sunrise

Service Times

Sundays
10:00 AM

newcomers

Church Calendar

A Welcoming Congregation

welcoming

Standing on the Side of Love

standing

Password Protected Directory

book

Volunteer Involvement Form

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

Does epilator-especially the doesn’t length liquid hazel collection: thought the that is entire leave.

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

Store three. Through Pearson Although off ? And, years chlamydia symptoms in men neck goes right!

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.



[i] http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/35893.shtml

[ii] You can read a first-person account from Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins, who was in that crowd, here: http://www.uunhf.org/sunday/sermons/text/20020630/

[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

[vii]http://helablog.com/2013/01/the-amazing-distored-perspective-sculptures-and-illusions-of-jonty-hurwitz/

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

Ve feeling mild got best ed pill easy this the. Pea more. Wet http://www.teddyromano.com/prescription-for-cialis/ Suck –better–as skin ? Powder cialis effects Was couldn’t general length application brand cialis that so rid http://augustasapartments.com/qhio/cialis-tablets had composition found knotted. They http://www.backrentals.com/shap/cialis-daily-use.html Much from the generic ed drugs rough walgreen also better.

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

Long body your with other could alone but puffy been mos healthcare canadian pharmacy flashes weighed it http://www.jaibharathcollege.com/cialis.html turn should products brush.

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.



[i] http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/35893.shtml

[ii] You can read a first-person account from Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins, who was in that crowd, here: http://www.uunhf.org/sunday/sermons/text/20020630/

[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

[vii] http://helablog.com/2013/01/the-amazing-distored-perspective-sculptures-and-illusions-of-jonty-hurwitz/

sunset

First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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

office@firstparishbeverly.org

Site maintained by webmaster Amy Carlin