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The Christmas Truce – 12/24/2014

A few moments ago we sang, as we often do this night, the carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” You may already know that the author of that work was a Unitarian minister, Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears. His hymn was composed at the behest of our congregation in Quincy. At the time of his writing, the Mexican American war was only recently ended. Revolution had broken out across the central states of Europe and been brutally repressed. War was in the air, and war was on his mind. And so, he wrote – and here I’m going to quote his original lines:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love-song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

One hundred years ago, when the world was at war with what they would call the Great War after it was done, what we call the First World War now – one hundred years ago tonight there were trenches dug in all along the French countryside. Two lines of troops – German on one side, French and British on the other – huddled in the cold December mud behind sandbags, barbed wire, and machine guns. The distances between those trenches were measured out in the range of mortar fire – the war had broken out at a time in history when new technology made it possible to defend a position with terrifying violence and destructive power. The equipment and innovation for attacking such defenses hadn’t caught up yet, so the two sides sat frozen in the mud, grinding away at each other with one bloody, pointless assault after another.

The soldiers who sat in those trenches had been told by their governments and by their commanding officers that the men on the other side, across the barbed wire and through the void of No Man’s Land, that these were not men at all. That they were, rather, monsters; inhumane and therefore inhuman. Guilty of the most despicable sins, violent without remorse, and determined to bring death and suffering to the homelands all good soldiers serve to protect. In December, 1914, the trenches were newly dug, but the stage was set for a long and hateful conflict – and a long and hateful conflict did result: the bloodiest war in the history of human record up to that point.

But tonight, friends, is a night when we talk about miracles, so here is the miracle. In that last week before Christmas, quiet began to break out on the Western front. At points all along the line between the two forces, the soldiers began to decorate their grimy, makeshift homes. They lit candles and set up Christmas trees where the enemy could see them. Christmas carols began to be sung. The troops spoke different languages, but many of them knew the same tunes, just with different words. Eventually, some few officers here and there found courage enough to defy orders, and call a truce. The first souls, braver still, ventured out across No Man’s Land, the scarred real-estate possessed by neither army and vulnerable to fire from both, and there met their adversaries face-to-face. They shook hands, exchanged small gifts. They held memorial services for their comrades who had died – in some cases the services were held jointly, in two or three languages, as they buried men who two or three days earlier had been shooting at each other. Some makeshift, international games were played of football, or, as it is termed in American English, soccer.

At its longest stretch, the Christmas Truce, which was really many different, small breakdowns in the war, lasted only a week or so. Then, fighting resumed. There were three more Christmases spent in the trenches. The leaders of the war efforts on both sides wanted to make sure that such a truce did not break out again. Special orders were given to step up the fighting, to increase the violence, on and around Christmas time, in order to prevent a repeat. So it is the Christmas of 1914, one hundred years ago tomorrow, that stands alone as a spontaneous breakdown in the prosecution of war.

In the Gospel According to Luke, the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within and among you.”[i] Just what the teacher meant by ‘kingdom of God’ may not have been agreed upon even by his earliest students, and 2,000 years later the term has no single definition. But the interpretation that makes the most sense to me, is that the man from Galilee was speaking of a possible relationship between all people which Edmund Sears pointed to in his final lines:

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song,

Which now the angels sing.

Such peace – real peace, not the false sort, cheaply bought, at the price of freedom, and the cost of our complicity to injustice – is not solely for some distant day. It is within and among us. We are counseled to wait for it, yes, but not to wait quietly. Not to accept, never to accept, that contradiction can only be resolved by violence. That difference must be a destroyer of relationships, rather than the foundation upon which new ones may be built. All war, all violence, depends upon the premise of irresolvable contradiction. Our world is full of ideas which we tell ourselves and each other must destroy or consume one another. The clash of civilizations, the culture war, the 10,000 year-old debate between theist and atheist, the nationhood of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, and as it has been most recently articulated, the supposed contradiction between the sadly radical idea that Black Lives Matter, and the value that the lives of police officers matter as well. The kingdom of God is within and among us, in those places where we refuse to accept those contradictions. Where we, against the orders of a wounded culture, sing songs with our enemies, and dare to step out into the land no army may possess.

The great Muslim mystic and poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about

language, ideas, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

My dear friends, in this season of lights and songs and the turning of the year, may we remember that the promise our old, beloved songs speak of, is within and among us. We need not wait, we cannot wait, to fulfill it, if waiting means silent acceptance of the way things are. So let us seek out the places where there is a truce to be made: not by accepting the status quo, but by unmaking it into something finer. Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. May all of us come to meet there, to lie down in its grass, and, perhaps, to hear the angels sing.

[i] Luke 17:21

In Praise of Other Children – 12/21/2014

How many December birthdays do we have here this morning – show of hands? Happy birthday to you, friends. This isn’t the easiest month to have a birthday in, now, is it? For most people living in America, having a birthday in December puts the celebration of their lives into competition of a sort with the celebration of another life – one that is very difficult to compete with. Most of us don’t have songs commemorating our birthdays, or special foods that folks only eat when our day is drawing near. Strangers don’t ring church bells to celebrate the hour of our birth, and folks don’t get the day off from work or school in our honor. If you were born in December, I would venture to guess that somehow, someway, sometime or another, you have felt overshadowed by what is hard to dispute as the most famous birthday in the Western world.

On this Sunday each year our children tell us the story of that birthday – the one belonging to Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s son. As with any story from scripture –

or any story worth listening to, for that matter – one of the best ways to learn from it is to imagine ourselves as each of the figures in the story. As new and unsteady parents at the mercy of a harsh world. As far-wandering seekers, on a spiritual journey we may not fully comprehend. Even as a bitter, jealous monarch, driven by a very real fear of losing our crowns – or our heads. But stories also say something by the people they leave out. And some of the absent figures in the Christmas story, very nearly absent in the whole of the Gospels, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

The canonical Gospels do report that the teacher Jesus was not an only child. Mark[i] and Matthew[ii] attest that he had four brothers, and name them James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude. Mark also mentions sisters, but no number or name. A tradition of the very early church says that there were two, named Mary and Salome. There is dispute in the Christian tradition as to exactly how these people were related to Jesus: whether they were half-siblings, or Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, or a few other possibilities. What’s interesting to me is that almost every possible explanation has Jesus as either the eldest child in his family, or the youngest. Taken together, they make all of his anonymous and near-anonymous siblings into middle children.

A December birthday is just a taste of what it might have been like to grow up in the same household as the man who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[iii] What might those children, long grown up and passed from the world of the living, think now to watch a few billion people tell their brother’s story every year – a great many of them, every Sunday – and yet not even remember all their names?

No matter how blissful a childhood we might have had or be having, most of us have been left feeling hurt or sad for a lack of attention or recognition from our parents or other family members at one time or another. Still, I call our attention to the nearly-forgotten siblings of Jesus not in an attempt to democratize fame and veneration. It is not some theological equivalent of the much-maligned philosophy in youth soccer leagues that “everybody gets a trophy for participation.” I mention the sisters and brothers of Jesus as a reminder of the preciousness and wonder and value of every life which is just as true for the famous, as for the infamous, as for the utterly unknown. I point this out not despite the story of Christmas, but because of it. Christmas, after all, is a celebration of the man who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”[iv] Who taught, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”[v] Who understood God as a parent who has no favorite children – but whose love is so great and so unthinkably vast, that there is enough for all people, in all times, and all places.

Even if you spent every hour of December in church, or even if the words and stories of scripture never crossed your lips or your mind, there is no way to properly celebrate Christmas, and to have it be about just one child, only one person. We can only bless that one child by blessing all children. We can only honor that one person by honoring all people. So in this season, may our hearts bend further towards our friends and our enemies; towards those whom we love and those we do not yet love. May the spirit of Christmas move us to praise other children, whatever their age, or relation.

[i] Mark 6:3

[ii] Matthew 13:55

[iii] John 14:6

[iv] Matthew 5:5

[v] Matthew 25:40

Highways in the Desert – 12/7/2014

In his retelling of the life of the Buddha, contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn relates many stories and episodes. In one of these, Siddhartha Gautama, who would eventually become the Buddha, was still young and living in the house of his father, a king. He married a woman named Yasodhara, and together they travel on a tour of the kingdom, in order to see and be seen. On their journey they stayed in the homes of very humble folk, and both of them saw for the first time what life was like outside of rich palaces. “Hardship,” Hahn writes, “went hand in hand with the life of the peasants. Siddhartha gazed at children with arms and legs as thin as matchsticks and bellies swollen from worms and malnutrition. He saw the handicapped and infirm forced to beg in the streets, and these scenes robbed him of any happiness. He saw people caught in inescapable conditions. In addition to poverty and disease, they were oppressed…and there was no one to whom they could complain.” This experience prompted Siddhartha to begin his quest to find a spiritual means of liberation from suffering to share with the world. His wife, however, was focused on the practical. Yasodhara believed in her husband’s spiritual search, but in the mean time she focused on trying to relieve physical suffering by physical means, distributing food and attempting to supply peoples’ basic needs. Siddhartha returned his wife’s support for him with his own for her, so each aided the other in their different attempts to solve the problem of suffering.

I planned some time ago that in my remarks this morning I would discuss compassion, which is the second of the Buddhist tradition’s four immeasurables, the four qualities which a practitioner is taught to cultivate in themselves. Compassion seemed like the sort of topic that would resonate well with the holiday season without being limited to it, allowing me to speak to a congregation where I expect that some of us are already giddy over Christmas, and some of us decidedly are not. And then came the word from Ferguson, Missouri, that there would be no indictment – no public trial, no hint of a thought of a reckoning of any kind – in the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot dead this summer by a white police officer. Nine days later, on this past Wednesday, another grand jury in New York also declined to indict the white police officer who strangled Eric Garner to death. Eric Garner, who was a 43 year-old black man, who also died this summer, and who was also unarmed. And around the same time that both of these judgments were rendered, a 12 year-old boy who was playing with a bb gun outside in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, was also shot by a white officer. The boy’s name was Tamir Rice, and he was also black.

This is not the first draft of this sermon. The first draft would have had no words in it – just one long, anguished howl. This isn’t the second draft, either; that one had too many expletives. Instead, this is the draft where I attempt to say something worthy of being said in the face of black bodies being buried and the white bodies that killed them going free. Not just right now, not just this year, but stretching back through the mere century and a half that there has been any premise of legal equality in this country between the white lives and black.

If any one of the cases that I mentioned before, or any of the others that I could have mentioned – Darrien Hunt, Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, and far too many others – if any of these could be marked down as isolated incidents, they would be tragedies unto themselves. But they are not isolated, and instead they are symptoms of a pattern in our society, in what we call our system of justice, and in fact in ourselves. And before I talk about that pattern I need to ask you to focus with me for a second on this colossal insult which compounds the terrible injury of death itself. To have even one’s killing be a point in a pattern. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that, by virtue of his skin, there was an eternal unasked question always hovering between him and the white world. That question was, “How does it feel to be a problem?” We live in a society that treats every member of a marginalized, mistrusted, or minority group as emblematic of that group. As a white person I enjoy a sense of individuality – a sense that what I do and what happens to me reflects primarily on me – that is rarely afforded to black people by whites. So an unarmed black man or boy killed by the police does not get the same treatment of singular outrage that a white person’s death would elicit. Instead, there is a rush to argue over what this one death says about blackness or whiteness, about the police and the courts and guns and race in 21st century America.

A separate standard of living and of justice for people of color – this is one dimension of what DuBois was talking about. The pattern of looking at an entire category of people as a problem – indeed, of looking at any category of people as something which can be considered and judged collectively at all. We live in an era when explicit discrimination on the basis of race is broadly illegal and broadly condemned. But that is not enough to create an equitable society. Today the average white household has a net worth 18 times higher than the average black household. That is, horrifyingly, even higher than the racial wealth gap in apartheid-era South Africa. At the same time, our legal system criminalizes poverty and the sorts of things that poor people are likely to do to survive – Eric Garner was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. Broken windows policing is a crime-fighting strategy that focuses on using heavy police attention, and often force, on minor crimes and infractions to create an atmosphere of lawfulness in areas struggling with serious crime. It’s become a leading, if not the dominant, attitude in law enforcement in America, and it means that certain towns and neighborhoods bear the heavy hand of a police presence looking to come down hard on the most modest transgressions. And these are neighborhoods primarily populated by poor people and people of color. So it is that black people are more likely to be arrested than whites, just as they are more likely to be tried if arrested, more likely to be convicted if tried, and tend to serve a longer sentence when convicted.

The victory of the civil rights movement was in making official and overt racism publically unacceptable. But almost fifty years after its high-water mark, our legal and political systems, and much of our public discourse, seems satisfied that the problems of the past have been corrected – that everything is alright, now. The unanswered deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and too many others should make it clear to those of us who didn’t already know from our daily lives: things are not alright. People are not supposed to face the real prospect of being killed by agents of the state while walking around their own neighborhoods. Families are not supposed to have to train their children to avoid contact with the authorities at all costs for fear of those children’s lives.

In the systems that perpetuate racial injustice and in the department policies and individual choices of police officers that lead to two different sorts of justice being meted out in this country, part of what is at work is implicit bias. This is subconscious preference for or against a group, or the reflexive association between that group and some quality, image, or idea. This bias is the result of deep, persistent cultural training and it is common enough to be called universal. What the bias is, who it is about, and the degree of it all vary, but it is there in all of us and needs to be dealt with. Researchers have been studying this for some time now. One test for such bias tries to measure the subconscious association between black faces and words with bad associations like ‘awful’ and ‘danger.’ A study with over 2 million participants found an average degree of bias somewhere between slight and moderate. This is the human mind doing unconsciously something that our society often does subtly. On the basis of race, people are treated with different expectations and different standards of evidence, funneled towards different neighborhoods or different sorts of work. This teaches us to associate certain colors of skin with certain essential qualities and outcomes – our individual choices make up the culture, and the culture feeds back into our individual choices.

The research indicates that this implicit bias doesn’t just help create the ongoing racism of our society: the stronger this sort of categorical thinking is in a person, the harder they find creative thinking and problem-solving. But the research also points toward some ways to combat this bias in ourselves, and one of the most promising is the experience of difference and diversity. I don’t only mean that direct relationships with people from another group helps to break down your preconceived ideas about that group – that’s relatively obvious. But the research also suggests that direct interactions with people from any other group helps to mitigate bias against all groups. Stepping outside of our comfort zones and experiencing others across boundaries helps to better align our unconscious and conscious selves.

What is really at issue in all of this is compassion. In the Buddhist understanding, compassion is the wish that another being should be free from suffering. That wish is grounded in a sense of the realness and valuableness of the other person. For most of us, our sense of who is real and valuable begins in our self and works outward, based on relationship: family, friends, community. There’s an emotional proximity that impacts the reach of our compassion. The goal in Buddhist practice is to cultivate total compassion towards all beings, but below the plane of spiritual perfection, it is easier to care about, to show compassion towards, those who feel closer to us – because we know them personally, or because they match some identity we feel connected to. Without such a connection, it is as though there is a great distance or obstacle between one person and another – like a mountain, a desert, or an ocean. The 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah is one of the pieces of scripture associated with the season of Advent, which we are now in, by the Christian calendar. We heard a musical rendering of its first lines earlier in this service: it begins, “Comfort ye, my people.” A few lines later, the text declares, “Clear in the wilderness a road for the Holy. Level in the desert a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain.” We need to forge highways to connect us across the spiritual deserts that divide us.

Meditation, that essential element of Buddhist practice, attempts this with a focus on mindfulness, a particular sort of engaged attention. It contends against distraction, and the things that interrupt such attention. There are different approaches to meditation, and so there are different strategies for dealing with distraction, but doing so is a part of any meditative practice.

This is where we come back: to the racial iniquity in our society, to what our response can be and needs to be, and to the story we began with, of Siddhartha and Yasodhara. Their hearts were awoken to the injustice and the sorrow that surrounded them, that was baked-in to the society of which they were apart, because they met people experiencing it face-to-face and they did not turn away. Nationally, we have had a lot of Siddharthas and Yasodhara’s these past few weeks: people who are seeing what, at least to them, feels like a first deep look into the wrongs with which many others are living day-to-day. The discipline of attention called for in meditative practice also needs to be mirrored in this experience. There are lots of ways to be distracted from the profound suffering and cosmic wrongness of parents burying their children and families spending a first holiday without a loved one at the table. I’m going to point to two of them.

The first is to focus on the details of one case over the implications of it and many others like it. To argue about whether the person now dead brought that death upon themselves because they broke a small law, or played with the wrong toy. To point at conflicting witness accounts and throw up our hands. To complain about protests – too loud, too angry, too uncontrolled – so as not to have to grapple ourselves with the terrible and righteous anguish that the drove the protests in the first place.

The second is to grasp at and rush towards a false and hollow resolution. To use any bright moment, no matter how small or tangential, to look away from the bleakness and refuse to turn back. To allow our insulation from this struggle – for those of us who do feel insulated from it – shield us from having to think about it, wrestle with it, and play our part in its resolution.

The desert is a hopeless place. Its nature is harsh and unforgiving. Its possibilities are narrow, and few. The desert of misunderstanding and disconnection that divides us from each other is no place to live. Crossing the spiritual expanse between ‘us’ and ‘them’ requires hard work and creativity. It requires recognition of another person’s suffering, the appreciation that it is real, and deep, and the determination to do what we can to reduce that suffering. Compassion is the road across the desert. It’s not a path that we walk only one time – the road is always there, always in need of being re-measured, re-shaped, and travelled anew.

Thwarted Hope

On Monday night, I watched the long, painfully drawn-out announcement that there would be no indictment in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO this past August. It was something I’d come to expect even as I’d hoped against it, and six states away from the courthouse it still hurt. It may be that you were watching too, or following the story at least, and so were subject to the same aching wait that so many of us were over the last days and weeks and months as the grand jury process unfolded.

One of my colleagues described this time as a Strange Advent – referencing the season of Christmas’ anticipation which begins this Sunday. The observance of Advent is about the faithful expectation that hope will be renewed. The Christmas story is one of wondrous and surprising things happening in a dangerous and bitter context. Still, it plays out liturgically as a vigil of increasing optimism building towards a celebration that always arrives on time. Waiting for the Ferguson verdict meant waiting an unknowable number of days for a ruling that seemed more and more likely to dishearten and disappoint. And then the verdict came, and did just that.

But this modern pageant of woe – still in process and unresolved – shares some qualities with the Christmas narrative that we rarely consider. In the two Gospel stories of his birth, the teacher Jesus arrives in a land under occupation, where arbitrary death is a very real prospect. So real, in fact, that Jesus himself suffers it. And while the celebration of Easter affirms the ability of his students to continue to work in his name and endure his murder to continue his mission, the simple fact remains: at the end of the narrative of his life, Judea is just as violent and tormented a place as at its beginning. His people, many of whom seemed to hope he would be their liberator, remain just as oppressed as before.

The story of Hanukkah, which collides with Christmas mostly as an accident of the calendar, contains this same difficult truth: hope does not triumph in every instance, and victory does not always go to the most righteous or deserved. Also a story of Judea’s occupation by a foreign empire, Hanukkah is a story of liberation from oppression and the struggle for religious freedom, but it is not an uncomplicated one. The Maccabees, the heroes of the story, are hateful towards anyone outside their narrow faction and go on to establish a dynasty – the Hasmoneans – so universally despised that both Jewish and Christian religious authorities view it with almost equal disdain.

As a faith born of heresy, Unitarian Universalism ought to have a firm appreciation for the fact that the best idea does not always win in a dispute. That wars are won by power more than justice. That laws more often serve the mighty than the meek. That, “time is neutral,” as Martin Luther King wrote from his jail cell, and it, “…can be used either destructively or constructively.”

The arrival of the winter holidays can feel inexorable. Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa – each fall on their dates no matter what we do. But their meaning – the joy, renewal, and hope they represent – only arrives when and where human beings work at it. By telling the stories. By observing the rituals. By finding ways to make the ideals and aspirations of these holy times manifest by our actions. Part of life is waiting for things beyond your control to happen. Sometimes those things disappoint, and that disappointment might be minor, or it might be written in fire and blood. Hope can be thwarted. That doesn’t mean we stop hoping. It means we need to recommit to it again and again. The greatest wrong is not justice denied, it is justice so long in absence that all the yearning for it dies out. May we keep that yearning alive, then, friends. We will need it to drive us on, in the direction of new hope.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

One Brick at a Time – 11/16/2014

In my first year of college, they held a blood-drive on campus. I went with some of my friends down to the student center, to participate. Another friend had insisted it was the sort of thing everyone ought to do, if they could – and besides, there were going to be free cookies. That was my first and last time giving blood.

As I lay there on the gurney listening to conversation amongst my neighbors, I found myself thinking about the world, and my place in it. In those very early days of adulthood, I was in a struggle with my own moral relativism. I had been on the run for years already from my call to the ministry and I hadn’t found the courage yet to return to it. Still, I was haunted by the question of what I could do that would matter. What contribution was I going to be able to make in a world badly off-kilter, where it seems so easy to do wrong even when trying to do right?

There, with a needle in my arm, giving up a little bit of my own blood so that someone else, some stranger, at some point in the future could have it when they truly needed it – I felt like I’d found an answer. It wasn’t a grand solution, but it was something concrete that I could do – that almost anyone could do – to help other people and reduce the amount of suffering in the world. I took solace in this, and began to think that perhaps I was finding my way in the moral wilderness. And then I passed out.

The human body does not react well to losing blood, even under the best of circumstances. Health care professionals know this, and so they draw it carefully and responsibly. But in a small percentage of the population, just the normal draw that’s taken in a blood drive will cause a loss of consciousness. And a small percentage of those folks also go into a seizure. I’m told it was very impressive. When I woke up, safe but woozy, I was faced with a difficult reality: in the struggle to find something kind, compassionate, or just to do with my life, I couldn’t even donate blood.

This sermon is the close of a three part series exploring a declaration in the Talmud – the great collection of the wisdom of the earliest Rabbis – that, “The world rests on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim.” Gemilut chasadim is usually translated as, “acts of loving kindness.” So this sermon also serves as the first in a series on what the Buddhist tradition calls the four immeasurables or the four sublime attitudes – the leading virtues of Buddhist thought. The first of these is metta, which again is usually translated as “loving kindness.”

In his novel, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Kurt Vonnegut’s titular character greets a maternity ward full of newborns in the following way: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote, “My true religion is kindness.”

Yet, preaching in favor of kindness is exactly the sort of thing that Unitarian Universalism gets mocked for, by those more inclined to orthodoxy. It seems too simple and too mild. We think of kindness as a passive trait: polite, inoffensive, the sort of thing that one compliments the meek on because they have no other virtues worth noting. But I am here to tell you that the practice of gemilut chasadim, the cultivation of metta, the living of a life devoted to loving-kindness is the most challenging and the most radically counter-cultural way to be that I know of in this world we share.

Deep, real kindness requires an unflinching attention to the needs of others. My mentor, Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert proposed that one ought to, “Do unto others 20 percent better than you would have them do unto you – 20 percent to correct for subjective error.” If anything, I would call this a conservative estimate. The discipline of kindness is not only in conflict with our own petty-grudges, profound frustrations, justifiable angers, and unjustifiable hates – it can even seem to compete against other virtues. In one Buddhist story an old woman gave of her meager savings to support a monk devoted to living a pure life and cultivating virtue. To test whether his devotion was worthy of her largess, she sent a young woman to visit his hut. On the old woman’s instructions, the younger woman reached out to the monk longingly; he flatly and coldly rejected her advance. When she heard what had happened, the old woman confronted the monk and burned down the hut she had paid to build for him. He had proven himself unworthy of it. Certainly, she said, he was right not to break his vow of chastity, but he should not have been so unkind about it.

In the Gospel According to Matthew, the teacher Jesus is reported to have said, “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…whatever you did unto the least, you did unto me.” Considering that the audience for this message is Jesus’ followers, we might describe the lesson in this way: that whatever kindness we show to a stranger is morally the same as showing that kindness to someone whom we dearly love. And, continuing that theme, when we fall short of kindness’ ideal – whenever we write-off or ignore another’s woe – it is as though we have turned our hearts away from those who are most precious to us.

We cannot ignore the fact that our dominant mode of relating to each other in this society is an attitude of neglect. We walk by each other on the street without acknowledgement and maneuver around each other in traffic. Those of us who participate in our economy – that is, all of us – spend our days enmeshed in a system that treats everyone else as a means to an end – at best – and at worst as our eternal adversaries who can only be defeated, never reconciled with. The impulse of kindness upends this system: it makes us questions and challenge the fact that anyone else has less or that the needs of some go unmet in order to satisfy the wants of others. Loving-kindness de-alienates us from each other, when we let it into our hearts and let it guide our hands. Our loving-kindness is a measurement of our awakeness to that quality, being, or force which unites us all – that one which is called by many names, even, sometimes, ‘God.’

As I said, kindness is not the only virtue and so we sometimes convince ourselves that other virtues are greater or more important or simply take precedence in a given situation. Honesty is a favorite here, when we absolve our cruel or inconsiderate words because they are made up of true facts. Justice is another leading case, which we tell ourselves exists in opposition to loving-kindness, rather than as its collective manifestation. And there is also the impulse to say that we have done enough – which is important when we are drained and depleted and need to be kind to ourselves, but all-too-often serves to let us off the hook, giving us permission to remain comfortable and undisturbed by the truly challenging possibilities of kindness’ imperative.

The angst that I felt before and after my failed attempt to give blood certainly owed something to the navel-gazing undergraduates are sometimes accused of. I don’t think it’s fair to generalize about, but in my case it was true: I had a little too much time to worry, and just enough introductory philosophy to be dangerous. But one does not have to be a newly-post-adolescent in order to face doubt – in fact, that’s a very natural part of being human. And when we unavoidably encounter moments – or days, or months – of questioning the universe and our place in it, we do well to have something to hold onto and to ground us.

In the horror-comedy-soap opera from ten years ago called Angel, there’s a moment where one of that program’s characters faces such a crisis. He is facing his near-certain death, and the revelation that in this particular story, the universe is not compassionate or even indifferent, but actively hostile and full of cruel powers beyond his ability to defeat. Searching for a way to spend what he expects is his last day of life, the character goes to a shelter for homeless youth run by one of his friends. He finds her in the middle of her work, loading furniture into a truck, and lays a very heavy question on her, “What if I told you it doesn’t help? What would you do if you found out that none of it matters? That it’s all controlled by forces more powerful and uncaring than we can conceive, and they will never let it get better down here. What would you do?” Her answer is simple, like she’s already faced that question and come through the other side, “I’d get this truck packed before the new stuff gets here. Wanna give me a hand?”

Those of you who joined in last week’s discussion, following the service, of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address may recall that we touched on the question of what good it is to be good. This, I believe, is the answer. The practice of loving-kindness is so nourishing, so satisfying, so unambiguously right when we take it into our hearts that it gives us something to hold onto, a way to keep going even when all other meaning falters and the world seems to collapse around us. Kindness, put into action, matters even when no one will know of it, even when all record will be destroyed, all consequences undone. It will still have been accomplished. It will still be worth it.

The rabbinic tradition makes a distinction between actions motivated by loving-kindness and the more specific financial charity which can be done with a variety of different motives and feelings. While the giving of money to those in need – in Hebrew, tzedakah – is still very important, gemilut  chasadim is considered superior for three reasons: we can do it with our bodies, not just with our money, we can offer it to the rich as well as the poor, and we can extend it to the dead as well as to the living.

Gemilut chasadim means, literally, “paying back loving-kindness.” There is a strong sense of reciprocity in the term. Not in the sense that we should show kindness only to those who show it to us, or to give out kindness according to the amount we have received from others. Instead this means responding to the kindness and mercy of our existence – which we must experience from the universe and from other people throughout our lives if we are to survive at all – by cultivating that same generosity of spirit in ourselves and in the actions we choose to make. This same sort of cultivation is an essential element of Buddhist practice, and there are a number of different renderings of words used to affirm and renew an attitude of benevolent kindness. One of these reads as follows:

May all beings be happy, content, and fulfilled.

May all beings be healed and whole.

May all have whatever they want and need.

May all be protected from harm and free from fear.

May all beings enjoy inner peace and ease.

May all be awakened, liberated, and free.

And may there be peace in this world, and throughout the entire universe.

None of this comes easy, of course. Seeking to practice being kind – actively, intentionally, unrelentingly – we push back against the current order of the world. It is good, then, to get as much practice as we can. This is, in fact, one of the chief roles of our congregation: to provide us all with opportunities to serve needs beyond our own. If you need a means to practice gemilut chasadim – and all of us do – I want to remind you of some of the avenues you can find here to do so. We serve a free meal to anyone who can use one every Tuesday night, one Monday night each month, and are now expanding to serve meals at River House – a men’s shelter here in Beverly, on Wednesday nights. Ron Sweet, Nat Carpenter, and Melissa Goggin lead us in that project. Would you mind standing or making yourselves known if you’re here?

Through the Family Promise network we host homeless families here in our sanctuary about four times each year, which is a big undertaking and requires a lot of hands. Anne Geikie and Susan Elliott are our chief coordinators, and Dunc Balantyne happens to be the president of our whole local chapter. Would you please rise? Pastoral Care Committee. ASAPROSAR. Small Group Ministry. Meditation Group.

All those years ago, when I was sad to realize that donating blood was off the list of my possible contributions to society, there was something important missing in my life. I was away from the congregation where I grew up, and I hadn’t yet found another. It is possible to be very kind alone, but it would be difficult to find as many ways of practicing kindness, without first finding an intentional community of which to be a part. This congregation is one such community, in which we have come together in order to practice and cultivate the spirit of loving-kindness.

Life During Wartime – 11/9/2014

Two armies take the field. Archers and cavalry are arrayed on both sides. The leading warriors position themselves in their chariots, ready to dash into the fray. Loud blasts of sound pierce the air as conch shells are blown, announcing the opening of hostilities. It is to be a civil war within the ruling family – a battle to decide whom the next king will be – and just before the first arrow flies, a lone chariot rides out and down the middle of the field. Arjuna the prince, among the greatest warriors of either faction, stands between the two armies of his kinsmen, surveys the forces destined to fight and kill each other, and despairs.

This is the scene at the opening of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most revered books in the Hindu tradition, possibly the most influential religious text among the great many brought forth from the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the entire book unfolds in this singular moment, as Arjuna hesitates to take up his bow and fight for his brother, the rightful heir, against his cousins, the usurpers. Speaking to his chariot-driver, Krishna, he laments:

“Krishna, I see my kinsmen gathered here, wanting war.

My limbs sink, my mouth is parched,

my body trembles, my hair bristles on my flesh…

I see omens of chaos, Krishna;

I see no good in killing my kinsmen in battle…

They are teachers, fathers, sons, and grandfathers, uncles, grandsons,

fathers and brothers of wives, and other men of our family.

I do not want to kill them, even if I am killed, Krishna;

not for kingship of all three worlds, much less for the earth!”[i]

This coming Tuesday marks the observance of Veterans Day here in the United States; a time set aside to honor those who have served this nation in the conduct of war, and who have born most directly the burdens of it. For some of us, the list of those to whom that day belongs includes ourselves. For others, it records family members, near neighbors, close friends. However, many of us, I suspect, will be hard pressed to find even one living veteran to whom we are closely connected. In a nation which has been at war perpetually for 13 years, we also find ourselves in an age when many in that nation, and the country as a whole, are largely aloof from the conflict and its costs. It is too often too easy for too many of us to forget what war is, and what it means. With that in mind, then, this morning we continue this year’s worship theme of exploring the spiritual implications of places, by reflecting on the theology of the battlefield.

A battlefield is an oddly flexible sort of designation. Unlike most sorts of places, it cannot be recognized by the presence or absence of certain natural features or human-made buildings. It may occur as easily in a forest as a desert, and in a city as a farmer’s field. The designation is not even bound to land, in fact, and the term may be used just as correctly to describe a scrap of ocean or a patch of sky. What defines a battlefield is conflict: it is a place where people have fought, killed, and died. It is often said that this makes the place into a particular sort of holy ground. President Lincoln perhaps most famously expressed this sentiment when he said, “[W]e can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Yet the process of this consecration seems nearly as far from the realm of the holy as one might be able to reach. The phrase, “war is hell” is a cliché, but that cliché exists because so many who have experienced so many wars have compared what they saw and felt and did there to the cosmic idea of hell. What we Americans observe as Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day, and is still celebrated as such in many countries. This marked the end of the First World War, which began a hundred years ago, this year. Direct comparisons made between the horrors of that conflict and the horrors attributed to the tormented afterlife by theologians and storytellers were perhaps the most common and the most credible up to that point in human history. The war in the north of France, pitting German forces against French and English and eventually American, brought carnage that had been unimagined before: the first major use of the machine gun, the indiscriminate use of poison gas, and casualties that tallied up into unthinkable numbers. That war reshaped and damaged the land on which it was fought – for neither the first nor the last time in human history. Streams were fouled, fields and forests made barren, and the countryside littered with unexploded bombs. War may consecrate – may give a place a particular meaning and importance by its having transpired there – but it also desecrates. War diminishes the native holiness of the places it touches. This mixture of consecration and desecration matches the moral contradiction in even the most simple and clear-cut armed conflicts: violence is destructive to the soul, but there are many other fates and circumstances which we seek to resist through violence, because the alternative seems equally harmful, or worse.

In the story of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna struggles with this duality: he is bound by duty to resist an unjust government, yet he also feels his duty not to kill, even if it would help establish a better one. The book becomes a dialog between Arjuna and his chariot-driver, Krishna, who reveals himself to be an avatar of the divine and offers guidance on how to navigate life’s contradiction. This internal conflict becomes a way of discussing all internal conflicts, and Arjuna and Krishna play out a conversation that is really always going on inside each of us. We are constantly in dialog with the universe, trying to piece together the information and insight necessary to make the right decision. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, our interactions with others and with the world around us can be described as our relationship with God; in Buddhism, this is see as a game we play with the illusory nature of reality, working towards the realization of fundamental truth. We Unitarian Universalists might refer to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The Bhagavad Gita casts this eternal interplay between the self and the cosmic other – the essence of what it means to be a living human being – against the backdrop of the battlefield. Life is a conflict, and we are always caught between two or more sides.

The understanding of life as a struggle or a battle is hardly unique to Hinduism. It occurs again and again in human culture and thought. We use the metaphors of war to describe commerce – Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko invokes Sun Tzu’s Art of War – politics – how many terms of violence have you heard in the past month leading up to the mid-term elections? – and romance – Pat Benatar sings, “Love Is a Battlefield.” And certainly we often view faith – both personal and collective – through the lens of war.

Everything from prayer and preaching to political activism to actual combat may be slapped with the label of fighting “in the name of God.” In the Gita, Arjuna’s battlefield is also dharmakshetra – ‘the field of dharma,’ the place inside us all where our moral disputes are waged. Gospel, the Greek word used for the narratives written about the teacher Jesus in the century after his assassination, is commonly translated as “good news.” This is technically accurate, but in its origin there is a colloquial meaning: “good news of victory,” or “good news from the battlefront.” A gospel was a report of successful military action by the Roman Empire’s legions, usually far away from the people hearing the message. Calling the story of Jesus’ life and ministry a gospel conveyed a similar theme to the average Roman reader: somewhere in a distant province of the empire, something important has happened. This was just one way in which the people who authored the first four books of the Christian testaments took terms and symbols associated with the empire that murdered their teacher, and repurposed them to help carry his anti-imperial message.

Still, imagining life always as a battlefield raises a number of spiritual problems. Violent metaphor can help to foster violent reality, and in the case of Christianity, the military symbols woven into the story of Jesus have come back again and again to haunt the tradition, undercutting the message of the man who said, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”[ii] It also makes symbolically eternal something that is fundamentally temporary. The goal of every war is its own ending – though, of course, this is goal is sometimes achieved only with much faltering and delay. Nearly every participant in a battle has among their central ambitions to reach the end of that battle alive. Life-as-war is nonsensical, because the two are very nearly opposites.

In its moments of creation, the battlefield is defined by chaos. Particularly in the modern era, it is loud, fast, and deadly. Artists have attempted different strategies for rendering this, from the pained expressions and distorted shapes of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, to the live cannon fire called for in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In film, there has always been a tension between rendering war in the service of a story and depicting it honestly and accurately: it is difficult for an audience to root for the proscribed heroes and against the assigned villains when everyone is caught up in a nearly random flurry of motion and made almost indistinguishable from each other. Some movies do attempt to capture the actual experience of the battlefield, however. Roughly 15 years ago, Saving Private Ryan became famous, in part, for a depiction of World War II’s Normandy invasion that was so viscerally accurate that some veterans of that and other conflicts reported having to leave the theater. Patients seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder also reportedly rose after the film’s release.

The scene itself is gory, heart-breaking, and despondently arbitrary. It’s something that can’t be done justice in a description, and that no one should be exposed to without choosing to be. Exactly the same can, of course, be said for war itself. There is one particularly striking moment in which the camera sweeps over several different soldiers as they pray. Some cower from enemy fire, perhaps praying for courage, more likely to survive. Others lie dying, praying for mercy and peace. The last is a sniper, praying that his shot should strike true. It does. The tide turns. The battle advances and ends, and for a moment, in this particular part of the world, the killing stops. At the end of it all, another soldier digs up and handful of dirt and places it in a tin marked “France.” He places it in a pack alongside others marked “Italy” and “Africa.” Apparently, he is collecting fragments of the battlefields in each country or continent he visits.

The titular mission of the movie is to save one young enlisted man from the horrors and dangers of war. In a spontaneous and beautifully irrational moment, army officials have decided to pluck one man out of the storm and chaos of the European theater, and send him home. It is such an arbitrary gift, and one that they themselves so deeply covet, that nearly every other soldier who hears about this special dispensation resents him for it, including Ryan himself. He is so appalled by it that he initially refuses the order to go. Why? Because every soldier yearns to go home, to be free of having to kill or be killed, to be numbered among the too-few soldiers who survive to be something other than soldiers. It is just as with so many blessings in this imperfect world: Everyone wants it. Everyone deserves it. But not everyone receives it.

Our spiritual ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously said that, “War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.”[iii] And though this may be read as the worst sort of disrespectful and destructive idolatry of warfare from someone who never participated in it, Emerson did not mean that war was ideal, or even good. He saw it as a symptom of our immaturity – as individuals, as nations, and as a species, and was only grateful that the experience of war can help us to reach a state at which we no longer need or conduct it. Peace, after all, is the aim of all the Abrahamic religions, a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[iv] The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai takes this one step further:

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop!

Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares


The Bhagavad Gita closes with Arjuna relieved of indecision; he is ready to take up arms against the foe. Krishna’s council to Arjuna is lengthy and rich – it accounts for most of the book – but his basic answer to Arjuna’s internal conflict is simple. Each of us has a set of circumstances that we find ourselves in at any given moment – some by chance, some by choice, and perhaps a few – who knows? – by fate. The right choice in each moment is the most life-sustaining, justice-promoting action possible based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. We must play the role that falls to us to the best of our ability, and work hard to discern what that role is. We must ask ourselves, “What is my place in this moment? Where is my best opportunity to move the world from conflict and suffering to a peace in which life can flourish?” This may not always lead to a perfectly pure action, free of any moral conflict or ambiguity, but our creative response to the hard circumstances of life can lead us to surprising places.

This week, we honor those whose lives led them onto literal battlefields, so I want to leave you with one particular example of a creative answer to the moral questions posed by one warrior’s circumstances. After the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003, Lt. Col. David Couvillon found himself acting as the military governor of Wassit Province in Iraq. He and the Marines under his command served as the stop-gap government for a people long subjected to repressive tyranny, followed by the lightning chaos of invasion, and now the indignity and confusion of occupation. The primary tools at Lt. Col. Couvillon’s disposal were instruments of violence and control – he had ample access to guns and tanks and munitions, just like the previous regime, only his were more impressive. But David Couvillon resolved to show the people subject to his authority that there was something more behind him than the threat of force. He made a conscious decision not to wear body armor or carry a weapon in public. He encouraged those under his command to follow suit where appropriate: using the amount of arms and armor that each mission called for, rather than rolling out with maximum force at every opportunity. They focused instead on community relations; they reached out to informal local leaders and made a point of making friends with children in the street. The Iraqis they held authority over were living in a country that had literally become an enormous battlefield, with no end in sight. Lt. Col. Couvillon’s strategy was to make life a little more normal for the people he was responsible for – to make their country feel a little bit less like a warzone. And it worked: Wassit was secured, local infrastructure was rebuilt, and while there was still violence and injury, not a single Marine was killed on his watch.[vi]

We are not always happy with the choices life places before us. We can rail against the reasons for our circumstances and lash out to blame disloyal friends, villainous politicians, our own selves, or the God of our understanding. The list of possible culprits is long indeed. But that anger and frustration can only prove useful if it drives us on. In such moments, we are like Arjuna on the battlefield, torn between the range of options before us. And in those moments, it is up to us, in consultation with the universe of which we are a part, to look hard for the best of those options, and to act.

[i] Bhagavad Gita 1:28-35 (abridged)

[ii] Matthew 5:44

[iii] From his essay, “War.”

[iv] Isaiah 2:4

[v] From his poem, “An appendix to the vision of peace,” as it appears in the collection, Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers.


O Captain, My Captain! – 11/2/2014

Walt Whitman is one of the most famous of all the Unitarian poets – a lineage with quite a few notable names in it. He also gets my pick as one of the best. He was the sort of poet who was both complimented and accused in his day of capturing the soul of his nation and the sentiment of his era. And if he ever actually accomplished this, it was most likely in the short verse that he wrote in his grief, after the assassination of President Lincoln.

In the poem he cries, “O Captain! My Captain!” comparing the country to a ship and the President to its commanding officer.

O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

But the captain Whitman writes of cannot, of course, hear the cheers, or see the flag. Lincoln is missing the outpouring of feeling following his death. This may feel particularly unjust in the case of a sudden or violent death, but really it is true at the ending of most lives. We miss the days and years and even decades that come after us – the times when the kindest things are said of us, when, so often, the greatest consequences of our lives are realized.

Lisa shared with us a moment ago about how the death of her nephew and the process of grief that followed it was one of the forces that drove her to stop putting off her sense of call and take the decisive steps towards ministry. The finest mark that I know of for a life well-lived is that it challenges the people who live on after it to live more honestly, more courageously, more passionately than they might have otherwise. The choices we make following the death of someone we love, or in the memory of their life now passed, doesn’t fully explain or justify their dying. But it is the means that we have as a species of continuing the eternal project of hope in the presence of death.

Whitman’s words for Lincoln point us to another, related matter. The President was a stranger to the poet. They were not family or friends, they never met each other, never spoke. Yet his death made a profound impact on Whitman – on millions of people, in fact. The loss is not the same, cannot be the same, as it is for family or other close relationships. But is, none-the-less, real. The stories of our lives frequently extend beyond the sphere of those we actually know, and the ending of that story has meaning for them entirely beyond our control. Some of us have had a different version of this same effect this past week with the passing of Tom Menino, the long-time mayor of Boston. However the life of a public figure ends, the work of mourning and remembering them is not so different for distant admirers as for dear friends: we know them differently, as something closer to a character than to a real living person. But still, our role is to take what is best from their story as we understand it; to be encouraged by their virtues; to learn from their mistakes; to continue with our own lives the best that they began with theirs.

The poem, O Captain! My Captain! was at the heart of a film from my adolescence: The Dead Poet’s Society. The story is about a group of young men at boarding school. Their English teacher is determined to teach them to dream big and live boldly, and is so great a fan of Walt Whitman that he invites the class to refer to him with that same address: “O captain, my captain.” At one point the teacher takes his class out into the hallway to show them framed photographs of past students of the school. He invites his pupils to see themselves in unnamed, black and white faces they see before them. He asks them to consider about these young men, now long-since grown, perhaps many of them dead, “Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?” The legacy of these dead strangers, in the words of the instructor, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

The part of that teacher was played in the film by the actor Robin Williams, who died this past summer – another sorrowful case of a person taking their own life. As Lisa spoke to before, those of us who live on after someone else commits suicide are left scrambling for answers which are generally few and far between. The most meaning I can pull from such an experience is that we should say more often to ourselves and to each other what I will say to each of you now: you are loved, you are cared for, the life entrusted to you matters – it is never too late to begin again. But ultimately any death, no matter how tragic or how anticipated, confronts us in the same manner as those black and white photographs: live your life. Live it well. Love more. Choose what is right but difficult over what is easy and wrong.

If we all cannot be extraordinary, mathematically speaking, then let us resolve to be great, according to our own means and opportunities. When life has run its course for us, let us have no need to regret missing the trumpets and the shouts of those who remember us. Instead, let us live so that we may one day die knowing that we did live: with courage, with hope, and most of all with love. All those people we remember this day – both people we knew dearly and those we knew only through that strange medium of fame – let them remind us that live deserves all that we have to give to it, and the world is no less deserving even though they are no longer with us to share it.

Disease Envy

In Jerome K. Jerome’s novel, Three Men in a Boat, there is a scene in which the narrator peruses a medical text and comes to believe that each set of symptoms he reads about describe his case. After hopping around for a bit, he decides the only rational thing is to approach the matter alphabetically.

“[I] read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee.”

Our capacity for fear and worry over matters as important and seemingly unpredictable as our own health can be powerful indeed. But the narrator’s digression about housemaid’s knee points to another human foible: the desire to feel singular and important in all things, even by means of connection to something painful or terrible. I’ve thought about this passage a bit in recent weeks, as national alarm bells have been ringing over the new outbreak of the Ebola virus. Something in the breathless, fear-mongering coverage of American case – or hint of one – reminds me of Jerome’s character.

As a nation, we’ve become momentarily obsessed by fear over something that is almost certainly not a realistic threat – Ebola is exceedingly dangerous to someone who contracts it, but it is difficult enough to transmit that a literal handful of patients in the US do not portend a future epidemic here. At the same time, the actual Ebola crisis in West Africa is either being ignored or flattened out into a racist abstraction. Too much of the coverage that events in Sierra Leone and Liberia are receiving is just the usual, colonial-era shorthand. The world’s second-largest continent, home to over a billion people, is portrayed as an undifferentiated mass of famine, war, and disease.

A few of you have asked me about the faith response of Unitarian Universalism in this. Here is my counsel: be guided by our covenantal commitment to one another to, “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science,” and be on guard “against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Scientists aren’t the only people we should listen to in matters of public policy, but they should be the first people we turn to and rely on in matters of public health. Science is imperfect – because scientists are human, and therefore imperfect – but it has much more of value to say about a humanitarian crisis like this one than do the voices of the media or the political class. If we are not in a position to fly to Monrovia and volunteer our own medical expertise – as I expect most reading this are not – than our best course is to watch carefully and critically, to name the imbalances and inaccuracies in the way this story is being told and retold, and to use whatever powers we may have – the ballot, the pocketbook, our influence among friends and family – to support those working in effected countries to contain the spread of this disease. Most importantly we need to remember that, if we are in the United States, we are not at the center of this story.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Wisdom Undelivered – 10/26/2014

Recently, one of you shared this little story with me, and I’m grateful to you for allowing me to share it this morning. Your eldest child had come home from school with a special packet of information. It was a fundraiser for the school – there was a form to fill out, and a plan to make for participating in it. You thought it was funny because you did that exact same fundraiser when you were in school, the same age as your child is now.

You found yourself back in the same scene that you had been in before, only now you were the parent, instead of the child. You could remember how grown-up your own parents – the two most important adults in your life –.seemed to be when you were that age. How wise, how in-control, how full of authority. And thinking back across the 25 years or so between then and now, you realized something – my God, you understood something – maybe for the first time: Your parents must have been just as lost then as you are now. They were just as uncertain about each new step of being a parent, just as capable of self-doubt. At six or seven years old you couldn’t see it then but through the eyes of adulthood and the experience of standing now where they were then you can tell: your parents were never so wise or supremely confident as your own mind made them out to be. They were muddling through then, just like you sometimes feel you’re doing now, just like – could it be that everyone is just muddling through?

That was not even the most striking thing about this experience, though. No, the grand conclusion you drew from all this – the ‘aw, crud’ that really summed up the moment – was as follows: The wisdom that a child imagines in her parent is not on its way. That check is not in the mail. The great and blessed day when you’ll have everything figured out is not coming.

As human beings we have an almost inescapable habit of creating hierarchies in our minds about the people around us. Placing ourselves along a continuum with the folks we look up to on one side of us, and the folks we think ought to look up to us on the other. Of course, for most of our peers, and most strangers, and a lot of the people in the world, they’re not really falling at one end or the other. Instead they land right around where we place ourselves and move back and forth depending on the situation. You’ve got that one friend you would definitely go to for car advice, but never consult about your marriage. That cousin who’s a nurse, you might ask overly-forward questions about some minor medical worry, but for fashion advice, you’d be looking somewhere else. But still most of us, maybe even all of us, have people that we make examples of. The sorts of people that we hope to be, that we wish we could be. And when the day comes that we realize they are anything more frail or fragile or imperfect than what we have imagined them to be, the fall can be terribly hard.

Some of the clearest examples of this come from the realm of religion. History is littered with prophets, teachers, and messiahs who have lost their following once they are revealed to be fallible or out-and-out frauds. Nicholas of Cologne, in the year 1212, was the leader of what is sometimes called the Children’s Crusade: a mass pilgrimage by poor people, many of them children, from Germany and France seeking to convert the Muslim people of the eastern Mediterranean to Christianity. His prediction that the sea would dry up to allow his followers across did not come to pass, and he eventually died crossing the Alps.

Four hundred years later, a man named Sabbatai Zevi rose to prominence claiming to be the messiah. His campaign captured the spiritual imaginations of many Jews living under harsh conditions in Europe and the Middle East and he caused such a stir that he was eventually summoned to the court of the Ottoman sultan in what is today Turkey. The sultan gave him three choices: to be executed forthwith; or to have his divine nature tested by a volley of arrows – which would, of course, all miss if he were truly the messiah; or to renounce his claims of messiahship and convert to Islam. Zevi took the third option.

One farcical example of this trajectory comes from the sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall. Kevin McDonald plays the only member of Ted’s Church of the Very Bright Lights – an organization its founder insists is a church, not a cult. Kevin’s character grows frustrated when no one on the street wants to take his pamphlets. Lord Savior Ted tries to reassure him that his doubts are a natural part of faith, as he mixes up macaroni and cheese. As Ted launches into a tired recitation of his incredibly banal mission from God – to “tell ‘em I said ‘hi’” – an exasperated Kevin mouths along with the words. It’s a sort of magnification of anyone who has ever felt like they only ever hear the same story told over and over again in church. Ted’s reassurances that his movement will grow with time no longer impress Kevin.  “It’s been you and me for six years, Ted,” he points out. The scene closes when Kevin renounces Ted, and stalks out of the one-room apartment that serves as the church’s headquarters.

Would that false claims of spiritual authority and misuse of religious office were ever as funny in actual practice. Instead they are about as far from the comic as one can possibly go. It would be irresponsible for me to offer a message about the importance of tolerating and appreciating flaws in the people we admire, without making it clear that such space for imperfection must never excuse or justify the abuse of authority. The few decades of my life alone have seen scandals in virtually every modern religious movement, from Zen Buddhism, to Roman Catholicism, to Judaism, and, yes, to Unitarian Universalism. By now we ought to be keenly and sickeningly aware that any crime or betrayal by a religious leader whether personal, financial, or sexual, not only does the damage of the crime itself. It not only diminishes the office of all other clergy. It also damages the faith of those who looked to that person for spiritual guidance. Such is true in virtually any such case of abuse or profound harm: once our trust has been perverted and broken it is terribly hard not to lose trust in others, in ourselves, and in the benevolence of the world we share.

But the mundane imperfections in our teachers, the exemplars who manage to be mortal – as we all are – without exploiting anyone, these are not necessarily a barrier to our own needed learning. The Hindu mystic Rama-Krishna told a story about a spiritual master named Tapobana. One day, Tapobana heard that his most devoted student had been seen walking across the river that divided the city as though it were solid ground. Tapobana believed himself to be far above the student in wisdom and learning; in fact, he viewed the disciple’s unswerving dedication to him as a sign of the student’s limited faculties. Still, he had to know the secret of this powerful display.

Tapobana sought out his devotee and asked if the stories were true, that he had developed a habit of walking across the surface of the river each day and night. The student declared that they were, and offered all credit for the miracle to his master. “With each step,” he explained, “I recited your blessed name, and this is what upheld me.”

From this, Tapobana decided that he must have had spiritual powers of which even he was not aware – surely whatever his student could accomplish by invoking his name, the master could achieve just as well. He rushed to the river bank and set his foot upon the water. With profound concentration he recited this mantra, “Me. Me. Me.” And then he sank.

Alan Watts, a British mystic who helped to popularize Zen Buddhism in the west, offered a set of instructions for what he called the ‘Trickster Guru,’ someone determined to fake their way as a religious teacher in order to help others attain real spiritual liberation. His advice is to “[b]e somewhat quiet and solitary…[n]ever ask questions,” but, “…provoke people into asking your advice.” Command your students to perform odd exercises; some should be merely difficult, and others should be impossible. Be sure to have, “about thirty or forty different stages of progress worked out…and suggest that there are still some extremely high stages beyond those.” “Insist on some special diet, but do not follow it yourself.” To pull the whole thing off, you will need to be an utter and perfect skeptic, devoid of any superstition or even wonder or awe – otherwise, some other spiritual confidence man might outwit you. But at the same time, you must find a way to believe your own hoax – it’s the only way you’ll ever find enough nerve to pull it off.[i]

Now, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a tradition of turning towards, rather than away from, the imperfect in our teachers, prophets, and saints. At its best, this has allowed us to appreciate the beauty and the truth in a life without discarding it when that life gets messy. During the Enlightenment, when the blossoming of the scientific method led to fresh questioning of the miracles attributed to Jesus, our spiritual ancestors chose to focus on his humanity as a source of inspiration. Rather than having to be perfect in an unquestionable, unapproachable way, Jesus could be understood as a wise teacher whose wisdom sometimes failed him. He could be seen a prophet of peace whose anger, at moments, got the better of him. He could be understood as a messenger of hope who also struggled with his own uncertainty and despair. The lessons of his life weren’t rendered mute by such an understanding of the man – rather, they were made newly accessible. No longer bound up in a character so flawless as to be alien, the words and actions described in the Gospels could now be read to offer a lofty but still possible model for humanity to strive for, and lessons could be taken from his failings as well as his virtues.

This same view applies equally to any spiritual teacher, any teacher of any sort, in fact, and to all those we hold up as examples to ourselves of the lives we aspire to lead. Be they parents or mentors or persons of learning, passion, or experience: all are mortal. Be we those parents, mentors, or persons of learning, passion, and experience, we, too, are mortal. And in that frailty is found our greatest blessing. We are never assured that we will get it all right – we may be certain, in fact, that we won’t. But it is because we are able to fail that we are able to learn.

We live in an age when it has become a sort of sport to recite the moral failures of famous leaders and paragons of supposed virtue. There is a cheap satisfaction for a certain cynical impulse within us to be found there: in the smashing of idols, the fracturing of a monument’s feet of clay. Hence the roll-call of philandering politicians, the salacious repetition of both rumors and proven facts about figures from Gandhi and King to Hawking and Einstein. William Wilson, the famous Bill W. who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous is said, perhaps apocryphally, to have asked for whiskey on his death-bed. Thoreau took breaks from living alone in his cabin to enjoy the company of friends and a home-cooked meal. It may be that only public figure that history has proven unable to discredit by catching the scent of some hypocrisy or moral contradiction is Mr. Rogers. But all of this begs the question: so what?

I do not mean to brush aside the wrong where wrong has been done. But the only true purpose for the smashing of idols is to make clear the greater truth which they obscure. When our lives point others towards what is true and right, that cannot be diminished, it cannot be cut out from the record of days no matter our faults, however great they might be. Even if moral perfection could be accomplished – and friends, I do not recommend holding your breath – it can never be attained by seeking only to do no wrong: preferring passivity over any mistake. Our highest obligation is instead to seek to do right, despite the limitations of our knowledge, wisdom, patience, and strength. To risk being wrong by having the courage to be, as best we are able.

Which returns us to that story that one of you shared with me a few weeks ago. I confess that like you, I rarely feel so wise or so confident as my parents appeared to me when I was young. Like you, I have my moments of self-doubt. My hours. My days. Like you there is a part of me that wishes for wisdom to arrive on a perfect schedule, fully-formed and pure, to take away the guess work of life. But what I know is that the total absence of doubt in one’s self is the surest sign of fraud. Either a fraud in the person who pretends such perfect confidence, or a fraud in us, projecting that quality onto another. The pretense of perfection is too great a weight to bear: it makes us either pretend that we are faultless, and live in fear of being unmasked, or it leads us to wait around, forever, for the flawless guidance which is not coming. Instead, let us take solace and courage in the fallibility of all persons, first of all ourselves. It is only because we are capable of making mistakes that we are capable of learning to mend them.

[i] From his essay, “The Trickster Guru,” as reprinted in The Essential Alan Watts.

Standing in the Need of Prayer – 10/19/2014

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov – the great mystical rabbi of 18th century Poland – that at times of great danger and calamity for his community, he had a certain practice he would always observe. The rabbi would go into the woods alone to a certain place among the trees. There he would meditate and light a special fire. Finally, he would pronounce a particular prayer over the flame, and by this observance, it is said, the crisis was always averted.

After the Baal Shem Tov passed from this life, the responsibilities of leadership passed to his successor. This inheritor was a good and worthy scholar and teacher, but he did not know all of the secrets of his predecessor. One day, a new and dire threat arose, and following the custom of his teacher, the younger rabbi went to that same place in the woods. Yet, he did not know the particular way in which the fire needed to be lit, so he confessed, “O Holy One, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer. And this, it seems, was enough.

The next rabbi in this lineage was also wise and dutiful, but when it came his turn to lead and watch over the community, he knew even fewer of his ancestor’s secrets than had his predecessor. When the hour of doom arrived, he returned to the place in the woods, but could only declare, “O Blessed Name, I cannot light the fire or even pronounce the prayer. All I can do is to come to this sacred location.” And that alone, in its time, was enough.

Finally, there came a new rabbi who was just as dedicated and insightful as those who had come before, but even the last remaining secret of the forest was withheld from him. So once again, calamity arrived, and all seemed lost. Sitting at home alone, it was all that the teacher could do to declare, “My Rock and my Redeemer, I cannot light the fire. I do not know the prayer. Even the sacred place in the forest is hidden from me. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And, according to the story, it was.[i]

This morning’s sermon is the second in a three-part series following the teaching from the Jewish tradition that the world rests on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim. Torah, which can be translated as teaching, we covered last month. Gemilut chasadim – acts of loving kindness – will be considered in November. Today our word is avodah. Literally, it means work, or sometimes, service. In modern Hebrew it can mean anything from the work of the business world to the labor of farming. But in its traditional religious sense, avodah means the work of serving God, especially the words and ritual of worship and of prayer.

The story of the Baal Shem Tov and the rabbis who succeeded him follows a shift in the historical practice of Judaism. For centuries the center of Jewish practice was the temple in Jerusalem and the rituals and sacrifices observed there. Hundreds of animals – among them sheep, cows, and doves – were sacrificed there in the course of each year, requiring a large team of priests to oversee the work. Each sacrifice had a particular meaning and reason behind it. But when the temple was destroyed for the second time, the priesthood was dispersed, and the sacrifices ended. The response to this crisis within Judaism was the development of the teaching that the act of worship and the effect of prayer within the human heart effectively replaces those sacrifices. This is part of why the meaning of avodah is so broad and encompassing: it has grown over time as a matter of survival. Christianity, of course, and Islam both trace themselves back to the same temple as modern Judaism, and in their own ways they have devised means for transforming earthy, sometimes bloody pagan practices into meditative rituals and prayers. (A pause to note here that while ‘pagan’ has often been used as a pejorative term, I do not intend it as such, and it’s important we remember that most modern pagans find animal sacrifice just as distasteful as would the average Muslim, Christian, or Jew, if not more so.)

As Unitarian Universalists we are connected, through our Christian roots, to this same evolution. Yet, many of us feel a hesitancy, either small or great, around words like worship and prayer. There are at least two reasons for this. First is the unfortunately popular idea that one can only pray to God, and to a certain narrow idea of God, which many of us don’t find personally meaningful. Second is the understanding of prayer as a mechanical sort of tit-for-tat; prayer as the means of accessing the cosmic vending machine to obtain health, wealth, or any other thing we might want – or desperately need. There’s an intellectual argument against this one, of course, but as always I’m much more interested in the moral argument against it. If prayer is a means of bartering with the universe, or just begging God for preferential treatment, if prayer alone can make the difference in our fates then people all over the world are being punished daily for failure to pray. Few of us would feel good about participating in something that amounts to spiritual bribery: a program of cosmic corruption.

An image from one of the science fiction novelist Rober Zelazny’s books takes this idea to its absurd conclusion. On a distant planet the local religion is based on advanced technology and intended for social control. One of its mainstays is the ‘Pray-o-Mat,’ a massive apparatus of metal and glass covered in animal shapes: tigers, serpents, fish. One activates it by inserting coins and pressing buttons. Once commanded, the machine glows and hums as it prays on your behalf. The amount paid into the machines is tracked over one’s lifetime, and used to determine how nice or how poor of a new life and body one can expect to enjoy after death.[ii]

These two concerns are good reasons, I’ll grant, not to pray in ways that one finds immoral or contrary to how you understand the universe. But prayer can be quite a bit larger than this. My colleague the poet, educator, and minister Lynn Ungar writes of prayer in its small, spontaneous manifestations, and offers this reverent and agnostic example, “The full autumn moon rises, huge and orange and glowing, and I feel my spirit lifting along with it. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.” In the moment of beauty it doesn’t matter whom I am thanking or even whether I am heard. It is enough to be grateful and to be a witness to wonder.”[iii] Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, a major 20th century leader of Reform Judaism in the United States, wrote that “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”[iv] Prayer’s applications are vast, and the fact that the word is sometimes used dysfunctional or destructively does not mean that it can have no use or value. In fact, it doesn’t even prevent us from benefiting from it, even when we would deny having any practice of prayer.

Can I get real with you for a second? I love being your minister. I have wanted this job since I was 13 years old. And, that doesn’t mean that my days are all egg-free cake and vegan ice cream. I have moments when I’m frustrated. I have times when I fail. I get caught up in why nobody bought into my clever idea, or I fume over all the time I spent trying to come up with a clever idea that never came. I focus on the emails I haven’t answered yet, and the calls I haven’t made, and the sermon I still haven’t written. I want you all to know that this doesn’t mean that I love you any less than you thought I did. It especially doesn’t mean that you should try to take care of me or fix anything. What I’m trying to say is, I have days when I come home the office with a worn-out soul. And when I do, one of the things that restores me is cooking dinner.

I don’t do it every night, and it doesn’t work every night that I do it. But cooking for my family returns some of my sense of self and purpose when it gets tarnished or bent by the rest of the day. There’s a rhythm in the kitchen, between the cutting board and the knife, the stove and the pan. It’s calming and meditative when I find it. More importantly, preparing food is an expression of love and when I pay attention to that, it helps me to love myself and all the other people in my life a little bit more, and my grip on all my pettiness and disappointments slackens some. The Jesuit priest John Veltri offers a prayer I believe points in this same direction:

“Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me, my family, my friends, my co-workers.

Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear, the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”

Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me– the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, the cry of the anguished.

Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself. Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside — in the deepest part of me.

Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence.

Teach me, Lord, to listen.  Amen.”

As one covenant recited in many of our congregations declares, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” That expansive, almost impossibly broad meaning of the Hebrew avodah – meaning work, service, worship, and prayer – matches perfectly with the sentiment of Unitarian Universalism. There is no natural wall between the sacred and the secular. Work can be prayer if it accomplishes what prayer exists to accomplish: refocusing and strengthening our intentions towards that which is most precious in life.

Empty prayer, hollow of intention, yields nothing. As Claudius, the murderous king of Shakespeare’s Hamlet pronounces after failing to summon any real remorse for his crimes, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Intention – in Arabic, niyyah, in Hebrew, kavanah – gives meaning to prayer, but prayer is also a whetstone of intention. Contemporary rabbi Elyse Frishman offers the following prayer of aspiration for focusing on the potential of the self, the beauty of others, and the determination to struggle for justice:

“My soul came to me pure,

drawn from the reservoir of the Holy.

All the time it remains within me,

I am thankful for its thirst

for compassion and justice.

Let my eyes behold the beauty of all creatures;

let my hands know the privilege of righteous deeds.”[v]

The renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn writes that, “When love and compassion are present in us, and we send them outward, then that is truly prayer. [Further], in sending love outward, we may notice a change in our own heart.” In the classic gospel hymn, the congregation sings, “Not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer…Not the elder, nor the deacon…Not my father, nor my mother…Not the stranger, nor my neighbor…but it’s me…” More times each day than I want to count, it’s me: standing in the need of prayer. Needing to be humbled in my wants and fears, the impulses I too often let control me. Needing to have that still, small voice of moral courage exalted. Needing to be pointed again in the direction of love. Sometimes by my labor, and sometimes by closing my eyes and naming my gratitude, my regret, and the best hope I can muster.

Researching my topic for today, I stumbled onto the gift of some words from one of my favorite spiritual ancestors that I hadn’t come across before. It was a prayer written by the great anti-slavery preacher Theodore Parker. The prayer actually closes with him wishing not to be forgiven for his sins, in the hope and expectation that all wrongs should carry their natural consequences, and he should be redeemed by paying them rather than dodging their fair price. But my favorite passage is this one:

“From all this dusty world Thou wilt not lose

A molecule of earth, nor spark of light.

I cannot fear a single flash of soul

Shall ever fail, outcast from Thee, forgot.

Father and Mother of all things that are,

I flee to Thee, and in Thy arms find rest.”[vi]

Every prayer is a poem. However literally meant – and I do not mean to disrespect the ardent theists among us – any image of God is also a metaphor for the shape and form of justice, peace, and love, and of the universe itself. “Father and mother of all things that are,” what a beautiful, comforting, hopeful description of the cosmos we share, and in the arms of which – these bodies, this building, this Earth – we rest.

The great Unitarian Universalist minister Gordon McKeeman asked the question for formulating prayer, “How does one address a mystery?” He offers four basic answers: cautiously, reverently, hopefully, quietly; and expands on each in turn. But then he turns to what exactly should be said once the right approach is made.

“But what shall I say?

Anything—any anger, any hope, any fear, any joy, any request, any word that comes from the depth of being addressed to Being itself—or, perhaps, nothing, no complaint, no request, no entreaty, no thanksgiving, no praise, no blame, no pretense of knowing or of not knowing.

Simply be in the intimate presence of mystery, unashamed—unadorned—unafraid. And at the end say—Amen.”[vii]

My friends, I encourage you – indeed, I challenge you – to experiment, to explore, and to find whatever means of prayer you can. Again, I mean whatever practice or action or pattern of thought serves best to return to the best that you are capable of and the highest ideals you hold. What lets you reach out for solace in times of trouble, and reach out towards other people in their own trying times. What expresses your awe and wonder and gratitude most profoundly, and what strengthens your resolve to do right and your courage to make amends for what you’ve done wrong. Seek out and follow whatever you can find to hone and refocus your soul. The world depends upon it, for your own purpose and wellbeing depend on it – and you, just like me and everyone else – are a part of the world.

[i] This is a Chassidic tale, based on a retelling by Elie Wiesel in his book, The Gates of the Forest.

[ii] From Zelazny’s novel, Lord of Light.


[iv] As quoted in Gates of Prayer, the New Union Prayer Book.

[v] As quoted in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur.

[vi] As published in, The Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker


Gimme Shelter – 10/5/2014

“Once upon a time there was a little house, way out in the country…” So begins the picture book “The Little House,” written by beloved Unitarian children’s author Virginia Lee Burton. The book has a few different characters in it but the house is really its protagonist. She, the house, is described as both pretty and strong. She sits on a hill in the green countryside, home to a growing, changing family, and she watches the world unfold around her.

She watches children playing and seasons changing. She watches the moon and the stars in the sky. Eventually she sees people come and go, and growth and development all around her. Trucks and cranes and steam rollers arrive, gasoline stations begin to appear, a little lane becomes a road becomes a busy city street. Finally, two giant skyscrapers are built up, one on either side of her, so that she can barely see the sky anymore. The little country house is out of place in the fast-paced, frantic world of the big city. She misses the scenery and natural cycle of her former country life.

The story’s happy ending is made possible when the great-great-granddaughter of the man who built the house stumbles upon her once again in the midst of the bustling city. She arranges to have the house moved to a new location, on a new hill, back out in the country. She gets a new foundation and a new coat of paint. And she is free again to watch the passing of the seasons, and the course of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky.

Virginia Lee Burton’s story reads like an indictment of city life and the bigger, faster, closer together ethic of urban development. But she insisted that this was not her point. In part, the story came from her own experience: her family had moved a house. She wanted to craft a story that would illustrate the passage of time for children: seasons come and go, children are born, grow up, and move away, even the land itself can change over a long enough scale. Making her main character a house made a special sort of sense, then, because houses and homes are the persistent witnesses of the lives that inhabit them.

Each year, I select a topic to return to in a sermon each month. This sermon is one installment in this year’s monthly series. The title for this series is “Site-Specific Theology,” and I should probably offer some explanation for what I mean by that. There is a concept in the world of art sometimes called site-specific art or in the world of drama, site-specific theater. The idea is to create some story or work of expression that exists specifically for and because of a given location. A sculpture that incorporates the building it sits beside, for instance, or a play about people living in a 19th century house performed inside an actual 19th century house. Site-specific art seeks to express and make use of what is unique about a place.

Site-specific theology, then, is about discovering the cosmic and spiritual implications of the places we inhabit. How do the places where we live, work, worship, and play express and even shape what we most deeply believe, and what we hold to be most sacred? This is the project I intend to undertake with you this year, and this morning’s installment is, as you may have guessed, the theology of the home.

In our wondrous and staggering diversity as a species, we have created for ourselves a dizzying variety of homes. Cape Cod, split-level, shotgun, and foursquare are just a few of the odd names of common styles of North American houses. In areas that are prone to flood people often build houses on stilts, and in areas with frequent earthquakes houses tend to be low to the ground. Except, of course, in the United States where we tend to ignore both of those rules.

In parts of the southern Philippines, there’s a long history of living in literal tree houses. A house fit for an entire family to live in year round takes a bit more work and attention than a fort intended for children, and the longer these houses are used the more they have to be taken apart and rebuilt, changing to adapted to the growth of the tree that hosts them. In the archeological dig at Catal Huyuk in Turkey, which is probably the oldest human building site we know of, all the houses are built together, sharing walls like overlapping, irregular squares. For the most part, they had no doors – people got in and out through holes in the ceiling. This turned the interlocking roofs of the town into a sort of elevated street-system. There were no separate, free-standing houses – everyone’s space literally touched someone else’s, even depending on those other buildings for the strength and shape of their own.

In Andalusia in southern Spain, you can find homes built out of or entirely into caves in the sides of hills and cliffs. The partially submerged structures maintain a more even temperature during hot summers and cold winter nights – an advantage of being literally embedded in the world their inhabitants inhabit. The Ndebele people of South Africa, on the other hand, have a history of living in round houses with mud walls and grass roofs. The distinctive quality of their homes is not so much their materials or location as the art that they make of them. The Ndebele have a rich tradition of painting their homes in vibrant colors and complex geometrical patterns. These paintings grow particularly detailed and ornate around the doorways of the house, pointing to the importance of the threshold, the place between inside and out.

This topic of homes and their meanings was particularly on my mind this week as my family and I just finished moving. Well – how many boxes are you allowed to have left unopened and still say you’ve finished the move? It was the shortest distance I’ve ever moved – all of about four blocks, from the old apartment to the new. It also meant leaving behind the home we’ve shared the longest as a couple and a family, the place where I’ve lived the longest as an adult. Why the move then? Because our family needed more space. First and foremost, a home is a necessity – we all need shelter. How we serve this need, and how much we allow our wants to rival and even supersede it, says a great deal about what matters most to us. A soft bed signals our need for comfort. An unlocked door indicates trust; or vulnerability. A neatly manicured lawn suggests the triumph of labor and science over nature itself. The location of the living space itself says something about who we will welcome, or at least tolerate, as our neighbors.

Virginia Burton’s story of The Little House also speaks to the role of a home as a witness to the passage of the lives within it. This can manifest in countless ways. The tradition of the doorpost or scrap of wallpaper where the children’s heights and ages are measured out, for instance. Every time I’ve moved I’ve had to undo the little changes and adjustments I’ve made to the apartment to try to get it back to the way it was when I first started renting. I remember in one case, a few moves ago, re-hanging the ugly, worn blinds that we’d replaced with curtains the moment we moved in. The scuff-marks on the floor, the nails in the wall, the salsa-splatter never entirely removed from the ceiling – every scrap of evidence of lives lived has some story or another behind it.

The poet Deborah Digges expresses the way a home can retain and carry with it a deep emotional experience in her poem, “The House that Goes Dancing”:

Not always but sometimes when I put on some music

the house it goes dancing down through the yard

to cha-cha the willows or up into town

to tango the churches.

This dancing, she eventually reveals, is an act of grief to process the death of someone dearly loved and missed. The frantic, erratic, self-destructive movements of a dancing house leave the marks of grief in their wake:

All our mirrors well shattered, our china, our crystal,

Our lightbulbs, our pictures have crashed from the walls.

A magnificent mess!—The doors off their hinges,

the windows wide open.

Beyond serving necessity and witnessing life, a home is a venue for hospitality. Even the most unwelcoming place – a hermit’s shack, for instance –

offers some invitation to be inhabited, even if only by the one person who is allowed or expected to be there. Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar – the first family of monotheism, to whom Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their lineage – are generally agreed to have lived in a tent. Not much is said of the home itself in the Hebrew bible, but there is a Rabbinic tradition that the tent was kept open on all four sides, so that guests could be seen, could enter, and could be made welcome directly, no matter which direction they approached from.

Henry David Thoreau famously built a cabin for himself at Walden Pond when he went into the woods, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Reflecting on the work of building the cabin, he writes,

“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?”

There is some natural satisfaction in meeting one’s own needs with one’s own work, but in the years since Thoreau lived, our society has gone dramatically in the direction opposite the one he advocated. For my part, I have to consider that good – if I were entirely dependent on my own skill at carpentry in order to have some safety from the elements, I would be in a lot of trouble. But more than this, the fact that almost all of us live in buildings built by someone else doesn’t make us all beneficiaries of stolen nests. It points instead to how interdependent we are, how much we rely on the work and ingenuity of others in order to sustain our own lives.

In their book, “A House for Hope,” Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, two major figures in modern Unitarian Universalism, use the structure of a house as a metaphor for structures of religious belief. At the foundation is theology in the classic sense: what is believed about God, or whatever force or idea lies at the center and forms the basis for all other beliefs. The walls are the ecclesiology: our beliefs about how we ought to work, worship, and be together. The roof is soteriology: beliefs about what human beings need saving or rescuing from, and how that salvation can be realized. The rooms between the foundation, walls, and roof constitute how we understand ourselves and our relation to the universe and whatever is holy in it. This is sometimes called theological anthropology, but it also intertwines with pneumotology: beliefs about the spirit, or the ways in which humanity interacts with the divine. The threshold between inside and out represents missiology: how we understand our purpose, and what message we have to express by our words and deeds. Finally, the garden around the house represents eschatology: our beliefs about where things are going and what the point – and the destination – of the universe are.

This Thursday night, I will begin leading a class studying this book and the richness of this metaphorical structure, and there is still space left for anyone interested in going deeper. But for this week, I would like to invite you to turn the metaphor inside out and apply it to your own home. How do the contents of your walls connect to your relationships to other people, and in particular to the spiritual dimension of those relationships? Are they covered with photos and keepsakes, evidence of a vast network of family and friends, or are they relatively bare of signs of any other people? The one is not necessarily a good thing, nor the other necessarily bad: old photographs can just as well be markers of broken relationships as healthy ones, and a bare wall might signify a disinterest in the material in favor of time with actual humans.

The same sorts of questions can be asked for each dimension of the house: does a solid, dependable roof foster a strong sense of what we need protecting from and how to go about it? Or does the absence of leaks and cracks make a person more insulated and complacent, less awake to the real dangers and challenges of life? The shapes of our spiritual homes cannot be divorced from the conditions of our literal homes: the two sides talk, and a distortion in one can have serious impact on the other. Consider the case of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA, which Sarah Winchester built after inheriting the Winchester repeating rifle fortune. Originally seven stories of bizarre, nonsensical architecture, full of stairs to nowhere, doors that open onto walls, and windows that look into interior rooms at odd angles, the house is rumored to have been built under instructions from a spiritual medium channeling the ghost of Sarah’s husband. Whether true or not, it seems clear now that another major influence was Sarah’s prolonged depression. The condition of our minds and hearts effects the way we shape the world around us, and the world around us has a role in shaping the condition of our minds and hearts.

“Once upon a time,” begins the story of your spiritual home. It may not be a little house in the country. It may be a loft apartment, or a house boat, or a tent with four doorways. Whatever the shape of our personal theological house, it is up to us to map it for ourselves – to acquaint ourselves with the limits and potentials of what we believe. In this sense we must be both song birds and cuckoos, to stretch the limits of Thoreau’s metaphor: we must acknowledge and appreciate that we did not and never could have built all the elements of our theological house on our own. We benefit from the search for meaning that preceded us, and we gain much shape and strength from the spiritual dwellings of our neighbors, like the houses in the ancient village at Catal Huyuk. And yet, we also must practice for ourselves the spiritual carpentry necessary to repair and remake the houses of our spirits. So by that work, friends, may we feel moved to sing.

“When your neighbor’s wall breaks, your own is in danger.”

“When your neighbor’s wall breaks, your own is in danger”

–Icelandic proverb

The fire ants of the Amazon rain forest inhabit a world teeming with life, but also with fierce dangers and intense competition. Among the challenges that they and many of the forest’s other creatures face are frequent, prolonged floods. When the mighty Amazon and its many tributaries crest their banks, the dry forest floor becomes more of a lake. That would be a threat to almost any land animal; it’s especially challenging for an ant.

Their solution to this problem is a striking example of life’s creativity in adapting to survive. When the flood waters come, the ants build a raft. Out of themselves. Crawling over one another they interlock special fibers on their legs. The whole churning mass of ants floats, keeping most of them above the water’s surface. The rest continue to breathe from tiny air bubbles trapped around their bodies. Worker ants on the top of the raft are free to move around and care for their nest’s young. This is not just a short-term solution: it can last for months. Long enough for the flood to subside, or simply to drift to wherever the new shoreline is.

We humans, yet another of nature’s fascinatingly creative animals, may not have the evolutionary capacity for this particular parlor trick, but it remains astounding what we can do when we work together in community. It’s common to point to great works of construction and architecture to illustrate what we can accomplish by cooperating. Edifices like the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the CN Tower in Toronto are certainly impressive, but for my part it is the ability of humans to improve and ennoble the lives of humans that truly astounds. The ingenuity and determination of citizens confronting their governments in pursuit of freedom. Our ability to illuminate deadly childhood diseases through study, experimentation, and eventually vaccination. Collective responses of compassion and healing in the wake of danger, disaster, or death.

That all may be on a big scale, but all the way down to the individual level, we need each other. A study published in 2010 found that establishing and maintaining deep social relationships increased the likelihood of survival for the study’s participants by 50%. That makes the implications for personal health of maintaining interpersonal connections roughly as compelling as quitting smoking. We need each other in order to navigate the twists and turns of life, as assuredly as those ants need each other in order to stay afloat.

In all four of the canonical Gospels, we find the story commonly called the Feeding of the 5,000 – in which 5,000 men (and an uncounted number of women and children) share five loaves of bread and two fish and find themselves with so much food that even after they’re all full, they still have left-overs. The teacher Jesus presides over the whole affair – this is held in the orthodox understanding to be one of his greatest miracles. But whatever the story might say about Jesus, it says something also about the unnamed, and largely uncounted multitude. The people shared. Somehow, what there was became enough. Life, in all of its abundant creativity, found the means to thrive under harsh conditions. The things we can accomplish in community, when we believe that someone else’s good is our good as well, are great. So great that they can outstrip even our expectations of what is possible.

Later this month, the collective power of community and the need for it to sustain human life will come together in a deep way. Once again we are hosting homeless families through the Family Promise program. Once again, we’ll be working to make our house of worship into a house of residence for a week, and doing together all the many jobs that allow us to host our guests, to feed and shelter them and offer our hospitality. If you’ve volunteered with this effort before, I thank you and encourage you to do so again. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity, I urge you to seize it: there are a lot of different ways to be a part of this, many of them tailored for single people and families, introverts, extroverts, and even relatively young children. I urge you to take part not just because our guests need something from us, but also because we need something from them and from each other. We need, as human beings, the power, the creative energy, and the very sustenance of life that being in relationship with one another affords.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Those Who Can, Teach – 9/21/2014

Let me tell you a little bit about Dave Roche. Dave Roche is a punk rock guy. He belongs to the particular variety of punk called ‘straight-edge,’ which means that he doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke and doesn’t eat meat. The sort of loud, aggressive music that he likes to sing along with and dance to and create himself is socially-conscious, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist. Dave spent most of his 20s going to shows in grimy clubs and sometimes performing in them. He hitchhiked between cities, made guerilla street art, and rummaged strategically in promising dumpsters. You may hear ‘punk,’ and find none of that terribly surprising. What may surprise you is that Dave supported himself through much of that time by working as a public school substitute teacher, mainly as an aid in special ed classrooms.

In his book, On Subbing, Dave records many of his teaching experiences. True to the punk ethic that demands unvarnished truth, many of his stories and anecdotes aren’t pretty. When a student shouts an expletive at him, he records the quote verbatim. When a senior teacher does something cruel, or thoughtless, or outright racist, he prints that, too. His warnings about the job are plain and direct: “[W]hen you sub, especially at a middle school, you have to give the kids as little to make fun of you about as possible. You have to double, maybe triple check your fly, bring some mints, and make sure your shirt is buttoned properly.”

But Dave also clearly enjoys many of the children he works with: a boy who wants to spend recess talking about pets, but doesn’t like monkeys; a girl who remembers him from his last job in her class, and wants him to read the same book to her again. Dave has little tolerance for any teacher or administrators who don’t seem to respect the kids, saying, “My job would be so much better if I didn’t have to deal with all these adults.” Still, he cares about the places where he works and the job that he and the people he works with are trying to do. One particularly hard-up school suffers from a lack of the most basic supplies, including markers and paper. So Dave asks his friends to gather enough materials to last through the end of the school year and leaves them in a pile in the staff room. His anonymous note to the faculty doesn’t mention that all the items were shoplifted.

As a substitute, Dave has very little control over where he is sent and what he is told to do – sometimes he can’t actually do the work at all. In one case he is sent to substitute for the school librarian for a whole week, but because he doesn’t have a password for the computer, he can’t actually use the system to check books in and out. Resorting to writing down the names of students and the books he checks out to them, he wiles away the mostly-empty hours in the library by reading and introducing one of the student volunteers, already a dedicated punk fan, to new and less mainstream bands. Dave begins to lay out a curriculum of sorts, laying out the albums he’ll introduce each day in his head. Sadly his punk-rock tutorial is cut short when the school realizes it can’t afford to pay him through the end of the week.

I begin with this collage from Dave Roche’s stories of teaching to underline two related points. The first is that teaching is a job, it is a role, and it is a vocation, but it is not something that can only be done in one sort of way by one sort of person. Dave Roche spent his nights dancing in noisy bars and sleeping on couches, but that didn’t make him any less determined to do what he could to help the kids in his classes learn something. And the second point is that if you are determined to teach – to share what you know, and help others to grow in their own understanding – then you will find ways to teach no matter the circumstance. Stuck behind a desk unable to function in the role of librarian, Dave still managed to find one student to teach with his improvised class on the essentials of punk rock.

Today, my message is on the importance of teaching – not only to children or even only to people, but to the world itself. This is the first sermon in a series of three – the remaining pieces will come later in the fall – derived from a famous saying from the Jewish tradition. In the Pirkei Avot – literally the ‘Sayings of the Fathers,’ a collection of wisdom from the ancient rabbis – it is recounted that Simeon the Just, a high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, was known to say, “On three things the world is sustained: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim. Gemilut chasadim means acts of loving kindness; avodah means literally work or service and in this case the religious sort: worship and prayer. These will get their due in October and November, but for today, our word is Torah.

You may already know that the Torah is the foundational scripture of the Jewish people, what are sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. A narrative that begins with the two creation stories of Genesis and proceeds through the call of Abraham and the laughter of Sarah, to the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt, the prophecy of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the receipt of the Torah itself and the covenant between the Jewish people and their G-d at Mount Sinai, and their wandering journey through the desert to the border of the Promised Land. Torah is a word that usually goes untranslated, but technically it means instruction or teaching. Rabbi Stephen Chester, who was the first teacher I studied Torah with in an ongoing way, described the Torah as, “the record of the Jewish people, from Sinai until now.” The literal record in the words themselves stops thousands of years ago, but Rabbi Chester was alluding to a precious understanding in Judaism that the Torah continues to speak, through the same stories and between the words themselves, again and again in every age. The tradition holds that all of the continuing discussion and debate around the book and its meaning is actually part of the Torah, also divine in its origin and so equally holy.

The lovely music our choir has offered this morning comes from Jewish liturgy, specifically the songs and tunes appropriate to Rosh Hashanah, the festival of the New Year which begins at sundown this coming Wednesday. The most upbeat of those pieces was a song sung for rejoicing with the Torah: during one portion of the Jewish worship service, one or more large, carefully inscribed scrolls bearing the full Hebrew text of the Torah is carried throughout the sanctuary. A parade breaks out, people approach the heavy, beautifully decorated text to touch it gently and to kiss it, all before it is taken back to the front to be opened and read. It’s a visual, auditory, and physical expression of how precious the words of the teaching are to the community.

So Simeon the Just may have meant that the world is sustained specifically by this Torah, but if I suggest that existence depends on teaching more broadly, that won’t just be coming from my Unitarian Universalist tendency to, well, universalize. This interpretation exists within Judaism as well: that the exchange of teaching and learning has an essential and mystical role in maintaining the world we share.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the foremost leader of the Chasidic movement in Judaism which began 300 years ago. The Baal Shem Tov was a Rabbi – a title which, you may recall, means ‘teacher’ – of great renown and the wondrous tales of his life often ascribe to him miraculous powers. But in this story, he had lost them all. His miracle-working had ceased. He could recall none of his learning, not one drop of his great wisdom. By power beyond his control, every word of Torah had fled from his mind and he had been banished far from home. He found himself stranded on a far-away island, with only one of his students for company, equally rid of all knowledge and capability. Despair at his predicament began to set in, then hunger and exhaustion. In a final calamity, the two men were captured by pirates, and faced the final loss of their lives.

In one last bid to save their lives, the Baal Shem Tov asked his student, “Can you remember nothing that I taught you? Not one story, not one prayer?”

“No, master; nothing.” Their captors closing in, the student thought for another moment and then said, “I suppose I can remember one thing, but it is nothing at all.”

“Whatever you can remember is more than I can recall. Whatever it is, no matter how meager or small, recite it now!”

All that the student could bring to mind, the only teaching from his master which still remained with him, were the letters of the alephbet – the Hebrew equivalent of the alphabet. Dutifully, but with little hope, the student closed his eyes and began to recite, “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Dalet. Hei.” As he spoke, the image of the pirates began to fade. By the time he reached mem, the island itself had begun to shimmer like the ending of a dream, and when he pronounced the last letter, tav, he and the Baal Shem Tov found themselves at home once more, safe and unharmed, their memories restored.[i]

The magic of the story points to a very real magic in the relationship between teacher and student. To learn something – anything – from someone is to take a part of them into you. It is a profoundly intimate thing, even when we do not want it to be, even when the learning is unplanned or unintended. Our Unitarian ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “The man may teach by doing, and not otherwise. If he can communicate himself, he can teach, but not by words. He teaches who gives, and he learns who receives. There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place; he is you, and you are he; then is a teaching; and by no unfriendly chance or bad company can he ever quite lose the benefit.” The words have Emerson’s trademark – standards so high and grand that it’s hard to think of anyone approaching them, yet they still ring true. To learn is to be transformed, whether your learning is in astrophysics or air conditioning repair or needle point: it means being changed from the person who did not know, to the person who knows. Such transformation connects us irreversibly to our teachers.

I’ve had the benefit of many great scholars and educators in my life, but some of my most important teachers and moments of learning have come by at odd hours and with no particular warning. One of those moments that haunts me in a way that I am still learning from happened in summer camp, when I was around 13. Being the product of a liberal church and liberal household did not do anything special to make me good – though there was a time when I thought that it did. Rather, I had to learn, still have to learn, again and again, the ways in which I have failed my own ideals, and the way back towards the person I aspire to be. In this particular moment from my childhood, I was talking with some other young men around a campfire. I repeated a joke I had seen someone else deliver on television, passing it off as my own – that was something I did a lot of in middle school, when I was trying to figure out what cool was.

I and the other boys laughed. One of the female counselors, sitting within earshot, did not. She called me by name, and looked me in the face, and told me plain, “That was a really sexist joke.” She was right, it was. It was also homophobic, but maybe she didn’t think that would get my attention in the same way. Nothing more was said. I cannot pretend that I was entirely changed in that one moment, and that I never said anything ignorant or hurtful or of which I am ashamed, ever again. But every time that I have, or have been tempted to, because I want to be liked, or to fit in, or get a laugh, I think of her face. She taught me that some things aren’t funny, whether people laugh at them or not.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors, who was and is a Roman Catholic woman religious – so, colloquially, a nun – taught me one of the most important truths I know about ministry. “An action,” she said, “can only be identified as ministry by the person who receives it. We can’t know when we are and are not doing ministry, only when others are doing ministry for us.” I would say that exactly the same holds true for teaching, since about 80% of the time, being a minister means being a teacher who is in over their head and trying to cover for it gracefully.

Augustine of Hippo, whose own work has had so much influence on teachers and students of religion and philosophy for 1600 years, was himself rather wary of reliance on teachers directly. His instruction was that people should seek to learn the truth, which might align with the thoughts and lessons of their teachers only sometimes or not at all. Augustine echoed the Gospel According to Matthew in declaring that, “[We] should not call anyone on earth teacher, since there is one in heaven Who is the Teacher of all.”[ii] But what seems like a high and exalted position for God melts quickly into something very ambiguous. Even if its true origin is somehow divine, all information has to come to us more immediately from somewhere: a person, a book, a work of art, even just a flash of synapses in the brain. The frequently-spontaneous, imperfect work of trying to teach here on earth continues. In fact, the process of passing thought from one mind to another, feeling from one heart to another, is the means by which all art, culture, language and religion are transmitted and sustained. The practice of teaching is what makes it possible for everything about the human experience, and the means by which we perceive and interpret our world, to grow and endure.

The organized system for educating children in this country which is universal, public, secular, and free was not any of these things in its beginning. The shift happened gradually. The Unitarian reformer Horace Mann is often credited with helping to push the nation’s schools towards graded classes with professional teachers, away from the one-room schoolhouse model. In the ongoing project of educational reform, two of the leading groups championing public schooling have historically been the Jews and the Unitarian Universalists. We both place a strong emphasis on study and learning as a spiritual practice, and we both have experience as marginal groups with unpopular ideas – so a system of education that benefits everyone without favoring the dominant religion or ideology is in our immediate interest.

Each of us has something to teach; many of us quite a bit more than that. While some few brave souls among us may take their place in the classroom, and some more blessed spirits in our number may play a role in our Sunday School, most of us teach, most of the time, with our lives. Not by our words, so much as how we say them. Not by our grand gestures, but by the incidents we can neither plan nor predict. Not all of us are called to be educators, but in this sense all of us are called to teach: to be who we are loudly enough to be heard. To share what we know in the ways that we can, to help transform the each other, bit by bit, from people who do not know to people who understand. Teaching, in this sense, is not only for us: so frightful and so great is the power of humankind in our age that the present and future of the earth itself rests in our hands. The world, quite literally, depends, on what we teach to each other.

[i] This story appears in Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire.

[ii] In this passage from his, De Magistro, Augustine is pointing to Matthew 23:10-11.

Listening Twice – 9/14/2014

The story begins like this: a king had a son. One day, this son would inherit his throne, and so the king desired to teach his son wisdom. To accomplish this, he sent the young man to study with a very wise teacher, far away. The prince greeted his new teacher with respect, but as soon as they had been introduced, the teacher sent him away. “Go into the forest. You must live there, alone, for one year. Then you must return to me and tell me what the sound of the forest is.”

Bewildered but obedient, the young man followed these instructions. For one full year he made his home in the forest, and on the anniversary of his arrival he returned to the same place where he and his teacher had first met. “Teacher,” he said. “This is the sound of the forest: the singing of birds and the rustling of leaves, the chirp and buzz of insects, the wind in the grass and the call of the wolf.”

The teacher nodded at the pupil’s statement and gave the next instruction. “Go back to the forest and listen again. Return when you have heard the rest of the forest.”

Now the prince was truly perplexed: he had spent a whole year of his life in those woods. There could be nothing about them he did not already know. But he went, and sat, and listened. For days on end he listened, until finally he heard something. When he returned to his teacher, this is what he said, “The rest of the forest’s sounds are those that go unheard. The sunlight falling on the earth. The grass drinking the rain. The flowers opening to look out at the world.”

“To hear the unheard,” said the teacher, “is essential to all rulers. They must listen to the peoples’ hearts. A great ruler must strain to hear the unnamed sufferings and unspoken hopes of his subjects. Only then can he begin to address what his people truly need.”

To hear the unheard – a great gift, to be sure, if one can cultivate or possess it – but it also sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn’t it? On this day when we bless our congregational leaders and renew the covenant we share for another year, this ancient story from Korea on the quality most essential to a leader seems, at first, to be setting a standard no mere mortal could meet. Try as I might, I confess, I cannot hear the opening of a flower. And while I occasionally get lucky when trying to guess the word on the tip of my partner’s tongue, I am no mind-reader. We may talk often of honoring the joys and sorrows which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts, but if you want me or anyone else to know what is happening for you, speech and the written word continue to prove more effective than telepathy; for half a million years now and counting.

Yet, if we cannot literally hear the glowing of the sun, or the breaking of a heart, that may not mean we should not listen for them. The two types of sound in the story – the heard and the unheard – point to a division in all wisdom and understanding. In this sense, this is a lesson that takes us immediately beyond what is important for all leaders, and to something that is important for all humans. The information that makes up the things we know about ourselves and the world comes to us from two distinct sources: from outside, and from within. It takes two essential forms: the basic information of our senses – the exact things we see and feel and hear – and how we interpret and expand upon that raw data. These two sets are just slightly different ways of describing the heard and the unheard, and the health of our bodies, our communities, and our planet depends upon us listening twice – opening ourselves to both the wisdom of the external world and the insight to be found within.

In one of the more famous passages of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah had reached a deep low. He despairs of the total failure of his religious mission and though he is literally on the run for his life he questions the value in continuing to live. Then, alone in a cave in the desert, Elijah hears the voice of the Holy instructing him to “stand on the mountain before G-d.”

“And lo, G-d passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of G-d, but G-d was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire – but G-d was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice.”[i]

The voice sets Elijah back upon his trajectory, restores his purpose and hope and gives him a way forward and the voice does so beginning with this question: “Why are you here, Elijah?” It is only when he hears that voice that Elijah comes out of his cave.

A still, small voice seems to me a fair description of the unheard sound, the insight that comes from within. As always, whether or not you believe in G-d is completely irrelevant to the critical issue here: attuning ourselves through meditation or prayer or any other mode of deep reflection to our own reserves of purpose and hope. This is not a matter of grandiose spiritual missions and divine intent; or at least it is not only that. Most of the time that small voice, too often pushed down and ignored, is the voice of our own empathy – our ability to understand another’s experience, or at least attempt to.

In her recent collection of essays, the Empathy Exams, the writer Leslie Jamison ruminates on what it means to feel someone else’s feelings. The title of the book comes from her experience as a medical actor. Ms. Jamison worked for a time being paid to play sick in order to test and train medical students both in the work of diagnosis and in the exercise of empathy. She writes,

“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing….Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.  Sometimes we care for another because we know we should or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations. I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own.”

We listen twice in order to understand each other – not perfectly, but just enough to be able to make choices more likely to help than to harm. We live in a time of catastrophically abundant information: the factoids and fragments of light and sound which are recorded and retained electronically every second of every day are so vast that their magnitude outstrips even my over-functioning capacity for metaphor. We would seem, as a society, to have no shortage of external data. Our biggest collective problem seems to be how to keep any of it protected, whether that’s national defense secrets or personal bank account passwords. But at the level of our own individual selves, we have the problem of being watched and listened for constantly.  There is a psychic cost to this, at least for some of us. Consider, for instance, the emergence of a novel mental health diagnosis: the Truman Show delusion. Patients believe that they are the central and unwilling characters in a reality TV show in which evil executives script the otherwise mundane elements of their lives. The “noise” of all this automated listening would seem to be heavy indeed.

Of course, waiting around for perfect silence and the total absence of distractions before beginning to listen for the unheard is unlikely to lead anywhere. And as David Flynn, who leads our congregation’s monthly meditation group (meeting tonight at 7:30!) can tell you, it’s just not good practice. The key to life is not to simply “drink from the well of your self and begin again,” as Charles Bukowski put it. If we only see the outside material world as an impediment to the internal spiritual one we become just as cut off from meaning as if we never turned inward at all. We need the information from both realms – the heard and the unheard – in order to gain the benefit of either.

Even in our glutted age of information, sometimes a great yawning gap in factual understanding is as great, or greater than a gap in empathy.  Late this summer, when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the still-ongoing outpouring of grief and anger made national news. Generations of routine injustice in communities of color all over the country got an unusual degree of public attention, if only briefly. The dramatic militarization of police forces became something that dramatically more people were watching and listening and thinking about. Certainly, there are an entire constellation of failures of empathy here, but up until the moment the media coverage exploded, and now that it has largely receded, there is also a colossal failure simply to pay attention.

These problems now “on display” in Ferguson were already there in plain view, they were not secret or hidden. They are not unique to one St. Louis suburb – the systematic targeting of people of color by majority-white police forces that behave like armies of occupation is happening all over this country and has been for a long time. But so much depends on what we, collectively and individually, turn to face, or hide from our sight.

There’s another story from the tradition of Korean Buddhism about a disciple to another great teacher. The student was promising and devoted, and worked and studied and thought for many long years in the teacher’s school. But after decades of striving towards the example of the spiritual luminary, the disciple felt no closer to the goal of attaining or even approaching the same degree of clarity and insight as the elder monk. He became resigned to the idea that he would never reach enlightenment. The disciple went to the master to notify him of his intent to leave the monastery. Before he could speak, the teacher declared that he would accompany his pupil to the bottom of the mountain.

Before they began their descent from the mountain top, the teacher asked the soon-to-be-former student what he saw. “O Wise One – I see the sun dawning on the horizon. I see the mountains and hills that reach out in all directions. I see the lake in the valley below, and the little town beside it. The teacher smiled, and said nothing, and the two set off down the mountain together.

Hours later, at the base of the mountain where the two were to part ways, the teacher again asked the student what he could see. “O Wise One – I see the noonday sun high overhead, this mountain we have just come down and the other across from it. I see animals in the farm yards of the town and children playing along the shore of the lake.”

“Enlightenment,” the teacher explained, “requires the understanding that what one sees at the top of the mountain is not the same as the view from the bottom. When we fail to remember this, we close ourselves off to all that we cannot see or know for ourselves. But with this wisdom we come to recognize that we see only so much – little at all, in fact. Yet what we cannot see can be seen from a different part of the mountain.”

We cannot see – or hear – it all. To know even the little bit of all that is that we are capable of knowing requires care and attention. A determination not to look away from the world and its failings, and a discipline of examining ourselves, imperfections and all.

[i] 1 Kings 19:11-12

The Same River, Twice – 9/7/2014

“You can never set foot in the same river twice.” This little morsel of wisdom is frequently attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 2,500 years ago. Heraclitus was powerfully influential in his thinking and writing, but none of his works have survived into the modern day. What we know about what he actually thought and said comes to us in fragmented quotations from people who used his words either to back up their own ideas, or as an example of something they were disagreeing with. He’s sort of like an obscure musician who gets name-checked in an interview by a pop star, or whose music gets sampled in a song on the radio. Unless you work in a record store or still insist on making mix tapes instead of Spotify playlists, you probably haven’t heard of him. But his songs – or in this case, his ideas – keep popping up.

This river business comes in part from two different quotations from Heraclitus that come down to us through Plato. In the first, the philosopher says, “Everything changes and nothing remains still…you cannot step twice into the same stream.” This is almost a perfect match to the more familiar saying, and you can probably see why it’s become common wisdom. Of course the river is different: new water flows in, old water flows out. Time passes moment to moment, and no object or person is unchanging or immutable. When Alice Walker wrote the story of what it was like to help transform her novel, The Color Purple, into a film, she titled that narrative, “The Same River Twice”. The title points to how hard it is not just to revisit something in the past, but also to reach any point in the future on a planned trajectory. Walker talks about plans for the movie that were never realized, a script she wrote that went unused, and “how difficult it is for a creative person to stick to one way of doing things.” Difficult for a creative person, or any other sort of person, for that matter.

But there’s a second quotation included by Plato that changes and almost contradicts the first. Heraclitus says, “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” Yes it is true, moment to moment, we are changed, we are different. The cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Even the atoms in our cells are exchanged over time. And yet, we are also the same. We retain memories and experiences, and still carry the gifts and burdens of the choices we make. We remain responsible to and for the people we have been. Our lives are almost like the opposite of rivers: life’s course can change in an instant, but the stuff it is made of – everything we have ever done or said or experienced – only shifts very slowly over time.

I once sat and talked with a man over tea in his living room, and this is the story he told me. When he was younger, he had been in the Air Force. He was a crewman assigned to a long-range bomber. It was the height of the Cold War, and in all his years of service the enemy remained the same, and so did the targets he was assigned. He and the rest of the crew practiced the same run, for years, and part of his job was to pore over photographs of the target, so that he could recognize it at night, even when there was no moon out, and the sky was full of clouds. They had a primary target they were assigned to, and they also had a secondary one; it wasn’t as important, but if they could catch it on the way back, or if they couldn’t make it all the way to their main destination, this was where they were supposed to drop their payload. He spent whole days staring at pictures of the place, all taken from overhead.

Luckily for this fellow, and for everyone else on Earth, he was never called upon to put that preparation to use. It never got that far. So he retired from the Air Force, he got a civilian job, and years later, the world changed. Governments fell and new ones rose up, borders shifted, and journeys that had been impossible to make before became much, much easier. This is what made it possible for him and his wife to visit Eastern Europe. They toured the countryside and saw ancient and famous cities, and then one day, they were crossing over a river, and the man stopped. He looked from one side of the river to another, and then down at the bridge they were standing on. He looked at the tall buildings on the Western bank, and he got out a street map just to be sure. “This is it,” he said to his wife. “This was our secondary target.” All those years spent preparing to go there, to bomb the bridge. He had never expected he would ever get to stand on it, or see the river up close. That bridge was so beautiful in person. It was the same bridge, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t the same river, and it was. It was a man who always expected to see the place in person, but never in that way.

Way back in the early days of European settlement on the North Shore, before Beverly was even called Beverly, this congregation was here. Well, not here, but a few blocks away. We weren’t called the First Parish Church then. We started out as the Church of Christ at Bass Riverside. Centuries later, not much is the same. A different river and different sort of town. A different church: a different name, different building, different location, different people, and a very different theology. But all of these things are also the same. We are responsible to our forbearers and to the dreams they dreamed, even if ours are not quite the same. We are connected to them even if their 17th century values might be scandalized to know that we are their descendants. Because they were, we are. No matter how we got here, we are here, and because we are here, how we came to be matters.

It is true for us as a congregation, and it is true for us each as human beings. We are not the people we were when we fell off our bike at eight years old, or when we got our first speeding ticket, or when our first marriage ended. Even in the space of a week or a day, the water of life passes through us bringing new fears, new experiences, new possibilities. But we are still connected to who we have been: all those past selves do not determine us entirely, but they are the material out of which our present lives are made. We must reach back: correct what we can, make peace where we can, and offer apologies where nothing else can be done. We cannot simply run from who we have been, or only hold tight, refusing inevitable change, for the river that was not only holds most of the river that is, but much of the makings of the river we have yet to become.

More Than Just Slightly Amusing Accountants

The comedian Bob Newhart began his professional life a fair distance from the field of comedy. His first vocation was as an accountant. Now with a 60-year career in entertainment, his particular style of delivering punchlines – slow, emotionally blank, and with a minor stammer – has become his signature. But early on in his career, his act didn’t get such rave reviews. More than once he got the advice that he should change his approach to a more standard and familiar one, and tell jokes the right way if he wanted a laugh. Bob didn’t take the advice. As he put it, “I’ve been told to speed up my delivery when I perform. But if I lose the stammer, I’m just another slightly amusing accountant.”

Each of us has elements of our personalities which can at best be called distinctive. Things that make us seem out of place, in small ways or in big. One of us sings loudly and proudly and just a little off key. One of us still has those superfluous loops in his signature that he acquired from his cursive teacher in third grade. One of us collects, well, just about everything. Most of the things that are particular to us just come and go: we acquire some habit in one year, and lose it in another. Other things may last much longer, and some of them very well can get in our way. No one would tell Bob Newhart’s story if it ended with him as a somewhat unhappy accountant who tried to break into comedy when he was younger and didn’t get anywhere with it.

But somewhere among the stacks of things that we cannot change, and the things that we’ll change whether we try to or not, and the things that we really ought to change, but won’t ever without a whole lot of work – somewhere in there are the things that make us different in useful and interesting ways. These are the things that distinguish us as more than just slightly amusing. As we grow, both as social animals and as spiritual beings we need to be mindful of these rough edges and odd corners of ourselves. We must make sure that we don’t file off our imperfections to the point where our shape becomes too smooth to make any impression at all.

I try to remind myself of this, whenever I get frustrated with someone I love or know or otherwise spend a lot of time with. Those things that might feel in the moment like flaws and inconveniences all fit together into a vast jig-saw of a whole person. It doesn’t mean that no one should ever change or grow or become different. We all have faults and failings in need of repair. But as I forget and remind myself nearly every 10 seconds, my expectations of normalcy or convenience don’t determine what should change in another person. The measure of what about ourselves needs to go, and what about us needs to remain is found in the purpose we put our lives to. As we return to worship in our congregational home from a summer spent doing church at the beach (or farther afield for some of us), let us be grateful for the many benefits life in religious community gives us, including a means to assess which among our quirks and characteristics need mellowing, and which are the things that make up part of who we are, and who we need to be in the future.


In faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Love Reaches Out

A little over a week ago, a contingent from our congregation walked in Salem’s Pride Parade for the first time. It was a fun-filled and beautiful day, well worth the sun burn I got for it. I hope it will prove to be only the first event in a long and steady tradition. I want to say thank you to the many folks who attended, and special thanks to Paul and Lynn Willenbrock for donating the banner we carried. That banner included the title of our tradition’s social justice campaign which turns five this year: ‘Standing on the Side of Love.’

I spent the week after the parade in Providence, Rhode Island, where the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations was holding our annual General Assembly. The theme for this year’s gathering was, ‘Love Reaches Out.’ One of the most popular t-shirts being worn around the convention center was being sold by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship: ‘Love the Hell Out of the World.’ Together we sang songs like Salvador Cardenal Barquero’s “Busca el Amor” (Seek Out the Love), and Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion.” You may see a pattern here.

There’s good reason for love to be our watchword. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors both sought to re-center religion in love and compassion in the face of inhumane and spiritually-corrosive doctrines. They pointed back to the instructions of the teacher Jesus’, including the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” – a quotation he invoked from the book of Leviticus. Countless other religious voices sing in similar chorus. The ancient rabbis taught that the world’s existence relies on three things: the Torah and its study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. The Buddhist tradition similarly holds loving kindness among the four greatest virtues. And the mystical Muslim poet Ibn Arabi wrote 800 years ago,

O Marvel! A garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaa’ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.

            At, the same time, love is hardly the only value of our faith. We have a duty to champion freedom and to search for truth, to employ reason and to seek justice, to cultivate wonder and to struggle for peace. None of these things contradict love – at their best, I believe each implies the other. But my critical mind can get a bit worried at times that we are leaning on love too hard; a religion must be more than just slogans, after all. And love is already among the most burdened words in the English language, worn and weary from over-use.

Ultimately, the test of who we are and what we are about does not come in the language we use and whether it is perfect– it comes instead in the actions we take. Will we live in the way that I hope we mean when we sing in church together, “Love Will Guide Us”? I hope that we will keep reaching out – to help one another, perhaps, but more so even to connect. To affirm, in the midst of the illusion of separateness, that we are all, in truth, profoundly interrelated.

Marching in the Pride Parade was a small act in most ways – a part of a single morning, a distance of only a matter of blocks. But in another way it was big. We stepped out together, beyond the walls of our meetinghouse so that our circle could include our transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay neighbors – and our TBLG members and friends. Love’s a fine explanation for that, and I’d like to think it’s the right one. But one of the chief qualities of love is its endurance. To be worthy of the love we proclaim, we are going to need to keep showing up, not just once, but again and again. I look forward to it.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Still In Bud – 6/15/2014

Today is the third Sunday in June, which is the same day on which the vote was held to call me as your minister, four years ago. That was one of the peak experiences of my life, so it is a day I remember with vivid intensity. It was hot, damn hot, to begin with. The air was thick and wet, like it had already done the sweating for you before it hit your skin. Despite the weather, and the fact that we were just discovering how effective the new insulation in these walls was at holding the heat in, a great many of you came out to worship that day.

After the service you held a meeting to debate and decide: were you going to take a chance on this long-haired kid or not. My family and I – we were only three then, my daughter the same age that my son is now – went to the coffee shop down the street to wait on the decision. It was just a hint of something I would come to realize later on: that the Atomic Café is an unofficial annex of our building, and that there is no hour of its operation during which a member of this congregation is not either inside it or on their way there. We had enough time to get there, and sit down, and think about ordering something out of respect to the proprietors before one of you came with the news: the meeting was over, the vote had been taken, I was to be your next minister. The meeting had taken almost no time at all, either because it was completely uncontroversial, or because you were all very ready to get out of an over-heated sanctuary. I wonder if you remember this, Martha and Julia and Madeline – you were the first people to greet me outside of the church before I went in to say, “Yes! I accept! Hooray!”

On that day, I had already some sense of the things that needed doing, that we could and would do together. And after four years I am very proud of the things that we have done, that you have accomplished. We stood by our commitment to feed people who are hungry in this town, to grow the free supper program even as it has required more time, more energy, more volunteers and more money. We made a commitment to open this building and this sanctuary to house people who have no houses of their own and we kept and pursued that promise no matter how many roadblocks got in the way. We’ve found some creative ways to expand the spaces we use for doing church: to the park in the summertime, to our wonderful neighbor, Montserrat College of Art who’ve let us barter with them for Sunday School and committee space. And I am very proud that in less than a week we will be marching alongside many other people and organizations in the North Shore Gay Pride parade. More and more these last four years, we have become the visible force in our community for the generosity, compassion, and love which are at the heart of our faith.

Today’s blossoms were only half-promised and uncertain when I first joined you, so now four years later I want to look ahead, to what great things still wait for you to do them. What possibilities lie still in bud for First Parish, waiting to bloom? Your great strength as a congregation is in your hospitality – I take no particularly credit for that, you were like this when I met you. The joyous and needed work that I see ahead for us is just a natural expansion of this great strength: To refine and renew, again and again, the work of welcoming and including others as a spiritual practice. To weave a way of being together where everyone acts as though this is their home, and everyone else a guest in it. To reach out to each other, to new faces and old, from a place of curiosity, and genuine interest and concern.

But let me get a little more specific here. These are some of the challenges I believe we will be facing in the next ten years or so: Coffee hour is going to keep getting more and more crowded, and we’re going to need more space for the greater variety and higher attendance of congregational events and activities. That’ll mean making the most use possible of the building we have, which means making all of it fully accessible, which means someway somehow, we’re going to need an elevator. At the same time, we’ll be needing more space for more and more children and youth in the Sunday School. So we’re going to have to use some of that creativity and hopeful dedication that we try so hard to instill in our young people. Whether it means renting or buying or building, we will need to find more space for our Sunday School – and I know that we will find it, because I know that you understand how essential our ministry to and with children and youth is to who we are as a spiritual community.

But all of that is inward focused and the even greater unopened blossom I see for us is our place in the community of Beverly and in the larger world. You have begun from a place of open-heartedness, of interest in and care for the lot of those within and beyond our immediate circle, and you’ve let that lead you to try to fill some of the basic holes in our society. The next step is to add to the service of offering food and shelter a determination to strike at the root of that need. To ask why there are hungry people in a nation with too much food. To ask why there are homeless people in a nation full of empty houses. To put the same full hearts, clear eyes, and fierce wills that drive our service of charity to work in the service of activism. To start challenging the structures and the collective evils in our world that make people poor, and keep them poor, and make all of us who are not poor deathly afraid of becoming so.

The final half-open bud that I see is the place of this congregation within Beverly itself. It lies ahead for us to grow and regrow our role in this neighborhood, this town, and this region. To celebrate the 350th anniversary of this congregation’s founding – our 7th jubilee – in a way that honors our history and the responsibility that comes with it. To be a place of art, culture, learning, debate, and reflection for the people we live among – and not just the folks we think might one day sign up for our team. To put this great hall to work, more and more, in the service of the common good, and to take up our responsibility as stewards of the public space – Ellis Square – just beyond that wall. To help foster meetings between and across those invisible lines that too often divide us as a city and as a nation.

This is the season, in our movement, when new ministries most often begin. Folks are being called to new pulpits, embarking on new and exciting efforts, discovering for the first time what good work lies for them in store. There is so much excitement, so much promise, so much possibility in a new congregation, and a new call, like the one you extended to me, so recently and yet so long ago. Today, four years later, I do not have quite that same giddy energy, like a child unwrapping a new and coveted gift.

What I feel is something deeper, something clearer, and something far, far better. I feel the hope that comes from knowing you, of seeing what you are capable of and coming to believe that you have even finer things within you. My sense of what lies ahead as I stand in your pulpit comes not just from that one whirlwind week we spent getting acquainted over almost-daily potlucks, but from years spent with the privilege of being your minister. I hope for many more. So much of what this congregation can do, and can be, waits to be realized. I want to realize it, together, with you.

The Prophet Unwilling – 6/1/2014

The centerpiece of our music service this year is an oratorio entitled “Prophet Unwilling,” composed by David Wehr. The subject of the piece is the story of Jonah, from the Hebrew bible as we’ll hear when the music begins in just a few minutes. There was a moment this week when I was decidedly not working – I was doing the exact opposite, which is to say, I was reading Facebook. And entirely by coincidence, I came across a little story about the story of Jonah. Never one to turn down homiletical assistance from circumstance of serendipity, I’ll share it with you now:

Two children were talking on the playground. One of them had just been learning about whales in school and wanted to share this new information with the other. “Whales have huge mouths, but very small throats, so they can only eat very small animals.” The second child pointed out that that can’t be right, because Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The first child insisted that this was anatomically impossible, they argued back and forth for some time. Finally, the second child declared, “When I get to heaven, I’ll just ask Jonah myself.”

“What if Jonah went to hell?” the first child asked.

“Well then, you can ask him yourself.”

Now, I can spot at least three crucial mistakes in this joke – any guesses as to which? The first one is a gimme – the idea of hell as a future place of torment where bad people go when they die is just bad theology that imagines God as the universe’s torturer-in-chief. The second mistake is the whole argument about whales. In the book of Jonah, he isn’t swallowed by a whale at all: he’s swallowed by a giant fish. But the third mistake is even larger than this: it is the mistake of assuming that the bible can only be read as a history, as an account of things that actually happened. This is a really common mistake. It’s argued for by biblical-literalists, who say that every story and event contained in the bible has to have happened just as it says, but it’s also argued just as strongly by people who are anti-religious. They still argue that the bible is a history, just a bad one, full of things that didn’t actually happen – so there’s no point in reading it.

In fact, the bible is a complex anthology of a lot of different genres or types of writing. The Psalms, for instance, are a hymnal: they’re collections of religious poetry which are meant to be sung by groups of people as an act of worship. The Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon is a piece of sensual and even erotic poetry, expressing the love and longing between two people. Over time, it has been reinterpreted into an expression of love and longing between human beings and the Divine. The many books of the Hebrew bible that are collectively called the prophets or Nevi’im are a genre unto themselves. There’s a certain familiar pattern that almost all of the stories follow. Think about a western – when you pick up a western novel, there are some things you expect. There’s trouble and injustice on the edge of civilization. Then, a stranger comes to town. There’s a gunfight. And the hero rides off into the sunset. You can have a western that’s entirely fictional or you can have one that’s based on historical figures, but it still tends to take on this same rough shape.

It’s the same thing with the prophets. They receive a call from God. They’re sent on a mission – for most of its history ancient Israel was divided into two kingdoms, and most of the prophets are sent from the northern kingdom to the southern kingdom, or vice versa. They deliver a message of warning, that the people should mend their ways to avoid a terrible fate. And usually, their audience doesn’t heed that warning, but we, in reading the book, become the new audience and have a new chance to change our ways and correct our own errors. The story of Jonah is considered one of the prophetic books, but it is actually a satire of the prophetic genre. It’s a joke. I’ll refresh you on the story if it’s a little fuzzy for you:

Jonah receives the call from God, but unlike the other prophets, his mission lies outside of ancient Israel. He’s sent to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the neighboring super-power, where they speak a different language and worship different gods and have vast armies that constantly threaten his own country. Jonah here’s this command to go east to the city of Nineveh – in present-day Iraq, and immediately flees to the west, gets on a boat, and sets off for Tarshish, in current-day Spain. He runs away from his calling, but he can’t escape it. A storm seizes the boat, Jonah admits it must because he is refusing his mission, and he is flung overboard by the crew, and swallowed by a giant fish. Around the time when the story is set, Nineveh was the largest city in the world; its name probably means something like, “the place of the fish”: running from one giant fish, Jonah is swallowed by another.

The real comedy, though, comes when he relents, and is vomited back up onto dry land, and goes to complete his mission to Nineveh. He warns them to repent of their injustice, lest they be destroyed – something he does not want to do. They are his enemies, and he wants them to continue their iniquity so that they will be wiped off of the map. The response is spectacular, and completely different from the expected outcome in a prophetic story. As one, the whole city hears Jonah’s message and resolves to follow it. The entire population dresses in a state of mourning, refusing to eat, and praying ceaselessly for mercy. Not only the humans, but even the animals. Picture a dog – I’m going to go with a Jack Russell terrier for mine – dressed in a black cloak, with a pillbox hat, and a gauzy black veil over its eyes. That is roughly as ridiculous as the image that is painted at the conclusion of Jonah’s story.

          Now, just because it is a joke, does not mean that it does not also have something serious and meaningful to say. Jonah is a story about knowing what is right and refusing to do it, not even out of fear, but out of selfishness and prejudice and a lack of loving-kindness. It is about the truth that when the heart knows what justice looks like, but the will cannot stir the hands to work for it, the soul grows as tormented as if we had been swallowed up by a sea monster. Yet, in every moment, we have the opportunity to turn back in the right direction, and march on towards Nineveh.

Herbert Richards, the lyricist of this piece, provided an introduction to it. I’ll read it now with some slight adjustments towards inclusive language:

Jonah, a prophet of torment, a soul of doubt, a messenger of change and now a harbinger of hope, reflects the importance of character revealed in indecision, a weakness so characteristic of modern [humans]. Jonah proved himself selfish but honest; fearful but sincere. Jonah wanted his God, but without paying the price required in the Discipleship of God. Jonah wanted peace without paying the price of peace. In fact, his life is the record of what Jonah wanted…versus what God needed…

          Modern [humanity] hears the same words: “ON TO NINEVEH, ON TO NINEVEH”. Will [we] say: “Yes, [I come]!”? Or will [we] cry out: “NAY, NAY, I STAY.”? Tarshish City represents middle-of-the-road comfort. Nineveh represents a tragic need, the kind of need no true servant of [the Good] dare ignore, lest [we] commit a sin of omission.

The Intersectionality of Evil

It is June, the threshold of summer, and I would very much like to be writing to you about something frivolous or inoffensive. Instead I have that heavy word evil up there in the title, and I am writing in the wake of yet another mass killing. This particular atrocity – words falter and fail in describing something both profoundly, cosmically wrong and yet almost common-place – has flared up the now familiar frenzy: the rush to explain. The stampede of voices running hard towards a false finish line; to name the one and singular reason why this terrible thing has happened.

It is tempting in the face of grief and death, to want a single, simple explanation for it. For someone to say, “here is what is wrong – only fix this, and such a terrible thing will never happen again.” And indeed, we have to grapple with the causes of our world’s great wrongs, to confront them, to change what is into what can be. But yearning for just one isolated cause is like when, as I child, I would tell my mother I was hungry but only for ice cream: it satisfies a craving, but it does not answer a need.

There is always more to the story than one simple reason. It’s about the crisis of mental health care and the stigma around it in our society, but it’s not just about that. It’s about the omnipresence of deadly weapons and a culture that fetishizes them, all consequences be damned, but it’s never just about that either. It’s about ingrained misogyny and violence against women as a way of life and a source of identity for too many men on our planet, but it’s not just that either. It’s about racial hatred, and a white-supremacist ideology and pattern of oppression that can make people hate the color of their own skin, but even that is not the whole story. Evil is never so simple as we want it to be; it is always intersectional.

By intersectional I mean that every evil impulse or action – on the 10 o’clock news, or in our own hearts – is formed of over-lapping, interlocking feelings, thoughts, and circumstances. Hatred leads to all manner of injustice, but it does not spring discreet and fully-formed into the soul: it is built and shaped by a thousand, thousand stories and experiences and lies. Greed may be the sovereign sin of our era, but even greed is not only greed alone: it is fear of losing, it is complacency, it is the shame of powerlessness, and a numbness to every pleasure but the thrill of acquisition. Evil – just like good, just like every human being who has ever lived – is a many-faceted, many-layered thing. Racism wraps an arm around the waist of sexism, which holds hands with homophobia, which plays footsie with transphobia, which leans on ableism for support. Every horror and injustice in our world is woven from an uncountable number of strands.

There are two ways to view this: the first is that the evil that afflicts our species and haunts our hearts is strong, and adaptable, and

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in cutting one strand we only find ourselves bound as tightly by dozens more. But here is the second outlook: because it is formed of so many different factors, stretching around and across the globe, reaching into every person and every community, evil is vulnerable. Every act of justice diminishes it, every word of truth undermines it, every expression of compassion disrupts it. Shocked and alarmed about yet-another manifestation of evil in our world, we can accept fatalistically the fine-woven pall of injustice flung over all of our shoulders, or we can seek to unravel it. We can grab hold of whichever threads we can reach, and start pulling. I know which of these choices my faith and my conscience call me to make, and I am glad to have each of you to make that choice with, and to pursue it together.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Our Mother the Earth – 5/11/2014

Once there was a farmer; well, he would have been a farmer, except that he had no land to farm. With neither money nor deed to his name, he found himself only poor, with nothing else to say about it. So he would go from town to town, looking for work in other people’s fields and pastures, though there wasn’t much to be had.

Then one day, he happened to pass by a place alongside the road. It was a field lying fallow and ownerless, where the locals threw their garbage. Having no other place to sleep for the night, he made his bed there, under the stars. In the morning, after he’d slept, it occurred to the poor man who was not yet a farmer, that a thing that was broken and abandoned and neglected, that had been treated poorly and forgotten by the whole of the world – that such a thing was worth at least a little bit more than nothing at all. For the man knew himself what it was to be abandoned and neglected and forgotten.

So he set to work. He cleared the debris and the refuse. Out of the wreck of an old wagon he fashioned a plow, and he tilled the soil until it was free of the larger stones and loose enough for planting. From the garbage that he had cleared away, from rotted potatoes and corn gone to seed he found enough to plant his field. And he worked the earth enough to have a small harvest from it in the fall. And so the man became a farmer then.

Many years passed, and the farmer continued to work that same field. One day, a new priest came to the parish, and riding along the road into town, he saw the man at work. It was late summer, and the crop was already green and high. The farmer came over to greet the stranger surveying his farm. The young priest greeted him and thought to pay him a compliment. He said, “You and the Lord have done fine work here.”

“Thank you,” said the farmer. “You should have seen it when the Lord had it alone.”

There is a view, common and familiar in western culture, that the natural world is an empty canvass, formless and void until it is worked by human hands and given shape and meaning. Wild and empty spaces are worth less than organized and habitable ones, and of course land with buildings on it is generally even more valuable, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been involved in a real estate transaction – or just played a game of Monopoly. For thousands of years, human beings in many – though not all – nations and cultures have carved up the world into plots and parcels and estates, with titles and deeds and easements and tenancy agreements. We have made a commodity out of the earth. And when a theological explanation has been needed to justify this attitude, advocates for it have returned, again and again, to a particular place in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The book of Genesis – the first book in both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian bible – opens with a story about how the earth and its human inhabitants came to be. The first of these is the seven days of creation, in which the God of the story separates the universe into successive divisions: light and dark, day and night, the sky and the sea, the land and the water, and then brings forth living things to inhabit air, sea, and earth. The last of these major works in the story is the creation of humankind. This particular species receives a special blessing: to be fruitful and multiply, and to have a special relationship to all the other animals of the earth. The most familiar term in the Christian tradition is dominion, but the word being translated here from Hebrew – radah – is probably better rendered as rulership. Humanity, in this story, is set to rule over other animals, and all green and growing things are given to those animals and to humans for their food. This single passage – three verses from Genesis – has been leaned on for millennia in order to justify absolute human domination exploitation over the earth and everything that lives there.

But the very force of our own experience pushes back against this attitude. The earth is the ground that we walk on. It is the only place we have to live. It is the source of all bodily nourishment: the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. So for as long or longer than there have been religious justifications for the dominance of the land – and this fragment from Genesis is by no means the only one – there have also been voices of reverence for the earth and our relationship to it. In the Atharva Veda, a 3,000 year old section of the scriptures of Hinduism, we find a hymn to Prithvi, a goddess who is the embodiment of the earth itself. The hymn reads, in part:

          In the villages and in the wilderness, in the assembly-halls that

are upon the earth; in the gatherings, and in the meetings, may we

hold forth agreeably to thee!

          As dust and seeds did she, as soon as she was born, scatter these

people, that dwelt upon the earth, she the lovely one, the leader, the

guardian of the world, that holds the trees and plants…

          O mother earth, kindly set me down upon a well-founded place! With

heaven cooperating, O thou wise one, do thou place me into

happiness and prosperity!

          The religious imagination has long associated land and the earth itself with mothers and motherhood. The world nurtures and fosters life. The connection to parenthood is obvious, and the parallel to biological motherhood – the physical alchemy by which one being creates another being from itself – should be as well. This points to a closely related religious theme, applied to mamas of all sorts: birth, adoptive, or otherwise. The range of gifts which mothers give to their children, gifts of nurturing and teaching and protection and life itself, are gifts which are impossible to repay.

But just because a debt cannot be repaid does not mean that no one has ever tried to calculate it. The religions of India, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, have a deep fascination with the debt which all people owe to their parents and ancestors, and a similar theme of unbounded gratitude appears in many native religions of Africa and North America. At one point in the development of Buddhism in China, religious thinkers became particularly fascinated with the idea of milk-debt: the amount of loving kindness and selfless compassion owed to one’s mother for the breast milk which all children required in order to survive infancy, before the advent of modern substitutes. An official estimate of the amount the average infant consumes was eventually set at roughly 360 gallons.[i] The point of all this was to make clear just how ridiculous and impossible repayment would be. But because we live in an era when it is actually possible to buy human breast milk through a sort-of Craigslist for nursing mothers, I could not resist making the calculation. Based on my best guess of a current average price and ignoring problems with supply, storage, and transport, the twelve barrels of breast milk needed to meet that historical measurement would cost just about $100,000. The debt we owe to the source of our lives – whether our parents, or the earth itself – is immeasurable.

Beside the historical religious arguments, more modern insights also have some relevance to how we view the earth we share. The scientific creation story, the narrative of our current best understanding of how life began on earth, begins about three and a half billion years ago. The molten earth had cooled enough for oceans to form on its surface, vast seas filled with chemicals churned up in part by volcanic eruptions. Lightning raked the waters, providing the potential means for building more complex molecules. Somehow, through means we can guess at but still not fully prove, the swirling chemical cauldron of the primeval sea produced the first bacteria – incredibly small and just barely alive. Through the imperative towards survival and growth and complexity that is hardwired into life, the process of evolution led to the first complex cells, then multicellular life, and on and on until something like 500 million years after life first began, the first animals make their way from the ocean to the land. While we cannot say for certain yet just how rare, we know what we can observe in the rest of our galaxy that the conditions found on this planet, thirty-five thousand-million years ago were favorable to life in a profoundly uncommon way. The world that has made us all possible, and continues to make us possible, is a rare find amongst the stars.

Our particular tradition as Unitarian Universalists, which believes that true religion must work in concert with reason, counsels reverence towards our planet and our cosmos, and falls more on the side of earthly motherhood than earthly dominion. Out front, in the entry-way to the sanctuary you may have passed a framed text which was written originally by William Schulz, a former president of our religious association. His personal attempt to crystallize the notoriously varied and verbose essence of our faith had seven points, two of which are: “That Creation itself is Holy; the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory…” and, “That human beings, joined in collaboration with the gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its future.” In this way, we are not actually out of step with the spirit of that first chapter of Genesis, either, because that text has been woefully warped and distorted in order to justify enormous violence against the natural world. In that story, after each act of separation or creation, a refrain follows: “and God saw that it was good.” The bible here is in clear and full agreement with the insights of science: the fundamental conditions of our planet are good – they make it possible for life to happen, and to thrive.

Now, all of this has been, I hope, an interesting lesson in historical theology, but it is far more pressing than that. Human rulership over the earth is a present fact in that we have vast capabilities, as a species, to disrupt and destroy ecologies and other natural systems. The global climate upheaval brought on by the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – over the last century cannot be ignored. There is no vast tree-hugger conspiracy at work doctoring mountains of evidence all across the globe. Last year, Richard Primack of Boston University published a book called Walden Warming, based on research conducted by him and his students in the woods around Walden Pond in Concord, where the famous Unitarian author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau established his quasi-hermitage. Primack’s work used the study that Thoreau made of his environment to show that flowers are blossoming and birds are appearing earlier than they did 150 years earlier in Thoreau’s day. The climate really is changing. The water levels really are rising. The Carteret Islands at the eastern end of Papua New Guinea really have been evacuated, and really are expected to slip entirely below the waves by the end of next year.[ii] As I stand here in our sanctuary less than a quarter of a mile from the ocean, I have to think that we are a community who ought to be particularly concerned about all this.

To slow the destructive reconfiguration of our planet’s weather and avoid the worst effects – in a very real sense to save current world civilization, which weaves together the lives of more than 6 billion people – we will have to stop burning these fuels. The clock is running, and by several reasonable estimates, we have only so much more carbon-based fuel we can use before crossing over into a world whose storms and temperatures and sea levels will completely upend the current society. That estimate says that we know of almost five times as much gas and coal in the earth as we can afford to burn. To protect the world we have, we will have to resolve, as a species, not to burn most of that carbon.

Messages like this one often end with some sort of pitch for personal change: drive less, recycle more, stop eating red meat. All of those are fine things to do, but slowing and stopping the warming of our planet isn’t something that can be done by small acts, not even by a very large number of them. This effort is going to take a change in public policy. We, and others like us – those who care about the world, and particularly about the people who live upon it, and at the mercy of it – will have to make it a central mission of our age to see a dramatic shift in public policy. In a recent article in the Nation, Chris Hayes compares this daunting project to the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.[iii] Obviously, there can be no moral equivalency with a system that kept millions of human beings as disposable goods for hundreds of years. But one of the chief forces that prevented the abolition of slavery for so long is also at play with climate change: an appalling amount of money. The lie that human beings could be property assigned to them a cash value, and the people who mistakenly believed themselves to be the owners regarded that value as very real, and very much theirs. Our current fuel economy also assigns a cash value to all that unmined coal and undrilled oil, and convincing the corporations and corporate boards and stockholders to leave all that potential money in the ground will not be easy. If we can do it, it will be one of the most impressive achievements we will have ever shared as a species.

The only good news is, that we’ve done it once before. Uprooting the public institution of slavery took far, far too long and cost vast sums in blood and suffering, and left continued injustice echoing into this day. But it was accomplished, and with some small but meaningful contributions from among our own theological ancestors, I might add. Ultimately, what is at issue in this age is not the earth, or even life, itself. These things are incredibly tenacious and adaptable. What it is in question is the motherliness of the earth – whether humanity will, by willful ignorance and foolish greed, so distort our planet that ceases to be the nurturing cradle for us that it so long has been. Already great damage has been done – as in the story we began with: the field lies fallow, and covered with waste, broken, abandoned, neglected. We can choose to proceed as we have been, and see destruction visited in our own generation or in our children’s – or we can begin to clear the garbage, fashion a plow, and get to work.

[i] This tradition seems to have its origins in a section of the Ekottara Agama – see R. Alan Cole, “Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism”



Saved From What? – 5/4/2014

A man sits marooned on a desert island. It’s the sort of island that you can only find in cartoons: a patch of sand barely big enough for him and a single palm tree. His hair is ragged, his beard has grown out, and his pants are frayed – clearly, he has been trapped on that tiny island for quite a while already. All around in every direction, there is only the open sea.

Except that for one lone figure, approaching that tiny speck of land. His body is half above the waves, as though he is walking up out of the sea floor. He wears a blue suit and a square haircut, and holds a book in his hand. Greeting the cast-away, the stranger launches into a well-rehearsed spiel. “Good morning! Could I talk to you for a few moments about your salvation? Not from this island of course.”

This is the Sunday edition of the newspaper comic Bizarro from several months ago[i], and if I were a lot less concerned with copyright than I am, I would have included this image in your order of service. And if I were just a little bit more mischievous than I am, I would have directed you to contemplate it for about twenty minutes in lieu of today’s sermon. But instead I will say a little more on the topic of salvation.

Salvation is a central idea in the Christian tradition, and living as we do in a society, and in fact on a planet, where Christianity predominates, many of us think of salvation as being the chief concern of all religions. There are different understandings of how people are to be saved, and what they need saving from, but the same general idea persists. There is something bad or dangerous inherent to the human condition, and each religious system offers its own particular way out. For orthodox Christianity, salvation means redemption from sin: to be freed from a base and fallen state and made pure in order to receive eternal life. That’s the sort of salvation that the desert-island evangelist in the comic appears to be peddling.

Our ancestors, particularly on the Universalist side, took issue with this way of looking at the world. First, they couldn’t make any sense of the idea that some people are worthy of salvation and some aren’t. We heard about the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou and his metaphor of the muddy children earlier. Here are his exact words on the subject:

“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]

Second, and this is one of many places where the Universalist and the Unitarian branches of our family tree start to sound very similar, comes the trouble with the idea that human beings are inherently sinful to begin with. The orthodox view holds that people are born bad, and that evil comes to us more naturally than good. Our forbearers were the sorts of heretics who could not abide this low view of humanity. Human beings are capable of great evil, yes, but we are also capable of good and show that capacity with great frequency. To say that we are wicked from the get-go is a harsh and irrational judgment against infants who have quite literally done nothing wrong.

But it is the third challenge to the orthodox idea of salvation that is most relevant to that comic strip, and to our discussion this morning. I believe, in fact, that it is the most currently important of the three heretical attitudes towards salvation we’ve inherited, because it is the one the world needs most right now. The idea that most people are going to Hell and the belief that babies are born sinful are both still out there, but their popularity has waned over time. The average conscience recoils from them, so their champions have a harder time selling them now than in ages past. But the third issue is the one that was likely most obvious to you when I described the desert-island tableau: there are real and immediate dangers that ought to come before obscure points of theology. If you want to talk to me about saving my soul, when my body is literally stranded and starving to death, your priorities are catastrophically misaligned.

Our theological ancestors responded to a world that was obsessed with the afterlife – who was going to get there, and how, and what they were going to find when they got there – by turning around and facing in the opposite direction. They determined that their faith needed to be about this world, not some other one. They did this for different reasons, and that variety is something that is still with us today. The ardent Universalists believed with absolute confidence in a future life where all people would dwell eternally in the presence of an infinitely-loving God. Rather than making them ambivalent about what happened in the comparatively short waiting period before death, their belief made them determined to reform the mortal world: to end war, to establish justice between people and nations, and to build the Kingdom of God on the model of the Christian Gospels. Others, among the fringier Universalists and the Unitarians, either professed uncertainty about the afterlife, or grew to doubt its existence due to a lack of empirical evidence. This similarly animated their determination to make the world a finer place. Whether or not Heaven and Hell were real destinations, they were certainly metaphors for the things we do for or to each other here on earth.

This brings us to our theological present, and a Unitarian Universalism which includes Christians and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and a very large number who do not carry any secondary label. An atheistic materialist and a believer in a benevolent and loving God are both equally welcome here because both sets of beliefs, if practiced with compassion and sanity, yield the same consequences. Our disparate theologies point toward a shared vision of a world made whole. Whenever I preach a sermon on a single theological term like this, I always want to offer you a working definition for it – not an exclusive one, but one you might be able to use, by the light of our tradition. The understanding of salvation which is centered on this world then, is anything that protects, rescues, or restores a person or people from great danger or harm. We do not need to be saved from cosmic sin, but we do need saving from the evil we do to each other and ourselves, both the personal wrongs made of rage, hatred, or fear, and the structural injustices built up in our society over centuries.

The personal wrongs often distract our attentions and our energies from structural injustice, and if we are going to be about the work of salvation in this life, in this world, we cannot settle for that. The form of racism made out of bigotry and slurs and violence is vile, but if we focus only on this we ignore the form of racism built into housing policies, banking practices, our education system and our courts. Misogyny by direct aggression, open contempt, and sexual violence or the threat thereof is a poison and even were it to disappear entirely, it would not erase the long-established biases against women and their bodies and their choices that come baked-in to our economy, our institutions, and even our families. Homophobia and transphobia may have their ugliest face in rates of assault and murder, but legal and social mechanisms that protect quiet bigotry and enforce a sub-human valuing of life have as much power to kill, or more. When we talk about saving the world, it is not simply from individual villains: it is from the broken and distorted way in which the world itself has long been ordered.

Our values are particular, but we are not alone in them. A focus on the here and now is not unique to our movement. Most religions have some tension between this world and otherworldly pursuits, and all of them have some voices or factions who want to address the immediate needs of the present. Judaism and Islam are each less concerned about danger to the individual soul than most of Christianity has been for most of its history. Imagine a dial with this life on one side and a future life on the other. Most forms of orthodox Christianity would rate at about 80% future life/20% this one. Judaism would be roughly the opposite: 20% future life/80% this one. And Islam would be right about in the middle, 50/50. The Jewish parallel to Christianity’s salvation has always been liberation in the here and now; freedom from bondage and return from exile of one sort or another. In the Christian tradition, the Liberation Theology of Latin American Catholicism and the Black Church in America and the Christian Dalits of India are all responses to the immediate needs of people living in an abject state of oppression, and all build on those same ideas of liberation found in the Hebrew scriptures.

A favorite quotation of the liberationists and our own Christian ancestors is the famous passage in the Gospel According to Luke in which the teacher Jesus describes his mission: “to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to set free those who are oppressed.”[iii] This is itself a rewording of a passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who declared his calling to be “a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned, [and] to comfort all who mourn.”[iv]

In Islam, we find an influential saint named Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, an ancient resident of the city of Basra, in modern-day Iraq. She is said to have been seen one day running back and forth across the city, carrying a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked what she was doing, she announced that she was going to set fire to Paradise and pour water onto Hell – as soon as she could find them. If she could do this, she hoped that people would begin to make their decisions according only to their goodness, how much help or harm they did to others, rather than out of hope for reward or fear of punishment.

In the native religions of India – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – one of the ways for interpreting salvation is as freedom from suffering. There’s a story from the Bhagavata Purana – a Hindu holy book – called the liberation of Gajendra. Ganjendra was an elephant to set out to cross a river. On his way to the other side, he stepped near a crocodile who bit down on his leg with its mighty jaws. He struggled but was unable to free himself. In desperation, he reached down into the mud and plucked a lotus flower before raising it over his head and trumpeting. Vishnu, one of the chief deities in Hindu cosmology, heard this offering and accepted it, releasing Gajendra from the crocodile’s grip. This scene, an elephant standing in a river, bitten by a crocodile, raising a lotus in offering to Vishnu is a very popular and important image in Hinduism. Not unlike that first image we began with, it illustrates an important theological problem. In this case, the problem that not all of the evil, injustice, and suffering in the world can be overcome by our sheer will or effort alone. Sometimes, we need to ask for help, even when we might not have any reason to expect that help is coming.

The great Muslim mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote,

There is no salvation for the soul

But to fall in love.

Only lovers can escape

Out of these two worlds.

This was ordained in creation.

Only from the heart

Can you reach the sky:

The Rose of Glory

Can grow only from the heart.

Rumi was a great advocate for love, but his meaning for lover was someone deeply in love with the divine. This might be expressed through a deep and profound connection with another person: a sibling, a spouse, or a friend. But it could as likely be practiced through chanting, meditation and prayer: connecting directly to the spiritual source. The awareness that the world of the here and now is what needs saving – from us, for us, and by us – is liberating: no metaphysical original sin hanging over our heads. But it can also be demoralizing: if God has hands to work in the world, they are our hands, and the hands of everyone else on earth. That’s a lot of hands, but there are days when they don’t feel like nearly enough. We need to know where we can find the small salvation – salvation in the sense of a salve, a balm to soothe and refresh – that we need in order to continue working towards the larger effort of our salvation as a species. Religion – ours and everyone else’s – has a dual role: to center and multiply our energies on the salvation of the world we live in, and to soothe and restore our weary spirits when the weight of that world grows too much.

So returning one final time to our opening comic: perhaps that man in the suit with a bible and a square haircut has a small point. He is still ignoring the profound and obvious need of the cast-away, even though he can clearly do something about it (how did he get to the island in the first place, after all?). But if his faith is something that has nourished him in the wilderness, or gotten him through even one hard night, then I can understand and empathize with the impulse to share it. We all need love and meaning and wonder and hope enough in our lives to carry is through – anything that can do that for any of us is worth at least exploring. But let us all determine first, before we rush to share our spiritual treasures with someone new, to bind up their wounds enough to listen, relieve their grief enough to see, and to help rescue their bodies before making a bid for their souls.


[i] The comic can be seen on the blog of its creator, Dan Piraro, here:

[ii] Hosea Ballou, from his most famous work, A Treatise on Atonement

[iii] Luke 4:18

[iv] Isaiah 61:1-2

Limited Selves in a Limitless Universe

To start this month, I’m going to invite you to watch this video: (go right ahead, I’ll wait here). For those of you who can’t spare the time, or who are reading this on paper, I’ll explain. The video is a short piece from Alok Jha, science correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, and in it he gives a very brief synthesis of some of the big ideas that made Stephen Hawking, the world-famous theoretical physicist, world-famous. There are three things from this video that prompt some theological reflection for me. It’s quick to watch, and I think it’s pretty fun, but if you can’t check it out, don’t worry – I’ll provide what you need:

1) The incredible mass of a black hole makes it

Other be price for your used When received it.

nearly impossible for matter or energy to escape it – and paradoxically, causes it to slowly shrink down to nothing over a long enough period of time. There is so much pressure in our world to get big: to be the most, the greatest, the whatever-est of whatever sort of thing you are. Now, the impulse to succeed is not a bad thing, and if you’re doing something good, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do more of it. But seeking power or importance for its own sake is ultimately a profoundly self-destructive path. Just as for a black hole, on a long enough time scale, the pursuit of vain glory leaves nothing to endure.

2) “At one point, everything in our universe was squeezed into a singularity.” I love thinking about this one – everything crunched down into one unthinkably small point. The sum of all things compacted tighter than when college students used to cram into telephone booths. (What are telephone booths? Ask your parents to ask their parents, kids.) Somehow, everything existed once without the benefit of special separation. This reminds me that we human creatures, tiny fragments of the universe that we are, ought to be able to find a way to exist together under what are clearly more favorable circumstances. Once, everything was a part of everything else. And that is still true today, in its own way, if we can only remember it.

3) “Stephen Hawking…came up with all these profound, provocative insights, without the convenience of being able to write anything down.” This is a slight exaggeration. Hawking was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS when he was 21, but he had several more years before he lost the ability to write completely. Still, the overwhelming majority of his work has been done without the straight-forward ability to take notes or jot down ideas. That strikes me as monumentally hard – to reason through complex equations with nothing but your own thought-process to rely on. Hawking has explained that this has required him to create his own methods for process and calculating, some of which involve inventive visualization. He is a famously, scarily-smart individual doing work vastly beyond my grasp, so I won’t pretend that this is somehow an easy or a simple solution. Yet, I am inspired by the ability of any other human being, no less mortal than I, to find a creative solution when faced with such a profound limitation. It is astonishing what human beings are capable of, and if we are not all super-geniuses, that does not absolve us of the responsibility to do what we can. In the midst of a vast, strange, and expanding universe, it is up to us to grow into the best versions of ourselves that we can.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

The Gender Police – 4/27/2014

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself in a few different conversations with interfaith colleagues, trying to answer different versions of the same question: “What is Unitarian Universalism’s central story?” This is probably because Easter and Passover have just gone by. The first celebrates the story of the resurrection of Jesus, what is often described as being the central story of Christianity. The second commemorates the story of the Hebrew liberation from slavery in Egypt, which again is usually considered to be Judaism’s central story. So, the question was presented to me in one formulation or another – what’s yours?

My answer, which I’ve given many times before and which isn’t uniquely mine, is that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a central story, at least not in the sense of a clear parallel with the resurrection or the exodus. That is the point, and indeed the power of our faith: the world is full of stories, no one is supremely true above all others – in fact the deepest truths are to be found in the cracks between them. To make our way in this world, we have found that we need to have more than one story.

Still, there are particular stories that we tell more often than others, that we keep coming back to again and again. The stories of Passover and Easter are two of these. Another, which you might have heard almost as recently if you come here often enough, is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Its lesson on the subjective quality of truth, and the multiple stories to be found in any one thing, resonates with our faith, so we end up returning to it often. I realized when I was preparing my thoughts this morning that I wanted to point to something specific hidden in that story, something we don’t talk about much. So I’m going to use a particular telling of this old familiar tail that might be just a little bit less familiar. The story of the blind men and the elephant originally comes from the Indian subcontinent. There are versions of it told in the Jain, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim traditions – it’s old enough that we can’t say with certainty which had it first. But it was popularized in Europe and the Western world through a poem by John Godfrey Saxe published in the 1800s, and that’s what I’m going to share with you now:


It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.


The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”


The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”


The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”


The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”


The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”


And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

Here’s what I want us to consider about this story. Normally, we view it from outside: we’re not in the story, we’re just watching it – or rather, hearing it – unfold. Now imagine that you’re actually inside it; not as one of the blind men, though that might be an experiment for another day. Imagine that you’re the elephant. If you’re the elephant, the story comes across rather differently. The headline isn’t, “the truth is arrived at clumsily, in bits and pieces, always imperfect and incomplete.” Instead it’s, “six men assault elephant.”

But don’t run from this now, think about it for a moment. Here you are, minding your own business, when a group of strangers approach without apology or introduction. They prod, they examine, they grope, and they make their own pronouncement as to just what exactly you are. At no point do they ask for your permission, or even more infuriatingly, your opinion. Think about that for a moment.

This sermon is part of a series on the social justice commitments held by Unitarian Universalism, and my particular topic this morning are the social concerns that fall under the broad category of gender and gender expression. In particular, the rights and worthiness of transgender, genderqueer and gender fluid people, the rights and worthiness of women, and the establishment and protection of reproductive freedom. This sort of a slightly disjointed list, and in particular not everyone who might advocate on one side of one of these issues will necessarily feel at home on the same side of another. There are feminists who are antagonistic towards trans* rights, and advocates for the ordination of women who oppose reproductive choice. Yet I’ve grouped these issues together because the analysis that our faith applies to them – the ‘why’ that makes us care about them – tells us that there is really one cohesive system of injustice at work in all of these areas. There is a direct line to be drawn from verbal and physical attacks on trans* people, to the earning gap between men and women, to employers demanding that their employees be denied birth control coverage through their HMO.

That line is composed of our society’s social expectations about gender: about what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and the names, behaviors, fashion choices, hairstyles, hopes, dreams, ambitions and ideas that are permitted or forbidden, based on those expectations. Because these boundaries are social constructions – not in any way natural or readily occurring on their own – they can only survive by being enforced by acts of aggression and coercion, from the very small to the very large. These rules of gender are policed all around us, every day, by a million million individual actions.

Let me get down into some of the specifics. The author Teddy Wayne penned a short article recently outlining the “Heterosexual Agenda.” This piece was a satire of the hateful and frankly bizarre idea that there is a clandestine gay campaign to make straight people feel ashamed for being straight. Wayne imagines a massive, all-heterosexual conference at which strictly gendered food and entertainment have been provided: football and buffalo wings for the men, salad and “Real Housewives” episodes for the women. Following the call to order, the moderator begins to outline the heterosexual campaign:

“First on the agenda: movies, always a central plank in our mission, since they’re where we go for our dates. Specifically those movies that depict a woman who works at a fashion magazine and dates a guy with slicked-back hair in finance, but he’s kind of a cad, and then she meets another guy who does pro-bono law but still makes a lot of money and is really nice, and eventually she realizes that the second guy is much better for her after she catches the first guy cheating on her with his secretary. Let’s see if we can’t up our monthly production to more than fourteen.”

The stories we tell outline the roles that are possible in the world we share. When we keep telling the same story over and over again, it sets a boundary. With the possible exception of a sexless best friend character, Teddy Wayne’s thumbnail description of every romantic comedy of the last 30 years pretty-well outlines the range of accepted forms for men and women in our society: good girl and bad girl, good boy and bad boy. The good ones are supposed to find each other and live happily ever after. The bad ones are supposed to be doomed to a hollow life – unless they find just the right member of the opposite sex, who will transform them from bad into good.

Wayne presented this as an example of the powerful cultural, artistic and economic forces arrayed against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people – teaching overtly and covertly that same-sex attraction is unseemly or unnatural. And those messages are real and powerful, but they are not just aimed at gay folks – they apply to straight folks too. All homophobia is a form of gender oppression: it seeks to establish a fence around gender and oppression – asserting that all men are attracted to women, or all women are attracted to men – and then to police this barrier, punishing anyone who sets foot over the line. It is the same with the boy who wants to wear his princess dress to school, or the girl who wants to be a steam shovel when she grows up. Any variance from the expectation is suspect, and draws some form of punishment or another: stares and whispers, perhaps, or questions and threats, or violence either legal, physical, or both.

People who cross over the boundary, or who mix symbols of one or the other are subject to such violence in particularly large numbers. Trans* people, folks whose self-understanding of their own gender does not match the one assigned to them based on biology, or who otherwise transgress the checkbox of “M” or “F,” face very real threats to their lives just for being who they are. But they face other profound indignities as well. One of the most common is the attitude that their genitals are up for discussion. Only the most recent public example of this came when Katie Couric interviewed Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox, both trans women, and led off by asking about Ms. Carrera’s private parts – she politely turned the question aside. Later in the same interview, Laverne Cox pointed out that besides being astoundingly presumptuous and rude, the ‘what’s under your pants/dress?’ question is also a way of turning away from the person and the seriousness of their struggles, “by focusing on bodies,” she said, “we don’t focus on the lived realities of…oppression and…discrimination.”[i]

This system of gender policing, is not just person-to-person, it is also woven out of laws and the practices of larger groups. For more than fifty years, women in America campaigned actively for the right to vote, with some of their chief leaders being Unitarians. But now, almost a century after that battle was won, that most basic measure of political equality does not mean that the playing field is now or ever has been equal. Which is why our association continues to advocate for equal pay and access to work for women and for trans* folks, as both groups are paid less than men, on average, and suffer from a higher rate of unemployment. We have also long-held it as a matter of conscience, that people of all genders and gender expressions should be afforded basic protection under the law. That day is still far off, unfortunately, in a country where – to site just one example – trans* folks face the realistic possibility that after they die, no matter how up-to-date and correct their identity documents are, they may be assigned the wrong gender on their death certificates.

This points to the root problem with the entire system of the gender police, this whole network of interlocking social expectations that exists in our government, in our entertainment, in our communities and our families and even in ourselves. Whether it manifests in a cat-call, or a silent leer, or a fashion magazine, or a government policy, or a medical diagnosis, or a hate-crime, the project of policing gender seeks to tell a person who they are, what they are, what is possible for them, in defiance of what they know about themselves. It says, ‘you’re not a boy, you’re a girl,’ or ‘you’re not a girl, you’re loose, or you’re frigid, or bossy,’ ‘the choices you have made with your mind, and the truths you have found in your heart – what you wear, whom you love, what you hope to become – all of that is wrong.’

This is what is so profoundly theologically wrong with that idea. None of us knows ourselves perfectly, but we all still know ourselves better than that. The project of fully understanding and appreciating who we are takes a lifetime, and to do it we need other people and communities, and the insights they can provide about ourselves. But the process of interrogation, contempt, and violence – the way in which gender is constructed and policed – alienates us from each other and from our communities. Our society breaks down gender into two narrow and exclusive boxes, weighed down by thousands of years of privileging one and oppressing the other, and then rejects whatever doesn’t fit. When we are the things being rejected, it breaks the connections we need to grow.

We understand as sacred our gifts and powers as humans, and that means a profound duty to grow and unfold our abilities and capacities, and also to use them responsibly. Doing this requires control over our own faculties, and this is the basis for our association’s standing support of universal access and availability of birth control – the third point under the umbrella of gender justice I mentioned earlier. Not a particularly controversial matter as public-opinion polling goes, but this is still an issue where many faith groups disagree. The greater disagreement, of course, is over abortion. This extends even into our own congregations, and so I want to remind you that this is an examination of what in our shared tradition has led us as a national movement to take certain public positions. But those positions are never binding on us as individuals. The Unitarian Universalist Association has supported the universal right of women to access safe abortions as part of her basic medical care since ten years before Roe v. Wade – a case which, by the way, is deeply bound up in the history of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX. That is not to dictate the choices you make, how you vote, or how you speak in the public square. But the position we have taken as an association – radical for its time and still radical today – has a deep grounding in our theology.

The creation of new life is a stupefying miracle, a fundamentally mysterious magic trick that should not be any less awesome for the billions upon trillions of times that it has taken place. And depending on how you understand it, where you sit with the mystery of a few cells growing into a human child, you might find that you cannot justify to yourself any abortion, or can justify some but not others. That is within your right to assess for yourself, when the mystery is taking place within you. But we each have a right to a fundamental and absolute authority over our bodies – that is what our theology demands. Anything less means the degradation and destruction of the sacred gifts and powers within any person denied the right, and by extension the diminishment of all of humankind. If the body and all its capacities are sacred, and we are each invested as stewards of our own, then that stewardship must be trusted and respected – for we are each just as important to ourselves as you are to you and to the source of all being, whom some of us call God.

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about the danger of having just one story – whether it is a story about a person, or about an entire category of people. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”[ii] The problem with the limitations of gender in our society, by light of our faith, is not that the particular elements of masculinity and femininity are bad – or at least, it is not that all of them are bad. Rather, it is when these elements become limitations that we get into trouble, and do ourselves and each other harm.

Just as we could reasonably expect for the elephant in the famous story, none of us wants to be prodded and poked and examined on a whim, or told what we are by people who understand us less than we understand ourselves. Encountering anything or anyone that is different, there is an understandable impulse to stare, to whisper, to gossip, even to try to declare that we understand before doing the hard work of understanding. It is understandable, but it is not the best that we have to offer. That best is respect first, curiosity second, and humility over all. Each of us needs space enough to be who we are, and the support, encouragement, and counsel, necessary to become whoever and whatever we hold the promise of being. So let us remember the elephant – the difference between active companionship and casual judgment – and do what we can to create a world no longer defined by the gender police.

[i] These words reflect what I said during the service, but after the conversations I had with some of you afterward, if I had it to preach over again, I would reframe this passage to be clearer in my intention: not to criticize Katie Couric particularly, but to highlight a very real, systemic problem faced by trans* people – the sort of thing that happens thousands of times in the course of ordinary lives for every one time it occurs on television.

[ii] Much more detail can be found in her excellent TED Talk, here:

The Gates of Mercy – 4/20/2014

We just heard the choir sing the words of Leonard Cohen, and they included these lines: “Behold the gates of mercy, in arbitrary space. And none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace.” We live in – we are each a part of – a world that is made up of wonder and terror. At any given moment, our planet is saturated with both. A lost plane in the Indian Ocean, a ferry sunk in the Korea Straight, a terrible shooting in Kansas City, civil war in Syria and the Central African Republic, and the threat of more to come in Ukraine. At the same time, children are being born all over the world today, as scientists ask grand questions of the cosmos, artists at the canvass and the keyboard craft new things of beauty and imagination, while families and friends and strangers practice kindness towards each other in a million million tiny, precious ways.

The one side does not cancel the other out, in either direction. The good cannot justify the evil, just as the cruelty of life cannot desecrate the sanctity of its gift. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke considered this conundrum in our essential condition by asking what it is we gain by being human, rather than only a laurel bush or some other form of plant. He wrote:


Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too. . . . .

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
 for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.


The fleeting world keeps calling to us, to pass through the gates of mercy, to be, to become, again and again and again. For as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great author who died this week, said “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but…life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” We are eternally becoming who we are, so that life is less like a walled garden, where we enter by one path and exit by another, and more like a house of many small adjoining rooms, where we are constantly crossing over thresholds and under lintels, through doorways into new spaces beyond.

What we each shall find in the next room we enter is uncertain, and that uncertainty raises that nagging question of why. Good fortune prompts it just as well as bad. The story of Moses being saved as an infant is spectacular, all the hope and courage that made his survival possible is inspiring. But what of the other male children who did not have quite so many breaks in their favor. The story of Lazarus has been told for the better part of 2,000 years to inspire faith, and yet, could he have been the only person who lay dead in Judeah that day? Or his sisters the only grieving women in the world?

However you understand the world, whether it is with one God, or many, or none, it is plain that life gives us things that we do not deserve. And this places before us two choices for how we will go about living our lives in response: resentment, or gratitude. I hope it will surprise none of you that I am here to lobby for gratitude. I don’t mean to be grateful for every single thing that comes – for heartbreak or homelessness or HIV. But to be grateful for the gateway into life in the first place, and for the new doorway, always in front of us, into the next unknown room of the house of being.

The alternative is to stay put, hunker down and make a nest of our resentments. To refuse to take a risk on the next doorway out of spite and fear. To choose not to defy an unjust king, or to weave a little boat for an infant in danger, or to watch over our brother as he floats on the river, or not to take in a strange child who winds his way into our life. The choice of resentment means walling ourselves up in one of life’s rooms, and refusing to go any further. There is a word for a place such as that: we call it a tomb.

Look inward, with me, for a moment friends. Examine the chambers of your heart, the places where the deepest pieces of yourself reside. See how many of them are stopped up with bitterness, stifled rage or frustrated dream. Let us resolve, together, you and I, to cross through the next gate. Let today be a day when we pluck new hope from the river, when we stumble out of the tomb, and into the light. May we give birth to ourselves anew this day, and may all of us serve as midwives for each other.



The Blessed Curse – 4/13/2014

In the Buddhist tradition’s understanding of itself – in that religion’s story about how it came to exist as a religion – the pivotal moment takes place in quiet and stillness. At the instant when he became the Buddha – the Awakened One – Gautama was sitting under a tree, seeking the truth through meditation. And then it came to him. He understood the nature of existence at its deepest level and became liberated from hatred, greed, and fear. The essential religious conundrum of Gautama’s place and time – 2500 years ago in northern India – had to do with a cycle of death and rebirth. That people were reborn into new lives after dying was taken for granted, and so many theologians and philosophers and other just thoughtful people began to see this as a terrible fate – like being locked into a prison from which there could be no escape. The Buddha’s enlightenment meant that he had solved this critical question of his age: he had found a way to break out of that prison.

This is the axial moment in Buddhism, its central ideas bursting forth into the mind of Gautama. And it was followed, soon after by the beginning of the religion itself, as the Buddha left his tree behind and went to the city of Varanasi. There he preached is first sermon, made his first converts, and began to form the first sangha, the first community devoted to the mutual practice of his teachings. The beginning of the idea and the beginning of the community happen right next to each other, which is what makes the story of what happened in between so fascinating. It is said that the first person Gautama met after attaining enlightenment was a fellow traveler on the road, just a few miles from his tree. That man, whose name was Upaka, stopped him. He could see that Gautama had a look of clarity and serenity about him, as though he had just discovered something important. He asked what it was.

So for the first time, to the first person, the Buddha explained himself: that he had come to see the truth behind the illusion of existence had transcended the frailties and imperfections of his own mortal form. Upaka asked if this meant that he had found what others had sought and no one else had achieved: a way to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. “Indeed, friend,” responded the Buddha. “And now I go to Varanasi, to beat the drum of deathlessness.” To this grand pronouncement, the solving of a cosmic riddle that vexed entire generations of wise and holy people, Upaka simply said, “Well, maybe so,” and then, shaking his head, he travelled on by another road.

It is attractive to think that if an idea is profound enough or a message true enough, the world will simply sit up and recognize it. Opposition will melt away, and the insight will be embraced by the sheer force of its rightness. But the story of Upaka, the first person to hear the message of the Buddha, points in a different direction entirely: there is no wisdom so great that the human will is incapable of ignoring it. Prophets and teachers from the beginning of human history to the present have learned this the hard way.

In the mythic history of ancient Greece, Cassandra was a princess of the city of Troy. She was blessed with the gift of foreseeing the future, and cursed that no one would ever believe her predictions. She saw that her brother was about to cause the Trojan war, but he ignored her warning. She knew that her city would be destroyed, but no one listened to her cries. And according to one play by Aeschylus, Cassandra went to her death, fully aware of her fate but unable to stop it.

It is a heavy burden to be a prophet. This could easily be the tagline of the current Hollywood blockbuster Noah. It tells its own version of the biblical story you’re no doubt already familiar with, if only from that children’s song about the animals in twosies, twosies and the elephants and [clap] kangaroosies, roosies. In the sanitized picture-book version, it’s a nice-enough story about animals and boats. Even in the biblical account, details are recounted in a very matter-of-fact way – no reference is made to Noah’s internal psychology. The movie, though, puts the imagined inner life of a prophet front and center, and it is a grueling ordeal. I’m not particularly encouraging anyone to see this film – I still haven’t decided what to think of it as a film, but it was extremely difficult to watch. Some of the scenes and images were more grotesque than the stuff of the average horror movie. Though the film departed radically from the biblical text, much of that horror was true to the original story, which is, after all, about the obliteration of an entire world’s worth of people. In one particularly chilling moment, Noah sits inside his ark as the waters rise and the screams of those clinging to the last bit of dry land can be heard from outside. The man looks broken by his appointed task: to rescue an uncountable number of animals, but only a tiny handful of the human variety. No wonder he eventually turns to drink – a character insight that actually is in the bible.

As the differences between the stories of Gautama, Cassandra, and Noah suggest, the term prophet has a range of possible meanings. Probably the most common meaning in modern speech is the ability to see, predict, or otherwise know the future. It’s a term that gets thrown around and applied to a whole range of figures, from the Oracle at Delphi to political pop-statistician Nate Silver, and from Nostradamus to Paul the Octopus – the German cephalopod who predicted the winner of the 2010 World Cup. This is the classical understanding of prophesy in the Greek and Roman cultures, and it strongly influences the term’s use in orthodox Christianity. But even more important to the Christian meaning is the model of prophesy established in the Hebrew bible.

According to the reckoning presented by the ancient rabbis in the Talmud, there are fifty-five prophets mentioned by name in the Tanakh – the Hebrew name for the Hebrew bible. Predicting or anticipating the future is still a common theme for many of these figures, but not for all of them. And there are also biblical characters granted visions of the future who nonetheless are not considered prophets. Instead, the uniting factor between all fifty-five prophets was their role as spokespeople for the Holy; their words or actions particularly serve the Divine in some way. For most of these prophets, this meant some sort of special relationship with or closeness to God. Abraham and Moses are both described as talking regularly with God, even to the point of arguing with divine judgments. And so many stories of the biblical prophets involve miraculous visions received during sleep that the Book of Jeremiah mocks a corruption of this convention: “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy falsely in My name: “I had a dream, I had a dream.”[i]

Rev. Dr. James Forbes, who led New York City’s progressive Riverside Church for many years, explains the model of biblical prophecy in three syllables: ‘Ho, Go, and Lo.’ ‘Ho’ is like ‘hey’ or ‘yo’ – it’s an interjection meant to get someone’s attention. A prophet’s career begins with a ‘ho’ – a moment when the Divine seizes her attention. The ‘go’ that follows is a purpose or a mission: do something, say something, go somewhere. And the last component, ‘lo’ means ‘look’ or ‘pay attention’.[ii] It introduces the heavenly promise of accompaniment: the prophet doesn’t do his work alone, she is a coworker with God.

Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists tends towards a third way of understanding what it means to be a prophet. It is not exclusive to us, and it does not preclude the other two types of prophecy. It is pointed towards in the second source called out by the covenant between our congregations: “The words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Whenever I quote this source, I point out that there is no reason why we ought not to replace “prophetic women and men” with “prophetic persons” – there are people for whom the gender binary does not describe their place in the world, and they are as capable of being prophets as anyone else – and perhaps just a little bit more so. But I’m getting ahead of myself: that’s a sermon for later this month. Prophetic words challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil. Prophecy stirs others to action in the service of justice and love. A vision of the future or a transcendent experience of God is optional. Prophesy is declaring the truth – or otherwise acting based on the truth – when it is difficult, dangerous, or inconvenient to do so. When there is a wrong to be answered, or an error to correct.

This is intentionally a very inclusive definition, and it focuses more on the action than the actor. In fact, it might be fair to say that as Unitarian Universalists we don’t necessarily believe in prophets – though certainly many of us do – what we believe in is prophesy itself, the act of meeting wrong with right. In this sense, each of us has the prophetic potential not just in the course of our lives, but inside every moment. The salient questions are, ‘are you acting from the truth?’ and ‘how far are you willing to follow it?’

The Muslim mystical poet Hafiz described an exchange with a man who believed he had seen God. But he sought Hafiz for confirmation asking, ‘Are these wondrous dreams true?’ Hafiz answered with a series of his own questions:

          “’How many rose bushes in your garden,

          How many children,

          Are your parents still alive,

          Do you feed the birds in winter?’”

The man was perplexed by these questions, so the poet explained:

          “’You asked me if I thought your visions were true,

          I would say that they were if they make you become

          More human,

          More kind to every creature and plant

          That you know.”

One of the classic questions of prophecy – whether the visionary gift, the divine calling, or the simple confrontation of evil with truth – has always been how the prophet can know it is real. How can we recognize the real prophetic dream, the legitimate sacred mission, the true truth? The standard proposed by Hafiz seems to me the finest and clearest answer to this question: the impulse that leads to magnify humanity, and produce the greatest kindness – this is the truest sort of prophecy.

One of the essential ideas of Christian Protestantism, tracing back to Martin Luther, is the priesthood of all believers: The spiritual authority and responsibility which is universal to humankind, rather than being limited to a particular class of religious officials. This idea, incidentally, like many other elements of Protestantism, draws from the Jewish tradition “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[iii] James Luther Adams, one of the most crucial voices in Unitarian Universalist theology, expanded this understanding to the priesthood and prophethood of all believers: adding an entire mode of spiritual authority and responsibility, as well as a far more expansive understanding of belief than Martin Luther’s. We are called as human beings, by anything and everything greater than our individual selves, towards the confrontation between what is, and what ought to be. And the duty of the religious congregation – ours or anybody else’s, whatever religion you like – is to spur us on and strengthen us, compassionately and creatively, in this confrontation.

I’ll offer a prophetic example, then, not from ancient and treasured story, but from our own present. Tim DeChristopher is a Unitarian Universalist. In 2008 he was living in Salt Lake City, attending the University of Utah and the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake.  In mid-December of that year, there was an auction held in Salt Lake City, and not the good kind. The auction was for oil and gas rights on federal lands across the American west and adjacent to several national parks. The auction was a rushed affair – a virtual give-away to major energy companies designed to ink sweetheart deals just before the handover from one administration to the next. It drew protest from folks committed to the preservation of natural spaces and opposed to the slow-motion self-destruction of fossil fuels. Tim was one of those protestors. But when he got to the place where the auction was being held, he decided that the people inside weren’t going to notice or care about him and the other people opposing them unless they went inside. So he did just that. And apparently he looked just enough like someone who might be there to participate rather than to disrupt, because they offered him a bidding paddle. Caught off guard by the offer, and with no plan or preparation, he took it and sat down.

There saw a friend from his church, Krista Bowers, who was there to observe the proceedings. She was already crying over what she saw: the right to despoil and exploit public land was going very cheap – it would all be sold in short order. So Tim, a penniless undergraduate, raised his paddle, and he started bidding. At first, he thought he would just drive up the prices a bit and cut in slightly on a few bottom lines. But then he kept winning, so that by the end he had agreed to purchase leases on 22,500 acres of federal land, at the price of $1.8 million. He might as well have bought all the water in the ocean for the price of the moon – he had no intention to use the leases, and no ability to pay for them.

As you might guess, Tim’s next stop was court, and after that, jail. For the crime of disrupting the auction, he was sentenced to two years in prison. His disruption had gummed up the process enough and brought enough negative attention to it that when the new administration came in months later it annulled the entire thing. Tim served out his time, and catalyzed a network of activists seeking to confront the powerful, interconnected forces of climate crisis. Tim’s choices were his own, and their consequences were born by him alone, but they also took place in a context. There was the moral influence of his fellow congregant Kim Bowers, the encouragement by his congregation’s witness work on environmental issues before the auction, and their support of him throughout his trial and incarceration that followed. The individual prophet arises from a community, and their work can be sustained and magnified by that community. As the Jewish festival of Pesach and the Holy Week of the Christian tradition begin, we should be mindful that often prophets pay more dearly for their prophecy than with a two-year sentence, but also that a prophetic community can carry on a message whatever might happen to the prophet. “If I die,” Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “I will be resurrected in the people.” His violent death later proved his statement true: tragedy and triumph are woven fine in the cloth of prophecy.

There is a second half to the tale of Upaka, the man who shrugged off the Buddha’s enlightenment. And that is that he went on after that chance meeting to lead his life, to fall in love and marry and start a family. And yet, the possibility of the insight from the man he had met on the road lingered with him. Eventually he set out to find him again. Years later he found the Buddha, who recognized him immediately, and welcomed him into the sangha. Often the prophet is defamed, ignored, persecuted or destroyed. The truth is powerful, and therefore dangerous. You will not always be heard, all you who are potential prophets by dint of being human. But sometimes, some holy times, somebody does hear and answer. Even if it takes a while.

[i] Jeremiah 23:25

[ii] You can watch Rev. Forbes explain his idea much more fulsomely and engagingly in a sermon he delivered to members of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association in  a video found here:

[iii] Exodus 19:6

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Mostly Grateful

“Some say that we get what we deserve in life, but I certainly don’t believe it. We certainly don’t deserve Bach. What have I done to deserve the Second Brandenburg Concerto? I have not been kind enough; I have not done enough justice; I have not loved my neighbor, or myself, sufficiently; I have not praised God enough to have earned a gift like this… Since we have not earned Bach—or crocuses, or lovers—the best we can do is express our gratitude for the undeserved gifts, and do our share of the work of creation.”

–Robert R. Walsh, from the collection Noisy Stones


When I first read these words from Bob Walsh, I could not immediately bring the Second Brandenburg Concerto to my mind. (In case you can’t either, you can listen to a piece of it here.) Baroque music is not exactly my strong suit. But once I found a recording of it and sat down to listen, I found that I could enjoy it, and not just as something casually pleasant – the way in which I normally experience classical compositions. I could relish Bach’s work more deeply because I had been invited, challenged almost, to listen to it by someone who so clearly loved it. Robert Walsh lifted this music up together with the joys of romance and the beauty of spring flowers; knowing that drew out just a little more of my attention, and helped me to hear through another person’s ears.

Of all the world’s great joys, this is the most wonderful: that we have other people with whom to share the things we love. And there is so much to love in the world. So rather than focus on what is deserved and undeserved, earned and unearned, I am drawn far more to the subject at the close of the quote above: gratitude. Not, ‘what do I deserve?’ but ‘where does my gratitude lead me?’ What piece of the work of creation will be big enough to match the wonder and appreciation I feel at this ever-spinning world?

Of course, life is not all gratitude or the makings of it. Yesterday I walked down the street with a cold, strong wind cutting through me. The temperature was fluctuating between the low teens and the high single digits. It had technically been spring for almost a month. Normally, I’m

Attempt about this Finish could that. Supposed get the were.

a “make the most of whatever season it is,” guy, proud to be able to handle whatever winter dishes out. But I have now officially worn out my appreciation for the cold.

No, we don’t always (or often) get what we deserve – for good or for ill. We can only, must only, be grateful for what it is possible to be grateful for, and continue on in the face of those things which are beyond our gratitude. Sometimes those are things that need changing, and can be changed. The weather is usually not one of those things, although if the harsh and erratic winter we’ve had finally wakes enough of us up to the climatic disruption that we humans are inflicting on the earth and ourselves, perhaps it can be. But for the things we can’t change, and can only endure, we have the opposite of gratitude: lament, and perhaps commiseration with those who share the affliction.

So today I take a moment to lament the all-too-slow turning of the season. I load the NOAA webpage and shake my fist at the 7-day forecast. But only for a little bit. I, and you, have much more to do in the work of creation. And much more to be grateful for – the Second Brandenburg Concerto, and so much else besides.


In Faith,

Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

The Enemy Within – 3/30/2014

Some years ago, cartoonist Ruben Bolling published a piece entitled, “God’s Reelection Campaign.” God, for the purpose of this story is imagined as a white-haired, white-robed, white-bearded white man – that image that pops up again and again in religious art and secular art about religion, even though I have never met anyone who attests to believe in it literally. In the comic strip, God’s 12-billion year term is about to expire and according to his pamphlet, he needs your support in order to earn a second one.

As in most good political dramas, things quickly begin to look bad for the incumbent. Constituents begin showing up to his public appearances to heckle him about unanswered prayers. He starts to lose his base. One average Joe interviewed by a reporter covering the campaign opines, “Famine, disease, misery, disasters – I say throw the Bum out.” Worst of all his opponent – a successful car dealer ready to bring his private sector experience to the management of the cosmos – is feels free to make all sorts of wild promises. Waffles will grow on trees. The earth will take an hour off from experiencing gravity each day. And all humans will now come standard with a third arm for holding beverages and the like.

But the lowest point comes during one of the televised debates. Asked to clarify his policy vis-à-vis good and evil, God exclaims that “Evil is necessary in order for good to exist.” His opponent seizes the opening, declaring that things will be very different in his administration. “Evil! Gone! First 100 days!”[i] It is the theological equivalent of, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

The matter of good and evil – and particularly of evil – has long been a central concern in religion. Scholars and theologians and lots of other human beings, faced with a world in which terrible things happen, have inquired into the nature of evil – its causes and effects, and how and why it came to be an element of our existence at all. There are a number of different answers, many of which you have no doubt heard before – these things tend to repeat themselves. In our own tradition, among my Unitarian Universalist minister colleagues, the sermon on evil even has an archetypical form. Were I following that oft-repeated form, this is the point where I would decry the fact that evil is a subject our faith is too shy about and too reticent to engage with – a word we avoid, and at our peril. But I am not going to do that, because I think that old saw has worn rather dull, if it ever cut anything to begin with.

The fact is, our tradition has crucial things to say about evil. Some of it is direct, and some of it is by implication. So that if you feel at all confused or conflicted about the subject, you might start with what is good – something we like to talk about often, and understand well – and consider what its opposite points to. The impulse in human beings to try to do good: to practice kindness and compassion, to struggle for justice, to fashion themselves and the world into finer things; that motive can be summarized in many ways. I prefer the term popularized by the Unitarian Albert Schweitzer: reverence for life. It is that reverence contained in us, nurtured and expressed in a multiplicity of ways, that draws us to do good in the world: actions that hallow and consecrate living things and the generous mystery of life itself. The opposite of this, contempt for life, is the definition I would offer you for the inclination to do evil: whatever actions desecrate life, and those that live.

This conflict between reverence and contempt is hardly a unique idea. In Jewish philosophy, the terms are yetzer hara and yetzer hatov – the evil and the good inclinations. You have likely seen before the old cartoon convention for a character in a moral dilemma: a tiny angel perched on one shoulder, a tiny devil seated on the other. There’s something comforting in that idea, that those impulses – particularly the harmful, destructive one – lie outside of us somehow, separate from our true self. It may be telling then that this feature of western art and children’s cartoon shows is probably a corruption of the Islamic concept of the kiraman katibin. This Muslim tradition holds that two angels – Raqib and Atid – perch on the shoulder of every person, watching what they do and recording their actions. Raqib is on the right, writing down the good, while Atid sits on the left, noting the evil. This version makes it plain: our feelings and our choices belong to us, are a part of us, are entirely us. I am not simply a neutral judge or the balance point of a scale – I am everything that I do and have done, for well or for ill.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[ii] Evil is a part of who we are. It can be resisted, should be resisted, must be resisted if we and our world are to fulfill our promise, but that impulse is always with us. And it is perhaps for this reason that we are so fascinated by it. Myths and stories which meditate on and explore evil have long been popular, and they are particularly so just at the moment. The world of television has, in the last decade, become crowded with epics about characters slipping into – or gleefully living in – the realm of immorality. I want to touch on a few of these now in order to examine four of the most common arguments in favor of evil: the lines of reasoning that diminish our reverence and lead us towards acts of desecration.

The first is this: “It’s all in the game.” This is a quote from The Wire, a many-faceted window into the drug war in and around the city of Baltimore. The words are spoken by Omar Little, a stick-up artist who specializes in robbing drug merchants. As Omar testifies in court as a witness to a murder, he spars verbally with the defense attorney, a man who has made his name and fortune by aiding the drug kingpins of Baltimore in conducting their brutally violent business with as little interference from the law as possible. The attorney questions Omar and tells him, “You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off [of] violence and despair…You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite…”

And this is where Omar cuts him off, “Just like you, man. I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?” The idea that it’s all in the game is the idea that everyone else is up to something at least as bad as whatever you are doing. That some manner of injustice or wrong is simply the way things work, how life gets lived or business gets done. It is related to the concept for which the political theorist Hannah Arendt was known: the banality of evil. The condition under which things that are profoundly and obviously wrong become normal and commonplace. The necessary circumstances of any large-scale horror: the institution of slavery, the commission of genocide, or in this case a cycle of addiction, terrorization, and incarceration that corrodes and kills human beings, and rots away at communities. It is the argument for every evil, large and little, that we have become accustomed to, from any moment when we lie or cheat, expecting others to do the same, to the bloody and unseen cost of the gas in our cars and the food in our stomachs. Our tradition answers this attitude of disinterest with the imperative to examine our lives and our world carefully – to understand why things are the way they are, so we can attempt to change them. And it also reminds us that there is no particular sanctity in sameness. Doing what everyone else is doing is worthwhile if and only if the thing is right. Otherwise, it is our responsibility to be different.

In the more recent program, True Detective, two deeply flawed men grow progressively more and more broken as they work together to catch a serial killer. Partners Marty and Rust are a mismatched pair – one dangerously gifted at self-deception, the other possessed of an honesty that manifests as cruelty. One day, shaken by guilt from something he has just done, in a rare moment of clarity, Marty asks Rust, “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?”

To which Rust responds, “No, I don’t wonder Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.”  This idea, that the world needs bad men, that some evils are necessary to prevent greater ones, is pernicious. On the one hand it is almost unavoidable: relatively few people believe in a total absence of physical self-defense, for instance. Harming a person to stop them from doing immediate harm to us or someone else is generally accepted. But this same line of reasoning connects directly to something that Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association said two years ago: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”[iii] This is the philosophy that has left our society so saturated with powerfully deadly weapons that anyone bent on the wholesale destruction of human life seems able to find at least one. If the existence or even potential of evil can be used to justify yet more evil, then that traps us in a cycle which can never end. The escape route our tradition prescribes is to confront injustice creatively with love, rather than meeting hate with hate.

The third common justification for the wrong we do as a species is grounded in the way we understand power. Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian political protagonist of the program House of Cards, is obsessed with power, and practiced at its exploitation. He is a ruthless, manipulative, hollow-hearted figure and a strong contender for the most despicable main character in the last decade of television. At one point in the series, as he tosses aside one of the few people who might qualify as a friend, he remarks, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.” This is too often accepted as a truism: that power, by its nature, leads to wrong, and so the choosing of leaders and the choices made by those leaders are at best a search for a lesser evil. That mentality teaches the oppressed that oppression is a natural state of affairs and allows the great and mighty the reassurance that injustice is a product of the system alone, and cannot be blamed on their individual choices.

By expecting villainy from the powerful, by allowing it to feel normal, we promote it. The public image of our political leaders in Washington is so abysmal, what fresh shame could they ever possibly find beyond simply holding office? Tolerating the contempt of millions of people seems to be a prerequisite for the job. The handful of ultra-powerful financial institutions on which our system of commerce depends are similarly expected to plumb new depths of depravity. In 2012, prosecutors claimed that one major bank had such a cozy relationship with the drug traffickers who relied on it to launder money, that the cartels began using different boxes to transport their cash – ones better sized to the teller windows at that particular bank’s branches.[iv] In the comic strip that I described earlier, the God character wins reelection despite a miserable campaign because he is omnipotent, and so his opponent is afflicted with boils. Unitarian Universalism’s answer here is to interrogate the idea of power measured by unlimited control. True power need not corrupt we argue, and when it does, it is often because it was the wrong sort of power to begin with. Power is meant to be built between people, rather than imposed upon them.

The final argument towards evil that our tradition has a clear response to is an idea William Shakespeare pointed to when he wrote for his fallen hero MacBeth the lines, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.” It is the idea that once we get far enough down the wrong path, there is no way to change course. Walter White, the main character of the series Breaking Bad, exemplifies this. He sets out with an ambitious but limited plan to make and sell drugs in order to support his family after his impending death. Only days into it he finds himself needing the means to dispose of a body – things only grow more gruesome and terrible as he continues on down the same fractured road he initially chose. The phrase repeated in the series is, “No half measures.” Once a thing is begun, see it through, no matter the consequence.

The corrective to this that our faith offers is a vital version of that optimism for which we are sometimes derided by ourselves and others. Not ignorance or a willful misunderstanding of the facts, but to look into the reality of what is wrong with the world and still to have the courage to try to make it a better place. And in particular to refuse to call any moment “too late” to begin over again. This is the very essence of Universalism – that every person, in every moment, has the potential to do what is right, and so none of us can ever fully give up on each other, or ourselves.

In the face of a culture which perpetuates these messages excusing and justifying the evils built into its structures, and lurking in our own hearts, this is what our tradition teaches:

  1. In response to the attitude that “It’s all in the game,” we question the game itself, and seek to break – or change – whichever rules are destructive to life.
  2. In challenge to the claim that “The world needs bad men,” we struggle to meet hate with love, and ignorance with truth, no matter how uncertain and afraid that confrontation makes us.
  3. In contradiction of the idea that “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties,” we demand that power be mutual and relational, and arrived at by just means if it is ever to serve just ends.
  4. And in answer to the injunction, “No half measures,” we commit ourselves to choose anew, in each moment, the path that an unrelenting love and a tireless compassion would have us take.

These are the truths we come together into community to learn and to relearn with and from each other. These are the lessons which are up to us to carry out with us and to practice, so that the records of our lives shall be accounts more of good than of evil.

[i] Tom the Dancing Bug, 1995

[ii] The Gulag Archipelago, 1973



Of Hells and Handbaskets – 3/23/2014

Some of you have heard me speak before about the mythical town of Chelm – a city that exists in the folklore of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. In the village of Chelm, said to be situated somewhere in what is today Poland or Ukraine, everyone is a fool, and their stories impart wisdom by counter-example. Sort of like that comic strip from the children’s magazine Highlights – Goofus and Gallant – except, all Goofuses.

In one of these stories, Yankel, the town of Chelm’s Hebrew teacher, and his wife Reshka were trying to save money for a special occasion. Specifically, they were saving up for hamantaschen, special cookies for the holiday of Purim – which in reality was observed last Sunday, but in this story was still several months away. The two were very poor, but they decided that if they put aside just a bit of money each week, they would have enough. They found an old trunk with wheels on the bottom, and agreed that they would each put one coin into it every Friday.

And that is exactly what they did – for the first week. But when the second Friday came around, Yankel thought to himself, “I have just this one coin left in my pocket – why should I put it into the trunk? Let Reshka put in hers this week; that will be enough.” But Reshka, at the same time, was thinking much the same thing about Yankel, and so that week neither of them put anything into the trunk, each thinking that the other had made their contribution.

This went on for several months, until the day that Reshka and Yankel had agreed to open the trunk. Together they threw back the lid, expecting to find a pile of coins inside. Instead, there were just those first lonely two. Reshka looked a Yankel. Yankel looked at Reshka. Each knew the other had cheated, and their anger had to burn twice as bright to cover their shame. They began to argue, and then to shout, and then Reshka grabbed hold of Yankel’s beard, and Yankel took hold of Reshka’s wig. They pulled and struggled back and forth for a moment before toppling over together – right into the trunk.

The lid snapped shut with the two still wrestling inside. The trunk began to roll – it had wheels, remember – as their struggling jolted it across the room. Trapped together they slid out the door which was too simple and meager to have a threshold or any sort of step between the floor and the street. The trunk rolled out into the road and this is where it really began to pick up steam, because Yankel and Reshka lived near the top of a hill. Down, down it rolled, careening towards the center of town until the road flattened out and the trunk came to a stop – right in front of the synagogue. The street was crowded with people, who saw the trunk lurching back and forth with terrible noises coming from inside it, and knew at once that it must be haunted. When one brave soul finally ventured to open the lid, the townsfolk found Reshka and Yankel inside still quarreling with each other and arguing about the money they had not saved. Embarrassed by the incident and determined that nothing like it should ever happen again, the wise men of Chelm enacted three new laws: that no teacher of Hebrew should ever again be allowed to live on the same street as the synagogue; that all doors in the town henceforth should have thresholds; and that from that day, no trunk in Chelm should be permitted to have wheels.

Each year at our annual auction I offer one of my sermons for auction, with the winner getting to choose a topic, theme, text, or central question. Your next opportunity to bid on such an item is coming up in just a few weeks. This sermon is the one auctioned off in the spring of last year, and its winner was Ms. Carolyn Payne. When we sat down to discuss the sermon, Carolyn and I had a lovely conversation, rich and far-ranging, which left me with much to think about; but the particular topic of this service she left up to my own determination. Based on a moral puzzle that she had raised with me, I have arrived at this question: “What is it that we owe to one another?” What is our most basic obligation – not just to our families or our friends or to people we like, but to acquaintances and strangers, and to people we do not like?

The particular puzzle that prompts this question was outlined in our reading just a bit earlier. The first voice, in a song by Pete Seeger, invokes a quote attributed to the teacher Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…”[i] Seeger’s song is about the desperate need for the space necessary to be ourselves – what Virginia Woolf literally called, “A Room of One’s Own.” This basic need for autonomy and non-interference – that we all might be free, to know and to grow – extends to individuals as well and to communities and nations, as tempting as it might be to meddle in the affairs of our neighbors.

The second voice, in Robert Frost’s famous poem undermines that idea, or a too-cute version of it, in the same way that the frost and cold topple the rocks of the broken wall. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” Our lives are formed out of our connections to each other. The more we cut the world up into fragments and parcels, the less human we become. Our very beings require relationship in order to cultivate and express what it is to be alive, and at the same time, we need separation enough to develop our own difference, rather than have who we are dictated by someone else. This seeming contradiction applies at every level: in our closest relationships, and in our most distant ones. In the space between siblings and cities, neighbors and nation states.

I should pause to say something here about the title of this sermon. Ms. Carolyn is, as many of you know, a person with a gift for conversation and storytelling and a knack for finding just the right turn of phrase to express a thought or feeling. And one of the many I have heard her use before is that old saw, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It names quite well, I think, that feeling you get when everything seems a terrible mess and you are at a loss – at least temporarily – as to what can be done about it. The tension between our common interest in each others’ lives and the space we need to make mistakes – a mistake being any choice a person makes that you do not like or agree with – that tension can certainly produce this hell-in-a-handbasket feeling. I know that it has for me.

The exact origin of the phrase ‘to hell in a handbasket’ is uncertain, but it is clearly an American saying with a likely connection to an earlier Britishism. ‘Going to heaven in a wheelbarrow,’ used to be a euphemism for going to hell – the implication being that getting into heaven required hard work and effort, while heading in the other direction was as easy as pie. The demons of the abyss would be all-too happy to carry you there themselves, hence the image in some religious art of devils toting poor souls around in handcarts and wheelbarrows.

Now, I find a lot to reject in this metaphor. First of course, the premise of a place of ever-lasting torment where the damned spend eternity suffering for their earthly crimes. This is a theological mistake, an intentional misreading of scripture, and a slander against God so severe that it ought to offend you whether or not you believe in any God at all. It is a dangerous, soul-destroying lie which has been used to terrorize people for millennia – but this is just Universalism 101; you’ve heard me say all this before. One of my mentors talked about a lesson she received as a young preacher serving in the environs of Washington, D.C. She delivered a sermon that powerfully criticized then-president Ronald Reagan, taking him to task for the theological consequences of his policies, and calling him to account as sharply as if he were seated in the first row of her congregation. Afterwards, however, a wise elder pointed out that Reagan had not been there that morning. Had never been there before, and likely never would be. Best then, to focus your message on the people you have in front of you.

So here is my deeper interrogation of hells and handbaskets: it is far from the case that everything that is easy is evil, and everything that is difficult is good. It is possible to be kind and compassionate without over-thinking it, and at times to rescue someone’s day or even someone’s life through no great effort. At the same time, trying to do what is right will lead us into hard choices at some time or another. And denying the idea of hell as a literal place of future punishment does not discard it as a metaphor for the hells we make of life on earth.

All of these things – the challenge of being good, the conflict between individuality and connectedness, the question of what we owe to each other, and the seductive impulse to give up and let things just keep getting worse when it feels as though they are already headed there anyway – all of these elements are on display in a little French film of several decades ago called Madam Rosa. Ms. Carolyn – who among her many other qualities and interests is something of a Francophile – was good enough to point me in the direction of this movie, based on a novel by Romain Gary. The story is formed from the poor neighborhood of Belleville, in Paris, in a run-down apartment building populated by people living on the margins of the mid-20th century: among them gay men, religious and ethnic minorities, and sex-workers both trans and cis-gender. In one sixth-floor apartment lives Madam Rosa, a survivor of internment at Auschwitz, formerly a courtesan herself, now in her later years she acts as a freelance foster-mother for the children of other women whose business is sex. She takes pains to raise the children in her care, each of a variety of nationalities and religions, with some sense of their respective cultures and creeds. Among her charges is a pubescent boy named Muhammad.

As Madam Rosa’s health deteriorates and most of her wards are retrieved by their mothers, it becomes impossible to hide the fact that she no longer receives letters or money from Muhammad’s family. He tries to rescue her and contribute to the shrinking household budget, and she tries to teach him every lesson she has omitted or put off before her time runs out. All the while their fragile lives depend on their neighbors: the rich variety of people they are thrown together with by poverty and circumstance: the gangster who hires Madam Rosa to write letters home to father in Nigeria about the education he isn’t actually pursuing, the North African scholar who tutors Muhammad as his mind begins to fail, the transwoman from the lower floor whose silent generosity sustains them. Having once been deported, imprisoned, and almost murdered for being a Jew, Madam Rosa remarks at one point that she afterwards acquired forged papers to prove that she and her ancestors were not Jewish and never had been – in case there should ever come another knock at her door. Madam Rosa and Muhammad are both people whom their society never meant or expected to survive. That survival has required building up layers of secrecy, deceit, and doubt: the wig and heavy makeup she wears to an upscale café, the clumsy air of worldliness and maturity he tries to effect on the street. As Madam Rosa begins to die, she and her last adoptive son begin to tear down that wall enough to see each other over it. Being known and understood by others can be incredibly dangerous. It can also be a strategy for survival.

It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”[ii] Here he was quoting directly from Leviticus[iii], a reminder that there is much more to be found in that book than homophobic clobber passages and arcane formulas for a disestablished temple. All of humankind has always been neighbor to itself – we have only ever had this one world to share. But now in our era, we are packed in more tightly and bound together more thoroughly than at any earlier time in history. Like the residents of a tenement in some rundown quarter of Paris, we have always the freedom to pretend we are not neighbors to each other, but our fortunes are bound together just the same. Love is the standard, but for people on the other side of the world, or for folks next door, but beyond the boundaries of family or friendship or religious community, there must be some basic beginning point. That point, that most essential thing which we all owe to each other, is the truth.

I might hate how my sister drinks too much, how my coworker conducts himself at the office, how a stranger on the street treats their dog. But short of resorting to the law or some other authority, their choices are their choices, and not mine. I have a duty to intervene for anyone, in the most terrible scenarios: a little more for the people I love, a little less for the people I do not know at all. But truth is the universal obligation – it is the constant across all relationships. If your question is, “What can I do?” with regards to anyone else’s problems or choices, the first response is, “Have you tried telling the truth yet?” – do they know how you feel, what you’re thinking? Mark Twain’s advice is right, I believe. He said, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” This is not always the last step – it almost never is. But it is a beginning.

In the story we began with, Yankel and Reshka got no particular help or comfort from the slate of new laws that were passed in the wake of their very public embarrassment. But when their neighbors found out what they had been fighting about, they sent over a whole big basket of cookies. The truth was, they lived among people who cared about them. And sometimes the truth is best expressed in actions rather than words.



[i] John 14:2

[ii] Mark 12:31/Matthew 22:39/Luke: 10:27

[iii] Leviticus 19:18


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