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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


First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915


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