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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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was born. She married and raised a family; farm work filled much of her days, particularly after her

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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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