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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


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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