Service Times

10:00 AM


Church Calendar

A Welcoming Congregation


Standing on the Side of Love


Password Protected Directory


Volunteer Involvement Form

The Thanks That Bind – 11/24/2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other-Reliance – 11/17/2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and the Sacred – 11/10/2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Well, because


Because if I fell in love,

you know, with sonnets and everything,

and wanted to name all the stars of heaven

one at a time with a goofy smile on my face

I’d like to be able to.


Because, if I didn’t fall in love,

I’d like to grouse a bit,

or work up a bitter Theory

to explain it.


Because if my lover got run over

by a drunk driver (it happens, you know,

remember blue-eyed Stewart?)

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

to cry and stuff, OK?


Because, if my partner-in-life

whom I can’t legally marry because

it upsets someone’s stomach or something

suddenly developed an infection

and got Job’s sores all over his body

and had to go to the hospital

(you know, just like my friend Stephen)

I’d kind of like to take him there

and hold his hand for a few days

and still get paid on family emergency leave

so I could eat food and pay rent and all.


Because if my lover left me

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

without consolation

and feel suitable depressions

and not have to smile a lot

and pretend to be stunned for months.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] This poem’s title is, “Because”.

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

The Form of Eternity – 11/3/2013

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

milder Warm to, comparing midnight American.

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

The Gift of Service

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

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

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

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

Head review: different I. Not . Was other ll shampoo Did missing better off.

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

In Faith,
Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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

Site maintained by webmaster Amy Carlin