is from a loved one who has died, and the note attached says, “If there were a way to reach beyond death, I would’ve stopped this package before you got it.” But it goes on to explain that the package is full of candy – the sender of the package wants the person receiving it to be happy and that desire, and limited ability to accomplish it, could not be stopped by death. “I am only gone from myself,” the note reads. “Not from you.”
We do not only endure in the lives of people who love us, of course. The grudges and resentments that connected us to others don’t go away either, on our deaths. We can be remembered with malice as well as kindness, and mistakes we make and the harm we do live on even when we do not. In such an interconnected world, we can’t know everything that will follow from every choice that we make. But while our tradition is varied on the topic of a spiritual afterlife it is crystal clear on the subject of love. The practice of a generous, compassionate, justice-seeking love is always our ideal. The possibility of acting with love makes the risk of our own mistakes and failures in life worthwhile. In a world where evil is all-too real, and sin too commonplace, the saving wonder is that love also persists, and calls us again and again to lives of greater wholeness and meaning.
Even the unknown and forgotten episodes of our lives continue to echo, so that the meaning and value of a life cannot be measured in the number of people who come to their funeral. What goes unknown and unseen by anyone else, still is, even after we are not. In one of the stories of the Buddha, the demon Mara challenged his many lifetimes of devotion and preparation for enlightenment. “I have an army of witnesses to my own practice and spiritual cultivation,” Mara said. “Where are yours?” The monk’s answer, sitting all alone with no other living being to rely on, was to touch the earth, and call the world itself as witness. A similar theme can be found in the book of Joshua, among other places in the Hebrew Bible. And something like it pops up again in the Gospel According to Luke, when Jesus is challenged to silence his followers and declares, “If they keep quiet, the stones themselves will shout.”
Baruch Spinoza, one of my favorite heretics, spoke of “the form of eternity.” This was his name for seeing everything in the larger context of things. So that a life had to be viewed as a whole. George Santayana continued this theme, and I’m going to paraphrase some of his words here:
When our life is over, it remains true that we have lived; it remains true that we have been one sort of person, and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history, that bit has its unfading colour and its perpetual function and effect. Those who understand themselves under the form of eternity know the quality that eternally belong to them, and know that they cannot wholly die, even if they would; for when the moment of our lives are over, the truth of our lives remain.
When I was child, my family included two cats. I loved them. They shed a lot and purred very loudly, which is why one of them was named Evinrude – which is a brand of outboard boat motor. They were the same age, and they died very close together. We buried them in our backyard, in a little spot where crocuses – that’s a type of flower – would pop up every spring. Their lives are finished, but the truth of their lives remains. What they did, what any of us does, matters whether or not anyone else knows it and even long after there is no one else who remembers it.

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The facts of the lives we choose for ourselves are a part of the eternal record of everything that has ever been.
It is from this record, up to this very second, that every subsequent fact and detail of history emerges. Our lives and our world grow, moment to moment, from the rich soil of what has come before us. We may have many beliefs, or no belief at all, about what happens to us after we die. This suits our faith well, for ours is a religion of the here and now, focused on what is possible, what is necessary, and what is beautiful in this world we share. But this is true no matter what else: the fact of a person’s life is a part of the reason behind every life that comes after them in the course of history. The work of being alive is to make that history more full of mercy, justice, and love. When we die, that work ends for us. But the proceeds of our labor – the part of us which does not die – continues on.

The Gift of Service

There are many reasons that lead us to become part of a congregation or to stay a part of it. All of these many reasons tend to fall into one of three categories: the hunger for meaning, the thirst for belonging, the need for support in times of trial. We may come hoping to meet these needs for ourselves or for someone precious to us – a child, a partner – but the needs remain largely the same. All of these common motivations can lead us into spiritual community and they are at the heart of what any healthy congregation offers to the people who constitute it.

In the larger culture we inhabit, devotion to what is right and good and devotion to the things that benefit us personally are often presented as being mutually exclusive. But congregational life is meant to benefit each of us – it’s not supposed to be driven by pure selflessness. We come together into religious community because doing so serves our needs and interests as struggling, wondering souls. And one of the greatest ways in which the congregation serves our needs is by offering the opportunity to serve the needs of others.

It is very, very rare for me to meet a person whose life does not feel to them to be very, very busy. Time seems to be in short supply for most of us – and the statistics on the rising number of hours that American workers devote to their jobs and the ever-increasing number of activities in which American children are involved, suggests that there may truly be less time to go around. So much of our days are filled with things we feel we have to do, just to keep afloat in life and meet our own needs – or wants that feel like needs. This is why the greatest gift that our congregation offers is the opportunity to serve needs that reach beyond our own.

Over the course of the life I’ve spent in congregations (and here I’m speaking of my experiences as a lay person, not as a minister) I have played many parts. I’ve served food and washed dishes, taught church school classes and polished floors. I’ve worked on committees and task-forces charged with supporting and sustaining ministries of education, worship, social justice, long-range planning, and “peace through international understanding.” I’ve sung with choirs and helped lay carpet and packaged condoms to be freely distributed at the church. Each of these things helped someone else or many someone elses – making my community stronger, or somebody’s life more livable. Knowing that my labor was going to an institution I treasured and to people who could use the help, helped in turn to satisfy my own needs.

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Specifically, service addresses each of those three basic needs that call us to freely associate with one another in the first place. Service builds meaning, for the only just measure of our faith is how we live and shape the world by our living. Service fuels belonging, helps us to understand in a real and concrete way that we are a part of something and gives us new reasons and ways to get to know each other. And service not only helps us support others who may be struggling; it lightens our own struggle as well. Our congregation offers many ways to contribute to the health of our community and the needs among and beyond us. I invite you to share in this great gift by volunteering, by finding the place where your talents and interests match the larger need, and by saying ‘yes,’ when someone tells you, “There’s some work that needs doing and I think you’ve got what it takes to do it.” In this way, may we all come to know and share the gift of service.

In Faith,
Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Boo! – 10/27/2013

There is a common bit of homiletical advice which says, “When in doubt, begin the sermon with a joke.” So because I am a Unitarian Universalist and doubt is among our most cherished values, I will begin with a few, but I will need a little help. Let’s start with the basics:
A: “Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo!”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “I’m sorry to have frightened you. Please don’t get upset. Here, let me try something less intense: How is a raccoon different from a television set?”
B: “I don’t know. How is a raccoon different from a television set?”
A: “In a lot of ways; they’re just pretty different things, as things go. You see, most humor is made out of a combination of things you expect and things you do not expect, reversing roles, undermining preconceived notions. Raccoons and televisions aren’t particularly funny in and of themselves. They’re common, predictable things. But if you buy a new digital raccoon to tell you stories about the Real Housewives of Maycomb, Alambama, and you put the box it came in out with the trash, and then a family of wild television sets knocks over the can, and makes a nest in that box – that’s funny!”
B: “Surrealism isn’t really ‘ha-ha’ funny.”
A: “Alright, let’s try that first one again: Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo!”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “Boo Radley; one of the supporting characters in the novel-turned movie, To Kill a Mockingbird – which is set in Maycomb, Alabama. In the story, Boo almost never leaves his house, so you wouldn’t expect him to be knocking on your door. That’s why it’s funny. Knock, knock.
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “To.”
B: “’To’ who?”
A: “No, no. It should be, ‘to whom?’”
B: “Now wait a minute. Our lives, our society, and our entire world depend on certain predictable things: rules that are basically the same wherever you go or whomever you deal with. It gets warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. Gravity pulls us down. Money can be exchanged for goods and services. A joke might play with those expectations, but it’s still a sort of agreement with rules of its own. You can’t just change the rules in the middle of it.”
A: “Ah, but the expectations we have – the rules, as we understand them – aren’t just natural things, they’re built over time. Sometimes they need to be built up, and sometimes they need to be torn down so that new ones can replace them. Knock, knock.”
B: “Who’s there?”
A: “Boo.”
B: “’Boo’ who?”
A: “No, no. ‘Boo whom?’ As in, Boo Radley, whom we mentioned earlier.
B: Well if we’re going to keep coming back to the classics, tell me this: Who’s on first?”
A: “David Ortiz?”
Let’s stop there – thank you very much. Today’s sermon is the latest installment in our series on the intersection of emotion and spirituality, and our emotion of the day is surprise. Surprise sits at the intersection of fear, celebration, and grief. It is the feeling we get when we get something unexpected, and that feeling can feel good – like with a joke, or at least a good one. It can also be a sort of neutral feeling of puzzlement or curiosity. In the famous story of her adventures in Wonderland, when Alice ate some magical cake and grew to over nine feet tall, surprise was her first response. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she exclaimed. But shock and amazement can soon give way to grief and dismay, as they did for not-so-little Alice, when she realized her size left her trapped in the room, and she began to fill it full with her tears.
In late October, officially the spookiest time of year, we are presented with many opportunities to be startled and shocked. Most are those we are free to choose, others come, well, by surprise. From the vast Halloween industry that feeds the Salem economy, to a tiny plastic spider left by a mischievous loved one on our night stand, now is the season of [gasp]. Modern American Halloween is well-divorced now from its origins in English folk-Christianity, but there are still attempts to connect it to religion.
There is a niche industry designed to compete with haunted houses called hell houses. These are productions that can be as elaborate and involved as the familiar professional ticketed displays, but instead of just providing cheap thrills, they are meant to carry a message. They cater to conservative Christians, and their horrors are presented as depictions of hell. So that the bloody corpse that jumps out at you from the shadows has a back story involving blasphemy, premarital sex, or some other such act their theology deems worthy of eternal punishment. As our tradition takes a hard line against the idea of eternal damnation, I sort of wonder what the Unitarian Universalist equivalent of a hell house would look like. We sometimes say that hell is the condition of suffering that human beings create for themselves and each other through malice and indifference. Perhaps depictions and reenactments, then, of famine and genocide, or of the numbness and self-loathing: the quieter consequences of bigotry and contempt. That seems to me, if anything, even less entertaining than the fundamentalist sort.
But surprise does not have to leap out from behind a corner and frighten us in order to be instructive – in order to teach. In the famous story of Archimides in the bath, the Greek philosopher was just settling in for a soak when he noticed the way the water level rose as he got in. He realized that this could help him solve a puzzle he’d been working on and shouted “I’ve found it!” – ‘Heureka’, in the Greek. The story continues that in his excitement to report his solution, he jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets of the city naked, so that one shock for him must have led to a few more for his neighbors.
Great insights and realizations come to us as surprises – departures from the familiar course of life into some new and awesome mode of being. Surprise is a major recurring theme in human religious thought, but its character varies wildly. Gautama Buddha is said to have sat under his tree for 49 days in his quest to attain enlightenment. The lead up to that final achievement is full of drama: he nearly starves until a young girl offers him porridge. In one version, the demon Mara commands an army to attack the seated mystic, all to no avail. But the actual moment of enlightenment is peaceful, serene: like waking up gently from a very deep sleep.
At perhaps the other end of the spectrum is the story of the prophet Muhammad. In the story of his first moment of revelation, he stood alone in a cave on a hill. An angel appeared before him – all power and light – and he could suddenly see letters of fire carved into the sky beyond the mouth of the cave. “Read,” the angel commanded over and over, as the poor man protested that he was illiterate. Until the angel grabbed him, and held him, and by some unknown force the man could read for the first time in his life. Now that is shock and surprise!
Again and again in the Abrahamic tradition – the collective name for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the common expectations of the original audience for a sacred story are undermined. In a culture where first born sons are the assured heirs to their fathers’ property, second borns inherit instead – first Isaac from Abraham, and then Jacob from Isaac. A people enslaved become a great nation, and the crucible of three of the most influential religions

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in human history. The story of Moses reverses the standard plot of legendary kings in the ancient middle east: in their stories, a child of low class and no prospects comes from the wild to civilization and is revealed to secretly have a noble birth – he becomes a great ruler because he was meant to be king all along. Moses is a child raised in the heart of civilization, and the top of his society’s pyramid, who is revealed to secretly have been born a slave – his role of leadership takes him out into the wilderness and away from the privilege and power of his upbringing.
The teacher Jesus is famous for lessons that upend expectations. It is part of the thumbnail sketch that many of us were raised with: having long hair and a beard, turning the other cheek, and saying crazy things that cause lots of trouble. In the parable of the great banquet, the honored guests who get to enjoy the sumptuous food and generous hospitality are the poor and disabled. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the repentant sinner is favored over the man who is righteous but proud. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, everyone receives the same pay, whether they worked all day, or just for a bit of it. The stories are worn down by familiarity, they have been translated and re-translated, and displaced from their context by thousands of miles and thousands of years. But still, the words attributed to Jesus fall like punchlines. “For the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Surprise: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Get it?
Before it became common wisdom to open pretty much any sermon with a joke, there was a tradition among German preachers to lead with a joke on Easter Sunday each year. This was called the risus paschalis – the paschal joke or Easter joke. It was meant to set a parallel for the grand cosmic joke of the Easter story. A teacher teaches until he is silenced by the authorities, is captured and killed, his students wail and mourn and then, the great reversal of expectations: an empty tomb. The constant of death upended. What a punchline! What a surprise!
One of the reasons why surprise is so crucial to religious experience is that the things that surprise us – the points where the course of life departs from the expected – are the things that we do best at remembering. A few years ago, Deb told us the story of the ten plagues. She had all kinds of props and puppets and sound cues. She even tossed out confetti to symbolize the plague of insects. I can’t remember what I preached that day – I certainly wouldn’t expect the rest of you to – but I remember that story. That Sunday also points to how such breaks from the common place can often have unexpected consequences. It took forever to clean up that confetti.
Many surprises, though, are more than just minor conveniences requiring a vacuum cleaner. The hardest points in life: losing a job, ending a relationship, or the death of a loved one: sometimes we can see these coming from a little ways off, but their date is rarely preordained. If we are happy in the lives we have, and can only be surprised when those lives veer off course, than it is no surprise that so many of us dread surprises. How many of us here this morning, I wonder, came here for the first time – perhaps even today – because of some terrible surprise we needed help in grappling with? Community – real community, forged out of deep relationship –

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is meant to magnify our joys, and soften our sorrows, through sharing.
Sometimes, the surprise doesn’t come from something unexpected; it comes from everything continuing as normal. In 1833, the American preacher William Miller declared that the second coming and the end of history would take place in roughly ten years time. Interest in his prophecy and biblical interpretation grew over the next decade. By 1843 he was at the head of a national movement, looking to him for a more specific date on which they could expect the world to end. March 21, 1844 became the first official deadline. When it passed, the certain target was moved to April 18. After that, the day of reckoning was declared to be set for October 22. None of these dates proved to be the last in recorded history. The whole affair came to be known as the Great Disappointment, though it was more than just a historical footnote. Entire new Christian denominations were formed from the surprise of no surprise at all as the former Millerites scattered in search of a new truth to follow.
When we refuse to see or acknowledge the obvious, we must eventually be surprised. Like the ancient Chinese story of the thief who set out to steal a great iron bell in the dark quiet of night. He stole, unseen, into the fortress where it lay, unhooked it from its fixture and by a great feat of strength made off with it. His plan was working perfectly: he could not hear even the faintest noise from the bell as he ran with it. When the guards surrounded him and forced his surrender before he could make his way home, the thief was perplexed. “But how could they have heard me?” he wondered, as he took the cotton from his ears.
By its definition, surprise comes when it comes: it cannot be forced. You might demand of your loved ones that they throw you a surprise birthday party – plan it all out for them, with a time and a place all arranged. But the actual feeling of surprise would be as far from that as it could possibly be. What we can do, is cultivate a willingness, even a desire, to be surprised. An openness to see what is really there, even when it does not make sense or meet our expectations. All wonder, all awe, requires some sense of surprise. Even the flowering of a plant, the ending of a storm, the growth of a child – things that must happen, and do happen every day, millions of times over – there is surprise to marvel at even here. The surprise that something as vast and as delicate as the world continues on.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Boo Radley is an ominous mystery. He lives as a recluse on the margins of the town, rumors swirling about his strange ways and tarnished history. When he finally appears outside his home for the first time, he looks like a ghost: gaunt and pale. He is a frightful image, a child’s boogey man come to life. But he doesn’t come out to scare or to harm. Boo steps out of the literal and metaphorical shadows when he does in order to save lives, to stop a dangerous man and rescue the Finch children. The line between fear and wonder is thin, and sometimes heroes look like monsters.
We live in a world built out of expectations, not all of which can last against the strange and unpredictable unfolding of time. We can hide from it, turn away and ignore new information that disrupts old ways of thinking, and doing our best to insulate ourselves from the inevitable. Or we can step out of the limited familiarity of our cherished understanding of “the way things have always been,” and try to meet the unexpected on our own terms. Knowing this, may we go out into the world with the will to be surprised.

The Sin of Wages – 10/20/2013

There is an old story, about a traveler who was passing through the countryside and came upon a man with a hammer and chisel, cutting a hunk of granite into a clean, precise block. The traveler approached the man and, out of curiosity, asked what he was doing. “I am a stonecutter,” he said gruffly. “I am doing my job.”
Continuing on, the traveler met a second man engaged in much the same work as the first: smoothing out a large, rough piece of stone into something suitable for building with. He asked the same question, and got this response and a small smile, “I am working as a stonecutter, to support my family.”
Last, the traveler came to a third man, chiseling away at a piece of stone just like the rest. “What are you doing?” he asked.
The worker turned to the traveler, his face glowing with wonder, and replied, “I am helping to build a cathedral, and I am cutting stone in order to do it.”
This story has been passed around enough and told in so many different ways that I couldn’t find an original source for it. But usually, when it is told, the moral goes something like this: the third worker, who defines himself by doing something grand and glorious, is the happiest, the most satisfied. That’s the person in the story we’re supposed to want to be like – and, when the story is told by organizational consultants, as it sometimes is, that’s the sort of person we’re supposed to want our employees to be. But like any work of art, if you stare long enough at it, questions begin to emerge:
Why is the third worker any better than the first? Does the one produce blocks any better or more quickly than the other? What’s so bad, after all, about giving a short, simple answer when a stranger asks you a foolish question in the middle of your work day? Is customer service really a critical qualification for being a stonecutter? Isn’t it possible to care about the project and your family at the same time? Shouldn’t any sane working person be worried about earning a living, whether or not they are building a cathedral? And over all this, that grand impertinent question: why should we care?
This sermon is the first in a monthly series addressing that very question, “Why Should We Care?”. Specifically, why should we care about matters of justice, or what happens to anyone we do not already know and like personally? We Unitarian Universalists are famous for a lack of consensus: there is no issue or subject on which we all think or feel exactly alike. But, there are many matters on which we have, as a movement, taken a public position. There are causes for which our theological ancestors argued and agitated. There are also current debates in which our association has chosen a side through representatives from our member congregations. For the next several months, we’ll be looking at some of these issues together – as an exercise not of political argument but of theological exploration. We’ll consider together what the arguments for – and in some cases against – the common positions of our faith are. As a reminder, just as with everything I have ever said from this pulpit, you are not required to believe or to agree with a single word I say. But it is our responsibility to each other to consider one another’s reasonings and beliefs, to engage deeply and critically with the living tradition we share, and to live our lives in accordance with the truth as we each understand it.
Our particular topic today is work – its value and meaning, and what rights and protections those who work ought to be afforded. The General Assembly of our association of congregations has passed several statements of conscience and public position in this area. At this national level, we have called for a living wage for all workers, and gone even a step beyond that, declaring, “every person has an inherent and moral right to work at a meaningful wage.” The wording of these resolutions can get rather dry, but in one of its more poetic turns our General Assembly proclaimed a universal human right to, “a job, a home, and a hope” : decent, safe work that provides a means to live, a safe place to do that living in, and the hope that the conditions of one’s life can be improved. At least three of the seven principles that we have agreed to as a movement are pointed to as justification for these positions: the belief that all people matter, the understanding that justice, equity, and compassion all fit together into the ideal shape of human relationship, and the appreciation that we are all connected, so that what harms any human being harms us all.
But I want to dig a little deeper than this, so let us begin at the beginning, with the first stories in the first book of the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian traditions that so deeply inform and influence our own. Most of us will remember that the book of Genesis opens with the creation of the world – you may also recall that in the first three chapters we get two different origin stories for the earth, its inhabitants, and the human condition. Modern biblical scholarship tells us that these two stories were written centuries apart by different people with very different theologies, speaking to very different audiences. But as throughout the rest of the bible, a mixed chorus of voices creates new beauty out of dissonance and harmony.
In the opening of Genesis, the earth is created in seven days. “…God separated the light from the darkness…And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” God separated the sea from the sky – a second day. Dry land and all plants appear on the third, the sun and moon on the fourth, fish and birds on the fifth, and all the animals that live on land – including us humans – on the sixth day. And then, “On the seventh day, God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work God had done.” This text and many others throughout the rest of the bible are often pointed to in justifying an understanding of God as king, as supreme authority over the universe, the great architect and director of all things. But the character of God in this story does not lay out directions for someone else to follow, and does not simply give orders that employees or subordinates execute. This image of God changes things directly, through effort – through work. This a story about labor – labor on a grand, supernatural scale, but labor nonetheless. In the metaphor of business, this God is not a manager. Genesis opens with a metaphor of a divine worker, and it builds to the lesson, on the seventh day, that the work isn’t finished, the job isn’t done, until the people who did the work have their rest.
Every theology has its potentials and its limitations, and one of the limitations of a theology that imagines God as a king, a boss, or an overseer of events, is that it lends itself to a hierarchical reading of the universe. Reality is defined by a ladder of power: some are at the bottom, others in the middle, a few at the top. There might be free arguments about who belongs on what rung, but at the end of the day the fact that there is a vertical structure of power, of dominion and control is taken as a good thing. As Unitarians and Universalists and even before the invention of those names, our theological ancestors challenged that notion. It is why we hold the ideal of democracy sacred – sacred in the religious as well as the secular sense. Leaders can find legitimacy through election, or gain authority by taking responsibility that others fear or neglect, but power, in the understanding of our tradition, must be shared in order to be just. Today, as a religion we hold many different views of God including the absence of God, but among the most common choices is what is sometimes called religious naturalism. This means understanding divinity as something that exists in the unfolding of natural processes. God – if you like that name – is to be found in the living and dying of all things, in the vast creative and fierce destructive power of the world that surrounds and includes us. If holy is to be found in the ongoing work of the ever-spinning universe, I would submit that that ennobles even the most basic and humble of professions. Just pushing a broom or collecting garbage from the street, we are moving around the very stuff of stars, sorting fragments of the body of God.
Now the second creation story in Genesis is that of the Garden of Eden. You know the bullet points: Eve and Adam, a mischievous snake, and a powerful piece of fruit – never actually called an apple in the text. At the end of it, the first humans are banished from the garden and three curses are pronounced. The first is for the snake: fated, henceforth, to crawl on its belly. (A question for another day: how did it get around before that?) Human beings receive the next two judgments: one is childbirth, and the pain that accompanies it. The other is toil: food will no longer come free from the earth – the land will have to be worked for it. So the close of this story is quite literally about labor: it is a mythic explanation for the way things are. Existence does not simply give us everything we want through no effort of our own or anyone else’s – it requires work.
The departure from the garden is traditionally read as a great loss, a terrible tragedy. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all view it somewhat differently, but all three traditions contain voices of great longing for it, wanting to return to its ‘perfect’ state. Now the ethic of Unitarian Universalism, which accepts truth and rejects falsehood no matter what sort of containers each are found in, I believe requires us not to dismiss this or any other story in scripture. But, it also demands that we be willing to read against the grain as well as with it. The state of being that the ending of Genesis 3 suggests to have existed in the garden – where there were no children or possibility of children, and no need to work or struggle for any reason – is so alien to what it means to be human, that I cannot call it good. What would even be the reason to relate to one another if we had no needs to provide for, and no younger generations to make us think about the future? Eden serves

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as a model for ideal world in many respects, free of war or famine or pain, but it is only after Eden in the biblical narrative that human beings become human, just as the snake is not really a snake, until it is sentenced to crawl. The story explains that we are all in this together: all possessed of the same basic needs: food and shelter. (And I would elaborate: meaning and belonging.) Each of these human needs requires human effort to meet them. So we can struggle separately in a false autonomy, pretending that we are self-made and better off alone. Or we can work together, and realize the strange promise of our own humanity. As the great Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies put it, “life is just a chance to grow a soul.” And to grow the things we need requires us to work, or so the bible says.
Now someone this morning is thinking, even if it is only just me: Alright preacher – come on down out of your ivory tower. Turn aside the golden pages of your bible and see if you can connect any of this to the world of things as they are. What does all your theology have to do with labor policy in the year 2013? Well friends, if all work that serves any need plays a part in the ongoing revelation of the sacred in the universe, then the idea that there are some jobs that ought to pay out in fortunes and some that ought to yield starvation wages cannot stand. In fact, the service economy, the janitors, the garbage collectors, the people who work behind the counter at McDonalds, the folks who help us into and out of our beds and empty our bedpans when our own bodies are not up to the task – their work, your work, if you are one of them – seems to me particularly valuable.
Our tradition teaches us that every human life is precious and valuable on an infinite scale. Trying to make that work out justly in the language of hourly pay rates is difficult, if not impossible. But if you work full time – or as much time as you or many of your neighbors can find – you ought at least to be able to keep food

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on your table, and a roof over your head, and some hope of a more abundant life before you. Any system of wages that does not allow for this is broken and fails to meet any basic standard of justice and fairness. This sin of wages occurs wherever our system of compensation – our system for recognizing and valuing work – leaves some with too much and too many with not enough.
We cannot all build cathedrals, and we cannot all be excited and awed by the work that we do every second of every day – at least not yet, not in the imperfect world that we inhabit. It is alright, even appropriate at times to feel undervalued in what you do, or simply long for some other sort of work you think would be more satisfying, or more rewarding, or more fun. Sometimes that can lead to the hard work of an important change; and sometimes not. Now that the Red Sox have taken the pennant some of us might be thinking how we could be headed to the World Series ourselves, if only we had grown our facial hair out a bit more, and had different levels of physical talent and ability than we do, and made completely different decisions with our lives up to this point. But if we lend our minds and bodies to something, anything, that offers some beauty or sustenance to the world, we should, in a society of decent aims, be assured that the world will sustain us in turn. This is the counsel of our tradition as I understand it. Whether you accept or reject it, and what you do with whatever you do or do not accept: that is the work that lies before each of us, this morning.

Knowing What We’ve Found – 10/6/2013

The parable of the blind men and the elephant, which we heard earlier, is common to several different religious traditions: to Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sufi Islam. It is a particular favorite of Unitarian Universalists, referenced by us at least as often as the stone soup folk tale, the call of Isaiah or the sermon on the mount. We are drawn to the story because it illustrates how different people can experience the same thing differently. And it counsels humility in the face of disagreement, since with our limited selves we can each find some of the truth, but can’t discover all of it on our own. In fact, we can get the closest to knowing the whole story only by comparing notes with other people who have a different piece of the truth than we do.

There is an inversion of this same story that the psychotherapist Steve Andreas used in the title of his two volume book, Six Blind Elephants. It goes like this: once, a group of blind elephants were talking about this thing and that, and came to the subject of human beings. Because they could not agree on just what sort of things humans were, they agreed that they would find one and examine it for themselves. When they finally did come across a human, the first elephant reached out with one of its legs and felt around for it. The others all followed suit. Once they had done so a few times to be certain, all the elephants agreed: human beings are flat.

This can be taken as an extreme example of what science calls the observer effect: the way the studying or measuring an object or phenomenon changes it. As Unitarian Universalists we are committed to seek after truth and to hold fast to it and act on it where we find it, but that just begs the question: how will we know it when we find it? How often, in fact, do we humans come across things of inestimable value and fail to recognize them – fail to recognize not just what the elephant is, but even that one is in front of us?

At the intersecting borders of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, the salt waters of the Dead Sea rest at more than 1,000 feet below sea level – the lowest elevation found on any continent. That part of the world is often described in the west as being all desert – it is not. There are sources of fresh water and large stretches of green and growing things all throughout the eastern Mediterranean. But the Dead Sea is one of the places where the region lives up to its reputation. The waters are so salty that they are nearly useless to any sort of life – even the hardiest microorganisms – and the surrounding area is rocky, dry terrain where few plants or animals can grow or live. But there is still enough scrub grass for nomadic shepherds to pass through the area grazing their flocks, and this was what brought three Bedouin men – Muhammed Edh-Dib, Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa – to the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947. By chance, they made one of the most celebrated discoveries in 20th century archeology.

Passing by a cave in the rocky hills, one of the Muslim men tossed a stone inside and heard the sound of pottery breaking. Their exploration revealed manuscripts with Hebrew letters – the first of what would come to be called the Dead Sea scrolls. The Bedouins had no way of knowing exactly what they had found – the texts were faded and obscured, written in archaic forms of a language they did not speak. They could recognize that they were very old, and might be worth something to someone. Finding that someone, though, was not an easy prospect. One of the first potential buyers they approached rejected the documents, assuming that they must have been stolen from a Jewish synagogue. That first potential buyer couldn’t imagine beyond his own limited understanding. He was like the child in an ancient Chinese story, the son of a great horse expert who tried to find a fast, strong steed by following his father’s advice. “Look,” he said, “I have found just the one, with a tall, wide forehead and large eyes, just as you taught me.” Only the father had actually seen a horse in person before – his son’s prized find was actually a toad. Exasperated, he replied, “This horse likes jumping, but you just can’t ride it.”

More than a year after their discovery, the scrolls wound their way to a cobbler and part-time antiquities dealer. He bought them for a tiny sum, and sold them for a larger amount that is still incredibly small in retrospect. The materials were divided up and some of them wound their way to the United States. All of this took place as the war that led to the modern state of Israel was breaking out – the tensions between Arabs and the Jews who were most interested in these artifacts made open negotiations for them almost impossible. The conflict also complicated exploration of the cave where the scrolls were found, once the story of these works made its way to scholars excited by the prospect of finding more.

Finding something precious, whether a lost treasure, a deep truth, or any other potential source of joy, is not enough to make use of it, not if we don’t understand what we’ve found. Even with understanding, we may not have the means to fully make use of such a find. We can end up like the three Bedouin shepherds, convinced to sell some of the most prized objects the history of biblical archeology for the modern equivalent of $29.

What Muhammed, Jum’a, and Khalil had found, it turns out, were some of the very oldest biblical documents known to exist – from the period of the Second Temple, between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. Explorations around the first cave eventually found more, with evidence of an ancient building on the hilltop above. This cache of documents includes ancient copies of books which can be found in the Hebrew bible, as well as other scriptural texts that didn’t make it into that canon – apocryphal books, they are called. There are also more unique records, evidence of a particular religious community with its own particular way of living and worshipping together. The study of this vast collection has been an ongoing international project for sixty years now. Most of them are kept in a special museum wing called the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, though you can see a few of them for yourself for the next few weeks as part of a touring exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Recognizing, or failing to recognize, the true value of an object is reoccurring trope in folklore. In the tale of Aladdin, the magic lamp containing a powerful, wish granting genie is left in the care of a young woman who does not know its true value. A scheming sorcerer tricks her into trading it away by disguising himself as a foolish merchant and going through her neighborhood calling out a too-good-to-be-true offer: “Old lamps for new! Old lamps for new!” In one of archeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones’ films, he must choose the true Holy Grail from among a collection of false cups. The right choice means eternal life, the wrong one instant death. The whip-slinging professor finds the right cup in a matter of instants, because of his superior insight as a scholar of antiquities, and because he is the hero of the story.

In reality, however, knowing the true value of whatever we have found is not so simple. Even once their historical importance was clear, the scholars studying the Dead Sea scrolls had no idea how to properly treat and care for them. Photographs from the early years show researchers working in sunlit rooms and smoking cigarettes around ancient materials now kept in dark, climate-controlled environments. Fragments of papyrus and animal hide were fixed in place with scotch tape; modern restoration work is thus focused more on repairing damage done in the early years of study than in the centuries the scrolls lay undiscovered. Knowing that something is precious does not always

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mean we know how to treat it with care and respect – or that we will do so.

The origin and meaning of the scrolls themselves is also still in dispute, after half a century of careful study. They were, for a long time, attributed to a little-understood, self-isolating Jewish community called the Essenes. The thinking was that the Essenes made their home on the hill above the caves. More recently, scholars have begun to agree that the texts found in the caves were made elsewhere, possibly brought there from several different locations to be hidden to protect them from the armies of Rome. Collections of plates and bowls have been found amongst the documents – this was said to be because one of the most important practices for the Essenes was the sharing of a ritual meal. But now one of the competing theories is that the building above the caves was never the center of a religious community – instead, it was a pottery works, and all those plates and bowls are just leftover goods that were never sold.

Yet, even with so much uncertainty and unanswered questions, the Dead Sea scrolls have a tremendous amount to tell us. They demonstrate evolution in Hebrew as a written language, and show how the wording of scripture which is today thought to be set in stone actually varied in earlier eras. And they form a snap-shot of religious thinking in Judea in the time around the life of Jesus. There were conflicts between established religious authorities and new groups searching for a purer, more authentic way, fear and anger at living under Roman occupation, and an obsession with a dramatic end of human history, thought to be just around the corner.

A week ago, another story involving incredibly valuable things buried in the desert came to an end: Breaking Bad, the television program about a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into the kingpin of a methamphetamine empire through a grueling process of violence and betrayal. Throughout the story, the main character, Walt, insists to himself and to everyone else that his only motive is to leave behind an inheritance to his wife and children, since he knows that he is dying of cancer. He uses love of family to justify progressively more and more terrible and destructive acts – a fictionalized exaggeration of an all-too terribly common practice. But in one of the show’s final scenes – COVER YOUR EARS NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS – Walt finally finds it in him to admit the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” The story demonstrates the limits of “following your joy” as a moral guideline – finding something enjoyable isn’t a sure sign that it’s right. It also points to the danger that results when we lose sight of the value of what we already have. Walter White began his story with financial problems, professional disappointments and the frightful prospect of impending mortality – but he also had a partner and a child who loved him, with another on the way. He ended his story with nothing but the wreckage he had wrought and the consolation that he undid a bit of it in his final hours. “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance,” said the Greek philosopher Epicurus. When we undervalue what we do have, no new acquisition can fill that hole; when we are driven by scarcity it leads to self-destruction.

If the story of the Dead Sea scrolls is about recognizing the true value in things, about coming to understand the elephants we meet, what model does it offer? In the Jewish tradition it is said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” A quick judgment of some chance find, or realization, or human relationship is rarely the final word. The study of the scrolls and the caves where they were found has taken thousands of people decades of careful work, and it is still going on. If we were to devote ourselves with even a tiny fraction of that dedication to the study of our own lives – of what we have, what we need, and what is true by the light of our own experience – what wonders might we find?

As a metaphor, this study also shows us that trying to make such an exploration all on our own has little chance of success. Great undertakings of discovery require many people working together. This is what congregations such as ours exist to do: we help each other examine our own stories, find what is best in them, and live more closely in accordance with what we find. We do this by intentionally being a part of each others’ lives: by worshiping together, learning and serving together. Getting to know one another, and offering our encouragement to each other, as well as our admonition, should we go astray. It is also up to us to discern collectively what our collective is for and about: to name and to follow our mission as a congregation. It’s something that needs to be renewed and revisited regularly, as we change and grow. Just in the past several months I believe I see a new sense of who we are together emerging, as the spiritual practice of hospitality moves towards center of our congregational identity. As individuals and as one community, we grow and change over time and our sense of what matters most – though it may be rooted deeply and securely – also moves with us.

Among the many documents contained in the Dead Sea scrolls is a composition called the Community Rule. This text spelled out the rules and expectations of the religious group that created it: what they believed, how they lived together, what they were for and about. Though very different in form and shape, and dramatically more concerned with doctrine and uniformity of belief and behavior, this ancient document is not so far removed from the words that are critical to our own community: our bylaws, our mission statement, and the words we say together each week. For thousands of years, people of faith have come together to support and sustain each other in the quest for truth and the hard work of living. Ours is just one manifestation of an incredibly ancient pattern.

On the Move

The Unitarian Universalist Association is moving. Well, that’s slightly misleading – the UUA is just the name we give to ourselves, all of us Unitarian Universalists and our congregations, as we work together. So of course, at any given time a great many of us are in motion. But we do have a national office, and that office is in Boston, at 25 Beacon Street (with two other adjacent buildings and another nearby). And in not too long, it won’t be.

They aren’t moving far: just off Beacon Hill and over to 24 Farnsworth Street in the Seaport District, conveniently close to the Boston Children’s Museum. The current property will be sold to fund the new. If you’ve never been to 25 Beacon before, all of this probably sounds like rather bland news – but people can grow attached to places they feel are important. I am one of those people, and 25 is one of those places.

The first time I visited our headquarters, I was 14, on a trip to Boston with the Coming of Age class from my home congregation. One of a gaggle of young Unitarian Universalists, coming to see the mothership for the first time. It seemed old in a way that felt unfamiliar and important; the church I grew up in was built in 1962 and looks the part. 25 Beacon was and is full of brown woodwork, irregular doorways, and paintings from before the electrical age. We were given a tour, I remember – I’ve taken that same tour several times since with other Coming of Age classes, as a youth advisor, and then a minister. I also worked in the basement of one of the UUA’s properties for a time. Their complex is right next to the statehouse – one of our ground-level windows looked out onto its lawn. On days when there were protests for or against something, we could hear every chant. Sometimes we went out to join in.

I have a deep appreciation for that place where great leaders of our faith have served, where great ideas and plans have been conceived and carried out, and where great work has been done for generations, supporting our congregations and our movement. When I heard about this plan to move, I was aghast. Where was our reverence for history? The administration is planning to move because their current space is small and crammed, with poor accessibility, zero flexibility, and technical barriers that are bad news for a modern office (such as a lack of high-speed internet). Compelling, pragmatic reasons, but not enough to sway my attachment to a place I consider sacred.

Change is a vital, essential element of living. Of the big changes, we can all expect to experience at least a few: the beginning of a relationship or its ending, a move to a new town or city, starting a job or finishing one, failing or succeeding at something we feel passionately about – the list goes on. There is a way of approaching change that is about escaping or abandoning the past: starting afresh, rejecting whatever was hard or painful in what has gone before. We can make it through life like that, but we will find less and less of ourselves there at the end of each transition. You can only the leave the pieces of yourself behind so many times before you run out. The alternative to this is to acknowledge that wherever we come to, we are always a product of our history. However jagged or rough the path that led us to now, it was our path. When we make peace enough with our own story to be able to live with it honestly, we may come to appreciate parts of it even more fully than when we were living them.

This is what finally won me over to the possibility of this new location for our association’s headquarters: the promise that the new space will include a dedicated space for the artifacts and stories that will be carried over from the previous buildings. From taking the tour so many times, as well as seeing behind the scenes, I know that much of the history of 25 lies below the surface – just as is the case in so many places. Paintings and plaques and memorabilia that were tucked away in inaccessible rooms or private offices can now be featured prominently, given a fuller context, and shared with far more visitors. Every change holds a loss, sometimes small and sometimes great, and we should never be quick to surrender precious things. But when the situation cannot remain or return to how it was, when our circumstances demand transformation, it can provide an opportunity to regather the scattered pieces of ourselves.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

To learn more about the move, to share your remembrances of 25 Beacon, or to contribute towards the relocation effort, please go here.

Big Stuff/Small Stuff

Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born on a farm in upstate New York and though she lived for a few decades in Virginia, she spent most of the 101 years of her life very near to where she

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husband died. She had a love of embroidery and made crafts with a needle for a good long time, until arthritis made the work too difficult. Looking for some means of expression that would be easier for her hands, Anna tried her hand at painting, originally she said, in order to make something to give to her mail carrier, for Christmas.

She was prolific, and sold her paintings for very small sums to folks in her little town. This is how an art collector, passing through, happened to see some of her work. In a little more than a year, she became a sensation, known internationally as Grandma Moses. Her ‘big break’ came when she was nearly 80 years old.

When I think about Anna Moses’ story, I think about the incredible luck of happenstance: that a particular art aficionado stumbled onto her work, got excited about it, and spread that excitement to others. But I also think about the long years – an entire lifetime, really – that led up to that turning point. A life spent working farms gave her an eye for the pastoral scenes that she became famous for painting. Years of needlework trained the muscles in her hand that would later hold a brush. Her desire to have some homemade goods to give or to sell to friends and neighbors led her to take up that brush, and a diligent attitude even towards her hobbies filled canvass after canvass. It is often said that every overnight success takes at least ten years. In the case of Grandma Moses, it took more than half a century.

Each of our lives contain major turning points – some behind us, and some still ahead. The big, improbable moments of life aren’t usually things we get to choose or control entirely: they come and they go unpredictably. What we are able to choose, more often, is the small stuff: the little decisions we make moment to moment and day to day. How much effort and attention we will give to some minor task. How much time we will lend to some small goal. How we will treat the people we are with right now. Most of life is made up of decisions so small that we don’t notice we are making them. But it is the sum of these decisions that shape who we are. They do not guarantee success or ward against calamity, but the small choices of life so often seem to have led, invisibly yet inexorably, to big choices when they chance to come.

This past summer, we began our service together as a host congregation for Family Promise, opening our congregational home to families in need of homes themselves. This work was a possibility that came upon us unexpectedly, but it was preceded by thousands of small acts of hospitality, generosity, and stewardship that gave us a building to share and the spirit to put it to use. The continued hard work that is making it possible for us to be a host congregation (with more to come at the end of September – see Ann Geikie’s note later in this newsletter) is something that we have trained for, even long before we knew we were training for it.

The big moments, in our lives as individuals, and in our shared life as a congregation, will continue to come. It may be that the new prospect of partnership with another Unitarian Universalist congregation in Salem (see my report on this later in this newsletter) is another such grand, unexpected opportunity – or, it may not be. We will determine together whether this is a critical turning point in the story of First Parish, or minor footnote. But whatever comes, friends, let us be attentive to what is already before us. It is the big choices we make that others know us by. But it is the small choices by which we know ourselves. At the start of a new church year, I look forward to making many small and worthy decisions with you.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

No Accounting for Taste – 9/22/2013

Lima beans. Haggis – the Scottish specialty of organ meat, oatmeal, and suet, encased in a sheep’s stomach. Animals with more than four arms and legs. Used Band-Aids. The word ‘moist’. Mud spattered onto clean, white shoes. The sound of nails on a chalkboard. The smell of old milk. Anchovies and ice cream.

I know what you’re thinking: yuck. At least, the chances are good that you are. I can’t be certain, because there’s no accounting for taste, but in all likelihood, we each found something in that list makes our skin crawl just from thinking about it. Some sight or taste or smell or sound or idea that makes you pull back out of instinct, that makes you say, “Yuck!” – that disgusts you. It is not a pleasant feeling; by definition it’s the sort of feeling you want to avoid or get away from as quickly as possible. But I want you to have that example, or one of your own, in mind as we talk this morning. You don’t have to focus on it, but keep it handy.

Some time ago, I preached four sermons on what I think of as the most basic set of human emotions: Sorrow, Fear, Anger, and Joy. In each of those addresses, I looked at how one particular wavelength of our emotional lives connects to our spiritual lives. I offered my sense of the place of each feeling in a life grounded in the values of love and reason that our faith calls us to. But, it may not surprise you to hear that there is no great agreement about exactly how many emotions there are, basic or otherwise. There are a number of competing theories and schemes, from those who think about this professionally. One of the more influential comes from Prof. Robert Plutchik, who sees all human feelings as being composed of eight primary emotions. Four of these are the four I have already covered on previous Sundays, so today and for the rest of the fall I will be working through the remaining four. As you might have guessed from the opening list of offensive foods and smells, today’s emotion is disgust.

Disgust has to be learned. As infants, we don’t have any natural aversions to stop us from putting anything and everything we can grab in our mouths. But over time, we pick up on what sorts of things are kept away or taken away from us, and those that we see others being repulsed by. I’ve observed this in my own son, recently, as he has learned to hold his nose around bad smells – not so much because he is offended by them, but because he can see that someone else is. Disgust repulses us away from things that are, well, the best single word for them is ‘icky’. Often these are things that could be dangerous to us: rotten food, blood, potentially poisonous animals. Our disgust can serve a purpose, the reason for which it is thought to have developed in both humans and other animals: to keep us safe.

Many of the most universally disgusting things are associated with death and decay, such as worms and flies and the breaking down of once living things into soil. There is an obvious evolutionary logic to this – everything that dies dies for a reason – but it carries other consequences. Human beings, and particularly human beings here in North America, have an aversion to death and everything to do with it. This is usually explained as coming from a fear of death, and fear is certainly a major factor in it, but there is also a quality of disgust with death and dying. People near the end of life get secluded in hospitals and nursing homes; evidence of dying, a universal human experience, is plastered over and hidden away. But like any other feeling, that repulsion is not insurmountable.

I’ve been a witness to children accompanying their dying parents. Perhaps for some, the aversion was never there, and the tubes and beeping machines, all the smells and fluids of a body past the illusion of health – these made them feel no repulsion or disgust. But I suspect that more often, the feeling was there, but it was conquered. Love, compassion, and loyalty won out over it. This summer, the journalist Scott Simon used Twitter to broadcast intimate moments from his mother’s final days.[i] It was a rare glimpse into the process of dying, and his tweets included a few items that might have been considered icky, such as his mother’s tremendous pleasure in having her teeth flossed as she lay in bed. But the picture they painted showed the will not to look away from when something when the buried impulses of our lizard brain cry out to do so: to continue on because the higher virtues of the heart demand it.

Another common trigger for disgust comes when something looks human, but with some sort of imperfection or not-quite-rightness. This problem is sometimes called the Uncanny Valley. We humans generally find things that look like us to be engaging and sympathetic; animals with big eyes and expressive faces are considered cuter, for instance, and we’re less likely to eat them. People tend to be drawn in more by a picture or a cartoon if it has a human-ish face, and the folks who build robots that are meant to interact with people take this into account. But when the features or the movement is just a little bit ‘off’, the same faces create just the opposite reaction. Very realistic animated movies, that still aren’t quite realistic enough, have been wrestling with this problem for some time: try to get too close to perfectly human, and viewers just find it disturbing.

This also the form of disgust that makes living with a visible physical disability particularly hard. There are a set of expectations about how other people are supposed to look, that most of us carry around: two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, two arms, hands, legs and feet and a standard of symmetry and common proportions. Not all bodies match those expectations, however. This can mean stares, shrieks, and alienation for people who have lost limbs or suffered other major injuries, or who have conditions that make their body or particularly their face appear other than ‘normal’. The reactions of disgust from strangers and other people can isolate them, rob them of so many of the possibilities of life, and challenge their own sense of self-worth. We learn how to be disgusted and what ought to disgust us from other people, and so it is possible to learn to be disgusted even with yourself.

But it is also possible to learn to replace that feeling with pride, towards oneself, or with acceptance and appropriate interest towards others. Early last year, R.J. Palacio published a young reader’s novel about a boy named Auggie Pullman who has Treacher-Collins syndrome. Treacher-Collins is a congenital disorder, one of the consequences of which is irregular formation of the face and head. In the novel, Auggie is a 5th grader with an inquisitive mind who enjoys video games and other perfectly normal things for a 10-year old boy. And because his face does not look the way others expect a face to look, he lives a world that sometimes ignores or flees from him, but rarely tries to understand him. The book is about the challenges he encounters, the friends he makes, the lessons he teaches and learns.

R.J. Palacio has no disabilities similar to Auggie’s, nor does anyone in her family. But she felt moved to write a story about such a character after she took her young son to get some ice cream. There was another child in the same shop who had a facial deformity. Her son cried at seeing the other child, and Palacio immediately took him away. She was trying to protect that other child, but she was also running away from her son’s discomfort and her own: acting on the repulsion rather than confronting it. Later, too late to make the same choice over again, she began writing – a way of rejecting disgust and avoidance in favor of positive action.

The feeling of disgust can be both necessary and destructive. Nowhere is that more the case than in our moral disgust. Certain things are wrong enough – certain crimes, certain actions – that people and societies find them to be repulsive. There is a natural aversion to murder built into us, for instance, built in the same way as we once learned not to eat everything we could possibly grasp and place in our mouths. But that same learned repulsion, the same trained disgust, built by the judgments of the people around us and the messages of the larger culture we share, can also be pointed elsewhere. Take, for example, all of those voices quoting Leviticus 18:22, teaching their children to hate gay people, teaching gay people to hate themselves. Such cultural training is not all-powerful, but it is powerful. You can’t wait around for it to just go away – it has to be confronted.

An obsession with purity, a training of disgust, is a common failing of religions both ancient and modern. Used carefully, it trains us to know innately that some wrong action is to be avoided, but when it overgrows, it begins to foster and cement injustice. Two thousand years ago, the religion of Jerusalem’s Second Temple had reached such a point; its standard of holiness served to alienate and exclude people. Rather than standing against iniquity, it was requiring it. Many different voices sought to reform their tradition. One of these voices belonged to the teacher Jesus. In his era, lepers – people afflicted with a wasting disease – were considered unclean and disgusting, relegated to the margins of society. In the accounts given in the Gospels, Jesus does not hesitate to visit such people, nor to keep the company of sex workers, another stigmatized group. In this way he was not confined by the prejudices of his society, either because he was immune to them, or because he was willing to confront their traces within himself.

Of these two, I prefer the latter, because it offers an example of overcoming a feeling at odds with the spirit of compassion and love.

Rather than simply arriving perfect and remaining eternally pure, we each develop throughout our lives, absorbing traits, ideas, and impulses from the people closest to us, and from the religions and societies that shape us. To expect that we will never be disgusted by anything is unreasonable, and even undesirable: the feeling helps us know when something is a threat to our physical and moral wellbeing. Henry David Thoreau wrote in the first pages of his famous Walden about the great overabundance of furniture in his home, and how acquiring and caring for these pieces distracted him from acquiring new ideas and caring for his own mind and spirit. The feeling this created in him led him to toss some of his too much stuff out the window one day. This disgust with material obsessions helped to drive him out into the woods, to live deliberately in his famous cabin.

In the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah, the author describes the expectations of justice – what is required of every human being. “To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to hide yourself.”[ii] Disgust and repulsion make us want to turn away – to do our best not to see or hear or smell the offending thing, and to try to get rid of it if it can’t be avoided. But when we refuse to hide ourselves, when we confront that primal impulse, we can test it. We can determine whether it is protecting us from something truly dangerous, or pushing us away from someone, or something that we need, or that needs us.

We live in an era when it is deemed acceptable for our leaders in business and government to declare their disgust for the poor. When members of congress feel no fear to declare their contempt for those at the mercy

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of our fraying social safety net, and to cloak that feeling in the trappings of religion. Our congregation has chosen to answer that failing in our culture by opening our congregational home to those in need of shelter and food. Through our weekly free supper program, and by offering our building as a temporary shelter to homeless families – a program that resumes tonight – we live out our determination to confront whatever traces of judgment or contempt we might find in ourselves and replace them with the human interest and respect that should exist between all people.



[ii] Isaiah 58:6-7

A Company of Saints? – 9/15/2013

The story goes that there was a school – an institution of higher learning – and this school had a library, as many do. The library was the center of this institution, literally and figuratively – a repository of knowledge, and a place of study. It was one of the oldest buildings on campus, one of the first built when the school began. And so after many years in existence it was decided by the trustees of the college that something more was needed. They made plans to expand the library with a new addition, to gain more room, more natural light, and a modern architectural sensibility that would contrast with the classic shape of the original building, while also complimenting it.

After a good bit of time and much more expense, the work was finally completed, and a ceremony was held to dedicate the newly reopened cathedral of learning. Those in attendance were given shiny new pamphlets extolling the history of library and its new and promising future. These included the building’s vital statistics of this many rooms, this many square feet, this much shelf space to hold this may thousands of volumes, both before and after the construction. Speeches were made and praise given to those who had shown the vision to improve and expand this great edifice. When things were just about over, as the event was winding down, one of the more marginal members of the faculty raised his hand, and though the program had no space for questions and answers, perhaps out of habit as an educator, the person at the microphone called on the fellow in the crowd.

He asked, respectfully, “What, then, became of the leftover books?” For, you see, when the construction plan was first announced, one of the chief reasons given for it was that the library had become overcrowded. More space was needed to store more books, and so an addition must be built. But all of the new construction and the reorganization of the old had sacrificed shelves for hallways and study spaces, computer labs and atriums. So that by actually reading the proud pamphlet about the marvelous new library this fellow in the crowd had stumbled across something: the number of books to be held in this new incarnation of the library was less than the number that had been held in the original. It just happened that a professor of English was the only one to notice.

All of which is to say that things can get dangerous and interesting when you actually read the fine print. Just ask the folks in Sistersville, West Virginia. Sistersville is named for Delilah and Sarah Wells, the sisters who founded the town. Recently, the mayor of Sistersville resigned, and the city council appointed a woman to replace him, making her the second female mayor in the town’s history. At the meeting where this was announced however, someone who had read the town charter raised a concern: according to the charter, women in Sistersville are not eligible to vote.[i]

You never know what you’ll find when you look closely at something. This summer our congregation got an interesting call from one of our neighbors – you may have read about this in our newsletter. One of our fellow Unitarian Universalist congregations is looking for another church to affiliate with: to combine forces for worship and religious education and otherwise share staff, and they wanted to know: would we be interested? We’re going to have a meeting about this after the service with a lot more information and opportunities to discuss and share our feelings and ideas. And this may be only the first of many such meetings: with a proposal like this, saying “no” goes quickly, but saying “yes” will take a lot of time and cooperation, if that’s what we choose.

Because I was thinking about this possibility of partnering with one of our neighbors, I pulled up a copy of the Cambridge Platform. That’s a statement issued by the early Puritan churches in colonial New England, outlining what they were about and how they were going to relate to each other. Even though they would not recognize us – most of our varied beliefs about God and the Bible would have been grounds for a heresy trial 300 years ago – we are still descended from those early Puritans. Our faith has changed dramatically, but the way we organize ourselves is very much the same; we aren’t bound by it anymore, but we were and are still shaped by it. Which is why the Cambridge Platform is a sort of seminary buzzword: it’s the right answer to a lot of odd questions, you have to read it at least once, and other than that people don’t bring it up much in conversation.

I was reading through it because of the section that outlines the responsibilities between congregations, and I’ll have more to say about what I found on that topic at the meeting following today’s service. But while I was on the way there, I stumbled across a paragraph that made me stop and think. Let me read it to you:

          “A Congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the         militant visible church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united    into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the        mutual edification one of another, in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”[ii]

Now let me break down a couple of things about that. Our faith is shaped by several sources; one of these is Christianity. Much of who we are today in terms of our values, ideas, and practices, we owe to the Christian tradition, and many of us continue to identify as Christians. Yet also, many of us do not, and while there is no single doctrine of Jesus agreed upon among us, we tend to view him in human terms. When I speak of Jesus it is as a teacher and someone in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets – not a God or other supremely important spiritual being. A variety of beliefs are welcome at our table, from the confident atheist to the equally certain lover of God. But the doctrines of Christian Orthodoxy, that Jesus is the one true son of God who died for the sins of humankind, this is no longer our consensus. We have been moving away from it in this particular congregation for more than 200 years, and towards something that I think is bigger, and ready to welcome more people in.

The point is that if the Cambridge Platform were written today, by and for Unitarian Universalist congregations, it would not be full of phrases like “the institution of Christ,” or “the fellowship of the Lord Jesus”. But that is not the phrase in the paragraph that struck me. It wasn’t even the idea that we are to be part of a “militant church”. It was the idea that any congregations held together by this document, including our own, must be “a company of saints by calling.” A company of saints. A company of saints? Do you know that feeling, when you’re making a recipe, and you just put the cinnamon and the baking powder in and you’re mixing it all together when you realize you switched which one got the half a teaspoon and which one got the tablespoon? It was sort of like that.

For a second it made me ask myself, “Am I in the wrong line of work?” Being a Unitarian Universalist isn’t supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be challenging, to demand that we confront our own prejudices and assumptions and live a life that is boldly true to the love that connects us and the truth as we understand it. But at the first reading, ‘saint’ seemed like an awfully different standard. Aren’t saints venerated for their patience and tranquility. When saints are alone in the car and hear someone from the opposing political party on the radio, they don’t yell back at them, do they? Oughtn’t a saint to answer all of their emails quickly and courteously – or at least not worry about it if they don’t? Shouldn’t a saint be able to have a spirited debate with his five-year-old about getting dressed for school and come out looking like the more reasonable and mature of the two?

After calming down, though, I began to think about the ways in which this statement could be useful: if not as a requirement, than at least as an aspiration. In modern English, the word saint is tossed around to mean someone who’s really good. A stranger stops to help fix a flat tire by the side of the road and we say something like, “Thanks, you’re a saint.” For many of us, though, the word brings up images from the Christian tradition, mostly from the Roman Catholic end of it, of people with halos and peaceful expressions on their faces, sometimes depicted in scenes of their painful and violent deaths.

These include names like John and Paul, both of whom were murdered by their governments; Francis and Augustine, who each led lives of hedonism and reckless abandon before dramatic changes of heart and soul; and Joan and George, who both were military saints, remembered for bravery and nobility in battle. But the idea that the word saint points to – a spiritual figure so wise or courageous or devoted that they are worth trying to learn from and emulate – that idea is not unique to Christianity. It has parallels in the Jewish tzadik and the Muslim wali, and in the Hindu world there are several different titles sometimes translated as saint. In at least one case, all three of these groups overlap.

Sarmad Kashani was an Armenian Jew who came to India in the 17th century. By some accounts he converted to Islam, others say he became a Hindu after that. It is hard to know for sure, because in the religious poetry for which he is famous, Sarmad describes himself variously as a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist and a nonbeliever. He was a holy man with a wild and stubborn reputation. Perhaps to explain himself he once wrote,

“There is no fault

With a mad man

The fault lies with you

Love hasn’t maddened you yet”[iii]

Today his tomb is visited by pilgrims of many kinds: Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and because Sarmad was a man who loved men, activists from India’s gay rights movement also sometimes number him among their own martyrs.

Before I started studying religion professionally, the saint I was most familiar with was fictional. Isaac Edward Leibowitz is the titular figure in Walter Miller’s classic science fiction novel, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. Saint Leibowitz was a Jewish engineer who survived a nuclear apocalypse and devoted his life to salvaging and protecting the knowledge of a decimated planet in the form of books. In the novel he has long since died, killed on one of his book-smuggling trips by other survivors who are pathologically afraid of the power of science and knowledge.

When I was in seminary, I had a job cleaning books in the rare book room, which housed one of the largest collections of exclusively Unitarian writings in the world. (Don’t get too impressed, there’s not a lot of competition.) There were books of all shapes and sizes in at least eight different languages, but some of the oldest books were among the very smallest. They had to be made so little because in the time when they were written, being caught with one of them could mean prison, or execution. So they were copied out on pages so small they could be hidden in a sleeve or a stocking. A particular prize of the collection was one such small book by Michael Servetus. Original copies of his work are very rare, in part because when he was executed for heresy, the fire was kindled with every copy that could be found of his books. Servetus ranks among the entirely unofficial, completely uncanonized list of our own saints that we Unitarian Universalists invoke from time to time.

The authors of Cambridge Platform would have meant something specific by that word, saint. To them it meant anyone who shared their particular religious beliefs and commitments. Because theirs was the one true version of religion, as far as they were concerned, whoever was truly dedicated to it was, by definition, a saint. As Unitarian Universalists, that can’t possibly fly, because our faith is more humble than that. We know that we not the only spiritual path that contains truth and value. As the poet Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” But the various examples I’ve recounted here, the others you may have thought of yourselves, point in a certain direction. So I want to tell you this: a saint need not be perfect. A saint must rather be awake to and aware of their own imperfections, and determined to live the best life they can both despite and because of those flaws. What makes someone a saint is their devotion to a good far larger than the narrow interest of themselves or their own small circle, and the way in which that devotion inspires others to expand their own hearts. When a person lives in this way, struggling to make the world more compassionate, more wise, and more just, by any means they can – they might, in any given moment, serve to inspire someone else. You never know who is going to catch you doing what is right, and it only takes one time to count: in that one moment, for that one person, you were a saint. It only takes one, but it is worth it every time that it happens.           That is an understanding of what it means to be a saint that I can use, and it is one that I think is worth setting before ourselves. To seek, in the words of those irreplaceable, troublesome ancestors of our, to make our community a company of saints by calling. Not a group of people who are already saints, but who are doing their best to live in a way that they might inspire each other and anyone else, to turn away from narrow indifference, and towards a generous heart. A congregation striving to renew its commitment to the greater love that encompasses all people, and even though we will falter, to keep trying again and again and again.



[ii] The Cambridge Platform (1648), Chapter 2, #6.

[iii] From the Rubaiyat of Sarmad.

Back to the Well – 9/8/2013

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Life’s Little Landmarks

Sometime in the last several weeks, an invisible line on the calendar was crossed. The exact date was hard enough to pinpoint that I failed to mark it down and note it as it passed by, but with July over I can say for sure: I have now lived in Beverly for longer than any other place in my adult life. It’s been only a tenth-or-so of my actual lifetime, an infinitesimal fragment measured against the arc of history. And though there have been telling signs of my acclimation to this particular place – I’ve grown accustomed to allowing the first car to turn left before taking the right of way at a green light, for instance – I know I remain a relative newcomer. Still, when I think of home, this is it.

Through culture and tradition, we are trained to mark a certain small set of points in life: births, weddings, and the anniversaries of each; graduations, and certain birthdays that carry additional rights and privileges. As nations, townships and other groupings we celebrate holidays both sacred and secular. But how many personal, particular, intimate milestones do we accumulate in our living? The day you become older than your mother was when you were born. The point at which you and your partner have been together longer than you’ve been apart. The anniversary of the day you started your first job, got in that terrible accident, or joined your congregation. Life is made up of moments like these; we are constantly crossing the boundaries of time. Each moment is further away from some things than you have ever been before, and closer to other things as well. Alice in Wonderland taught us that we have 364 un-birthdays each year: what would it be like to celebrate each one?

I ask only half in jest. I’m the sort of person who likes to take a break between big events, to make sure I have time to recoup and regroup. I don’t think I could sustain an endless party, and I wouldn’t want to try. But trying to note and appreciate just some of those personal landmarks along life’s path helps me to remember. I am not who I was a moment ago, nor who I will be in one moment’s time – I am simply the me of this particular now. And that me, this me,

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here and now, is responsible to all my past personae, and responsible for all my future selves.

“There’s still a little bit of summer left,” as George Costanza once said. So I invite you to use some free handful of moments in the next few weeks to take stock. What milestones are you approaching or leaving behind this month. What self is in the rearview, and what sort of person to you hope to glimpse ahead through the fogged-up windshield of your expectations? Mark the time, and note its passing. Remember who you have been so you can be who you are, and get on to the work of becoming…well, that’s up to you.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

The Courage of Wildflowers – 6/17/2013

It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow; they neither work nor spin. Yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”[i] It is very common to think of flowers in this way: as things that are beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, and for no other reason at all. But the qualities of flowers that we might think of as empty beauty: their colors and fragrances, actually serve important functions. By being colorful and smelly, flowers attract animals, and those animals spread the pollen from those flowers around, and that helps to make more flowers grow. The lilies of the field are actually working quite hard; their prettiness has a purpose.

The native peoples of Australia tell a story about a time when all the flowers disappeared, and the fields and hillsides were bare. It was a terrible loss not only because all that natural beauty was gone, but also because the bees left along with the flowers, and without the bees there was no more honey to be found. The children were particularly upset by this. So the elders went on a long journey, and found their way up into heaven, into the sky. That place was filled with flowers blooming everywhere. They returned to earth with some of those flowers from heaven, and planted them here, and everything that blossoms and blooms came from this. What is true for flowers and plants is true for all that lives: everything owes itself to something that came before.

Today we celebrate the flower communion, this ritual of bringing flowers to church and exchanging them, because of Norbert Capek. Norbert was the founder of the Unitarian Church of Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. He devised this ritual to feed the religious impulse of his congregation, that dimension of the human spirit that is fed by ritual and symbol, and he did this somewhat against their own inclination. Most of them had had enough of traditional religion, and were content to hear him give moral and philosophical lectures each week – but Norbert believed his people needed habits and practices to share in and to shape their community.

Thousands of miles and three-quarters of a century away, most Unitarian Universalist congregations in America hold some version of this ritual in the spring or early summer each year. The practice is almost a miniature dramatization of how we function as a spiritual community. Each of us lives in the world with our own stories and experiences. We gain from our living fragments of wisdom and insight, small and beautiful. Coming together into a congregation, these pieces form a great bouquet – a rich mixture of color and shape. There is a collective beauty that deepens the value of each individual blossom. Then, as we set out to return to our separate places, we take with us new insight, new beauty: new flowers.

In a greenhouse or a garden, flowers grow on command, or at least, the will of some human being is among their prerequisites. A total lack of skill at horticulture (such as I possess) may prevent them from growing, but the reverse is not true. No gift or merit will cause a neat and ordered garden to spring up for you: it takes effort. In the wild, however, things are different. The unpredictable, anarchic paintbrush of petals drips its color wherever windblown seeds and unseen shoots find purchase. Sometimes this makes for a good home: enough sun, enough water, little danger to new growth, and sometimes it does not. The courage of wildflowers is in their persistence: they appear and return again and again in the most desolate and improbable places. In the ashen wake of a forest fire, in the jagged crack in a patch of asphalt, on a scrap of earth only briefly beyond the reach of the sea, flowers bloom. One may wither or choke, but others may spring forth thereafter.

Norbert Capek created the ritual we celebrate this morning, but if it had only been for him, we would not be practicing it now. Norbert believed in the dignity and value of all human beings, and the rights of all people to live and live free. In Central Europe, at the outbreak of World War II, such ideas became things that one could be arrested, jailed, or even killed for. Sometimes in this world, it can be a dangerous thing to bloom: to show forth who and what you are, to grow into the fullest expression of your own true self. People won’t always like your colors; some of them may decide they don’t like you. So it was with Norbert.

While he did not survive the war, his wife, Maja, did. She was traveling in the United States when the fighting started. She couldn’t return home, so she did what she could here, rallying support for her country and building connections with American Unitarians. She is the one who taught this ritual to the first of our churches in this country. Each year, the practice renews like a blooming perennial, and it was Maja who first scattered the seeds.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus makes his point about the lilies of the field by asking, “If this is how God clothes the grass, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will God clothe you?”[ii] The courage of wildflowers prompts us with a similar question: “If this is how bold and determined, a frail, delicate plant is prepared to be, how much more should I be willing to risk myself, in order to be myself?” We human beings blossom when we are our best selves: when we live, and love, and work, and dream, and believe according to what is most true in us. Not because it makes us indestructible, not because there is no risk involved, not because it is easy but because it is hard. Because without our determination to unfold our lives despite the costs, there would be less color, and fragrance, and beauty in the world. Like everything else that lives, we are here to grow. May each of us be courageous and persistent, my friends, in our flowering work.

[i] Matthew 6:28-29

[ii] Matthew 6:30

Singing, Joy, and Exultation – 6/2/2013

First Reflection

The next piece of music we will hear was composed by Mabel Daniels, a setting for words derived from several of the Psalms. Mabel was born a Unitarian and passed from life a Unitarian Universalist, having lived through the great consolidation. She was originally from Swampscott and lived most of her life in and around Boston. It is difficult to make a living for oneself as a professional composer of music, and because of long-standing bias, it is particularly difficult to do so as a woman. In Mabel’s day, it was so difficult, in fact, that it was nearly unheard of. Most people literally could not imagine that a woman would be able to compose music for a choir or orchestra, or even that she might want to.

One of the stories Mabel used to tell to illustrate this took place during the Worcester Music Festival in 1940. She happened to be chatting with another member of the audience during an intermission. He had been impressed with the new composition just performed, but was confused as to why that woman had been invited up onto the platform just before the music and singing began. Mabel offered a gentle, tactful response: “Perhaps she was the composer!” The fellow seemed flabbergasted at this; equal parts confused by the idea and certain that it was wrong. I take from this story that he must not have had very good seats for the performance, because he should otherwise have realized that he was talking to that woman who had been acknowledged just before the piece – it was a Mabel Daniels original.

The text of the piece we will hear now exhorts us in Latin to strike up the band – to bring in the sounds of drum and trumpet and all manner of instruments. To bring song, praise, and a joyful noise into the worship of that all-loving, justice-seeking spirit which each of us understands and experiences in our own particular way. Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, who was for many years the minister of the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester, the oldest Universalist congregation in the Americas, had a love for telling stories from his ministry in a language derived from the King James bible. And so he wrote,

“There was in the city a certain man with a good voice…[Who] did raise his voice in exultation when his favorite numbers were called for, even Let Me Call You Sweetheart, and I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad…[And] sometimes on the Sabbath day the man with the good voice did come to the Temple with his wife. And the wife did strive valiantly with the hymns, but her husband would not so much as open his mouth to sing praises unto the Lord. When the congregation sang…this man with a good voice did remain shut up like unto a clam.”

That story and the words we are about to hear remind us that whatever our ability or potential, it is nothing if it is not put to use. Power without purpose is powerless. But a worthy reason to struggle, to sing, or to survive, makes any and all of us stronger.


Second Reflection

The next composition we will hear contains lyrics by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was perhaps the first popular American novelist to attempt to take the lives and experiences of people living in slavery seriously, and her work is credited with helping to grow and embolden the movement for the abolition of slavery. She is so frequently listed as being a Unitarian that when we were putting together our plans for this service I didn’t even question her inclusion. In truth, however, Harriet Beecher Stowe was not a Unitarian and in fact her father was a famous enemy of Unitarianism, having led the opposition to the appointment of a Unitarian as chair of divinity at Harvard. Harriet’s own religious views were more complex and varied – she was something of a seeker during her life, and eventually became associated with Spiritualism, a religious movement focused on communicating with the dead which had a surge of popularity in the mid 1800s.

But it is one of the deeply held principles of our tradition, that we do not listen only to voices from within our own house, so that whether Harriet Beecher Stowe was or was not a Unitarian should have no bearing for us on the beauty and value we find in her words. The words of the piece we will now hear speak of wonder, joy, and reassurance in an abiding, persistent sense of the presence of the holy. In the morning, in the nighttime; at birth, throughout life, and even unto death, Harriet’s words describe a sense of never being truly alone. It is a classic understanding of what so many people call God: not as a king, or a parent, or a judge, but as an abiding companion. As we listen, I invite you to look into your own hearts and minds and reflect on who is with you this morning: what persons living or dead, what beings or forces, real or imagined, follow with you wherever you go?


Third Reflection

Our closing anthem was composed by Daniel Pinkham, a Unitarian church musician from Lynn who served for 42 years as Music Director at King’s Chapel in downtown Boston. One of the latin phrases in this piece – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” – may be familiar to you from the Christmas carol ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’. The lyrics are expressions of praise. One of the lines may be translated as, “Come before God, come into the Holy Presence, come unto God with singing,

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joy, and exultation.” Music is a means to approach the transcendent – the whatever-it-is that is at the highest point of being alive. It is like the candy that your mom used to keep on the highest shelf where she thought you couldn’t find it. Music can be like that step ladder that you hauled across the kitchen and climbed up onto. We never fully understand what is up there, at the highest height of existence, but we always suspect it is something glorious. And that is what keeps us coming back; what keeps us singing.

The ancient mystical poet Hafiz wrote a poem that speaks to this. I would like to leave you with it, to consider in the remaining moments of our worship together, and in the days of the week to come. 650 years ago he wrote something like this:

Your breath is a sacred clock, my dear—

Why not use it to keep time with the sacred Name?


And if your feet are ever mobile

Upon this ancient drum, the earth,

O do not let your precious movements

Come to naught.


Let your steps dance silently

To the rhythm of the Beloved’s Name!


My fingers and my hands never move through empty space,

For there are invisible golden lute strings all around,
Sending Resplendent Chords
Throughout the Universe.

I hear the voice
Of every creature and plant,
Every world and sun and galaxy–
Singing the Beloved’s Name!

I have awakened to find violin and cello,
Flute, harp, and trumpet,
Cymbal, bell and drum–
All within me!
From head to toe, every part of my body
Is chanting and clapping!

Love has made me – and you – luminous!

For with constant remembrance of the sacred,
One’s whole body will become
A Wonderful and Wild,

Holy Orchestra!

The Strange and Wonderful World We Share

Staring long enough at the shapes and forms of the natural world, some human beings find there patterns and images. Many of us do it with clouds, for instance: this one looks like a dinosaur, that one looks like a bunny rabbit. Something similar sometimes happens in stone:  Gloucester’s Mother Ann looks like a woman reclining, California’s Cathedral Peak resembles a church steeple, and Oregon’s Phantom Ship appears to float derelict in the waters that surround it. It often comes to us naturally to marvel at the wonders of the natural world. Those who would explain the mechanics by which these curiosities came to be – the flow of water vapor on air currents or the slow erosion of rock by wind and rain – are sometimes thought to be quashing this impulse: weighing down our native awe with dreary detail.

Sometimes, however, the puzzle is more complex and troubling than the semblance of a face on a mountainside, and the need for answers seems more pressing. In the Oklo mines in Gabon in West Africa in 1972, such a puzzle came to be found. The mines were dug for uranium, which can be used both to fuel nuclear reactors, to produce energy, and to make nuclear weapons. What they found during their digging was a very particular type of uranium that shouldn’t have been there: the sort you can only get after its been through a reactor. There was a small panic among the scientific team: this seemed to be evidence of some sort of tampering involving a dangerous, tightly controlled material, and the strange prospect of someone stealing ore, processing it (likely for the purpose of making a weapon) and then returning the leftovers.

Study and investigation eventually led to a conclusion perhaps as confusing but far more wondrous. Oklo is now held to hold the only known example of naturally occurring nuclear reactors. A modern nuclear power plant produces energy by starting and controlling a nuclear reaction, with very specific materials and circumstances. For it to work, everything has to be just so. And it seems that about two billion years ago, the natural flow of earth and water produced such a set of circumstances: the right amount of uranium in the right configuration, enough water to facilitate the process and the absence of other elements that would interrupt it. And this happened in not just one spot, but in seventeen points identified throughout the mines, sustaining reactions that lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, still well more than a billion years before the advent of complex life.

What I take from this, is that the world is bizarre and fascinating beyond our imagining; there is no limit to its potential to surprise. So that attempts to understand or explain what is are not a barrier to wonder and awe: they are a necessary product of them, and a means, in turn, of sustaining them. It is in our nature to wonder, and it is an expression of wonder to seek to explain. In the summer, many of us find ourselves particularly drawn to the natural world: whether thousands of miles from home, or in our own backyard. So in these weeks and months, I encourage you to turn your dreaming eye upon the world and seek out mystery. You may find puzzles to be solved, and learn from them. And you may find wonders whose full explanations elude you. Both are worthy of your attention, and your reverence. I look forward to those moments, whether in the summer or after the arrival of fall, when we may share our insights and findings with each other.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Sundays Remembered – 5/19/2013

In the family I grew up in, if it was Sunday, we went to church. I don’t mean that we always went there with big smiles on our faces. Sometimes I didn’t want to go; sometimes my brothers didn’t want to go; sometimes my parents didn’t want to go. And I don’t mean that we were there bright and early, sticking around to shut the place down. That congregation had two services most Sundays, one and nine and one at eleven, and my parents could not imagine a life in which they would happily get up in time to be at church by nine – we were definitely 11 o’clock people. And there were some Sundays we didn’t look forward to as much as others, like Easter, when the sanctuary was always too crowded and the dress code seemed to jump up three levels for no good reason.

But if there was church school that Sunday, then we were going to church. So from the beginning of preschool to the end of high school, I logged a lot of hours. And I want to tell you three things I still have with me from

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all that time.

Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School, I sang a lot of songs. I can’t say I can remember them all, but I can remember at least one that we used to sing a lot. It goes, “Love is

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something if you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something if you give it away: you end up having more.” With those words, and in so many other ways, my church taught me that love is what truly matters in life. Love is the best gift we can give one another, it is the most important thing we need from one another, and it is perhaps the only thing there is that has no limit – that we can’t run out of.

In those fourteen or so years, I also did a lot of arts and crafts projects with paints and glue and yarn and glitter. I can’t say I remember them all, but I can remember the house I got to make, just for me, out of an old refrigerator box. I used a lot of orange paint and made a draw bridge with a string I could pull up and down. With that project, and in so many other ways, my church taught me a lesson about where my home is: in my body, in my congregation, and in my world. All can be as imperfect as a sloppily painted cardboard box, but all are also precious and wonderful.

Over all those classes, I had a lot of teachers. I can’t say I remember them all, but I can remember people who listened when I had something to say. People who read me stories and poured me apple juice, did their best to help me find answers to my questions and worked hard to share the big hopes and dreams of Unitarian Universalism with me. Even when they were still learning about our faith themselves.

To the children and youth, and to their teachers: I cannot tell you today which memories of Sunday school you will still carry with you fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years from now. But I can tell you that you will remember something, and the things you will remember will be the things that truly matter. And that is why we come together as a community to learn, and that is why we come together as a community to teach.

Undeserved Necessity – 5/12/2013

Back in 1950, the choir of the West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, NE met on Wednesday evenings. Practice was scheduled to begin at 7:20. Some folks made it a habit to get there early, some tended to arrive right on time, a few might come straggling in late, but the warm-ups and the singing did, in fact, dependably begin by 7:25, each evening. So it was that on March 1st, 1950, Rev. Walter Klempel made sure to light the furnace at the church in order to keep out the late winter cold. At 7:27 that evening, that lit furnace ignited a natural gas leak from a pipe running underneath the street outside the church building. There was a fantastic explosion. The walls blew out, the roof caved in, and the steeple flew through the air and landed in the street some distance away. The combustion left the building a smoking ruin.

But choir member Lucille Jones was caught up in a radio program that wouldn’t end until 7:30 that night. Her friend Dorothy Wood waited for her, and so neither of them were there. Sadie and Royena Estes had a car that wouldn’t start. High school student Ladona Vandergrift was delayed by her geometry homework, which kept her from picking up the Estes sisters and from being on time herself. The choir director’s daughter who played piano for the rehearsal fell asleep after dinner and woke up late, keeping them both away from the church. Pastor Klempel had gone home for dinner and planned to bring his whole family back to the church with him, but when his daughter need a new dress after dinner, they were all delayed by the ironing of it. And Joyce Black dawdled at home because it was cold out that night and she didn’t relish even walking across the street from her house to the church, which exploded just as she opened her door. Of the more than fifteen people who were planning and expected to be in the West Side Baptist Church the night it exploded, all of them were somewhere else instead. There was terrible destruction, but no injury or loss of life.

The common religious interpretation of this story, including the one held by the West Side congregation itself, which rebuilt and still exists, is that this was a miraculous act of divine mercy. My message this morning is the final installment of a series of sermons offering some possible definitions of religious terms that are important to our tradition. The particular subject is grace – a word sometimes used to describe circumstances like the very happy delaying of those choir members in Beatrice, NE.[i]

In a number of religious systems, and in Christianity in particular, grace is an idea about which there is a strong consensus at the general level, and major disagreement at the level of specifics. So that the terms justifying, sanctifying and prevenient grace all have particular, sometimes disputed meanings. I won’t get into those meanings right now; they will not be questions on the final exam this morning, nor do I expect them to appear on the far grander, cosmic one which follows for us all. But the general meaning of grace is the mercy, gift, or favor of God, particularly something that saves or protects people from dangers both physical and spiritual. In the biblical story of the flood, the warning to Noah and the instructions to build an ark and save the animals and his family have been considered an example of grace. In Christian teaching, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of a happy afterlife are chief expressions of grace. The traditional teaching also holds that grace is something that cannot be earned or deserved: it is a gift, and not a right.

The one special type of grace I

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will talk about here is called “irresistible grace.” This is the doctrine that human beings are so innately bad that they are incapable of even wishing to be good, but that God chooses a select few and makes them so. This is tied up with the insidious idea, which is still abroad in the world today, that all observable circumstances are an expression of divine will. So people who are rich are rich because God wants them to be, and people who suffer, suffer because God desires it. People deserve only suffering and pain, and it is only God’s intervention that causes any other sort of fate. These ideas are important to us as Unitarian Universalists because of how loudly and emphatically we have opposed them.

Our tradition affirms a long list of things that all people deserve: justice, compassion, love; food, shelter, safety; freedom of conscience, and a voice in decisions that affect them. Anyone who lives in this world discovers quickly, however, that these things do not fall equally and automatically to all people. There are a great many things that all of us deserve but only some of us receive. So we and our ancestors have found it essential to the work of religion to struggle in the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. To try to meet the basic physical and spiritual needs of ourselves and others, and to identify and challenge the structures and systems that caused those needs to go unmet to begin with. This is why we answered doctrines of innate human depravity with hope in the capacities of the human soul, why we countered eternal damnation with universal salvation, and why Unitarians and Universalists have played major roles in movements against slavery, heterosexism, economic injustice and religious intolerance in North America and Europe. Our belief that the work of religion is to serve human need is also the motive behind our free supper program here at First Parish, and our determination, in the face of more than a few challenges, to serve as a temporary overnight shelter for homeless families in the Family Promise program. All people deserve to have such basic needs met.

But there is still at least one great gift that all of us need but which I believe none of us can be said to have earned: the gift of being alive. Before I existed, I had no merit to argue from. It might be said that a life that isn’t alive yet is a morally clean slate, but then I was no cleaner than any of the uncountable other people who might have existed instead of me. It is a staggering privilege to be, not just because of the grandeur of the world and the wonder of existence, but because there are only so many human beings who have or ever will exist – yet there are an infinite number of people who might have existed, if things had unfolded just a little bit differently. The you who was born in June instead of May, or in Cincinnati instead of Cleveland. The you who was born with a different hair color, different gender, different body type, or different set of parents. An impossible number of yous were possible; only one of you happened. And the one of you that happened is phenomenally lucky to have happened.

Which brings me to the definition of grace I want to offer you this morning: grace is luck redeemed by the purpose we put it to. It’s a fairly common idea that the seemingly disconnected events of reality are part of some vast and inscrutable plan. Simply put, that everything happens for a reason, a part of a larger, higher cause. I believe that evidence does not bear this out – that for every church choir spared from a natural gas explosion, there are catalogs of tragedies both horrible and horribly mundane in which people no less holy, lives no less precious, were lost to something equally arbitrary. Still, I cannot claim to know what is unknowable, and nor can anyone else. That leaves us in a world where things happen either without a larger cosmic purpose or without any knowable one. So instead of trying to find the hidden sacred reason for some great sorrow or joy which befalls us, our work is to find the best purpose to which that joy or sorrow can be put. This applies equally to winning the lottery, breaking your neck, getting divorced, becoming pregnant, or losing the Super Bowl. Something in your life has changed. How your life proceeds is never fully in your control, but you can choose its direction some, and the direction towards which you bend your life can grant some meaning, after the fact, to whatever changed it.

In the Hindu tradition, the great philosopher Ramanuja drew a line between what he called “cat grace” and “monkey grace.” A mother cat, when she sees that her child is in danger – or when she sees the same child doing something she does not think he should be doing – picks the kitten up by the scruff of the neck. She simply moves him to where she wants him to go, and his best contribution to her effort is to simply not resist. A mother monkey, on the other hand, carries and cares for her child, but needs the child’s cooperation: the baby monkey must cling to her mother.[ii] Grace is a fluid, unpredictable force, but opening ourselves to it sometimes means submission and sometimes means actively grabbing a hold. In the wake of hardship, some way forward might present itself easily: a loved one dies and we devote our energies to helping work against their illness, or to comforting other people in grief or pain. Something like this does not restore the dead or make senseless things sensible, but it is a light in the shadow.

Then, sometimes our expectations are turned on their heads. There is a legend of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and his travels with the prophet Elijah. One night they were guests of an elderly couple who were so poor their only valued possession was a single cow. They were kind and generous with their hospitality, but after the visitors left, Rabbi Joshua heard the prophet praying that their cow should die. The two next stayed with a wealthy man who treated them poorly and did not offer them even a crust of bread. When they were back on the road, Rabbi Joshua heard Elijah pray that a dangerous crack in the wall of the man’s house should be repaired. They came to a town where the people refused to welcome or greet them, yet as they left, Elijah blessed them with the wish that they all should become leaders in their village. Then they entered a town where the people were warm and kind and shared all that they had. As they left, Elijah pronounced his hope that only one of them should ever become a leader. Finally, Rabbi Joshua couldn’t take it any longer, and asked the prophet why he had done these things, returned good with evil and evil with good. Elijah explained that he only prayed for the cow to die in place of the old woman, so that she and her husband would have more time together. The crack in the wall held a great treasure hidden behind it; Elijah had prayed that it be sealed so the unkind owner of the house would not gain more riches to hoard. The pronouncement on the unwelcoming town was not a blessing, but a curse: when everyone believes they ought to be the leader, no one thinks of or listens to anyone but themselves. And the wish for the welcoming town had been genuine: it is better to have a single leader, who takes seriously their responsibility, and whom the people can trust.[iii] Just like Rabbi Joshua, we cannot know everything that will come from a single event: good can follow evil, and what seems a blessing can also bring a curse.

So much has already been said by so many, myself included, about the response to the recent bombings in Boston. About the random circumstances that put some in harm’s way and others in unique positions to act with courage and to save lives. Among these many stories are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have come to Boston to visit with amputees, give them advice on life with a prosthesis, and offer encouragement as fellow members of a relatively small club. It would be presumptuous and insulting to say that one person’s deep loss was meant to equip them to help another person endure a similar fate. We can find great lessons in our suffering but there are always other ways to learn. As a thing unto itself, suffering is fundamentally purposeless. How we respond to suffering, on the other hand, can be profoundly purposeful.

Voltaire’s famous character Candide is a young optimist who endures a series of great misfortunes and misadventures. At the close of his story, Candide’s mentor Pangloss recounts these events; some bizarre and improbable, most sorrowful and unpleasant. Yet, Pangloss insists that they live in the best of all possible worlds, for if any of these terrible things had not befallen Candide, he would not have found his way to the relative peace and happiness of a quiet farming life. “Well observed,” replied Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.” We cannot control the whole world. We cannot fully know the world, in its boundless complexity. Even to judge the world, vast as it is, is a questionable undertaking for our limited selves. But we can affect the piece of time and existence in which we find ourselves. Fortunes fair and foul may buffet us – but let us cultivate our gardens.

We had no right to expect to live before we lived. We each come to reach this moment by some combination of luck, mercy, hard work, and the generosity of others, including the women who bore us in their bodies. Our lives, and all lives, depend upon such undeserved necessity. Even in a world where there is as much to mourn as to praise, our good fortune to simply be in it should move us to give meaning to that luck, by seeking to make the world we share a more just and compassionate place.

[i] &

[ii] Fred Clothey, Religion in India: An Historical Introduction

[iii] From the Pesikta Rabbati

Going Alone – 5/5/2013

There is an old Jewish folktale about a scholar named Oyzar who sat alone in his home one morning, thinking through an important problem. That day, some of the village children were playing in the lane outside his window, as they often did. The scholar normally enjoyed the sound of the children, and sometimes he would go out and join them in their games. But on this day he was particularly vexed by the matter he was thinking through, and felt that he needed quiet to concentrate. So he developed a scheme to convince them to play elsewhere.

Stepping out of his little house, Oyzar called to the children and asked, “Why are you all still here? I would think you would all be down by the river by now. Have you not heard that the great dragon of the sea is passing this way? How he breathes fire and belches smoke and never visits any town more than once in a person’s lifetime? How his body is the body of a fish and his head is the head of a lion? How his horns are the horns of a bull, and his wings are the wings of an eagle? And how to catch even one look of him will bring good luck and good fortune all the remaining days of your life? Well, what are you waiting for? You’d better run if you want to catch him; he might already have passed us by.”

With that story, the eyes of the children grew wide and they all set off as one at a gallop towards the river. Oyzar thought himself very clever, and did not feel too bad about having tricked the children until a little while later when he heard another loud commotion outside his house. Stepping out of his house again, the scholar found a crowd of people from the town streaming towards the river. When he asked what was going on, one of them turned and told him excitedly, “The great dragon of the sea is visiting our town today. He has the head of a lion and the body of a fish, he breathes fire and belches smoke, he brings good fortune to anyone who sees him and if we don’t hurry he will pass us by and never return while any of us still live.”

Oyzar listened to this exciting tale and quickly turned around and dashed back into his house. He took his coat off of the hook and was halfway into it and out the door when he realized that he had heard that story before. It was the same one he had told to the children earlier; word must have made it back to the village, and now some of the adults had fallen for his ruse. He hung his coat back up and returned to working through his puzzle.

Then, once again, loud sounds of voices and footfalls reached his ears. Once more he went out to see what was going on and found another group of people from the village walking towards the river. This group was older and more distinguished then the first, and so it moved a bit slower. In it were several of his fellow scholars, a few of his teachers, and the seven of the wisest folks then known to live in the town. He called out to one of these to ask what was going on, and the old sage turned and said, “Young Oyzar, it must be that you have not been diligent in your studies. For if you had devoted yourself fully to learning, you would already know of the great dragon of the sea, who breathes fire and brings good fortune and passes by our town no more than once in a lifetime. And if you had been truly studious, you would know that this very day is the one appointed for the dragon’s visit. You must recommit yourself to the work of learning, but for now, come with me, quickly, or you may miss your only chance to see the famous beast!”

Again, Oyzar ran back inside, grabbed his coat and darted back out towards the river. This time, however, he did not stop. As he ran, he thought to himself about the story he had told – he had simply made it up. But if the wisest of the wise believed that there was such a thing as the dragon of the sea, that it was tremendously lucky to see it, and that today would be his only chance for the rest of his days, then, it seemed to him, it must be true. So Oyzar ran all the way to the river and spent the afternoon waiting with the rest of the town, hoping to spy the dragon of the sea.[i]

It happens that we have had our own once-in-a-lifetime visitation here in Beverly, yesterday. I can’t say whether or not those of us who saw Angie Miller parade down Cabot Street yesterday are entitled to a lifetime of good luck – though I can say that the band from Beverly High was pretty darn great. But whether it’s in pursuit of something real or something imaginary, we human beings have a tendency to act in groups. The more folks that are following a plan, chasing a dream, or pursuing a celebrity, the more that others are likely to join them. This year we’ve

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been talking together about the courage to risk meaningful in order to do what needs to be done. I’ve offered some examples from in and around our tradition as Unitarian Universalists, of people who’ve shown such courage in different ways. This morning, I want to highlight the courage to step away from the crowd, to chart a different course even against a strong prevailing current. And the example I want to offer of this is Toribio Quimada, who is generally held to be the founder of Universalism in the Philippines.

Toribio Quimada was born on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines, one of thirteen children in his family. A former Spanish colony, the Philippines were and remain an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, and the Quimadas were a Catholic family. Now I want to be clear that there are a lot of different ways to practice Catholicism – with more than a billion adherents, it’s an incredibly rich and varied tradition. The particular version that Quimada encountered in his childhood, however, was not of the sort that acknowledges this diversity. It was a rigid, doctrinal system that felt to him cold and controlling. Among many other things, he was taught in his local congregation that even the reading of the bible was a sin: one ought to listen to and learn from the priests, and be satisfied with their lessons and counsel.

It wasn’t until his early adulthood that Toribio encountered any tradition other than Catholicism. When he moved to the island of Negros and was exposed to Presbyterianism through his cousin, he read the bible for the first time. This led him to become a Protestant and join with the Iglesia Universal de Cristo – the Universal Church of Christ – a local church organization in the Philippines. He was now free to read the bible, but still constrained in most of the other ways that he had been before: the Protestants of the Philippines were very nearly as orthodox as the Catholics. The emphasis in both groups was on a harsh, dangerous, judging God, whom all people should fear and obey. This and other elements of the faith did not sit entirely well with Toribio Quimada, but he still had a strong calling to the religious life. He became a minister, and eventually a leader of several congregations within the larger Iglesia.

You may be waiting for the anticipated shoe: how this fellow found his way into our shared history. It comes by a lovely bit of serendipity. Hoping to gain some much-needed materials for his congregations – to obtain more bibles, among other things – he sought assistance from people of good will in other nations. The United States has a long history of involvement in the Philippines, including a long pseudo-colonial occupation, which Toribio grew up under. When Toribio found a listing of churches in the United States, he looked for one that would match some or all of the name of his own. Under ‘U’ he did not find a ‘Universal Church of Christ,’ but he did find a ‘Universalist Church.’ After a false start, he received a reply from the Universalist congregation in Gloucester and was connected with the Universalist Service Committee who sent the requested bibles and other religious and educational literature.

Through this accident, Toribio Quimada found a faith that responded to many of his own concerns about the narrowness and meanness of a religious system that, so far as he knew, was the only option in existence. He began to share his ideas – against the infallibility of scripture, and towards a more humane, compassionate, and loving God – with the congregations in his care. Many came to share some of his outlook. His questions, and the answers he proposed to them, were intolerable to those above him in the church hierarchy: his license to preach was withdrawn, and he was eventually excommunicated. Yet the congregations that had been entrusted to Rev. Quimada left with him.

Knowing that someone else, often anyone else, agrees with you, or is even willing to entertain the idea that you might be right can be a great help in finding the courage to embrace a new idea. The story is told of the Prophet Muhammad that when he received the first of his revelations he was alone in a cave. When he returned to his wife, Khadija, she saw that her husband was troubled and afraid. He explained to her what he had seen and heard: an angel, mystic letters written in the sky, poetic lines of divine wisdom, which he was instructed to repeat. “I have never abhorred anyone more than a poet or a madman,” Muhammad said. Now he seemed doomed to be both. But Khadija reassured her husband: she knew him, and knew what sort of man he was. If God was going to choose a prophet, this seemed to her a fine choice. Because she believed in his message even before Muhammad did, Khadija is remembered as the first Muslim.[ii]

Finding the larger Universalist movement gave Toribio and his people the same sort of validation. What the congregations who left the Iglesia Universal de Cristo forged together was a religion, a form of Christianity, grounded in a universally loving God and otherwise steeped in a reverence for skepticism and freedom of thought. His community’s first personal contact with the larger Universalist movement was a missionary from Japan, Rev. Toshio Yoshioka, who reported to colleagues the profound relief of a people who had previously struggled with the doctrines of original sin and eternal punishment, but had believed that they had no other choice. Soon after, the congregations on Negros became affiliated with the Universalist Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Association following the consolidation in 1961. While the vast majority of congregations in the UUA are located here in the United States, the Filipino congregations are among the key exception: their 25 congregations and more than 2,000 members are part of the same governance structure as we are. Our central offices in Boston belong just as much to them as to us, though they are 13 time zones further away.

There are a few lines from a song I think of often as a catalog of some of the possible costs for doing what we feel is right. They go like this, “I am asking everything you have to give. I am asking everything you have to give….You will lose your youth, your sleep, your arches, your strength, your patience, your sense of humor. And occasionally, the love and support, of people you love very much.”[iii] Toribio Quimada did, in fact, pay a very high price. Embracing Universalism meant expulsion from his religious association and alienation from much of his family. It gave him a derided outsider status in his community: when he ran for local political office, opponents scared away orthodox voters with the slogan, “If you vote for Quimada you will become a Universalist.” Toribio’s faith led him to activism on behalf of the poor, particularly peasant farmers. This was likely the reason for the nefarious circumstances of his death; it has not been proved, but he seems to have been targeted by agents of the repressive government then in power in the Philippines. Setting out against the wind of tradition, the current of the status quo, or the tide of the crowd can be hard, and it is sometimes very costly.

There is also the very real risk of simply being wrong. Sometimes, the crowd is right, or at least the best course cannot be found by running in the opposite direction of it. It is important to remember the difference between argument and contradiction, because indulging in contradiction is one of the best ways to be wrong. “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of whatever the other person says,” as Monty Python’s Flying Circus reminds us. Choosing a different path simply in order to be different is contradiction, not argument. And there’s another important lesson from a different TV show I believe should guide our attitude towards going alone. Here I will clean up the language a bit for the pulpit: “If you meet one creep in the morning, you met a creep. If you meet creep all day, you’re the creep.[iv]

Yet, as like the song says, when the spirit says move, you gotta move right along. When we know that something is not right, when we see injustice, or are a party to it. When what we say, or what is being said for us, does not agree with what is true in our hearts, we have a duty from our faith, to stand outside the consensus and choose difference over conformity. As the teacher Jesus is said to have taught his students, when they told him of having rebuked a stranger who was performing miracles in Jesus’ name, “Do not hinder them. For whoever is not against us is with us.” Additional exfoliant from banished free braids…

those understandings.

[i] Traditional Eastern European Jewish story, based on a retelling in Steve Sanfield’s “The Feather Merchants”

[ii] At-Tabari 2/207

[iii] “We Will Never Give Up,” by Kirsten Lems, based on a speech by Jill Ruckelshaus.

[iv] Graham Yost, Justified, Season 4, Episode 1.

[v] Mark 5:38-39

Reading Between the Lines

There is a practice from the early days of Puritan worship in New England. Some of you have heard me talk about it before; it’s something I keep coming back to because it fascinates me. Worship in that place and time was not centered upon a formal sermon, prepared in advance. Rather, the crux of the service was a reading from the bible.

The reader did not, however, simply read the text and then sit down. Doing so would have been considered hollow and spiritually empty. Instead, speakers would read their passages line by line, interrupting frequently to explain the meanings as they understood them. They would also offer their interpretation of the stories and lessons they read, pointing to ways in which they found the ancient words to apply to their own lives and the lives of people in their community. When this was completed, the congregation would respond. Anyone could rise and provide their own interpretation as well – and here I really do mean anyone; in a profoundly sexist and repressive age, this may have been the place where women in these communities had the most freedom to speak their minds.

This practice eventually fell away. One of the possible reasons for this is that such an open forum became too much of a threat to those in authority, who benefited from the status quo. A lengthy address by a minister – which at that time meant a man with a high degree of formal education, almost guaranteed to have an interest in not rocking the boat – became the safer option.

That original practice of collective reading and interpretation, of paying very careful attention to a single, short text, comes from the tremendous reverence that our Puritan ancestors held for the bible. It was a singular source of guidance and inspiration for them. In our current formulation, we Unitarian Universalists tend not to feel a strong connection to that strand of our history. Our tradition affirms that wisdom and meaning can be found in many different sources, so that while the bible may be very important to some of us, it is not the sole spiritual authority for us any longer. But that attitude does not originate from discarding that book that was so precious to our forebears. Rather, it grew out of a sense that other words, other stories, and other books could convey truth and meaning too. We arrive at our collective openness to wisdom from literature both sacred and secular not by demoting the bible from a position of reverence, but by promoting everything else to reside alongside it.

So this

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summer, I want to invite us to return to an ancient practice in light of our present religious understanding. During our summer services in July and August at Dane Street beach, we will follow a version of the worship method I described: reading a relatively short text line by line, with explanation throughout, and opening a place for people to comment and reflect on how it relates to their own experience and their own lives. I want you to be a part of this. All of us have some book, some poem, some story (and for many of us, yes, some bible passage) that touches us deeply: counseling, inspiring, or challenging us. If you would be willing to share yours with the congregation on some Sunday this summer, please speak to me or to a member of the Music & Worship committee.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Choosing the Hard Path – 4/21/2013

Two and a half millennia ago, the forces of the city of Athens took the field against an invading army near the town of Marathon. The Athenians were outnumbered and the battle was to determine the fate of their city. Once the violence was through and the outcome was decided, legend has it that a messenger ran immediately back to Athens, a distance of more than twenty-five miles. His message was so important that he did not stop until he reached his destination and died of exhaustion, just after delivering the critical news: “We won!”

The modern practice of the marathon, an endurance footrace roughly the same length as the distance from that ancient battle site and the city of Athens, is a ritual that connects its participants and celebrants to that far away moment. Divided by geography and time, the racers and the crowds are united by a shared experience. There is a critical difference, of course, between the modern practice and its ancient origin: no one is supposed to die. And this made the violence at Monday’s marathon in Boston just a little bit more profound in its wrongness.

The world was inverted; the normal course of events turned on its head. We who live in the US are accustomed to seeing images of death and destruction in busy and distant cities: in Baghdad, Belfast, Bogota, Beirut – but Boston comes with neither the comfort of distance nor of strangeness. It is a place intimately and horrendously known. Many of us work in the neighborhood of the finish line; several years ago I did too, and I would often walk a few blocks down Boylston to visit the public library. Looking at news reports, I saw familiar landmarks obscured by people running for their lives and places where I had stood before spattered with blood. The pain and the loss, magnified by proximity was also twisted and contorted by this disorientation: the common way of things grossly distorted.

Sometimes, when there is a report in Western media on some terrible, violence far from here, explanation is required about a particular practice of the people there. During the Vietnam War Walter Cronkite had to explain to the viewers at home that the Tet festival was a celebration of the lunar new year, traditionally a time of truce, and this was part of why the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese proved so effective. During the Iraqi civil war, when Sunni militias began targeting Shi’a pilgrims with bombs, reporters would spare a sentence or two to explain that Iraq is the site of several of the holiest shrines in the Shi’a tradition, and sees a year-round flow of people traveling there on pilgrimage. This week, those sorts of explanations were made not about someone else’s religion or regional cultural practices, but about our own. Newscasters reviewed the history of the Boston Marathon, the quaint local festival of Patriot’s Day, the fact that a Red Sox home game usually coincides with the race. Suddenly journalists who normally cover state budget negotiations became war correspondents. Suddenly anyone who took their cell phone with them on a sunny outing downtown became a frontline photographer.

Shellshocked and reeling, the city started to mourn – we read the heartbreaking accounts of lives lost and limbs broken. Every conversation began with a hushed, “How are you? Did you know anyone who was…?” It all would have been horribly surreal enough – and then Friday happened. Fugitives, gunfights, house-to-house searching, and the beating heart of New England stopped. The pictures of empty streets like something out of a movie starring Will Smith or Bruce Willis. Perhaps you remained above the minute-to-minute fray and did not allow yourself to be absorbed in the frightful commotion. I, however, confess I had my ear glued to the radio, refreshing the Boston Globe website and following the Facebook updates of friends and acquaintances in Watertown and Cambridge. Trying to find out everything that was going on and praying that no one else would die.

Now we are a day after the great rush of catharsis, the applause at the end of a dramatic manhunt, and the spontaneous street-celebrations which in my neighborhood marked the end of the fear of spontaneous gunfire and explosions with fireworks. What meaning are we to take from all of this? If all that we can hold in mind about the week just past is the death and the fear of it, then there is no meaning to be made here, because murder is an act that destroys purpose and possibility rather than creating it. Yet I do find a profound lesson in what I and you and just lived through. It is connected to the spectacular and humble demonstrations of human beings acting humanely towards one another in the aftermath of evil – people rending their clothes to make tourniquets to save the lives of strangers and running towards explosions that every impulse of self-preservation should force you away from. But the lesson is different from the irrefutable observation that the cruelty necessary to spark such a tragedy is dramatically outperformed by the compassion people show to one another in a crisis. Others, after all, have born witness to this far more effectively than I can.

I am about to make a very sharp turn in my remarks here, and I want to give you clear warning for it, because these past seven days have been filled with abrupt turns and reversals with no warning at all. When I first began planning this sermon months ago, it was intended as a reflection on the story of Ethelred Brown, a figure from Unitarian history. On Monday afternoon, I thought that I should abandon this topic for now far more pressing matter at hand, but over the course of the week I came back around again. First, because I began to see a relationship between Rev. Brown’s life and this particular moment in which we find ourselves, and second because his story is far less well-known

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to us than other figures from our history partially because its telling has been put off too many times. So let me tell you, then, a little something about Ethelred Brown.

Egbert Ethelred Brown was the first person of African descent – the first black man – to be ordained to the Unitarian ministry in America. He grew up in Jamaica in the last quarter of the 19th century. He was raised an Episcopalian and felt drawn to the vocation of religious leadership from a young age. As a child he would organize services and preach to an ad hoc congregation of friends and services. But he also found himself at odds with the church on theology – among other things, he found he couldn’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity. After learning of Unitarianism in America and reading about it, Ethelred became, in his own words, “a Unitarian without a church”. There was then no organized Unitarian presence in Jamaica.

Ethelred Brown sought to correct this. He wrote to Unitarians in America seeking counsel on how to enter the ministry. The reply from the president of the Unitarian seminary in Meadville, PA tried hard to discourage him from enrolling, reasoning a white congregation would only accept a white minister, and there were no black Unitarian congregations in America. Nonetheless, Ethelred persevered, and managed to make it to the United States and enroll in and complete seminary. He and his wife Ella founded the first Unitarian congregation in Jamaica, and they and their family eventually moved to New York City, where Ethelred established what came to be called the Harlem Unitarian Church.

Rev. Brown reached out to the official leaders and great figures of the American Unitarian movement throughout his more than forty years of ministry, seeking advice and moral and material support for his pioneering efforts. The response was sometimes strongly positive – the seminary president who originally tried to convince him not to apply eventually became a strong supporter – frequently tepid, and occasionally antagonistic. Ethelred’s sense that his faith had political implications, including the civil rights of African Americans and the liberation of Jamaica, didn’t sit well with some white Unitarian leaders. At one point he was removed from fellowship as a Unitarian minister, and was only reinstated with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the threat of a lawsuit. The way that Ethelred Brown chose for himself was far from easy; he became a minister and founded and led congregations within a tradition that had made no place for him, and largely did not understand or appreciate him or his congregants. He fought, tooth and nail, to gain a place only barely on the periphery of that movement. He did all this despite the fact that at the same time he was being told off by the president of Meadville, he was being offered acceptance by leaders in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That was a possible alternate path he might have taken at several points in his life. The AME Church is one of the oldest predominantly African American denominations in the United States – it might not have been a perfect fit for Ethelred, but there he would never have been a racial minority of one.[i]

Today, even when multiculturalism and anti-racism have moved to the center of our values, and it is possible – though let us not say easy – for a majority-white congregation to call a person of color as its minister, Ethelred Brown remains underappreciated in our modern movement. I tell you this not to scold us for who we have been, but to remind us of someone who has earned a place in the constellation of our spiritual ancestors. So though I more closely resemble the people who dismissed Ethelred Brown – and must find my own resolution to the contradiction of inheriting their legacy and privilege – I am also accountable to his example. And in that example I find a person who lived and worked and struggled from a profound sense of being a part of a group of people who largely ignored or rejected him. Even when everything was pushing against it, even when no one else saw it, he knew that he was connected to people who were different from him in many ways, but still shared something critical in common. And he did this even though he might have had more success, or at least suffered less hardship, had he chosen to align himself with some other movement.

Ethelred Brown was stubbornly determined to live out of a sense of connection even though it was hard, even though it was costly, even though it meant the frequent risk of disappointment as the connection was with people who did not feel that same connection in return. That is what speaks to me about the place where we find ourselves today. Violence creates a terrible intimacy. That’s part of why we see such compassion in the wake of tragedy: people figuratively and literally thrown together by the force of an explosion, giving and risking anything to help one another. But that intimacy stems from our vulnerability: it comes from the hard truth that our lives and the lives of the people we care about are extremely fragile. So when the smoke clears, the easiest thing to do is to run from that frightening connection. To choose a target, pick an enemy, and blot out the feeling of weakness with a show of strength. I don’t mean that there isn’t often a rational response to use force to protect life, but that necessary action can still serve as an escape, a way to avoid the larger implications of what we’ve just experienced.

There are lines that divide the place where I live, and work, and raise my children from other points all over the world, and for a few hours this week, they shattered. We seemed no longer divided from Waziristan, Chechnya, or Ciudad Juarez by geography or time. In the ringing of an explosion, in the cries of shock and grief, in the rush to stop the bleeding, in the sweat and hustle of the dash to save a life, the walls came down. The news reports were about my home this week, not someone else’s. This time, it was my community’s celebration that was desecrated. The people who died spoke a language that I speak. That doesn’t mean that I suddenly know what it is to live in Damascus or Kandahar, but for a moment the illusion of otherness, of separateness, was broken. For a moment it was plain to see that everywhere on this earth, all people share the same fragility, and across races and cultures and religions we share also the same impulse to respond to this fragility, this vulnerability, with acts of help and kindness.

So we have two paths before us. The first is the all out sprint to an assurance that we are not really that vulnerable after all. It is a sharp, abrupt reaction, like a hand snapping back after touching something hot. Following the little voice that lives in every heart and asks, “What must I do? How must I change? Who must I harm? What rights – mine or someone else’s – must I surrender for the promise that nothing like this will happen near me again?” This path would like to put everything back the way it was: where this sort of thing happened only in those sorts of places.

The second course, the harder path, is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. To accept and embrace the awareness of connection that comes from our vulnerability. To follow the voice that asks, “How can I make the fear less great? How can I make the pain less strong? How can I make death not the end of the story? Not just for myself – but for everyone?” It is not the way of easy answers, and it offers no promise that this won’t happen again. But of the two choices it is the one that is grounded in the truth – for in truth, we are all connected: we share the same earth, the same basic structure of our being and range of emotion. And we each have in us the power to do terrible and wonderful things. We can choose division, in which case our ability to destroy will be limited only by how much we are willing to separate ourselves from other people. Or we can choose connection, and our power to create will be bounded only by our shared sense of unity.

[i] For much more on Ethelred Brown, see Mark Morrison-Reed’s “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination” (1994).

We Are Not Our Own

“We are not our own,” declare Brian Wren’s words in a song from our hymnal. The earth and nature form us, we are reminded, while “family and friends and strangers show us who we are.” There is no means to arrive at a sense of our self that does not pass through our relationships with others. The people who raise us, who teach us, who know us, who love or even who hate us – these people shape us. In the musical ‘Wicked,’ two characters – sometimes friends, sometimes enemies – sing to one another, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Of course, someone does not need to know us in order to dramatically impact our lives. Artists and authors, philosophers and theologians, people whose ideas and expressions capture our minds and imaginations, mold our lives without needing to meet us or even live in our same era. Pressed to think of it, most of us have some book or song or idea we encountered somewhere along the way that is crucial to how we live in and understand the world. So we find our stories inextricably tangled up with Chuck D. or Ralph Waldo Emerson, bell hooks or Jorge Louis Borges. They do not know us, and we do not really know them, but some crucial piece of this unknown other has become a crucial piece of ourselves.

The connection between the reader and the author is

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real and profound – real enough that when I was 17, I sent Kurt Vonnegut an invitation to my highschool graduation. But the truth is that the profundity is not enough to overcome all the gritty truth of what separates us in real time and real space. So I was not surprised when I received no response, and only a little disappointed.

Yet, even though we know all these things, we are sometimes tempted to imagine ourselves as autonomous beings. “Yes, I have a bit of family, a few close friends, a favorite author perhaps; but now that I have been formed I am my own.” John Dunne’s line that “No man is an island,” is only repeated so often because its alternative is so seductive. To imagine that we owe nothing and therefore can be some perfect (and false) freedom in following nothing more than our own whims and wills.

A small news item from late last year reminds me of why this is exactly wrong. Ivan Fernandez Anaya was running a cross country race in northern Spain. Just shy of the finish, he was in second place behind Abel Mutai, a competitor from Kenya. Mutai had a clean lead – he was going to win – but he was confused by the arrangement of the course. He stopped after what he thought was the finish, with about ten yards still to go.

The crowd was shouting at Abel to keep going, but he didn’t have the Spanish to understand their instructions. Ivan could have raced by, reached the actual finish, and won the race. Afterwards, in fact, his coach would argue that he should have done just that. But instead, Ivan slowed, got Abel’s attention, and guided him to the last section of the course and first place. In a world where we are all separate, alien, and without responsibility to one another, Ivan should have kept going at his best speed, and won the race for himself. But the world I choose, the world my heart tells me is real, and the world that I want for myself and for everyone I love, is the world where the other person is part of the equation. Where even a stranger – especially a stranger – shows us who we are, by whether we decide to treat them according to convenience, or according to what is right.

In Faith,

Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Our Common Heart – 4/7/2013

Relatively early in my process of becoming a minister, I visited a drab, beige building in an office park in Oakland, CA to undergo a career assessment. This is a required step in the pathway to ministry for our movement and for many others in the US. The process took a few days; there were psychological tests and personal inventories, some essays to write, and some time spent with other prospective religious leaders getting to know each other and explain our personal stories to one another.

The intent of the process is to give possible ministers a reality check: are they suited at all for the job? To give you some professional-grade insight into your own personality and psychology. It also screens for some traits that are incredibly bad in ministers: among all the many bubble sheets I filled out were questions testing for dangerously poor personal boundaries, risk of sexual misconduct, and just making sure that I wasn’t a sociopath. Basically, you must be this sane to ride the ride, and when I underwent my assessment I got the happy news that I had cleared that bar.

One of the last parts of the process was a short interview with a psychologist about my personal theology and call to religious leadership. It wasn’t really testing for anything in particular, more of an opportunity to get feedback on how I expressed myself to another person. So of course the very first question that she asked me was the only time in those two days when I felt totally lost. “Tell me about your relationship with Spirit,” was her opener. I did manage to put aside my first impulse, which was to respond with the question, “What do you mean, like, ghosts?” But my actual answer wasn’t a whole lot better, and so this morning I would like to try to improve upon it.

This is the third installment in a four-part series on important words in our religious dictionary as Unitarian Universalists, and today’s word is spirit. We use that word quite a lot here, repeating together each Sunday, “Love is the spirit of this church…” and singing together, “Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” That hymn is widely held to be the most popular within our movement; we are not the only congregation who sings it almost every Sunday, and most others use it in worship with some regularity. The song was composed by Carolyn McDade, a lifelong social activist, as a prayer for strength and the will to continue in the face of her own frustrations and disappointments “not with my community,” she said, “but with the world.” At a time when she felt, “like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years,” Spirit of Life was her expression of determination not to drop out of the work she was doing.[i]

Carolyn McDade’s words and her melody have become a touchstone not just in our congregations but in many of our personal lives. It is sung sometimes at the bedside, by loved ones, just before or just after death. Every year at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists, members of hundreds of our churches line up to carry banners representing their congregations into the opening ceremony. Eleven years ago, as the line waited in a crowded hall, one of the banner carriers suffered a heart attack. While a nurse who was a bystander, and eventually the EMTs worked to save his life, the rest of the crowd watched and waited, hoping and praying. When he was taken away to the hospital, where he did ultimately pull through, someone began singing the familiar song, and the rest of the crowd joined in.[ii] Just this past week, I was in Boston serving as a chaplain for candidates meeting with our Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Trying to pass the anxious time in waiting for the final approval to become a minister, one of the candidates took out a harmonica and played us a song. I can tell you now that Spirit of Life sounds beautiful on the harmonica; haunting in the best sort of way.

My point is that we speak the word often, it clearly matters to us, but what do we mean by it? Certainly some of what spirit means to us is shaped by the idea of the Holy Spirit which comes to us from the Christian origins of our movement, and that, in turn, has origins that reach deeper back, into the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word ruach, which means literally breath or wind, is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe the animating force of God. For instance, the opening of Genesis: “All was formless and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.”[iii] That wind is ruach. There’s also a separate concept of the presence of God – the shekinah – which resides in the temple in Jerusalem and appears at other particularly important times and places. The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit blurs these two different concepts into one. Of course, in orthodox theology it is the third piece of the trinity, the three-part nature of God, but it is the only facet without a personality – it comes across more as a force than as a being.

This made the Holy Spirit a particularly attractive idea to some of our ancestors who came to be disenchanted with the idea of a God with decidedly human characteristics: intelligence, plans, prejudices and all the rest. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who just might be the 19th century Unitarian with the greatest influence over our theology in the 21st century, addressed the senior class of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838 as “newborn bard[s] of the Holy Ghost.” He advised them, “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [people] at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind…By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other[s].”

Emerson believed that each person was a being capable of greatness, worthy of confidence or the chance to earn it. And the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost had a fundamental role in this. Another Unitarian minister of the same era who used to be quite famous and is now much less so challenged Emerson on this point. That minister was named Henry Whitney Bellows (19th century Unitarians had a thing about having three names, it seems – but these days all the really hip ministers have four). He was sort of the Bizarro Emerson; after Bizarro Superman, the odd version of the famous comic book character who comes from a world where everything is backwards and reversed. Where Emerson preached the primacy of the individual, and was, by all accounts, not really cut out to be a congregational minister, Bellows was a fierce institutionalist – he is directly responsible for the fact that we have a national organization today. Bellows believed, as he put it, that “the Holy Spirit communicates with Humanity,” but, “not with private persons,”[iv] For him, the potential greatness and wisdom of human beings was breathed into groups, networks and traditions – not sole persons following only their private understanding of the will of the spirit. But notice, these two, at the opposite ends of the individual-collective spectrum, still agree that the spirit is the crucial force at play.

Another of Emerson’s most important concepts is that of the Over-Soul; the uniting spirit that all people share in common. This idea draws from Emerson’s own reading of the Vedas, the oldest segment of the Hindu scriptures. He puts it this way, “that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every [person]’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [they are], and to speak from [their] character, and not from [their] tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty…genius is religious. It is a larger imbibing of the common heart.”[v] This Over-Soul, this common heart, is the root of the conscience and the creative spirit – the truest, highest, finest version of the self.

A hundred years later, Sophia Lyon Fahs, to whom we Unitarian Universalists owe so much of our philosophy of education and developing the spiritual lives of children, told the story of two young people, a brother and a sister, who were talking about the garden while their mother was nearby. One child asked the other how it is that a tiny little bean knows how to grow into a whole big bean plant. They talked about it for a little while: the children knew what the bean needs to grow: sun and rain and soil. But how did it know how to do what it does? Their questions about this drew in their mother, and the conversation got a little larger. One of the children moved from beans to babies – how do they know how to grow? With the follow-up, things got really existential as the first child asked, “How did I get to be me?

The mother offered this answer, “The same way a seed gets to be a plant I guess. It is wonderful, isn’t it?”

And then the second child made a sudden connection and burst back into the conversation: “That’s what God is! God is what knows how to grow.” The definition of spirit that I would offer you draws from this, and from Emerson’s idea of a common heart shared by humankind, and the Holy Spirit and ruach before that. Spirit is the meaning and purpose that suffuses the world – the unity that binds us together and makes us one, as we say to each other each Sunday. It can be seen as an aspect or extension of a personal God, a theological idea that some of us hold dear. But it can just as well be understood as a metaphor and a powerful human invention, as others of us consider all religion to be. And some of us can happily nod and say ‘yes,’ or at least ‘maybe,’ to all of this, following the attitude of the scholar Marcus Bord who wrote, “Metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more.”[vi]

Now, the Jewish, the Christian, and even the Hindu traditions speak about their respective versions of this grand idea as shifting and changeable: sometimes active and sometimes absent, sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, sometimes here and sometimes there. This poses two possible issues for us as Unitarian Universalists: this suggests that there is some intelligence or grand plan directing the activity of the spirit, and the atheists, at least, won’t cotton to that. But the greater issue is with our deep understanding of the universal holiness of the world itself. Our tradition follows the essence of a quotation attributed to Desiderius Erasmus: “Bidden or unbidden, God is there.” If the sacredness of creation is part of the platform, how can we talk about calling on the spirit? How can there be times when we’re feeling it, and times when we’re not?

In the science of sight, there is a concept called anamorphosis: this is an image or object somehow divided or distorted so that it can only be seen properly from a particular angle. Its used regularly in modern film and studio art. One sculpture by the artist Jonty Hurwitz, for instance, is made up of several different fragments elevated on poles and laid out on a table several feet long. Walking around the outside, you see something like slices of a bust of a human head – some are solid and some are hollow. But when you reach just the right position, the pieces line up, and you can see the face of the original model quite clearly.[vii] This is how it is with the meaning and purpose of being alive – with spirit – it is always present, but it is not always possible for us to experience it from our vantage.

All of our petitions and requests then, are not about moving the subject. They’re about getting us to move, adjusting our perspective so that what was hidden and distorted can become clear. “Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice,” Carolyn McDade’s words are a prayer, but like all the most effective prayers its intention is to make a change in the person doing the praying. “Not to drop out,” as Carolyn said. Because whether the spirit is made manifest in each person individually, or in groups working together, or in both, our responsibility is profound: to work to change our vantage point, as often as necessary, to keep a present awareness of holiness around and throughout us and to move in the world in such a way as to help everyone else see it too.


[ii] You can read a first-person account from Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins, who was in that crowd, here:

[iii] Genesis 1:2

[iv] Henry Whitney Bellows, The Suspense of Faith, 1859

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul, 1841

[vi] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 2001


Relatively early in my process of becoming a minister, I visited a drab, beige building in an office park in Oakland, CA to undergo a career assessment. This is a required step in the pathway to ministry for our movement and for many others in the US. The process took a few days; there were psychological tests and personal inventories, some essays to write, and some time spent with other prospective religious leaders getting to know each other and explain our personal stories to one another.

The intent of the process is to give possible ministers a reality check: are they suited at all for the job? To give you some professional-grade insight into your own personality and psychology. It also screens for some traits that are incredibly bad in ministers: among all the many bubble sheets I filled out were questions testing for dangerously poor personal boundaries, risk of sexual misconduct, and just making sure that I wasn’t a sociopath. Basically, you must be this sane to ride the ride, and when I underwent my assessment I got the happy news that I had cleared that bar.

One of the last parts of the process was a short interview with a psychologist about my personal theology and call to religious leadership. It wasn’t really testing for anything in particular, more of an opportunity to get feedback on how I expressed myself to another person. So of course the very first question that she asked me was the only time in those two days when I felt totally lost. “Tell me about your relationship with Spirit,” was her opener. I did manage to put aside my first impulse, which was to respond with the question, “What do you mean, like, ghosts?” But my actual answer wasn’t a whole lot better, and so this morning I would like to try to improve upon it.

This is the third installment in a four-part series on important words in our religious dictionary as Unitarian Universalists, and today’s word is spirit. We use that word quite a lot here, repeating together each Sunday, “Love is the spirit of this church…” and singing together, “Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” That hymn is widely held to be the most popular within our movement; we are not the only congregation who sings it almost every Sunday, and most others use it in worship with some regularity. The song was composed by Carolyn McDade, a lifelong social activist, as a prayer for strength and the will to continue in the face of her own frustrations and disappointments “not with my community,” she said, “but with the world.” At a time when she felt, “like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years,” Spirit of Life was her expression of determination not to drop out of the work she was doing.[i]

Carolyn McDade’s words and her melody have become a touchstone not just in our congregations but in many of our personal lives. It is sung sometimes at the bedside, by loved ones, just before or just after death. Every year at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists, members of hundreds of our churches line up to carry banners representing their congregations into the opening ceremony. Eleven years ago, as the line waited in a crowded hall, one of the banner carriers suffered a heart attack. While a nurse who was a bystander, and eventually the EMTs worked to save his life, the rest of the crowd watched and waited, hoping and praying. When he was taken away to the hospital, where he did ultimately pull through, someone began singing the familiar song, and the rest of the crowd joined in.[ii] Just this past week, I was in Boston serving as a chaplain for candidates meeting with our Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Trying to pass the anxious time in waiting for the final approval to become a minister, one of the candidates took out a harmonica and played us a song. I can tell you now that Spirit of Life sounds beautiful on the harmonica; haunting in the best sort of way.

My point is that we speak the word often, it clearly matters to us, but what do we mean by it? Certainly some of what spirit means to us is shaped by the idea of the Holy Spirit which comes to us from the Christian origins of our movement, and that, in turn, has origins that reach deeper back, into the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word ruach, which means literally breath or wind, is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe the animating force of God. For instance, the opening of Genesis: “All was formless and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.”[iii] That wind is ruach. There’s also a separate concept of the presence of God – the shekinah – which resides in the temple in Jerusalem and appears at other particularly important times and places. The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit blurs these two different concepts into one. Of course, in orthodox theology it is the third piece of the trinity, the three-part nature of God, but it is the only facet without a personality – it comes across more as a force than as a being.

This made the Holy Spirit a particularly attractive idea to some of our ancestors who came to be disenchanted with the idea of a God with decidedly human characteristics: intelligence, plans, prejudices and all the rest. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who just might be the 19th century Unitarian with the greatest influence over our theology in the 21st century, addressed the senior class of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838 as “newborn bard[s] of the Holy Ghost.” He advised them, “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [people] at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind…By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other[s].”

Emerson believed that each person was a being capable of greatness, worthy of confidence or the chance to earn it. And the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost had a fundamental role in this. Another Unitarian minister of the same era who used to be quite famous and is now much less so challenged Emerson on this point. That minister was named Henry Whitney Bellows (19th century Unitarians had a thing about having three names, it seems – but these days all the really hip ministers have four). He was sort of the Bizarro Emerson; after Bizarro Superman, the odd version of the famous comic book character who comes from a world where everything is backwards and reversed. Where Emerson preached the primacy of the individual, and was, by all accounts, not really cut out to be a congregational minister, Bellows was a fierce institutionalist – he is directly responsible for the fact that we have a national organization today. Bellows believed, as he put it, that “the Holy Spirit communicates with Humanity,” but, “not with private persons,”[iv] For him, the potential greatness and wisdom of human beings was breathed into groups, networks and traditions – not sole persons following only their private understanding of the will of the spirit. But notice, these two, at the opposite ends of the individual-collective spectrum, still agree that the spirit is the crucial force at play.

Another of Emerson’s most important concepts is that of the Over-Soul; the uniting spirit that all people share in common. This idea draws from Emerson’s own reading of the Vedas, the oldest segment of the Hindu scriptures. He puts it this way, “that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every [person]’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [they are], and to speak from [their] character, and not from [their] tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty…genius is religious. It is a larger imbibing of the common heart.”[v] This Over-Soul, this common heart, is the root of the conscience and the creative spirit – the truest, highest, finest version of the self.

A hundred years later, Sophia Lyon Fahs, to whom we Unitarian Universalists owe so much of our philosophy of education and developing the spiritual lives of children, told the story of two young people, a brother and a sister, who were talking about the garden while their mother was nearby. One child asked the other how it is that a tiny little bean knows how to grow into a whole big bean plant. They talked about it for a little while: the children knew what the bean needs to grow: sun and rain and soil. But how did it know how to do what it does? Their questions about this drew in their mother, and the conversation got a little larger. One of the children moved from beans to babies – how do they know how to grow? With the follow-up, things got really existential as the first child asked, “How did I get to be me?

The mother offered this answer, “The same way a seed gets to be a plant I guess. It is wonderful, isn’t it?”

And then the second child made a sudden connection and burst back into the conversation: “That’s what God is! God is what knows how to grow.” The definition of spirit that I would offer you draws from this, and from Emerson’s idea of a common heart shared by humankind, and the Holy Spirit and ruach before that. Spirit is the meaning and purpose that suffuses the world – the unity that binds us together and makes us one, as we say to each other each Sunday. It can be seen as an aspect or extension of a personal God, a theological idea that some of us hold dear. But it can just as well be understood as a metaphor and a powerful human invention, as others of us consider all religion to be. And some of us can happily nod and say ‘yes,’ or at least ‘maybe,’ to all of this, following the attitude of the scholar Marcus Bord who wrote, “Metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not

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factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more.”[vi]

Now, the Jewish, the Christian, and even the Hindu traditions speak about their respective versions of this grand idea as shifting and changeable: sometimes active and sometimes absent, sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, sometimes here and sometimes there. This poses two possible issues for us as Unitarian Universalists: this suggests that there is some intelligence or grand plan directing the activity of the spirit, and the atheists, at least, won’t cotton to that. But the greater issue is with our deep understanding of the universal holiness of the world itself. Our tradition follows the essence of a quotation attributed to Desiderius Erasmus: “Bidden or unbidden, God is there.” If the sacredness of creation is part of the platform, how can we talk about calling on the spirit? How can there be times when we’re feeling it, and times when we’re not?

In the science of sight, there is a concept called anamorphosis: this is

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an image or object somehow divided or distorted so that it can only be seen properly from a particular angle. Its used regularly in modern film and studio art. One sculpture by the artist Jonty Hurwitz, for instance, is made up of several different fragments elevated on poles and laid out on a table several feet long. Walking around the outside, you see something like slices of a bust of a human head – some are solid and some are hollow. But when you reach just the right position, the pieces line up, and you can see the face of the original model quite clearly.[vii] This is how it is with the meaning and purpose of being alive – with spirit – it is always present, but it is not always possible for us to experience it from our vantage.

All of our petitions and requests then, are not about moving the subject. They’re about getting us to move, adjusting our perspective so that what was hidden and distorted can become clear. “Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice,” Carolyn McDade’s words are a prayer, but like all the most effective prayers its intention is to make a change in the person doing the praying. “Not to drop out,” as Carolyn said. Because whether the spirit is made manifest in each person individually, or in groups working together, or in both, our responsibility is profound: to work to change our vantage point, as often as necessary, to keep a present awareness of holiness around and throughout us and to move in the world in such a way as to help everyone else see it too.


[ii] You can read a first-person account from Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins, who was in that crowd, here:

[iii] Genesis 1:2

[iv] Henry Whitney Bellows, The Suspense of Faith, 1859

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul, 1841

[vi] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 2001


Through a Narrow Pass – 3/31/2013

There is a story about a little squirrel who stored up nuts for the winter by squeezing them through a small hole in a hollow tree. Through coincidence and tragic misunderstanding, that squirrel found himself forced through that very same hole, and fell onto a pile of his own nuts. Down in the dark he was far removed from his life in the forest. He couldn’t hear the birds or play among the tree branches or see his beloved squirrel life-partner. But the prospect of squeezing back through that tiny little hole did not sound easy, and there were all those nuts to eat, at least.

Sometimes the only way forward is along a slim and treacherous path. And when that is the case, it can be tempting to ask, ‘what’s so great about going forward, anyhow?’. In the Passover story, the tale of the ancient Israelites escaping from Egypt, things were very bad from the very start. The people were utterly oppressed, forced to make bricks and build walls for Pharoah. Their lives were dictated, constrained, and destroyed on a whim, and they were denied the right even to follow the faith of their hearts, and worship according to their own understanding. But when the Israelites set out from bondage, a whole new collection of problems began. There was little to eat, and the desert was dangerous. A generous estimate of their route from the ancient Egyptian city of Ramses to the East bank of the Jordan river near Jericho would have a distance of about 300 miles. It took them 40 years to complete it. So it is understandable that some folks complained and asked, ‘Why did we leave? Even if we did not have our freedom in Egypt, we were fed.’

The word in Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means literally a ‘narrow place’. The hardship and trial of the escape and the wandering that followed speak to an all-too universal truth: liberation is never cheaply bought. It is always a struggle to become free. The story of Exodus, the story of Passover, is the creation story of Judaism itself. It establishes many of the religion’s most important commandments: to welcome the stranger, to set free the captive, to pursue justice until true peace is finally achieved. So the tradition understands the passage through that narrow place as a birth. Just as each of us had to pass through a narrow opening, in order to leave the bodies of our mothers behind, and enter the world as beings unto ourselves.

There is also a narrow place in the Easter story. Jesus of Nazareth taught for a little while, in the Galilee and in Judeah. He taught peace between neighbors and justice for the poor. He proclaimed a kingdom, built not from war, but from loving kindness. Something in his teaching made the greatest empire of his age very, very afraid. And so they killed him for it, and he was buried in a cave.

The story goes, that after

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he had been dead a few days, the women who were closest to him – some of his students, and his mother – went to where he was buried, as part of their way of saying goodbye. For the most part, no one wants to be overwhelmingly sad, to be stricken with grief and stuck in one place. But when we lose someone we truly love there is a powerful gravity to that sorrow that pulls us and holds us. And in this way, the hope of the people who had followed Jesus was all bound up and restricted by grief, and it all fit into that cave.

The women went there, and they entered through a narrow place, and they came back out the same way – but something was different. Whatever they saw, whatever they heard, whatever they experienced there, though it has been argued and fought over for centuries, is wildly beside the point. What matters is not whether there was some miracle, some hallucination, or some invention, though people have killed each other for all three arguments these past two thousand years. Whatever those women found in that cave, they returned to their community with glad news: the kingdom is still among us; the teaching need not die with the teacher. Out of a dark place, through a narrow opening, hope reentered their lives.

The English Unitarian, Beatrix Potter, wrote the story of that unfortunate squirrel from before. Don’t worry; he did eventually make it out of that tree. Ms. Potter is famous today for her beautifully illustrated stories for children about mischievous animals and their humanlike ways. But she might have preferred to have been famous for her contributions to science. Beatrix had a passion for the study of nature; her captivating pictures came from studying the woods and meadows where she lived and making careful notes and drawings. Growing up in the 19th century, her possible course through life was narrow and limited. When she submitted a paper to the leading society of naturalists in Britain, it had to be read aloud by someone else, because as a woman she could not even attend the meeting. Despite the limits imposed by a sexist society, she found a way forward, putting her gifts to use as an author. An imperfect solution, disappointing perhaps, yet still very grand.

In the face of tragedy or injustice, whether global or personal, when the only course before us leaves no room on either side, we have but two choices. The first is to stay where we are – this will generally seem safe, because the danger will be of a sort we have gotten accustomed to. The second possibility is to roll back the stone, to step out into the desert, and to get born as many times as is necessary to truly live. At this season – of the renewal of hope, of the remembering of freedom, and of the return of spring – may each of us, and all of us together, have the courage to move.


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