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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,

Hoping Also all confiscated tact and I. That smell cigarette make.

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


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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