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A Pause from Cutting Christmas Trees

There once was a young man who was hired, just around this time of year, by a Christmas tree farm. It was his job to go out with the customers, to find the tree that they liked best, and to take his axe and cut the tree down so that the folks could take it home. It was hard work, but he liked it, and after his first day on the job, the owner of the farm complimented the young man on how well he was taking to the work. It seemed he was the best tree-chopper they’d ever had.

But that first day led to a second and a third, and soon it had been almost a whole week, and the young woodsman was losing ground. He was taking longer and longer to help each set of customers. A line started forming, and then began to back up. Folks coming to buy their Christmas trees could see what a wait there was, and soon they figured out they could head a little further down the road to the next farm of Spruce and Scots Pine. By the end of the day, the owner had all-but made up his mind to send the new hire home for good – things just didn’t seem to be working out with him.

“Son,” he said, “I’m sorry. You were my best worker when you started on Sunday, but it seems like every day since you’ve taken longer and longer to cut fewer and fewer trees. I’m gonna have to let you go.”

“Sir, I don’t know what it is. I show up early, I leave late. I work through lunch, I skip my breaks, but it seems like my chopping just gets worse and not better.”

The owner thought for a moment and asked, “How often have you been stopping to sharpen that axe of yours? Every five trees you cut? Every ten?”

The tree-cutter shook his head. “Oh no, sir. Like I said, I haven’t taken any time off from cutting these trees – not even to sharpen my axe.”

Intellectually, I suspect we all know what the tree-cutter in the story seems not to: that work without rest, or even the time to hone and look after our tools, only gets us farther from our goal, and not closer to it. But what we know in our minds isn’t always easy to practice with our lives. Which is why it’s so important, from time to time, to pause, and reflect, and look after the work of rest (and restoration) we may have neglected in our rush to get things done.

In a month, I’m going to be taking some time to do just that. First Parish follows the practice, common throughout Unitarian Universalism, of a ministerial sabbatical: a time for a minister to step away from the normal work of ministry, to renew and refresh, study and rest. In making that mutual commitment five and a half years ago – that the time would be offered and that I would take it when offered – we were making a values statement together. That part of any work worth doing is the rest that nurtures and sustains that work. It’s rare, in our culture, that we honor that truth. The opportunity of having a sabbatical is a privilege all-too-few people receive. I’m grateful for this time that the congregation is making it possible for me to take.

My sabbatical will begin in one month, on January 1st, and run through the end of April. During that time I’ll be reading, writing, traveling, and resting, and in particular spending more time with my family, whose love and support makes it possible for me to do the work I do. I will return twice in March for Sunday the 6th (the day we consecrate our financial pledges to support the congregation for another year), and Sunday the 27th (Easter Sunday). Other than that, you won’t see me again until May 1st. In my absence, the joyful work of being a church together will continue: the Music and Worship committee and I have arranged a variety of engaging and soulful worship experiences led by members of First Parish and some of my colleagues in the area. The Pastoral Care committee will be stepping up its work to help us care for one another, and we will also have an area minister on-call in case of a major trauma or crisis (more details on this will be included in January’s Chalice). For now, I look forward to celebrating the holiday season with you, and when I do leave for my time away, I expect that you all will continue to work and search and grow as the welcoming, creative, and committed congregation that I have come to know you to be over the last five and a half years.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

A Good Church Is Like A Great Bartender

For much of the history of our congregation, both on the Unitarian and the Universalist sides, both here in Beverly and in Salem, a Sunday’s sermon could be expected to follow a consistent format. Each began with a reading or readings from scripture – either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Testaments, or both. The sermon which followed was then expected to derive from and expound upon those passages. This remains the practice of worship in many Christian churches, and you can even find it still being upheld in a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregations. But here, as in most other UU churches, we no longer hold to that practice. This is because over the course of the last hundred years or so, our religious movement has come to realize that the Christian biblical canon does not have a monopoly on the profound revelation that shapes and informs human life. We have come to understand that the truth is bigger than that, and so our tradition has come to draw its wisdom and meaning from many different sources: from the holy writ and wisdom of all the disparate religions of humankind, from the insights and new understandings of science, and from the raw experiences of our own particular lives.

This morning, I am returning to that past practice of grounding my message for you in a single passage of scripture: but it comes from the scripture of common life itself. Each year, at our annual auction, I offer for bid the right to choose the topic of one sermon during the following church year. That item was won, this past winter, by Pam Perkins. She asked that I preach on a passage from her life and the life of our congregation: the story of how she came to be a part of this church. So we will begin with that story, and my lessons drawn from it will follow after.

Pam loved Mike, and he loved her, and they shared their lives and lived together for a good long while. And when he got sick, Pam took care of him. And when he died, she was left with the memory of him in her heart, and also with a great many problems. The house Mike inherited, which they had shared was badly in need of repair. It was full of stuff: not just the stuff that Mike had collected on his own, and the things that Pam had brought into the relationship, but all the accumulated material of Mike’s father’s unresolved estate. Mike had been his father’s executor, charged with seeing that his possessions were properly distributed to his heirs. But then Mike got so sick that he couldn’t finish that work, and then he died himself, with no further arrangements for his father’s estate, or for his own. Which left Pam, in the midst of her grief for the man that she loved, living in a house with no clear owner, full of things with no clear place to belong. That house, and Pam’s grief, wove together into a seemingly inescapable web of uncertainty, and burden, and fear. Standing still was impossible, but at the same time there seemed to be nowhere else to go.

Pam is an adaptable and creative person – but that was no protection against being completely and utterly overwhelmed by the depth and scope of her situation. And she had support: dear, caring friends who looked out for her and did what they could to see her through a very hard time. But, and this is something that Pam asked me to be clear about in telling her story, that wasn’t enough. She was at a moment in her life that she couldn’t overcome all on her own, and that even the most compassionate friends couldn’t tackle for her. She needed help, on a lot of fronts.

One of her most immediate needs was heat – winter was coming. She was able to get a little help with that cost from the folks at Beverly Bootstraps, and it was there that someone suggested she might be well-served by seeking out a spiritual community. And that person, whoever they were, suggested she try out the Unitarians. Which is why, in the late fall, Pam came into this sanctuary, and sat in a pew near the back, and cried through most of her first service here. But she found something in that service to be worth coming back for, and so she did. Pam told me recently that the worship hour on Sunday became her respite. Everywhere else in her life was chaos, and what felt like an inescapable situation. Coming to church gave her a sliver of time in which to put that all aside.

It was not long after she first started attending services hear that Pam found herself standing alone at coffee hour, crying softly and hoping that no one would notice. But someone did, and that someone was Ron Sweet. A long-time member of First Parish, Ron took it upon himself to walk up to an unhappy stranger and ask her what was wrong, and what she needed to help make it right again. “What I need right now is a lawyer,” Pam said, without holding out much hope that it would lead anywhere. But Ron knew that there were a few different lawyers at First Parish, and that’s what led him to introduce Pam to Julie Low.

When they met at Julie’s office, Pam tried to explain the broad strokes of a situation she didn’t even fully comprehend herself. More importantly she tried to make clear that she had virtually no money to her name, thinking that there was very little that anyone would be willing or able to do when she couldn’t possibly pay the fair cost for their work. But Julie offered to take Pam’s case anyway, and help her escape from the Russian nesting doll of trouble she was in. “Do you have one dollar?” she asked. “Then that will be my retainer.”

Eventually, with the two of the working hard at it together, Pam got out of the precarious limbo she’d been living in. And over the course of that grueling process, Pam gained some significant legal experience from working with Julie on her own situation. The two worked so well together, in fact, that Julie ultimately hired Pam to join her staff, where Pam reports that she particularly enjoys being able to speak from her own experience with clients from time to time. To say to people who have just buried a loved one or are facing that loss, that she has been in a place like theirs before – and that now she and Julie are there to help them.

There’s an old piece of tavern wisdom that says that a great bartender – if they really are great – ought to be able to help any customer find a job, a date, or a place to live. This makes sense because a bar is a place where people come to meet each other, where the bartender plays a matchmaking roll – not just in uniting the lovelorn, in helping to bring together people with complimentary ideas, abilities, interests or needs. And the bar and the congregation have always had more in common than teetotalling churchmen like myself would probably care to admit. Both places serve as gathering points for diverse groups of people. Both offer some sort of purpose or collective ambition to the folks they attract. And both, of course, are most renowned for distributing intoxicants: alcohol in one case, religion. You may already be familiar with the vast corpus of mystical poetry – particularly in Islam – which equates the experience of the Divine with being sloshed; sloshed in a very good, very holy way, you understand. And it is not just the mystics who draw comparisons between religion and the love of wine; in a rather famous attack on Unitarianism which once appeared in the Princeton Review of Books, its author wrote that, in our anti-orthodox rationalism, the Unitarians were, “Reeling and stumbling like drunken men, intoxicated by their own theories.”

For perhaps as long as they have existed, people have come to religious congregations seeking some help in meeting their own needs: for health, and safety, and companionship. My grandmother, after she was widowed at a relatively early age, found her second husband through the church they had in common. Pam, you came here because you had a lot more in the way of needs than you could hold on your own. And because two of the people who were already here did a really good job of caring about someone they’d never met before – Ron and Julie, I owe you both gold stars – because of them, and your own perseverance and work, those needs actually got met.

In the age-old rivalry between the bar and the congregation we are already losing in the music and refreshments categories. If you don’t believe me, please consider: how many contemporary congregations play some rock music in their services, at least from time to time. Alright, now: how many taverns have pipe organs? I submit then, that it is particularly important for us to maintain our natural edge in the arena of connection, which we enjoy because you’ll find a wider variety of ages here on Sunday morning than you will down the street on Saturday night – and also, the lighting is better.

Putting people who need each other together is a great part of what might be called the community virtue of a congregation. This value is a bit unpopular, just at the moment. I encounter a lot of concerned voices from my colleagues railing against ‘community’, in fact, as an idea they equate with comfort and complacency. The commodification of religion, encouraging us to focus on what church can do for us, instead of the higher, grander, more ambitious callings of religious living. But what I say to you is this: the care and cultivation of community can be the single greatest virtue of our congregation, if the scope and the depth of the way we understand community can be kept large enough. As a network of relationship that extends far beyond the limits of these walls, out past the present circle of our members.

In the 16th century, the Jewish mystical thinker and Rabbi Isaac Luria crafted a new layer to the story of the world’s creation in the book of Genesis. In Luria’s version, the radiance called into being by the phrase, “Let there be light,” arrived in the world in ten enormous vessels. But those vessels could not hold all of that primordial light through their travels, and they cracked. The force which was meant to form a perfect, flawless world instead became scattered throughout the new realm of being, creating the beautiful, but imperfect world that we know as our home. That Holy light became embedded in the world as sparks of the Divine essence; so that the great work of the world is to gather up these shattered fragments of the perfection that might once have been and to form them back together, repairing the world. Viewed through this lens, everything that it means to be a congregation of people dedicated to searching for truth, struggling for justice, and serving human need in the spirit of love, is really all just different manifestations of the same ideal.

To sign a petition, to go to a rally, to challenge injustice in the public square; to share the truth of who you are, to listen to another’s equal honesty, to pray; to host a homeless family in this sanctuary, to greet a stranger at coffee hour, to serve on a committee. All of these things and more can be a part of that effort to regather and recombine what is fragmented into new forms of wholeness. That project which is called in Hebrew tikkun olam – the repair of the world. The work of this church or any other can be this. But it only actually is this, when move along each of these means of repair at once: healing ourselves, healing each other, healing our world. Neglecting any of these three dimensions and the church is diminished into an activist cell, or a mutual aid society, or a therapy group. All of which are fine enough things, but they aren’t, by themselves, what a congregation is meant to be.

There is a sacred story from the Lakota nation, about a time when coyote decided he wished to live by himself, away from the other animals. When he set out on his own, rabbit followed him for a while, trying to chat, hopping out ahead of him and offering to scout the way forward for him. Coyote wanted to know what rabbit had seen up ahead, but he was stubborn, and refused to speak; so rabbit turned back and left him alone. That night, as coyote made camp by himself, he lit a fire, and danced, and played the flute and drum, but he found he could not remember how to sing. The next day he came to the place where moose lived, and moose greeted him, offering to show him a safe, easy path through. But coyote was still stubborn and certain he was better off alone, so moose left him to himself. That night coyote made a fire and danced again, but he could not remember how to play his flute and drum.

After that evening, coyote met some birds, who chirped and sang and wanted to talk to him all day and night. But coyote barked and snapped at them until they flew off and left him alone. That night coyote made his fire, but he could not remember how to dance anymore. So coyote became afraid, then, that if he spent another day alone, he would not even be able to remember how to build a fire anymore. That night, White Buffalo Calf Woman, who is the great prophetess of the Lakota religion, spoke to coyote in a dream. She reminded him that his songs, and his music, and his dance, and even his knowledge of how to build a fire, all depended on things he had learned from others. When he shut them out of his heart, he lost the things that they had taught him. His only way to regain the things that made him himself, was to return to living among those who were different than him.

We become who we are, and grow into who we can be, by our connections to each other. We gather together in community because we are stronger in acting together, because we are wiser in reading the signs of the times together, because we can get and give the help that we need together, but first and foremost because we can only be ourselves – our truest, deepest, and finest selves – by being together. Pam, I am grateful for your giving me permission to share your story this morning. My friends, if you take nothing else from it, I hope you will hear this: in this bar, where the wine we serve is the intoxicating spirit of love and justice and wholeness and truth, we are all of us patrons and bartenders at once. We need to be connected to each other to realize the fullness of the sparks within our souls. So it is up to each of us, in each moment, and every exchange, to search for the new arrangement which will bring more light into the world.

When the Crisis is Over, the Hard Work Begins

In the late 70s, one of the odder episodes of the Cold War unfolded when a very large hot air balloon – the biggest ever to fly in Europe up to that point – crash-landed on the Western side of what was then the border between East and West Germany. Here’s how that came be: Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel lived in East Germany (a dictatorship with an infamously repressive secret police force), and felt that they would rather live in the West. But between them and their preferred home stood the apparatus of a repressive state, and more specifically, the vast fortified border it guarded zealously to keep its citizenry trapped in their own country.

So Peter and Guenter devised a plan: they would built their own hot air balloon, and use it to sail through the air, over the border. Everything about that plan was illegal of course, so they had to gather materials and do all their work in secret. It would have to be a very large balloon in order to carry both of them and their families. The first material they tried wasn’t tightly woven enough to hold the air in. So they tried again. They found a new source of stronger cloth and built a flyable balloon…which crashed on their first attempt at a crossing, still in East Germany. Finally, after driving all over the country to buy yet more strong fabric in units small enough for the authorities not to notice, the two men completed their second fully functional balloon.

This one was large enough to carry all eight of its prospective passengers, and seemed up to dangerous task ahead. But then the amateur balloon pilots managed to set the balloon itself on fire very shortly after taking off. The folks dangling below it in a basket then had a choice: give up a second time and try to make a third balloon, or press on at the best possible speed and hope that they might make it into West German territory before their burning craft forced them to the ground. Desperate now, and already sensing that the East German authorities were closing in, they chose the latter course. The two families managed to make it across the border.

It’s a thrilling story of creativity and daring – enough so that it was actually made into a film with John Hurt and Beau Bridges. But I tell it to you now to highlight what came after. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families made new lives in West Germany (and after the Berlin Wall came down, they mostly moved back home to the former East). But these two families who had been through so much together – who had struggled and suffered and endured so much danger and adversity – had a falling out soon after their escape. They began to argue publically over who had played the larger and more crucial role in their ingenious balloon construction, competing for public attention. Their great adventure had a sad epilogue.

It’s one of our great capacities as human beings that a crisis or a dramatic challenge can bring us together, and bring out some of the best in our generosity and creativity. But most of the work of living takes place between such times of intensity. It takes a different kind of effort to sustain goodwill, and openheartedness, in the passing of daily life. In your own household, family, or work environment, perhaps you can see some example of this at work.

Here in our shared spiritual community, we have just recently combined two congregations into one. An urgency, a flurry of effort, and the tackling large challenges now gives way to the long-term work of dwelling together in peace, seeking the truth in love, and helping each other. I am proud of what we have accomplished so far, and optimistic for the future we are moving towards together. Let us be mindful of how this work is changing for us, and seek to remain as open to one another as we were when this process first began.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Boldness and Blackberries

The story goes that during the Austerlitz campaign, the French forces under Napoleon sought to capture a crucial bridge over the Danube River, then being defended by the opposing Austrians. The bridge was well-fortified, and had been set with explosives so that it could be destroyed if there was ever any threat of capture. With no hope of seizing the bridge by force alone, the commander of the French troops settled on an alternate strategy.

A small contingent of high-ranking French officers approached the bridge under a flag of truce. They claimed – falsely – to have come at the request of the Austrians’ own commander, to discuss the finer, local points of an armistice between their two nations. This bought them time as the confused Austrians sent word to their general that his “guests” had arrived. Meanwhile, the French officers were left largely to their own devices behind the Austrian lines, where they made a concerted effort to distract the artillery corps from the careful, creeping advance of their own soldiers towards the bridge.

When one attentive Austrian spotted the approaching enemy and lit a fuse to demolish the bridge the Napoleonic officer Marshal Jean Lannes struck the man and began shouting in French at how the damnable fool was endangering the – non-existent – armistice. Full of false anger, he demanded of the Austrian commander – who had, by then, arrived – that the bridge be surrendered at once and the Austrian encampment withdrawn; all in the interest of peace, of course. His gambit worked: the French took control of the disputed bridge without firing a shot.

There are many possible lessons to draw from this story – about trust and deception, and how the ideal of peace can be manipulated in the cause of war. But perhaps its simplest message is to underline the ancient Latin proverb: Fortuna Audaces Iuvat – “Fortune favors the bold.” The similar motto employed by Great Britain’s elite Special Air Service is even more decisive: “Who Dares Wins”. Read one way, that is, of course, easily disproven: not all who dare, win. Courage alone cannot guarantee success. But seems undeniably true that who wins dares: no challenge has ever been met and overcome without the will to take some risk in proportion to it.

This summer, I spent a pleasant morning picking blackberries with my children, niece, and nephew, near their grandmother’s house. It was already late in the season, and the bushes certainly been visited many times by many other people. But there were still a great many sweet, dark berries to be found there – enough for two whole pies, with plenty left over. They just had to be sought: in amongst the thorns, and the spiders’ webs, where previous hands had been afraid to reach.

Somewhere in your life, and mine, there is a berry we’ve seen but haven’t collected yet; a bridge we’ve yet to capture. It might be small or large; something dramatic or one little step in a much longer sequence of change. It is waiting there: a minor itch or a major wound, the unmet challenge persists. The great German author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – who was such an influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson and others of our Transcendentalist ancestors – penned this advice: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” So let us take the challenge now and in the month ahead, you and I, to be bold.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Walking the Line

So much depends on the lines found on maps. The side on which we make our home determines the schools and social services we have access to. The side on which we are born determines our citizenship (for now, at least). The side on which we live and make our lives determines so much about how we speak, how we think, and who we are. One of my favorite, small examples of this is a map that distinguishes areas of the United States by the most common word used for carbonated sugar water (most often Soda, Pop, or Coke). You can view the map here. One of the reasons I find this particular set of borders so fascinating is that my hometown – Rochester, NY – happens to fall right on the line between Soda and Pop. Which may be why I use the two terms interchangeably.

There’s a story from the early days of Islam, about a group of Muslims who fled to what is now Ethiopia, seeking asylum after being persecuted at home. The authorities from their native land came to retrieve them, and the matter came before the king of that place, who was a Christian. The pursuers made their case that the king should not concern himself with these heretics, because they followed a different religion than he. But after talking with the fugitives and discussing their faith, the king drew a line in the sand and declared, “The difference between you and me is no thicker than this line.” The Muslims would be given sanctuary.  This is the other way of seeing the lines on the maps, whether physical, ideological, or spiritual: so thin and imaginary that they should show us how close together we truly are.

The lines we use to divide our spaces and ourselves, matter. They have a profound ability to shape lives, and to harm them. But they are also fragile things. They cannot truly obstruct the fundamental interconnectedness of all people any more than a line drawn in the sand makes the dust on one side any different from the other.

This year, we will be walking some lines together. The border of neighborliness between the First Parish Church in Beverly and the First Universalist Society of Salem has come down. We are all one congregation now, and must figure out what that means together. At the same time, the crises and possibilities of our particular moment in time, seem to be crying out for a greater and more common maturity about the ways in which we are different, and the ways in which we remain the same. For this reason I have chosen as our worship theme for this church year, “Privilege & Oppression: In Our World and In Our Selves.” Together as a learning and worshipping community, we’ll explore the structures and patterns in our society and in our own hearts that can turn the blessing of difference into the evil of iniquity.

And in at least one other important boundary we’ll be navigating together, I will be going on sabbatical beginning in January and ending in April of 2016 (returning for a few weeks around the middle point). This means crossing over into unexplored territory; I’ve never had a sabbatical before. And this congregation has been through the same process with other ministers, but never before have all of us, in the unique configuration of this moment in the life of our community, met this same challenge and opportunity. There is a newness before us now. It is uncertain, because no great change is ever possible in the overriding presence of certainty. It is a pathway – a line – which I look forward to walking with you in the months ahead.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Lost, Inspired, or Both?

You may have already heard of Saroo Brierly. I few years ago his story made the rounds as one of those human interest stories that circulates on social media. There was a book; there may yet be a movie forthcoming. Here’s the gist, if you missed it or need a refresher:

Saroo, originally named Sheru, was born in India. His family was poor enough that he and his brothers began begging in the local train station as a strategy to survive. One day, Sheru became separated from his older brother and ended up on the wrong train. He found his way to an entirely different part of the country where he knew no one, and the dialect of Hindi he spoke had little use in communication. He was five.

Against long and dangerous odds, Sheru managed to survive on his own for weeks and eventually found his way to a police station. The authorities weren’t able to piece together exactly where Sheru was from, based on what he could tell them – India is a large country with a great many people, and not all five year-olds can give the full, proper name of their hometown. He was declared a lost child, and put up for adoption. He was eventually adopted by an Australian family, and after joining their family he learned English, and lost his Hindi. The prospect of ever finding his original home and family again faded further and further away.

But decades later, as an adult, Sheru – now, Saroo – began searching for a needle in the haystack of India’s many villages and railways. With only dim recollections of a few landmarks to go on, Saroo relied on internet image searches and satellite maps to narrow down the range of possibilities, and eventually retrace the route of the train that had taken him so far from home. He settled onto one city – out of the more than 1,600 cities and towns in India – that he felt could be the right one. Saroo returned to India, to that city, Khandwa, and began to ask around. With the help of local residents, and some pictures he had of himself as a child, he found his way back to his mother – 25 years from when they had seen each other last.

Tonight, as part of a meeting of minister’s I’m attending in Portland, OR before our association of congregations’ General Assembly, our song leader gave us instructions that ran something like this: “I’m going to separate you into two parts, and if you get inspired – or lost – you can start a third.” (That song leader was Matt Meyer, whom many of you met when he led an awesome service at First Parish several months ago.) The difference between being lost and being inspired is often very thin, and sometimes no difference at all. The course of finding ourselves over again can be wondrous and painful – an arduous struggle and a fruitful experience of possibility. The summer is a time when many of us go wandering – literally or figuratively. And while, of course, I do not wish that any of you should become so lost as Saroo Brierly did, I do wish for you as much tenacity and ingenuity, and creative skill to survive, as allowed him to find his way home again.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Back to the Garden – 6/21/2015

Forty-five years ago, Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust/Billion year old carbon/We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” Those lines come from a song about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and the back-to-nature ambitions of the counterculture of the 1960s, but the garden we have to get ourselves back to is, of course, a reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Yesterday, while walking around Arts Fest, I happened to overhear a conversation in which a person only ten or so years my junior had to have it explained to them what an Atari system was, and its place in the annals of video game history. It was a reminder that what may be a cultural touch-stone for me might not carry the same weight for you. So I know that many of you have heard the story of Eden before but we live in an era when assuming biblical literacy is a losing proposition even for my more orthodox colleagues. When one is preaching to Unitarian Universalists, it’s always best to tell the story anew.

Eden is the second creation story in the Book of Genesis – there are two, remember – and in this one life begins in a place of verdant abundance, where there is no struggle, or death, or change. In Eden, humanity is formed out of the dust of the earth, and this is one of many ancient stories, from countless cultures, in which humankind has its origin in the land or soil. This is one of the many points on which the poetry and metaphor of scripture harmonize with the material observations of science: human beings are built of the same stuff as dirt. Your bodies, mine, and the soil that we walk on are each largely made up of carbon; we just happen to be particularly complicated arrangements of that element. But from that complexity, what beauty, what wonder is possible in the richly varied family of “sitting-up mud,” as Kurt Vonnegut called us all.

There is so much that is awesome, irreducible, and irreplaceable in even a single life. So when a life ends, however it ends, it is a profound loss. There were nine such lives lost this week that are on my heart this morning, as I know they are on many of yours. Their names are Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, DePayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda, and Myra – nine black people murdered by a white man who sought them out because of his hatred towards people with their color of skin. The story of their deaths, awful as it was to hear, comes also with a sickly-familiar quality. Too, too, too many times in the last year has come the news of black lives being ended by racial hatred – or merely casual contempt. And the fact that this crime of terrorist hate was accomplished with a handgun only redoubles the despondent sense of normalcy in this entire affair.

In the story of Eden, the first human beings are expelled from the garden and its life of perfect ease. A judgement is pronounced against humanity: food and the stuff of life will no longer come freely to us; rather, we will have to toil and labor to grow crops, and make bread. So the hope of a return to Eden – which was millennia old before Joni Mitchell got to it – has often been a yearning for a return to ease and a freedom from the struggles of life. Fatigued and demoralized by heartbreak, there is always a temptation to turn away. But it is only some of us who, by dint of our social station or the hue of our skin, have the privilege to actually do this. To close the browser tab and open up Netflix or Candy Crush. To drown out the thought of how catastrophically ill our society is with work, or chores, or the innumerable other things that our terminally-busy lives demand of us. To distract ourselves from the pain of the world.

But if the color of my skin allows me to turn away from the suffering of others, the faith of my heart does not. No matter where I point my eyes, no matter how high I turn up the volume on anything other than the news, my religion will not let me ignore that the people who died in Charleston this week were products of the same planet as me, expressions of the same element as me, children of the same God as me. The metaphors are myriad; the truth is the same. Whenever there is temptation in our lives to disconnect from what is hard but real, it is our faith – our understanding of whatever meaning and value underlies the world as we perceive it – that can call us back into connection.

My interfaith colleague Pastor Viola Morris-Buchanan of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lynn, composed a ritual of lament in response to this week’s tragedy, to share with other people of faith determined to respond to it. She closed the ritual with these words:

“The struggle continues!  We stand against those who breed hate, ignorance, and violence; we work with those who preach truth and fight for gun control and public safety.  We are relentless in the struggle against racism, political and economic disenfranchisement.  We will not SLOW UP or BACK UP; we won’t GIVE UP or LET UP, until we are PRAYED UP and PREPARED UP, and have TAUGHT UP and ORGANIZED UP, for the cause of justice.”

The biblical Eden is spoken of as a place free of challenge or work. But I believe the gardeners among us can attest that this does not describe a contemporary garden at all. A garden is not naturally lush; its flowers and vegetables do not all spring up like clockwork, season to season, without any human effort or care. A garden is a place where hard-working and determined people may struggle against the forces of entropy and inertia in order to help foster miracles into being. And in that sense, friends, the garden is all around us.

Eric Garner, one of the other names on that too-long list of black lives lost in the past year, has been remembered for his final words: “I can’t breathe.” The gardener and author Ross Gay wrote this about Eric and his life a short while ago:

A Small Needful Fact

 

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.[i]

The hatred which resides in the human heart is real, and as we have seen this week, it can do terrible things. Just as real are the structures and patterns and systems of hate, contempt, indifference, and greed: the forces within and among us which produce privilege and oppression. Which provide the means, again and again, to turn rage and fear into atrocity. It is up to us, as some of the many tenders of the garden we share as a species, to confront, undermine, and uproot these systems.

That means conducting a fearless and searching moral inventory of the racism and prejudice that lurk perniciously in our own hearts – to root out what we find there and to continue that work throughout our lives. It means joining together as a congregation to support each other in that internal work as we also partner with other people of good will to call out for justice and transformation in the public square. And it means cultivating the courage to confront the biases and ideas that undergird the racism baked into our society wherever we may encounter it: to interrupt the conversation and not let the stray comment, humorless joke, or other micro-aggression go unanswered. If all of this sounds hard, that’s because it is, and ought to be. From a garden full of flowers, to a single human life, to a reordering of the way we relate to each other as a society – almost anything of great beauty has a great deal of effort somewhere behind it. It is that effort, in fact, which gives such beauty its deep meaning.

 

 

[i] Ross Gay is a gardener and teacher living in Bloomington, Indiana. His book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is available from University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Split This Rock Poem of the Week, http://blogthisrock.blogspot.com/2015/04/poem-of-week-ross-gay.html

Peace, Not Quiet – 6/7/2015

Dona nobis pacem – the phrase you’ve already heard sung this morning and will hear again momentarily – is a bit of Latin common enough that many of you probably already know its meaning: Grant us peace. As an element of the Latin Mass of the Catholic Church, this three word prayer has been spoken and sung by uncountable voices over long centuries. Peace is a popular cause, after all, and a theme to which the voices of religion often return.

For instance, in the Psalms we are counseled to, “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”[i] The teacher Jesus is famously said to have proclaimed, “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called the children of God.”[ii] And in the Qur’an it is said of those who serve al-Rahman – a name for the divine which means “the Most Merciful” – that they, “walk upon the earth modestly, and when the ignorant address them harshly, they answer: Peace.”[iii]

The yearning for peace is a theme that runs deep throughout the human family, and the voices of rage, hate, greed, or cynicism – all that find pleasure or profit in war – need constant answering and countering. Yet, the prayers and proclamations of peace and its goodness and necessity can also serve to stifle dissent and paper-over discontent. They can become a means to hush the afflicted, out of the fear that the noises of their suffering might disturb the comfortable. This problem poses the greatest danger where it is absorbed and internalized, so that the voice of a false, flawed peace comes from within, rather than without. Consider, for example, that despite the premise of equality, too many women in our society still come of age trained not to be their own best advocates, or to take up the full physical and social space their personhood ought to afford them.

There is a bit of gallows humor sometimes told among Jewish people to highlight and struggle against the way that marginalized groups can become focused on an idolatrous peace to their own great detriment. The story goes that three men were led before a firing squad, to be executed. The first was given a blindfold, and accepted it. The second did the same. But the third declined the offer, wishing to face his end with open eyes. So the second leaned over to the third and said sharply: “Don’t make trouble!”

This attitude which prioritizes peace by demoting justice really only winds up offending both ideals entirely. For the one thing can never exist without the other: there is no wholeness, no right-order to the world where violence persists, whether that violence be the overt form of armed conflict, or the more subtle type of poverty, oppression, or alienation. The great writer, orator, and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass said that,

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”[iv]

We must draw a line between what is truly peace, and what is only really a matter of quiet: that it is righteous not to harm another person does not make it a sin to confront those who are harming you, or your neighbor. This distinction can be a hard one to live with, sometimes, because there is a lot that is attractive in the realm of quiet. I say this for myself especially, as someone whose inner Hobbit is very strong. Hobbits, you may or may not know, are the imaginary creation of JRR Tolkien, who made them the sorts of folk who love good food and comfortable living quarters. Hobbits place a high premium on being not-too-hot and not-too-cold, and on the simple pleasures of music, good books, and the company of friends. But just as Tolkien’s two most famous hobbits – Bilbo and Frodo Baggins – came to appreciate, there are things in life more important than the comfort of the easy and familiar. As the poet Annie Dillard wrote,

“There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”[v]

Dillard’s final connection there, between Cain – a biblical figure of destruction – and Lazarus – a biblical figure of rebirth – is telling. The rebirth and renewal of the world and everything in it depends upon the destruction of what is to make way for what might be. This does not mean that all destruction is somehow good, only that there is such a thing as a positive destruction: the sort undertaken with imagination and destruction. A creative upending of the way things are. A holy ruckus. Without such a force in our lives and the world, we would only have stagnation.

During Augusto Pinoche’s military dictatorship in Chile, the regime justified itself as keeper of the national peace – even though its thorough militarization and constant suppression of dissent made this the sort of peace that pollutes the term. The cost of confronting the state was enormous as whole families were disappeared. But one tactic that the Chilean people found for lodging their protests at Pinoche’s government was a practice still common throughout Latin American called Cacerolazo. The term shares its origin with the English word casserole, by the way. And it refers to a motley street protest where the marchers make as much noise as they possibly can by singing and banging on kitchen pots and other such things. Such protests could be started and stopped very quickly, and they had a very low bar for joining in with, leading to their becoming a popular strategy. Even after the regime made it illegal to sing in public in the nation of Chile, the Cacerolazos continued until Pinoche’s government finally fell.

Sometimes the only way to work for peace is to disturb the peace. Sometimes we need to cast aside our preference for the ease and comfort of social quiet, in order to make way for a vital and necessary disruption. What peace demands of us is not our silence or inaction, but our creativity and hard work, our pots and pans, our prayers and our songs.

[i] Psalm 34:14

[ii] Matthew 5:9

[iii] Qur’an 25:63

[iv] West India Emancipation speech (1857).

[v] From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A Long Summer to Ripen

“It takes years to marry two hearts, even the most loving and well assorted…Such a large and sweet fruit is marriage that it needs a long summer to ripen, and then a long winter to mellow and season it.”

–Theodore Parker

I often read this quote from our Transcendentalist ancestor Theodore Parker during the weddings I officiate. I like it well enough even not to be dissuaded from using it in a season when the prospect of a long winter is about the last thing anyone wants to think about. I share this quote with brides and grooms as a reminder to the people getting married that a wedding is a moment in time, but a marriage is an ongoing process. A marriage can be – should be – a vital, powerful, nurturing force in the lives of the people who share it, but it is always a journey more than a destination.

Last week, the members of First Parish voted resoundingly to say “yes” to a merger with our nearest neighbors, the First Universalist Society in Salem. So the wedding is now accomplished. Or perhaps, we might more rightly call it the engagement? All metaphors break down under enough scrutiny. There will be a ceremony to mark this coming together with suitable celebration at the beginning of our next congregational year, in the fall.

What lies before us is the rich, challenging, and wondrous work of marriage. We are not strangers to each other: we’ve worshipped together many times in the last several months and we’ve shared meals and conversations. Now our two institutions – two memberships, two histories, two sets of practices and senses of spiritual purpose – are becoming one. This partnership came about in part because we found ourselves so well-matched and similar to each other – in our values, our common beliefs, and in the rituals and symbols we most treasure – but that does not mean we are the same. Together, we are going to build a new community, one which has continuity with its past. We will also holds a larger and more varied company than either of our churches held before, with a larger vision and sense of mission to match.

All of this is to say that we have begun something greatly important here. We could not have reached this point without the hard work, thought, and energy of so many people in both congregations. I want to be sure to credit Patti Welch and Danielle Povey (board chairs of First Universalist and First Parish, respectively) for their tireless efforts to inform and mobilize the memberships of both institutions. And in the months, and, indeed, years ahead, we’re going to be building on and from this moment. The call from the world’s great beauty and deep need gives us no shortage of worthy work in Beverly, in Salem, on the North Shore, and inside each relationship and each heart that our community touches. As the seasons ripen and season us, may we find that we are stronger together than we could ever be apart.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Choosing to Fall – 5/31/2015

Earlier this year, an essay appeared in the New York Times by the author Mandy Len Catron. It’s title was, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This.” The piece was about a psychological study from the 1990s in which a team of researchers had designed a protocol – a set of exercises built around a list of 36 questions – in an attempt to see if they could engineer romantic love between two strangers. The two participants should be at least marginally viable romantic prospects for each other – each should be attracted to members of the others’ gender, for instance – and so long as this threshold is met, they sit facing each other and take turns asking and responding to each of the 36 questions.

These questions begin with interesting but minor personal details and progress to extremely intimate thoughts and feelings of the person answering: including what they think about the person. The exercise closes with the participants staring into each others’ eyes for four full minutes. Apparently, the study produced at least one happy couple: the two former strangers went on to get married, even inviting the folks who ran the study that introduced them to each other to their wedding. And Mandy Len Catron, the author of the New York Times piece, explained that she had begun her current romantic partnership by reenacting the study together with an acquaintance whom she had since come to love. The study and its protocol raise an intriguing question: when we fall in love, how much of it is something that just happens, and how much is something we choose?

Several years ago, I had my first real car accident. As these things go, it was a very minor event; I fishtailed while making a turn on a slick road and slid off into a ditch. I was driving alone, and no one else and no other cars were involved. I wasn’t hurt at all, and even my car was still drivable afterwards. Really, if I was going to have a car accident, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer one.

Nonetheless, it was still a car accident. Once I came to a full stop, I checked myself out and made sure I wasn’t hurt or sore anywhere. I got out of the car, inspected the damage, and confirmed that I couldn’t get back on the road without some help. I called for a tow truck, and called my family and the other folks I needed to call, to let them know what had happened, and that I was alright. I did all of that with calm and careful focus, but once all of those tasks were finished, I was left standing there, by the side of the road, with nothing but the morning mist and my own adrenaline for company.

Looking for something to focus on, I dug around in my bag and found a small, thin paperback book. It was a collection of poems by Hafiz, the 14th century Persian mystic. The book was a gift from a friend; it had been given to me just a few weeks earlier. What a fortuitous gift it was! How grateful I was, in that moment, to find something that I could focus my nervous energy on. To have something to do while my mind resettled and returned from a state of emergency to a state of rest. We almost never know how important, how valuable, how meaningful a gift will be, until long after it has been given, and received. On that damp morning, by the side of the road, I was very glad to have received the gift of the words of Hafiz.

Most of Hafiz’ work was composed on the fly, recited or sung to his friends and companions during or after meals or times of worship. Here is one of those poems:

How

Did the rose

Ever open its heart

And give to this world

All its

Beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light

Against its

Being,

Otherwise,

We all remain

Too

Frightened.[i]

The title of that piece is, It Felt Love. That encouragement of light which caused the rose to open was love itself to the flower. As Hafiz seems to say, the experience of love is a necessary factor for any of us to share our beauty with the world. Without it, we would never have the courage to move beyond our own fears.

This morning’s message is the final of three sermons considering the three great virtues put forward by Paul in the Greek Testament’s first letter to the Corinthians: faith, hope, and love. Love, according to Paul, is the greatest of these three, and it is also our subject this morning. In the film, Moulin Rouge, the main character is supposed to be a gifted poet, and this is symbolized to the audience by the fact that all of his verses are taken from 20th century pop songs. In one exchange with his hardened and cynical romantic interest, he testifies to her that, “Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.” The word love has been repeated so many times, heaped with so much hollow praise, as to nearly lose all meaning. After all of the romantic comedies, and greeting cards, and jewelry advertisements, what meaning can possibly be left?

In the maze of language, particularly in the thick fog of undifferentiated information that surrounds us, all day and every day here in modern America, we can sometimes get turned around. It is possible, frighteningly easy, in fact, to lose touch with what matters. When that happens, stories about what is meaningful in life, often the very simplest sorts of stories, can help to ground us and remind us of our own core truths. So here is a story about chickens.

In northern California there’s farm of sorts. It has barns and pens and pastures, and there are a whole lot of animals – cows, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and others. They all live there, but the farm doesn’t generate anything for humans to eat. Those animals aren’t for sale or for consumption; they have been rescued from factory farms and other abusive living situations and brought to this particular place of safety called Animal Place, a farm sanctuary.

Some years ago, at Animal Place, they had a hen come in whose body had been pretty badly damaged by her life up to that point. She could only move slowly and she was missing most of her beak. They named her Mary. Soon after she arrived she began to bond with one of the other chickens who already lived there, a rooster named Notorious Boy. They would walk in the yard together, peck for food together, and even slept right next to each other at night, outside the coup, away from the other chickens. One day, there was a sudden, heavy rain. Most of the chickens were in their coup, but Mary and Notorious Boy were not, so their tender went out to help get them out of the rain. She found the two standing on top of a picnic table, huddled together. Notorious Boy had his wing out over Mary’s head, and he was shielding her from the worst of the rain.

Remember that these are two chickens that we are talking about here, and then take a second. Think about the people in your life that you would be willing to stand in the rain to protect. Think about the people who would be willing to stand in the rain to watch over you. That’s love. It might not be everything that love is, or all that it can be, but it is love. This world is not always easy, it is not always fun, it is not always good, and love is the thing that holds people together to care for one another and to face the world despite its difficulties and failings.

The author of the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs wrote,

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

Like the seal upon your hand.

For love is fierce as death,

Devotion is unyielding as the grave;

It burns like a blazing fire,

Like a mighty flame.

Vast floods cannot quench love,

Nor rivers drown it.

If a person offered all their wealth for love,

They would be laughed to scorn.[ii]

Love is fierce as death, and its devotion as unyielding as the grave not because it ignores or supersedes our mortal state, but because it drives us to act despite the truth that we will die. Love gives meaning enough to the lives we lead that we will risk failure, risk loss, risk death, to fulfill the demands of the heart.

Love unites people. It breaks down the barriers between “I” and “you”, and helps to form a “we”. Particularly in our ever-more individualistic and isolating culture, love is the most dynamic force there is; the one most likely to change the way in which people live and relate to one another. Yet love, even religious love, perhaps especially religious love, has a reputation as a passive and meek emotion. There’s another famous passage in the Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth, that exemplifies this:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

          In the nearly two thousand years since those words were written, there has always been some voice or another from among the powerful using them to counsel the powerless. ‘Be patient with me, even when you are starving, and I have plenty to eat.’ ‘Be kind to me, even when you are suffering, and I am your suffering’s cause.’ ‘Do not be irritable or resentful, even when you are not free, and I have taken your freedom from you.’ In this way, the practice of love has been bent to serve the purpose of division rather than connection, to build one-sided relationships to the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. But listen to some of those words again. Love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.” It, “hopes all things, endures all things.” It is not a practice of love to ignore what is wrong or unjust, or to accept it without speaking the truth and working to change the way things are. It demands receptivity, and a willingness to change, but not passivity or docility.

The first letter to the Corinthians, like the rest of the Christian Testament, was written in Greek, for a largely Greek-speaking audience, and although the Greek language had several words related to love, the holy texts of Christianity only use a few of them. There is agape, divine or perfect love, which applies to all beings equally, and is marked in particular by boundless charity and forgiveness. There is also philia, virtuous love based on loyalty to friends, family and community. But the Greek scriptures leave out two types of love more closely connected to the body: eros, passionate love, including sexual attraction but also the appreciation of beauty, and storge, which is natural, instinctual affection, such as the bond between a parent and a child. Each of these has a potential to form the basis of a healthy, life-giving connection, and each also has the potential to be followed in a harmful direction. It should be obvious that eros can be perverted to cause terrible harm; sex can be a crucial dimension of some profoundly loving relationships but it also frequently serves as a basis for exploitation and objectification. Philia – loyalty to those we know and love – can counsel us to care for, look out for, and respect one another and it can also narrow our moral vision to focus only on those in our immediate circle, to the detriment of everyone else. Storge, love born of natural instinct, may actually be the most essential of these: for how could human life endure without the instinctual love between parent and child? But we do not need to look far into the lives of the families we know to see that storge does not manifest evenly: from person to person, or from moment to moment. Even the noble ideal of limitless, universal love – agape – has potential problems. Over simplified and taken to an extreme, it can lead to a ‘loving’ acceptance of the status quo; a refusal to judge or confront even when that is actually what love and the situation demand.

It is a contradiction inherent it seems to the way we human beings love, that this impulse which can drive us to give of ourselves until nothing is left can also make us incredibly selfish: yearning for a particular love which is reserved only for us. In his poem, September 1, 1939, the poet W.H. Auden wrote, in part:

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.[iii]

We must love one another or die. Our exact feelings, moment to moment, are not exactly in our control. But we can choose how we train ourselves, who we focus our time, energy, and attention on. We can practice love even when that is not the strongest emotion in our hearts. Acting out of love, or falling in love, is not simply a matter of will, but there is still a matter of choice. We can choose to fall if we seek, again and again, to connect with the other person. If this is possible, we should be very careful who we seek to fall in love with romantically. But in terms of who we should develop our sense of philia and agape toward? We must love one another: it is what the world, and each of us in it, needs.

[i] From the collection of Hafiz’ poetry, The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

[ii] Song of Songs 8:6-7

[iii] From September 1, 1939, by W.H. Auden

The Place We Are Born and the Place Where We Die – 5/10/2015

I stood beside the open curtain, and prayed. Six feet away, the doctors and nurses did their work. They called out instructions and fragments of information to each other in a code I’d gotten used to but never fully mastered. Tonight’s patient was yet another name I didn’t, know yet another face I’d barely seen: glimpsed from a bad angle as the EMTs wheeled him in. During the initial flurry of loud activity, my role was to be quiet and still – to provide a calm point in the emergency room, and to wait for the moment when perhaps I could do something more.

When I used to work as a hospital chaplain, I spent many nights sleeping lightly in my shirt and tie, with a pager next to my ear to make sure it would wake me. On this particular night when the alarm went off, the screen let me know: car accident. Two adults incoming. Driver and passenger. The patient in the trauma bay now was that passenger. The driver, his girlfriend, had already been cleared through to be x-rayed. In a little more time the man was pronounced stable. The cloud of medics dispersed. He lay on his back, unable to move because of the backboard, waiting to be transferred to a bed upstairs. Now was my chance to actually meet the stranger I’d been praying for, to see if there was anything he might need from a chaplain.

His head, again, was fixed in place, so I leaned over him to look into his eyes. I got his name off of his chart and called him by it – we’ll call him David, this morning. “Hello, David,” I said. “I know you’ve just been through a lot.”

He looked at me deeply, but didn’t say anything. Could he talk? I wasn’t sure.

“I want to let you know that I’ve been praying for you, that I’m here if you need me.”

He moved his lips. At first I thought he was struggling to communicate, but then he spoke very clearly. “Alright…thank you.”

“The woman who was with you is in good hands.”

“…I’m glad to hear that.”

“My name is Kelly, and I’m the chaplain this evening.”

One more long, hard look, and then a smile, and then David proved to be a very chatty guy. We talked for another five minutes: he wasn’t in much pain. He was worried about his girlfriend, but he trusted the doctors to do what they needed to do. And then, after a lull in the conversation, he admitted to me. “You know, the first time I saw you – long-haired guy, looking down at me, with that big light behind your head – I thought maybe the accident was worse than I’d thought.”

For the record, this was all before I even had a beard. While this may seem like a misunderstanding particular to my appearance, and perhaps some poor choices of phrasing on my part, really, this incident falls neatly into a pattern that has little to do with me or with David. Instead, it has everything to do with hospitals in general, and the ways in which people commonly react to the necessity of visiting them.

This year I’ve been preaching once a month or so on common sorts of spaces that make up our lives and world, and what some of their spiritual implications are. Today I’m considering the hospital, which for most modern people ends up being both the place we are born and the place where we die. In between, I believe the majority of us would prefer to stay as far away from the place as possible. In the year I spent as a chaplain, I logged far less time in the hospital than those of you who’ve made your life’s work in the medical field, but still a whole lot more time than most people ever want to spend in such a place. Here, then, are my observations about hospitals in general:

In a good hospital – and they tend to be mostly good, because bad ones get closed or reformed rather quickly – the staff are dedicated to healing people. And doing the work of healing people, in such large numbers and with so many different diseases and conditions and problems, means being prepared for a lot of strange eventualities: things that most people in the outside world would be troubled by. For instance: I didn’t see this myself, but I’ve heard of more than one disturbing sign in an operating room, the most eyebrow-raising of which is, “Emergency Procedure: Fighting Fire on the Surgical Patient.” Fire doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you want to have to face on top of undergoing surgery – voluntarily allowing another person to cut into your body in one way or another because the alternative is somehow worse. It sounds like an unfavorable addition to the calculus of risk vs. reward: “Not only is someone going to slice into my flesh, but now there’s the prospect of my bursting into flames as well?”

But just so that I don’t compound any medical fears you may already have, let me explain why having an emergency procedure for when a patient catches fire during surgery is important. Surgery isn’t just about cutting – in fact it’s as much or more about closing wounds in a safe and careful way. So some of the tools surgeons use put off a lot of heat – they can be used to stop bleeding, or clear diseased tissue. And any time you have something very hot and some other thing capable of burning – such as the gown a patient might be wearing – there is a very small, but still real possibility that the one could light the other on fire. For the average patient, seeing that sign and losing sleep over it is a little bit like seeing the instructions in event of a water landing on an airplane and worrying about that. It’s a very remote possibility, but it’s one you would want the people taking care of you to be prepared for, if it came to pass. By sheer force of volume and its role as a place where people go when they are experiencing some of the most desperate and vulnerable times of their lives, hospitals see a lot of strange things happen within their walls, and anticipating and preparing for some of that strangeness is a big part of what hospitals exist to do.

Slightly related to this is the seeming contradiction between illness and treatment. Modern medicine has a vast and powerful array of tools at its disposal, and the things that can be accomplished in a hospital, particularly the largest and most cutting-edge, are mind-boggling. One family I met when I worked as a chaplain came all the way from Texas because their daughter had been born blind, and there was a doctor at our hospital who had a surgical procedure that could likely allow her eyes to see. There were only two surgeons in the world currently specialized in this particular surgery, the parents explained to me, and the other one was in Germany. Their little girl got to see her mother and father because of that treatment – that’s amazing. And like most approaches through surgery or pharmaceuticals, the treatment required doing something that is normally a terrible idea – like cutting into a human body, or swallowing or injecting something that could kill you if you took too much of it – but in just the right balance so that it solves or mitigates a problem, rather than creating a whole new one. Part of the way that a hospital heals – often how it does some of its most important and amazing work – is by exposing the patient to a carefully managed and measured form of danger. Florence Nightingale, who came from a Unitarian family and was a Universalist herself, said that “The very first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm.” In fact, to be effective, much of the time a visit to the hospital does a little bit of harm, in order to create a large amount of healing.

The final quality I would highlight about the hospital is that it always has more than one story going on in it at once. This should seem obvious: even the very smallest hospital usually sees dozens of patients at a time. But it can’t really be understated how broad the gap between these stories can be. At any given time, someone is dying, and someone is giving birth. Families and relationships are coming unraveled under the strain of illness – and often its terrible expense. At the same time, other families are being reunited and drawn back into relationship due to the catalyst of a health crisis. Sometimes the same sort of crisis faced by two different patients might help to heal one family while it tore another one apart. I once watched two men both wait for a heart transplant over a matter of months. For one, it brought him much closer together with his wife. For the other, it reached a point between him, his father, and his sister where none of the three would speak to each other directly, and everything had to go through the mother.

In the daily course of our lives, the hospital is a place where a few of us work, and a few more perhaps have to visit regularly, and or most of the rest of us it’s simply a place we do our best to avoid. But these four qualities of the hospital: its preparation for the unusual, its combination of healing and harm, and its multiplicity of – all of these things apply to religious congregations as well, our own most definitely included. In fact, the current pope described the church as a field hospital after battle, with a duty to address the most serious conditions afflicting those who come to it first, rather than being distracted by its own less pressing concerns.

Strange and unexpected challenges and opportunities arise in congregational life – if nothing else, this prospect now before us of merger with the First Universalist Society of Salem is a fine example of something unlooked for and unanticipated, but which we have nearly finished navigating together, nonetheless. Our congregation seeks to be a place of spiritual healing, but contrary to some of the things we may assume, or even say from time to time, it is not meant to be perfectly safe. Instead, our community strives to contain the dangers of risk and challenge in the right proportions to make its necessary healing possible. Again, like a hospital, a congregation is always made up of many different stories – no matter how caught up a group of religious folks may seem to be in a single issue, or project, there’s always someone in their midst who has something entirely different going on. This is something it’s particularly important to remember as we work together: the person who’s slow to commit to or volunteer for the thing we’re most excited about may still have a lot to offer in some different area.

I heard a story this week about a recent protest in Washington, D.C. Nearly six thousand nurses took to the streets to agitate for a small tax on stock and bond transactions. Rough 50% of the money made in the stock market goes to the wealthiest 1% of the population, and the poorest 50% of our nation see only one tenth of 1% of those profits. So it was a campaign that was – and still is – about raising revenue from the very rich, to help the poor and the marginalized. And on this particular day in Washington, it was nurses who were taking the issue to the streets. The organizer who was there that day talked to some of the nurses in the crowd and asked them: what was it about being a nurse that made this issue so important to them. One woman, who’d come all the way to D.C. from Tanuton explained: every day that she goes to work, she sees the toll that economic hardship takes on the lives of people. How the stress of trying to survive, and the fear of the cost of medical care, isolates them, and frequently literally makes them sicker when they are already unwell, or simply makes it harder for them to get better. The way this particular nurse saw it, she it was her job to help people get better – changing the tax code was just one more way of trying to do that.

This is the final parallel, I think, between the hospital and the congregation. Being part of a spiritual community means learning about the struggles and the hardships of the people around you. We pledge ourselves, each week, to help one another. That can mean a kind word, or casserole when somebody needs it, and it can also mean working to change the world, so that it becomes an easier place for all of us to live in.

I’ll close with another small story, from a different night in the ER. It was a really busy, really hard shift. We had two car accidents, a shooting, and a stroke. After a torrent of urgent activity, we’d reached a lull. The trauma bay was almost empty: all of the doctors, most of the nurses, and even the techs had each left in turn to take this patient or that patient to the OR, or to a scan. Alone with my thoughts for a moment, I was trying to collect myself. As I said earlier, part of my job was to maintain a still, calm point in the chaos. But on nights when I couldn’t do that – when the frenetic urgency of so many people balanced between life and death was too much – I still felt a responsibility to at least appear to be that still point. So I was doing my best to look like I wasn’t completely frazzled and trying to recover from the last wave of crisis, when the only other person in the large room – the chief trauma nurse – did something she’d never done before: she spoke to me.

“Say there chaplain: are you praying for everybody right now?”

I was dazed, and afraid that she was calling me out for just how dazed I must have looked. “Yes,” I said, doing my best not to make it a lie.

“Well can you walk and pray at the same time?”

It seemed like an odd question, but it was so comforting to be faced with what I thought was a safely intellectual question about spiritual practice. “Of course,” I said.

“Good. I can’t leave if I’m the only nurse in here, so I need you to take this blood sample down the hall.”

So that’s what I did. Because in the hospital, people do what needs doing – not always what they expected to do when they got out of bed that morning, but whatever the profound need that is their daily calling requires that they do. So it is also in our congregation: we come together not always to do what is obvious or expected, but first and last, to do what the great urgency in our world and in our hearts makes necessary.

Praying for a Dream – 5/3/2015

Many stories are told of the Baal Shem Tov, the great mystical Rabbi who lived three centuries ago in Poland and Ukraine. One of these is actually a story about Reb Yaakov, one of the wise teacher’s followers, whose duty it was, after his master’s death, to travel the countryside retelling the stories of the great rabbi. Truthfully, it was not a labor he would have wished for: the work kept him perpetually poor, and lonely. But it was what the teacher had asked of him before he died, and so he honored his wishes. For many years Reb Yaakov wandered, fulfilling his storytelling mission, until he heard of a very wealthy man who had sworn he would pay a gold coin to anyone who could tell him a tale of the Baal Shem Tov.[i]

Reb Yaakov sought and found the home of this man, and was welcomed in as an honored guest. The host insisted on giving a banquet in his honor, and when those in attendance had had their fill for the evening, he invited Reb Yaakov to tell them a story. He rose to do so…but said nothing. He suddenly found that he could not remember even a single story, or the beginning of a story. He had spent many years of his life travelling and studying and sharing adventures with the Baal Shem Tov, but now it all seemed to have gone out of his head. Embarrassed and confused, he made his apologies and the festivities continued on. After the meal he offered to leave the rich man’s home, but the man insisted that he stay. The next day, another fine meal was served to a full table of guests, and the same strange disappointment occurred. All that night and into the next day, he could find no peace or ease in his predicament: living like a rich man, in the company of fascinating people, and yet failing, night after night, in the purpose that had brought him to that place.

Finally, Reb Yaakov could stand it no longer – he fled from the house of the rich man without any further excuse or explanation. He felt himself a fraud: unable to carry out the mission entrusted to him by his teacher. But then, once he was out of sight of the rich man’s home, it came to him: a story. Not, a whole story – for some reason he couldn’t say how it ended – but most of one. It would have to be enough. He repeated it over and over to himself as he raced back to the rich man’s home. Bursting through the front-door he exclaimed: “I have a story to tell you!” The owner of the house looked even happier to hear this than Reb Yaakov was to say it.

***

I promised, for this morning, a sermon about hope, which sounds like a simple-enough thing. The topic lends itself quite readily to a certain paint-by-numbers approach. Hope is a popular commodity, generally a crowd-pleasing offering, and for understandable reasons. Andre Gide, the French author and Nobel Laureate, said, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” But given the two weeks since I last stood before you, with a deadly earthquake in Nepal, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and the murder of Freddie Gray and the protests that have followed, a florid paen to the power of hope seems ill-fitting. I suppose that the same would be true after any two weeks in human history.

Let’s talk about Baltimore, then, for it’s on my mind, as I know it’s on many of yours. It’s a pattern that feels corrosively familiar at this point. A black man – or boy – killed in the course of police action. Outrage and grief pours out into the street in the local community and in sympathetic ones all over the country. For the shortest moment, there is the pretense of a national conversation about race and policing, and then immediately it is derailed by an unwinnable argument about the character of the deceased. The story shrinks down to the fine details about the person whose family is burying him and the officer or officers involved in his death. Any every excuse is used to avoid a real interrogation of the system of justice, the structure of power, the pattern of behavior across too many cities and towns and far, far too many years that led to the loss of this particular life and so many others that just didn’t manage to make the cable news. Again and again, our nation’s media and political class do their best not to listen to the deep anger and the real grievances that move people out into the street in a moment like this. No wonder that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called a riot “the language of the unheard.”

This week saw what some have called the worst riots in Baltimore since Dr. King’s assassination. The common televised images between them are of National Guard troops locking down city streets, young protesters throwing rocks at police with billy clubs, and public figures urging peace and labeling anyone not sitting at home a thug. To underline the theme of history repeating itself – or rather, of human beings repeating history – the cover of Time Magazine this week has an image from one of the protests with the year 1968 crossed out and 2015 written in.

***

This is the unfinished story of the Baal Shem Tov that Reb Yaakov told to the rich man. “I journeyed with my master to a distant land, and met a few of the Jews who lived there as a hated and oppressed minority. Each year, there was a great festival of the national religion, at which it was the custom to find and kill a Jew. The Baal Shem Tov sent me to speak to their high priest, and to bring him to a meeting. The first time that I approached the high priest, a man who thought nothing of having people like me killed, by some miracle he spoke my language and did not harm me. But he said he would not come to speak with my master. So I returned, and was sent back, and received the same answer, and was sent back, and on my third attempt, the high priest agreed to the audience. He and my master spoke in private for many hours. What they said, I do not know, and so I cannot finish the story.”

“Ah, but I can finish it for you, Reb Yaakov,” the rich man said with another smile. “For I was that high priest.”

Just as Reb Yaakov’s story was incomplete, the narrative of aimless and opportunistic violence that grew up around Baltimore this week is also sadly lacking in key details. It wasn’t the whole story, not even half of it. For a glimpse of the rest of the story, I want to share some words from my colleague, David Carl Olson, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. Some of you may already have heard them from his posting on Facebook. From his witness on the streets of his city, he writes:

To see the 300 Men March walking in their organized fashion and shaking hands, calling for peace, encouraging boys and young men–this was Baltimore. Watching Baptist Churches hold services on the street corners, seeing Methodists chatting one to one with every person they could find, walking with robed Catholics who know the poor of their parish–this was Baltimore. Witnessing the gangs, in their colors, claiming their territory and encouraging youngsters to obey the curfew, because they care for each other, and don’t want the police to have any excuse to make additional frivolous arrests–this was Baltimore.

Seeing the Drum and PomPom Squad marching perhaps 60-70 strong, with a core of drummers and dozens of teenagers–mostly Black, all fabulous, including many young men who identify as gay and can strut in their teal spangled body suits and shake their pom poms with the rest of them–and have the crowd cheer, show their love, shout their pride–this was Baltimore.

***

So, the rich man explained to Reb Yaakov, “Once, I was a Jew. But when I travelled to that distant country I found the people hated Jews there, and so I changed my religion, and became one of them. By speaking ill of my own people, I grew in popularity, until they made me a priest. One day, I had the idea for a new festival at which one Jew each year would be sacrificed. For my hateful ingenuity, they made me high priest.

“Many years later, I had a dream. I lay on a table, as still as a corpse, parched and dry almost unto death, and my ancestors stood all around me. Together they pronounced their judgement: “Is it not clear that the evil has completely overcome the good in this soul?” But there was one figure there who was no ancestor of mine. He touched a finger to me, and where he touched me, I became less brittle and dry.

“Is it not clear,” he said, “that there is still hope left for this soul?”

“When you came to find me, I sensed that I should follow you, but I held back. When you led me to your master, I knew that it was true: the figure from my dream had been the Baal Shem Tov. I asked him, “What must I do to be forgiven?”

“Your sin is very great,” he said. “There is no guarantee that you can ever be made whole again. But if it is to happen, you must devote your life to lending aid and showing kindness to others. Take all that you have and go far from here, and build yourself a house where you will offer food and shelter and clothing to any who need it. Perhaps then, your prayers will be heard.”

“But how will I know if they are, Rabbi?”

“You will know that your prayers have been heard,” the rich man repeated the words like a blessing, “on the day that someone tells you your own story.”

***

The high priest had no guarantee that he would ever be forgiven. It may be that he reformed himself and devoted the remainder of his life to others in a purely calculating way, just on the chance that he might achieve redemption by this means. But if that were the case, I submit that he could never have earned such mercy by such hollow virtue. Instead, I believe the hope for his soul that the Baal Shem Tov spoke of was not the dim hope of his cosmic forgiveness, but the fact that the impulse to do good and not evil – though weak and atrophied and beaten-down – still remained within him.

Right now, and for a long, long time, the structure of power in our society and the systems by which it sustains itself, have slept a fitful but complacent sleep. This past week, in Baltimore, could serve the same sort of purpose as the high priest’s dream: an indictment, but also an opening to profound and necessary transformation. Tear gas and hurled stones are the condemnation of the ancestors, but a community standing together to call out with creativity and compassion for justice, can serve as touch of the holy teacher.

Let me say this plain: there is no guarantee that this is the turning point we so terribly need as a nation. There is no guarantee that this is the last repetition of the cycle of death, and protest, and clucking of tongues and shaking of heads. The lesson of history is not that things always get better, and even if it were: life is lived in the present, never the future or the past. Hope, if we are to have it, has to be made here and now, where we live.

The Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel said that,

“Hope…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”[ii]

The sense that everything will eventually turn out alright is sometimes held up as the key message of both Christianity and Judaism. This seems a strange way of looking at things when you consider some of the most important stories of these same faiths. The story of the resurrection is celebrated each Easter, but at least as integral to the story of the Gospels is the hard truth that when a prophet appears with a message of love, and peace, and renewal, sometimes an empire will kill him for it. Every year in every synagogue the Torah is read with its central story of the Exodus, the liberation from Egypt. And even though the Hebrew slaves go free every time that story is told, it is always only after terrible suffering and crisis and the death of blameless children. We cannot forget that hings as bad or worse than anything in any story, still happen upon this earth.

In her famous poem written for the Presidential inauguration in 1993, Maya Angelou looked back to history to point out honestly just how wrong, just how legitimately hopeless conditions can be. Speaking as the continent, she says,

You, who gave me my first name, you

Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of

Other seekers–desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.

 

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot …

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought

Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare

Praying for a dream. (…)

 

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, and if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.[iii]

We are all of us shaped by the history which preceded us. The history of our species, of our nation, of our cities and families, the history of ourselves. There is a voice of guilt and resignation and despair which wends its way through the human heart and whispers, “All of this has happened before. Who are you to think that it will turn out any different?” The only escape from the hamster wheel of precedent – and it is not a guarantee, but it is a possibility – is confronting the past, rather than passively and quietly allowing it to continue into the future.

Benjamin Franklin, under his pseudonym, Poor Richard, wrote that, “he that lives upon hope will die fasting.”[iv] But just before that he also wrote, “We may make these times better if we bestir ourselves.” These are the two ways to think of hope: as a paralytic, or as a catalyst. As the sense that everything will work out, somehow, so we can free ourselves from the work or the worry of everything that is wrong. Or, as the bone-deep belief that what we do, here and now, matters. That, the love we share, that the risks we take that, that the work we do, that the justice we make; that all of these things have value. That they’re worth doing, no matter the outcome. Whether or not our prayers are answered. Whether or not we win. Across the country and here in our community, there are a great many things to be done. You’re going to hear more in the coming months about action for racial justice here on the North Shore and opportunities to get involved through the Essex County Community Organization. I put it to us each as individuals and as a congregation, to get to work; not out of guilt or resignation, but out of a fiery sense of the meaning and value of the work itself. That is, out of hope.

 

 

[i] This version of the tale is adapted from storyteller Doug Lipman’s own adaptation, found here.

[ii] Vaclav Havel in “The Politics of Hope,” printed in Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala

[iii] Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning

[iv] Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth

Being Iconic To Each Other

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I spent most of my days visiting patients and their families – that’s the job, after all. Still, rare is the job that is just one thing: even if the focus of my work was on spending time with the sick, the troubled, and the bereaved, accompanying them and helping them to process and make meaning of their experiences, that was never the whole of my day. There were meetings to attend, organizational and educational projects to participate in, and there were also forms to fill out. The chaplaincy department I worked in began experimenting with an electronic system for recording patient visits while I was there. You would log a visit by entering details about the time and the number of people involved, and checking off various boxes for common chaplain functions:

Prayed with patient (Yes/No)

Discussed concerns about health and mortality (Yes/No)

Listened to patient’s faith story (Yes/No)

Etc.

One of these check boxes read, “Provided iconic/symbolic value.” It was one that I checked only infrequently. But when I did mark it off for a visit, it was because I sensed that the person or persons I was with got some specific meaning out of being visited by a chaplain. Often, there was some ‘priestly’ role that my being there seemed to satisfy for the patient: they wanted to say something to, to hear something from, or just to be in the presence of someone with a spiritual vocation (and, generally, with perceived spiritual authority). It didn’t seem to matter much to most people I met in the course of that job that I was a chaplain, but for the people it did matter to, it really mattered.

Chaplain or minister or any sort of religious leader is an office with a lot of symbolic associations; it can be iconic of a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But, in truth, this is not so unusual. We constantly search, consciously or unconsciously, for symbolic meaning in the world and the people around us. It’s one of the things we’re particularly good at as human beings. This person reminds us of an old boyfriend; that person brings to mind a hated teacher from middle school. The boss who plays the mentor – or the adversary; the neighbor who plays the role of the neighborhood organizer – or oddball. Not everyone we meet finds some iconic meaning in their relationship or experience of us, but, at the same time, it’s impossible to know when it’s happening most of the time, and we can be sure that it is happening some of the time.

In the Eastern Orthodox church, an icon is a particularly beautiful and carefully made image of a saint or other religious figure. The painting is used for devotion: it holds before the worshipper the ideals and lessons of the person depicted. To slip (by accident, and perhaps unaware) into an iconic role with another person is no small thing, then. It can happen anywhere: on the street, in our homes, and even here at church. It can be found in the act of a greeting, or exchanging some deep question at coffee hour, or offering help or asking for it. There are moments when we summon up a lesson or ideal for another person. We can’t fully anticipate this – I’m not even sure we can prepare for it very well – but we can try to be mindful of the possibility and take special care because of it. The meaning in each of our lives is always there. Now and then, because we are lucky enough to be alive, someone catches special sight of a fragment of it or we do the same for them.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

The Gas Station of the Mind – 4/12/2015

One summer, a ten-year-old boy was sent by his family to spend a few weeks with his aunt, who lived in a town several hours away. On the first day of his visit, she took her nephew downtown to show him the sights: the stores and the shops, a park, a local museum, and the town library. Now, according to a survey conducted in 2008, there are 9,221 public libraries in the United States. However, these are not distributed evenly across the country. There are 370 in Massachusetts, for instance, but only 24 in Maryland. I tell you this to help you understand how it was possible, then, for a child to see the inside of a library for the first time at ten years of age.

It was an unfamiliar destination, and at first the boy wasn’t sure what to make of it all. Then he saw long, wide counter with a friendly-looking adult behind it, and he knew at once what a place like this was for. “Can we get something here?” he asked his aunt. She nodded, and so her nephew walked right up and greeted the librarian with confidence – and volume. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. “This sure is a fancy place you got here.”

“Young man,” the librarian said, kindly but firm, “I’m glad you like it here, but we use our quiet voices in the library. Quiet, please.”

“Oh,” said the boy, “I’m sorry.” He was almost whispering now. He leaned on the counter and got up on his toes, so he could get closer to the librarian on the other side and make sure she heard his request clearly. “I’d like a cheeseburger and fries, please.”

This year, I’ve been speaking on the spiritual implications of the spaces where we live and work and play. Today our place is the library: the storehouse of knowledge, the meeting place between people and ideas, and – in many towns and cities – the only place where a person can come in off of the street and use the bathroom without being expected to spend money.

For as long as human beings have been writing things down, we’ve had need of a place to store those writings. In Egyptian mythology, the god Thoth was thought of as the scribe of the gods, recording everything choice and event in the course of every person’s life. But it was his wife, Seshat, who was said to have invented writing itself, and she had the job of keeping track of the vast library created by her husband’s record-keeping. The library of Ashurbanipal, in what is now Iraq, is one of the oldest libraries ever recovered by modern archeologists. It dates back more than 26 centuries, and contains somewhere around 30,000 clay tablets. Legend says that when Alexander the Great conquered the city where the library was located, he was inspired to build one which would be even more grand.

Alexander died before he could see his vision accomplished, but the project was completed in his honor by one of his generals: the library of Alexandria, back in Egypt. That monument to the recorded word built a reputation powerful enough to last into modern times, but the strategy of the Ptolemy dynasty who built and expanded it was more aggressive than what we usually associate with libraries. It began when Ptolemy I coerced an older, better established library to loan him their collection: he had copies made of the books, sent those back, and kept the originals. For many years it was the law in the city of Alexandria to search the contents of any ships passing through the port: any books aboard were confiscated, and added to the library’s collection. The library at Alexandria eventually grew so vast that it was actually destroyed more than once: first in a fire set by Julius Caesar, next in an assault by the Roman Emperor Aurelian three-hundred years later, and finally wiped out on the orders of the Christian Patriarch Theophilus.

Libraries, you see, are frightfully popular targets in time of war. The House of Wisdom, a massive library built by the Abbasid Caliphate, was the center of learning in the Muslim world for hundreds of years. When the Mongol general Hulagu conquered the city of Baghdad 800 years ago, he had the House of Wisdom itself set ablaze, and dumped so many of its books into the Tigris river that it is said its waters ran black with ink. Such destruction was, and still is, a powerful way of destroying not just technical knowledge and scientific insight, but also cultural wisdom and a society’s sense of beauty and wonder. By attacking a library, one can attack an entire civilization.

Particularly before the era of mass-printing, building a library meant gathering a large number of extremely rare and valuable objects – i.e., books – and putting them all in one place where many different people could make use of them. It was a frequently dangerous risk which Victor Hugo described thusly, “A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn.”

In the year 258, the Roman Emperor Valerian executed the Christian Patriarch of Rome and demanded that all the wealth and treasures of the local Christian community be handed over to him. At the time, the Archdeacon Lawrence was responsible for this collection of relics, valuable ritual objects, and books. He did his best to circumvent the emperor’s persecution by giving as much as he could away to the poor before he could be arrested. For this reason, Lawrence is considered the patron saint of librarians.

Lawrence’s is hardly the only example of the loyalty shown by librarians to the volumes in their charge. At the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq and for 14 years before it, Alia Muhammad Baker was the chief librarian of the city of Basra’s Central Library. In the weeks before the war, the library building was commandeered by Sadam Hussein’s regime: government officials and military officers took up residence in some of its offices, and an anti-aircraft gun was installed on the roof. Alia petitioned to have the books moved somewhere else, out of harm’s way, but they were actually part of the government’s strategy: the expectation was that US and British forces would hesitate at destroying so many precious books, allowing the gun on the roof to remain firing longer.

So Alia took matters – and books – into her own hands. She managed to smuggle about 70% of the library’s collection into a sequence of hiding places. By the time the library itself was burned, several days after the invasion, Alia had books on grammar, science, religious history, and all manner of other subjects filling her house. To make room for as many books as possible, she even packed them into the frames of her windows, costing her her view but providing a place to a few hundred more volumes. After the new government began to function and the library was rebuilt, all those books went back on the shelves, and Alia went back to being the chief librarian.

In 1976, the author Kurt Vonnegut spoke at the dedication of a new library at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. He described the act of writing as a form of “socially fruitful” meditation, with “hot and prickly” mantras like, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, and the Red Badge of Courage. Near the close of his remarks, Vonnegut offered these words:

It would surely be shapely on an occasion like this if something holy were said. Unfortunately, the speaker you have hired is a Unitarian. I know almost nothing about holy things.

The language is holy to me, which again shows how little I know about holiness.

Literature is holy to me, which again shows how little I know about holiness.

Our freedom to say or write whatever we please in this country is holy to me. It is a rare privilege not only on this planet, but throughout the universe, I suspect. And I is not something somebody gave us. It is a thing we give to ourselves.

Meditation is holy to me, for I believe that all the secrets of existence and nonexistence are somewhere in our heads– or in other people’s heads.

And I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of mediation anyone has so far found.

By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.

This to me is a miracle.

The motto of the noble library is the motto of all meditators throughout all time: ‘Quiet, please.’[i]

Buildings dedicated to the storage of books have an extremely ancient lineage, but the modern public library – freely accessible to all – is a rather new idea. In this country it’s not even two-hundred years old yet: the first public library in the US was established in Peterborough, NH in 1833. Prior to this, libraries were the personal province of monarchs or the very rich, or of students studying at major universities. They were also available to the somewhat-less-rich as a sort of club or subscription service: ‘pay a fee each year, and you can make read any of these books. No cash, no edification.’ Libraries which were actually free to the public meant that, in many ways for the first time, the general population of just about anyone – folks whose lack of money and social capital had locked them out of nearly every avenue of power and success – could explore the accumulated wisdom of their society.

Contemporary author Robert Powers once said of the noble folks who work in the service of such idealistic institutions, “Librarian is a service occupation. Gas station attendant of the mind.” The contents of a library may be a source of mental fuel, but it’s their curators – librarians – that make that fuel most useable.

Our culture has, also, a negative association with libraries, and books in general: they’re sometimes brushed off as symbolic of a sort-of anti-social, idle intellectualism. This sentiment is perhaps best summarized in a classic Twilight Zone sketch, in which a meek, bespectacled poindexter-type continuously fails at work and at life because he is distracted by his love of reading. When a global catastrophe kills everyone on earth besides him he is not overcome with shock and grief, as one might expect any sane, compassionate person to be. Instead, he is glad to have ‘time enough at last,’ to read all the books he wants. The last man on earth receives his fitting comeuppance, however, when he manages to break his glasses, leaving him unable to see well enough to read.

This is where the deep link between the implicit theology of the library and our own living tradition as Unitarian Universalists comes in. For we, too, have been accused of being too cold and impersonal in our religious expression – engaged in the idolatry of wisdom to the detriment of everything else. There is a perceived contradiction at work in our world between head and heart, reason and emotion, truth and love – a dichotomy which is certainly much larger than Unitarian Universalism, but which crops up as a sticking point in our tradition over and over again, just as it plays into the image of the library as an ivory tower, disconnected from the actual world. But here, listen: a library is a palace of truth, but when it is shared – so long as it is shared – it is shared out of love. Compassionate trust towards others requires us to allow them their own decisions, and even their own mistakes. Building and maintaining a library and filling it with ideas and information that no one person can possibly know or approve all of, is a profound expression of such trust. The librarian can never know with certainty to what purpose the knowledge they help others to find will be put. Yet, it is their calling to share knowledge freely, in the belief that the good of free information far exceeds the evil of learning bent towards harm.

And this is also the case in our tradition, at least when we are at our best. Our highest calling is not to choose between love and reason but to defy their contradiction, and to choose to live within their fruitful tension. Our faith trusts us – and bids us to trust each other and everyone else – to explore the range of spiritual wisdom and insight, because the freedom of the spirit leads to greater good than anything which can be accomplished by trying to imprison it within our own finite and imperfect ideas. In this way, our congregation is like a spiritual library. But let me tell you something plain, friends: I ain’t the librarian here. Or at least, I am not the librarian alone. That work, of helping to guide each other towards the sources of meanings that will help us to find and live out our purpose in life, is work that all of us must do, together.

 

[i] As recorded in his essay collection, Palm Sunday

Dance, Dance, Revolution – 4/5/2015

A few years ago there was a video making the rounds on the internet which you might have seen. It was a short piece narrated by an internet entrepreneur named Derek Sivers. His message was about movement-building and the importance not just of leaders but of the people brave enough to be their first followers. It was the image of the actual video, though, that stuck with me.

The scene is of an outdoor concert: a host of people sprawl lazily on a grassy hillside, staring passively towards the stage. But in the center of the video’s frame is one young man who is not sitting or lying back like the rest. Shirtless and shoeless, his pasty white skin glistens in the summer sun as he dances, all alone, to the music. And friends, it must be said: this is not particularly good dancing. It’s erratic and disorganized – almost frantic – and terribly, terribly awkward. He dances alone for what seems like an eternity. He was dancing before the video began. Has he always been dancing? Will he ever stop?

Then, a new person joins in. Their movement together is no less awkward or strange. Watching I found myself growing sympathetically uncomfortable. And yet, more people join them. After the seeming endlessness of the lone dancer, the whole screen fills up with a huge crowd of staggering, flailing, undulating people in barely one minute’s time. From a single pebble, and then another, an entire landslide is begun.[i]

There is something in the power of dance to get people active, engaged, and moving together which lends itself to social change and upheaval. Or, at least, tightly controlled nations and societies seem to think that such a connection exists. One of the leading accusations at the witch trials in Salem was that of having been seen in the woods late at night, dancing. In Germany, during World War II, listening and dancing to jazz music was a popular mode of teenage rebellion – popular enough to get people sent to prison, and executed for it. The decades of Communist rule in Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania all saw a crackdown on folk dancing clubs for fear that the radical influences of polka and line-dancing would destabilize the state. Among its more minor crimes, albeit one of its least popular, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan specifically banned dancing at weddings. And 60-or-so years ago it was common in this country for municipalities to attempt to legislate or control what sorts of music or dance moves would be permitted in public assemblies. The criminalization of dance is a universal sign of a system of power so paranoid about its own survival that it must control the bodies of its citizens.

Emma Goldman is sometimes quoted as having said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” She didn’t actually say this. What she said came after a fellow activist criticized her wild and reckless energy on the dancefloor as being harmful to the cause that they were both devoted to. “I did not believe,” she said, “that a Cause which stood for…release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy…If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”[ii]

I dwell on the subject of dance this morning because it is woven into the stories of Passover and Easter, and the great religious traditions from which each emanates, in curious ways. The Exodus from Egypt ends with a great dance party, as the Children of Israel celebrate their escape on the far shore of the sea. Several of the Psalms – which remember, were essentially a hymnbook – call upon the congregation to dance in their worship of God. And it is said in the second book of Samuel that “David,” the ancient king of Israel, “danced before the LORD.”[iii]

The Christian hymn, “The Lord of the Dance,” imagines Jesus as a dance-caller, teaching new steps to the world. That song is only about 50 years old, and its author, Sydney Carter, believed this image of Jesus to be an entirely novel one. He was inspired, in fact, not by any precedent for it in the Christian tradition, but by a statue of the Hindu god Shiva in the pose of Nataraja: the dancer whose dancing destroys all illusions and allows everything in the universe to move.[iv] But, even if Sydney Carter didn’t realize it, he was actually harkening back to a scene in one of the Christian bible’s apocryphal texts – the books about Jesus and the early Christian movement that were left out of the biblical cannon for including or hinting at unpopular ideas. In the Acts of John, just before his arrest and murder, Jesus arranges the disciples in a ring around him, holding hands. He engages them in a call and response, saying, among many other things, “Who danceth not knoweth not what cometh to pass.”[v] Though the text is ambiguous, it seems to be describing a scene in which Jesus teaches a specific dance to his students, as a final gift before his death.

Dance is, of course, almost impossible to record in words. This problem bedeviled the world of ballet up until the advent of modern recording equipment. Before then, the complex choreography of a production could only be stored in the memory of people who trained with its original creator. Students might horde such riches, refusing to teach them so that their special knowledge would be in demand, or they might instead seek to train as many new people as they could in the dance their master conceived, so that the unique pattern of movements would not die with them, and be lost.

Both of the festivals we mark today are about acting and embodying moments that are larger than words. We can read the scripture and recite its words, but it is the behavior of our bodies that is truly at issue: To struggle for liberation against the crush of oppression; to practice loving peace in the presence of violence and death: these are the only ways to make these sacred stories live again in us. And while it might be possible to do this on our own, like a lone dancer, flailing awkwardly in an empty field, I don’t recommend it. Dance, like liberation and redemption, can be attempted individually, but it can only ever truly be effective when we practice it collectively. The courage to be seen as a weirdo, a heretic, or a danger to the status quo on our own is important, but even more important is the shared courage to be seen as any or all of those things, together.

 

 

[i] Go ahead and watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ

[ii] Emma Goldman, Living My Life

[iii] 2 Samuel 6:14

[iv] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1456932/Sydney-Carter.html

[v] The Acts of John 95: http://gnosis.org/library/actjohn.htm

Goodbye, Winter

I was with some interfaith colleagues the other day, and when our meeting had ended, one of the folks around the table closed our time together with a word of prayer. It was a prayer of gratitude, offering thanks for a lot of different things: some of them easy and some of them hard, some of them things we might want, and some of them more the sorts of things we need. I wish you could have heard it: my colleague did a good job. And after we were all finished and gathering our papers and pulling on our coats, someone else in the group pointed out: “You know, I heard you say thanks for a lot of things there, but I sure did notice: winter wasn’t on the list.”

It’s been a long one, for sure. A long, cold season of record-breaking, roof-testing, driveway-filling snow. Finally, now, the season is officially over – and hopefully the sub-freezing weather along with it. This year’s winter proved to be a guest that wore out and overstayed its welcome. But now that our frosty freeloader has shambled out the door, leaving a messy but fading trail of grimy ice behind it, now seems a good time to reflect on the spiritual instruction our chilly interloper might offer for us. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

An unwelcome guest disrupts the natural course of things. Add a new element to the system, and the system changes. Add one that is unpleasant, adversarial, harmful – all the more change there has to be. This was the winter when nothing went according to plan: events were cancelled, delayed, postponed; journeys were lengthened, or made not at all; there was more time at home – fewer opportunities to do, and more requirements only to be.

An unwelcome guest gives us challenge to share. I don’t know when I’ve talked to as many strangers as I have in the last three months, and not only at the library or the trains station or my daughter’s school.  Something about our grueling mutual predicament had us calling out to each other in the street: “Can you believe this?” “Enough already, right?” “It’s supposed to get a little better next week.” One neighbor I’d never met before was very concerned that I watch my step walking on the ice outside his apartment building door – he launched a whole conversation about how slippery it was. For a little while, we weren’t merely living our fully separate, utterly private lives in parallel: we were enduring something, together.

An unwelcome guest gives us a chance to practice hospitality. In this case, I don’t mean to winter, the guest itself, but to each other. Our collective disruption was the backdrop to an uncountable number of small mercies and generous impulses. Shoveling each other out. Looking in on house-bound neighbors. Offering a ride or a couch to sleep on to a friend we didn’t think should have to brave the cold. It was a harsh time of year, but the world can be harsh in any season. Winter is just the time when we all admit that to ourselves, and give ourselves permission to be a little extra kind to compensate.

So goodbye, winter. It’s certainly well-past time for you to leave. I’m not sure I can say thanks for you yet – I may have to wait until July for that. But I can be thankful for the bit of good – the warmth in the midst of the cold – that you carried along with you.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

The Oasis in the Heart – 3/29/2015

There’s a story attributed to my colleague Rev. Dana Worsnap, which imagines an encounter between five delegates to an international meeting of religions. The five folks found themselves riding in the hotel elevator together, when someone suggested that, in the interest of interreligious engagement and understanding, they would use the length of that elevator ride to explain their respective faiths to each other. This struck the group as such a fun and clever idea that they quickly agreed – even though it would mean quite a few extra trips up and down.

The first of the delegates was a Roman Catholic, and on that first trip from the lobby up to tenth floor of the hotel, he recited the Apostle’s Creed with great reverence and care, taking time with each word. As the elevator began to rise, he began to intone, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son…” On he went, practiced words passing his lips like polished stones, until he came to the final line, “…the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” And that was exactly when the doors opened up onto the top-most floor.

The next turn went to the Universalist in the group, who explained Universalism this way, “We believe in the essential goodness of humanity and the fundamental goodness of God. We believe in God’s universal love and benevolence towards all creatures, in this life and in any life to come. We believe in a God who nurtures, celebrates, confronts, and mourns for every human being, but who would not and cannot disown, castigate, or condemn even one.” And here the Universalist managed to cover every crucial point, even before the party reached the highest floor.

The third person to speak was a Hindu. On her ride she explained the concept of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth across uncountable lives. She spoke about rta, the order that makes life and the universe possible. She talked about dharma, the unique role of each person within this order. And then she said that, believing in these three things, her faith taught her to try to understand where rta touched her course through samsara, in order to better follow her dharma. Like the Universalist, she found herself satisfied with the completeness of her explanation well before the ride was finished.

Next was the Zen Buddhist. He pressed the button for the 10th floor, folded his hands, and let a calm expression fall over his face. He said nothing. The others thought perhaps they should prompt him, but no one spoke until they’d reached the top of the building. Then they all seemed to ask at once, “Why didn’t you say anything?” The Zen Buddhist replied, “In saying nothing, I said all that there is to say.”

The other delegates were a little perplexed at this, but they had agreed not to argue with each other’s explanations, so they turned to the Unitarian delegate: hers was the last turn. Back down at the first floor, she reached out to the elevator buttons, and pressed “2.” Someone asked her, “Why did you press the button for the second floor? Do you really need that little time to explain your faith?” “Oh no,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to the second floor – there’s a great little coffee shop there where we can really get into it.”[i]

I’m not much of one for Unitarian Universalist jokes – most of the ones I’ve heard are either too unkind to others or too dismissive towards ourselves. But here is one I could not resist: one that speaks with kindness and respect, I think, about a few of our theological neighbors, and which highlights beautifully some real and important things about the twin halves of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists: Our focus on loving kindness as humanity’s natural and fitting response to a benevolent universe, often – but not always – summarized under the label, “God.” And our treasuring of dialog and discourse, deep thought, deeper questions, and good coffee, as well as a certain gift for the creative reinterpretation of the rules we set over ourselves. Those of you who have joined me for one of our newcomer orientation classes know that I can be a bit like the Unitarian in that story: I always want to find more time to discuss, explore, and expound upon what our faith is for and about, but as quick summaries go, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Several months ago, I began a series of sermons on things on which the world depends, according to the Jewish tradition. This led into a companion series on the four immeasurable virtues in Buddhist thought. Today we begin together the last section, examining the first of three great spiritual gifts called out in Christian teaching. In the first letter to the Corinthians, its author, Paul, speaks at length about the spiritual gifts of religious life. But he also emphasizes that much that is precious and treasured is also finite. “…as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”[ii] A little further on, Paul seems to arrive at the gifts he considers most crucial and enduring – those things that will not pass away. “And now, faith, hope and love abide, these three…”[iii]

So these three shall be our last set to examine in the coming months, and today our topic is faith. It is common to think of faith as being reducible to a formula or creed, as in the case of the Apostles Creed from the story we began with. Or to try to pin it down through the definition of specialized terms – again, like samsara, rta, and dharma. But I submit that a person’s faith is always more disordered and distinctive than the structures of formal theology would have us believe. Faith, in my estimation, is whatever it is that you believe so strongly that there is no means of arguing over, under, around, or through it. In this I am, perhaps, influenced by an aphorism from the poet Khalil Gibran: “Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”[iv]

This may sound like a harsh definition of faith, particularly coming from a Unitarian Universalist – we who so deeply value reason, critical thinking, and introspection. Things you can’t be argued out of – or even argue yourself out of – sound like obstacles in the search for the truth. Certainly that’s what Michael Shermer, the historian of science and anti-pseudoscience campaigner, must have had in mind when he said that, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. Rarely,” he observed, “do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed.”[v] His view of this whole situation is rather dim, and certainly he has in mind some ideas that end up doing a lot of harm – or at least preventing a great deal of good – due to the number of folks who believe in them. In just one sobering example, a survey by Public Policy Poling, taken just two years ago, found that in a national survey, 7% of respondents believe that the moon landing was faked. 14% believe in Bigfoot, 5% are somehow still clinging to the idea that Paul McCartney died in 1966, 37% believe global warming to be a hoax, and a staggering 51% believe a conspiracy was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But our beliefs, however weird or not they may be, serve a crucial role in our course through life. To make any choice – from the color of the shirt you wore this morning, to the vote of a juror as to whether another person will live or die – requires us, at some point, to stop debating within ourselves, and to act. It is faith that provides such ending points to our deliberations: the periods at the end of our mental sentences. Such faith can be thoroughly supernatural or utterly mundane – the distinction between them means nothing to the reason behind what thought or idea holds greatest sway in our hearts. Asked about their personal faith, a certain number of people on this planet and perhaps in this room would say, “I believe in God.” And a certain smaller number would say to the same question, “I don’t believe in God.” And both of these statements would be equally free of any meaningful information about the people making them, because what God might or might not be is so thoroughly ambiguous. Sometimes we wield these statements like periods when what they are is prepositions: the opening of a long explanation of what truly matters in your life that cannot have justice done to it by the length of an elevator ride.

Some years ago, we held one of my daughter’s birthday parties in a public park. It was a chance for her and her other preschool-age pals to run and play and generally enjoy themselves in a wide open space. My partner and I organized a number of different activities for the group – red light/green light, red rover, and tag – all games I can remember playing in my own childhood. At one point though, and afterwards for much of the party, the crowd departed from our flexible out-door agenda and became fascinated with the project of building faerie houses. This was a new one to me – something I had missed growing up in a house with only male children. I like to think that in my family of origin, we did our part to interrogate the patriarchy and challenge narrow expectations for boys and girls – but this was one gender norm we had failed to transgress. A faerie house, as I now understand from my daughter, is an ankle-high hut or lean-to made outdoors of sticks and grass and other found objects, in the hopes that tiny woodland faeries will take up residence within. Is a deep and abiding belief in the literal reality of two-inch tall magical creatures with wings a requirement for participation? Not as far as I can tell – it didn’t stop them from letting me join in, at least. But the activity does seem to grow from an understanding that it’s fun to make things together, to work and to imagine and dream together. And just maybe it points to something many of us deeply believe but too rarely express or act upon: that every person, no matter who they might be, rich, poor, mighty, or meek – real, or in this case, even, imaginary – deserves at a place they can call their home. Whatever age we might be, we are constantly developing detailed theologies and complex explanations to justify and elaborate on the very simple things that we actually believe.

Eustace Haydon, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago who shaped an entire generation of Unitarian Universalist Humanist leaders, said, “More needful than faith in God is faith that [hu]man[ity] can give love, justice, peace and all [its] beloved moral values embodiment in human relations.” Wise words, but again there is no need to frame it as a choice between. God is the first word that many of us use to talk about what is true and right in life. The language of belief matters; there’s preciousness and beauty in it, and it shapes the ideas that it points to. But those ideas are ultimately more important still, as the signpost is valuable to the traveler, but no substitute for the destination.

2300 years ago, a temple was dedicated to the god Sarapis, at Alexandria, in Egypt. Reports from nearly as long ago tell us that in the temple stood a metal statue of the deity which was known to do wondrous things. Sometimes a ray of sunlight with no apparent origin seemed to strike its face, as though the sun itself had entered the shrine to show its respects. Other times the statue was seen to rise off the ground, as though reaching toward the heavens. Some of the same sources reveal the secret behind these effects: a small, concealed window that let in sunlight on certain days and times, and a large, natural magnet that was used to move the statue with no obvious cause.

After the temple of Sarapis was destroyed, these “tricks” were held up by early Christian authors as proof of the fraudulence of pagan religions they were in conflict with. Many centuries later, common features of the great Christian cathedrals – stained glass, ornate architecture, realistic statuary – were renounced by certain Christian reformers as vulgar, excessive, and manipulative of worshippers. Very much the same sorts of criticisms lobbed against the priests of Sarapis and their clever use of magnets. Some of those critics ultimately came here – to this continent, and to this town. Our congregational ancestors erected a worship space that was intentionally spare and plain – but with their strict tests of doctrinal fidelity and personal piety, they could hardly be said to have been free of coercion in their churches. So it goes again and again: each generation, each faction criticizes the other, saying: your faith is wrong. When in truth, the only means we have for judging another person’s faith – or our own, for that matter – is by its consequences.

Faith may be an oasis which can never be reached by the caravan of thinking, but all other destinations require of us thought. It is the crucible of reason that allows us to render from ourselves whatever truth lies deepest in us. Faith and reason are not adversaries but compliments: reason the never fully realized question, faith the incomplete answer, which satisfies us long enough to act. The passing of a bill in Indiana this week providing large and fluid exemptions for businesses who might refuse to take on certain categories of people as customers on the basis of religion has drawn a great deal of attention. The use of religion as an instrument for the marginalizing and diminishment of others is nothing new, sadly, and contorting the principle of religious freedom in order to defend reflexive contempt towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks is also a well-worn theme.

These sorts of laws already exist in a great many states: they are a strategy for resisting the tide of inclusion and acceptance, maintaining and refortifying a heterosexist status quo. But any faith whose highest purpose is only to confirm its believer’s own biases has little to offer that believer in terms of clarity between right and wrong, or comfort in times of trial. This warning applies just as much to those of us who oppose such laws as to them who support them: it is easy enough to think unkind thoughts and say harsh words about one governor, one legislature, and one retrograde impulse manifested into politics. There is no particular challenge or cost in thus reassuring ourselves of our rightness. But a faith worth following demands more than that of its adherents. It expects us not merely to discuss the wrongs of the world, but to act to correct them. For however long of an elevator ride it might take us to explain our beliefs, they always take exactly one lifetime to put into practice.

 

 

[i] Adapted from the version of the story printed here: http://www.firstunitariantoronto.org/what-is-unitarianism/uu-humour

[ii] I Corinthians 13:8-10

[iii] I Corinthians 13:13

[iv] From his collection, Sand and Foam (1926)

[v] http://www.michaelshermer.com/2002/09/smart-people-believe-weird-things/

Carrying Your Own Bag – 3/22/2015

Deep below the surface of the ocean, in the waters of South East Asia, between Malaysia and the Philippines, there lives a type of animal called a Blue Bell Tunicate. I say that it’s an animal, but it has a lot of the qualities we usually associate with plants here on land: it stays rooted in one place, it can’t really move of its own volition, and it doesn’t even really have a brain, in fact. The tunicates cluster together in clumps, clinging to rocks, swaying back and forth with the motion of the waters that surround them, filtering and eating tiny animals out of those waters and looking, for all the world, a bit like translucent, undersea versions of the blue bell flowers that give them their name.

Now, this is a little weird, but its par-for-the-course weird in the odd world of the ocean. Things can get pretty strange down there. But what is particularly fascinating about the Blue Bell Tunicate is that it belongs to a whole family of unmoving, brainless, filter-feeders, who go through an entire phase of life in which they a) move, b) have brains, and c) do not feed by filtering the water. The tunicate begins, like so many other creatures, as an egg, but before it becomes the next-best-thing to an underwater carnivorous plant, it goes through a larval stage. It hatches out of its egg as something that looks almost identical to a tadpole: it has a bulbous little head, and an eye, and a tail for swimming around with, and the very most rudimentary form of a spine and a brain. And when it reaches adulthood, it gives all of these things up: in order to become itself, it stops moving, several of its organs are reabsorbed into its body, and the creature is transformed into something staggeringly different and new.[i]

Nature’s capacity for transformation is humbling and awesome. A redwood grows from a seed smaller than a grain of rice. A river carves a canyon a mile deep into the rock. An off-brand variety of ape with a weak sense of smell and no natural defenses to speak of rises to become the most powerful – and most dangerous – manner of animal on the planet. Change; whether it begins small and ends up humongous, or starts our big and finishes tiny, change is what being alive is about. It is often the changes of life – the moments in our existence that require us to transform in order to continue on – that can feel like the most anguished and challenging times. So when we come to them, it is important for us to remember that we are a part of the vast, continuously unfolding process called nature: change is essential to who we are.

My sermon to you this morning touches on this topic, and comes out of a conversation I had with Jack Reilly, a long-time member of First Parish. Last year, at our annual auction Jack bid on and won the right to select a topic, question, or text to form the basis of one of my sermons, and this is that. By the way, if you find that prospect attractive, you’ll be able to bid on precisely the same item at this year’s auction, next Saturday night.

Jack, you asked me to reflect on how we go about rewriting our lives after a big and particularly an unexpected or a painful change. When the way we have expected our story to go is no longer the way we are headed, how to we reconstitute ourselves and continue forward into the new unfolding of life before us? If they are lived on a long enough continuum, most lives have sharp turns in their course. A lot of these are obvious: the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a major change in livelihood or geography. But one of the first places that my mind went to when I began thinking about rewriting who we are out of necessity was the somewhat different story of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was a magazine editor, a man of wit and letters, who took great pleasure in food and fashion. And then, one day in 1995, at the age of 43, he suffered a major stroke. If there was a singular sharp turn in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life it would almost certainly be said to be this stroke, but I would argue that the most upending thing about the episode was not the stroke itself, but the fact that it did not kill him. Still a younger man, only a little ways into his middle life, Jean-Dominique might have anticipated the possibility – however remote – that he could suffer an unforeseen catastrophe. What he truly could not have planned for, no matter how vast and surpassing his imagination, was that that catastrophe would leave him alive, but profoundly disabled. Bauby was left with what is called locked-in syndrome. His senses still functioned, his mind was fully awake to the world around him, but he had virtually no control over his body. His one remaining means of impacting the world was that he was still able to blink one eye.

This became the venue by which he communicated his thoughts, ideas, and experiences from his hospital bed. It was like a pinhole, allowing the ocean of his mind to pour forth. With the hard work of a dedicated assistant, Bauby dictated an entire book – a memoir called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. His assistant would recite letters until Bauby’s blink called for a stop, so that he could get out a full word in about two minutes. He wrote his book in about 200,000 blinks. There is no way to marvel at that accomplishment without facing the anguish of the condition which gave it shape. In his book, the author talks about the moments where the sadness of being “reduced to a jellyfish” overtakes him, tears rolling down into the lather as an aid shaves his face. And he also observes about life in general that, “There comes a time when the heaping up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter.”

The pain of the world is more than just dust or dirt to be swept aside with ease. It is solid as stone; enduring as granite. The water of joy and hope will not serve simply to wash the loss away: rather, its role to drip into ever crack and seep into every hollow in the surface of our suffering. To let the stone of sorrow serve as a container, to catch, and hold, and replenish our stores of the waters of life. Denying the pain is just a doomed strategy for standing still; the only way forward is to accept the new shape of life and begin to change again within the scope of those boundaries.

Transformation, of people and of communities, is a major theme in the bible. One of the most jarring and dramatic left-turns in the Christian cannon is the conversion of Paul – a persecutor of the very earliest Christian communities who, as the story is told in the book of Acts, had a revelatory vision which moved him to join the very faction he had railed against. The sudden epiphany can clearly be powerful, but it’s also a hard thing to force or depend on – and may often be met with skepticism by those who don’t share the experience.

During his career as a lay preacher, Hosea Ballou, one of the great voices of Universalism in America in the 1800s, who served briefly as minister at the First Universalist Society of Salem, ran afoul of this. He was preaching at a Universalist convention when the minister he was sharing the podium with was so moved by the quality of Hosea’s message that the man took up his bible, pressed it to Ballou’s chest and pronounced his ordination right then and there. Flattered and a little bewildered by the incident, Hosea wasn’t quite sure what to do, and there were whispers and rumors questioning the integrity of such an unorthodox ordination. Eventually, it was arranged to give him a second, proper ceremony, so that no lingering questions as to his credentials would remain.

Perhaps more apt to our topic is one of the stories of Jacob in the Hebrew Bible; how he met an angel and wrestled with it, through the night, until that angel gave him a blessing, and a new name, and a wound that would last for the rest of his life. That struggle took place on the eve of Jacob’s meeting with his estranged twin brother, Esau – with a goodly share of concealed identities, murder plots, and infidelity, there are some biblical synopses that read like the plot points of soap operas. Jacob had dealt unkindly with Esau and cheated him in their youth. He needed to wrestle with his past, to change his name, his self, in order to face his brother again and make amends. Again, we never change by ignoring the past – only by accepting it.

Sarah Shamel, who served as our chalice lighter earlier in the service, sent me a poem this week as a possible chalice reading that was so well-matched to the theme Jack chose for me that I asked her permission to reserve it for the sermon. These words come from the poet Marie Howe:

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

 

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

 

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

 

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

 

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

 

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

 

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

 

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:

I am living. I remember you.

Marie wrote these this poem as a letter to her brother John, who died in 1989 due to complications from the AIDS virus. Interviewed about the piece many years later she said of that loss, “you think, ‘My life is changed so utterly I don’t know how to live it anymore.’ And then you find a way.” We live by doing the 10,000 little things that are required of us each day, and by yearning, and cherishing, and remembering. It is by doing these things that we change who we are from the way that we were to the way we are going to be.

The conversation which led to this sermon came out of Jack’s experience over the past year, since the death of his beloved husband, Ray. There’s a death of some kind in every change – an ending, a final close to some story of chapter of it. But death is the most serious sort of death that there is. And after the tears, or the season of their heaviest flow, at least, there comes the work of starting the next story. Jack, one of the things you shared with me is the challenge of figuring out how to do for yourself what you had unlearned, or never bothered to learn how to do in the decades spent with that other person. In just one small but telling example, Ray always carried your bag when you went to the airport together.

Now, for the first time in a long time, you have to carry your own. And so I picture you rolling your suitcase through the gauntlet that is Logan Airport. It’s a small thing, but sometimes it’s the small things that seem the hardest.

For you Jack, and for any and all of us who have faced or are facing or will face some cruel twist in life’s road, this is the best that I can do. I can remind you that once you were a very little baby. There was a time, for each of us, when we were water-dwelling creatures, perfectly adapted to life inside the oceans of our mothers. The world was warm and soft and nourishing and comfortable. And then we were born. Remember, however surprised or dismayed you may be in the course of your life: you have done it before. You have already gone, without warning or explanation, from living in water to breathing in air. From being swaddled in darkness to the shock of the light. The colossal, spectacular, and eternally transforming process called nature – of which you are a part – has already enveloped you in its embrace. However severe the adjustment is now, you have already made one just as serious before. You’ll move forward again by accepting the change, by mourning and cherishing and remembering – and by knowing, my friends, that you don’t have to do it alone.

[i] Want to learn more about tunicates? Of course you do – they’re fascinating! Here’s one place to start: http://depts.washington.edu/fhlk12/links/StudentProjects/Tun.biology.html

Don’t Panic! – 3/8/2015

On June 24th, 1982, a British Airways 747 was on a routine trip from Kuala Lampur – the capital of Malaysia – to Perth, Australia. The plane’s course over the Indonesian archipelago took it through a cloud of ash from the Galunggung volcano, and this seems to have been the cause of all the trouble. One of the plane’s engines began to surge and then stopped altogether. Another followed suit, and then the last two gave out together. The craft was left soaring through the night without functioning engines, over the dark water of the ocean, seven miles up.

Without thrust from its engines, a 747 becomes a glider – a really terrible glider. All of the advantages of jet technology and the innovations that make possible the miracle of powered flight turn against such a plane – and its passengers. For every fifteen miles of distance the suddenly-powerless plane was to cover, it would have to fall one full mile down. With a wide stretch of ocean and a line of tall mountains between it and the nearest hope of a runway, the outlook appeared dim. Still, the crew began to steer towards an emergency landing, all the while trying over and over again to re-start any of the engines. The air pressure inside the cabin fell low enough to trigger the emergency oxygen masks, which fell from the ceiling. But inside the cockpit, something else went wrong: the co-pilot’s mask was broken. The crew had to take the plane down even faster, to reach a height where it was possible to breathe fairly normally without assistance.

The spectacular ending of the story is this: that the quick-thinking and astonishingly calm and collected crew of that plane managed – at nearly the last possible moment – to get the engines going again. They managed, with failing instruments and almost no visibility, to climb back up enough to get over the mountains, and to land their plane in Jakarta with everyone aboard alive and – physically, at least – well. But before that happy conclusion, somewhere in the midst of this crisis and the very real threat of catastrophe, the pilot made an announcement to his passengers which is now somewhat famous in the history of aviation. He said, rather matter-of-factly,

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

It is not an easy thing to remain calm in the midst of a crisis. When the energy of the moment is disordered and chaotic, it’s hard to resist matching it with emotional chaos of our own. And here’s the thing – there are powerful voices, both ancient and modern, telling us that the world exists in perpetual crisis, and if we listen to them there can be no easy escape into calm. The modern news media, the rhetoric of political campaigns, and the internet’s hyper-active drama cycle all focus on strife and threat and anger and fear in ways that I think should be familiar to most of us. But long before our species had the means to know with instant speed and picture-perfect clarity the quantity of famine, disease, disaster, and war scouring the globe at any given moment, the message that all is not well was already deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. It is an essential element, in fact, of nearly all of the world’s religious teachings.

For example: ‘Life is suffering,’ declares the first noble truth of the Buddha. Christian orthodoxy makes a similarly gloomy assessment of the human condition, seeing sin as a defining characteristic of all human beings and their societies. While our tradition as Unitarian Universalists challenges that view that sin is inherent to life and the universe we inhabit, our teaching is not simply that everything is hunky-dory. For we know that systems and structures of evil persist in our world, that they can be both formed and fed by human action and inaction, and that their power to diminish and destroy life is all-too-terribly real.

If the world is in a state of perpetual crisis – as CNN, and St. Augustine, and the Buddha all agree – then we have two choices. We can match the external chaos with our own, or we can seek to cultivate what the Buddhists call uppekha: equanimity. This is the capacity to remain calm in the midst of crisis; to maintain balance within ourselves when we are surrounded by imbalance. If all is not right in our lives; if all is not right in our communities; if all is not right in our world, then we cannot possibly begin to correct what is wrong by simply reacting without consideration or control.

In the last decade of his life, the great science-fictionist Arthur C. Clarke was asked by an interviewer what his advice would be to the whole of humankind. He replied that he felt the best piece of advice had already been given by his colleague Douglas Adams: “Don’t Panic.” That phrase was the motto of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the imaginary interstellar travel guide which gave its name to Adams’ most famous science fiction series. It’s counsel remains just as solid no matter where in the universe you happen to find yourself. Because those systems of evil, those structures of injustice and oppression which I mentioned earlier, which damage and destroy life and meaning, by which all of us are diminished and in which all of us are implicated – those collective evils are depending on us to panic. War has never been begun except by fear; exploitation has never been maintained except by rage. Panic – the unexamined, unconsidered reflex to fight, flight, or freeze – is just energy flailing wildly in search of a direction, and if we do not take responsibility for directing our own energy, then the existing patterns of wrong in the world will put our energy to use in maintaining themselves.

It’s important to draw a line here about what panic is and is not, and perhaps point to what the acceptable bounds of equanimity might allow for. I don’t mean that we should never be angry, and I don’t mean that we should never feel afraid. Again, those feelings are just energy, and they are normal, reasonable, indeed, necessary responses to facing the way things are. That energy can drive us in a number of directions, including towards changing the thing that made us angry or afraid in the first place. Denying ourselves or anyone else this full range of emotion is a tried and true way, intentionally or unintentionally, of maintaining the status quo. The voice of Jeremiah, recounted in the Hebrew Bible, laments of false leaders: “You dress the wounds of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace./You declare, ‘All is well, all is well,’ when nothing is well.”[i] And equating spiritual wisdom with a lack of outward emotion is not born out by the examples of sacred stories. One of the most famous incidents in the Gospel accounts of his life, the teacher Jesus, for instance, is said to have driven the money changers out of Jerusalem’s temple, upending their benches and booths and castigating them as thieves. That story prompted one of my colleagues to observe that, if you’re ever inclined to ask yourself the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” it’s important to remember that shouting and flipping over tables is one of the possible options.

The danger comes when anger gives way to outrage, when fear dissolves into terror. Now, I’ll grant that none of us has perfect control over when this happens – but we do have more ability to shape our emotional responses than we usually credit ourselves with. One of the key choices at play is the matter of which truths we will entertain – and how much of them we will bite off at any one time. As Unitarian Universalists we are big on the truth: on the hard work of discovering it and the harder work of living by it. But we can, just as easily as anyone else, fall prey to equating the truth with bad news. This is a perverse sort of self-congratulatory attitude which confuses a myopic focus on everything that is horrible, painful, or wrong in life with a devotion to looking clearly, honestly, and unflinchingly at the truth of the world. But if you can look at this life, or any part of it, and see only sorrow – or only joy, for that matter – then you must be ignoring at least half of what there is to see.

Uppekha, again the Buddhist virtue most commonly translated as equanimity, can more literally be rendered as, “to look over.” I might rephrase that slightly as, “to look beyond.” And this is exactly what we need to practice doing in order to better shape our reactions, so that our actions can better shape our circumstances. We must look beyond whatever moment we are in. Beyond temporary ease and comfort to the injustice still woven into our society, and beyond the suffering and the hurt of the immediate present to hope and the wonder that fills the world and springs anew again and again and again. I spoke with one of you recently as you have been struggling through a hard time in life, and you mentioned that you have been collecting glad thoughts and joyous ideas. Not to distract yourself from your own pain, but so that you can have some help in remembering that life and the world is bigger than the one place where you are right now. We all need such reminders from time to time: that suffering is part of life, but it is not the whole of life’s story.

I cannot let the whole of this service go by without mentioning the anniversary we have just marked this weekend. Fifty years ago yesterday, a group of marchers set out from Selma, Alabama, headed for Montgomery, to protest the vast, racist conspiracy in that state and too many others designed to rob black people of their constitutional right to vote. That first group of marchers, nearly all of them African American, were attacked, beaten, tear-gassed and turned-back before they’d left the city limits half a century ago. That unconscionable violence against a non-violent assembly drew many more marchers, and there were two more attempts to make the journey, the last of which finally reached its destination. The campaign led directly to the passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark in establishing and protecting political rights for people of color in this country. It also saw the murders of three protestors. The first, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was a young, black activist, shot down by state police before the first march, whose death helped to galvanize the campaign. The second was the Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister who came to Selma from Boston for the second attempted March, and was beaten to death by a group of local white men who targeted him and the other ministers he was walking with as ‘outside agitators.’ And the third was Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist lay woman from Michigan, shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she helped to drive protestors back to Selma following the successful completion of the march. All of this is, of course, now a major motion picture, one which I am very happy to endorse – even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not.

I would mention all of this today no matter what I was preaching about – it’s history that needs remembering, and a moment in time that we are irreducibly bound to by ties of tragedy and blood. But on the specific matter of equanimity, two connections seem obvious to me. The first is that the disciplined practice of non-violence, which the protestors in Selma were engaged in, requires a prodigious cultivation of equanimity. To confront your enemy and refuse to meet their violence – the outward manifestation of their own internal panic – with your own; that is an incredibly difficult thing. It required practice, and training – again, not to obliterate anger or fear, but to control them, and channel them into energy for work that needed to be done.

And the second connection is that all of this history makes me powerfully angry and powerfully sad. It should never have required the public beating of peaceful people to receive some guarantee from their government for their voice in determining that government. It should never have been necessary for three people to die in order that enough of their fellow citizens might pay attention to their plight and force their congress and their president to act. And it should never have been possible that most of the power in the legislative victory all that blood won, would be stripped away by a court ruling, as it was just two years ago. It makes me angry and it makes me sad. It makes me feel like I do not want to live in a country where such sacrifices are necessary and where the sudden loss of the gains won by them is possible. And so, if I want to live in a better country than that, it is up to me to work at remaking the country where I live.

Life is not all and only sorrow, nor is it all and only joy. But even on the clearest of days, from time to time, life’s engines stop. When you find yourself in such a predicament, whatever you do, don’t panic. Feel the anger, the fear, the grief – all the things that it is natural for a human being to feel in time of crisis. And then put those feelings to work, and do your damndest to get those engines going again.

 

[i] Jeremiah 6:14 (two different translations)

A Fruitful Intersection

At the beginning of February, we came together as a community in a special congregational meeting to discuss a proposal from our neighbors, the First Universalist Society of Salem. The members of FUSS have determined, after much deliberation on their part, that they will detach from their historic building and allow it to serve a new mission as a center for the arts and social justice in the city of Salem. Consequently, they wish to find another congregation to merge their people and their history with – and they reached out to us as their prospective partners.

We, First Parish, had a comprehensive and engaged discussion. Well-considered questions were raised; some had immediate answers, and some will be resolved in the coming months. As your minister, I try not to speak too much at such meetings. It is the congregation as a whole which has the decisive say in critical decisions such as this. The authority, and all the responsibility that comes with it, rightly belongs to you. So, I got to listen, and my heart was gladdened by what I heard. I was particularly moved by one of you at that meeting who described the prospect of welcoming in a new group of folks, forging two communities into one, as a natural extension of the spirit of hospitality and inclusion that you believe defines First Parish. Sometimes I may flatter myself to think that it is my job to inspire you, but my small efforts could not possibly compare to the frequency with which you inspire me.

Ultimately, we did vote, and decide unanimously to begin negotiating a merger. A team from First Parish and a team from FUSS have just now held our first meeting to discuss the details and concerns that such a coming together will entail. There will be more opportunities to meet, to get to know, and to welcome the folks from FUSS in the months ahead, and ultimately a plan for merger – based on the questions, concerns, and feedback we have received from you – will be presented for a conclusive vote at our regular annual meeting in May.

If this process does result in a coming together of our two congregations – and at this point I hope that it will – it will be a major change for our congregation. New faces, new traditions, an entire new history will be added to what is already familiar and established. And, at the same time, church life does not hold still. Even as your leadership is working on this prospective merger, there are still other challenges to tackle and problems to solve. The weekly work of worship and service, of learning with and from each other, and of building compassionate community, continues uninterrupted. (The occasional freak winter storm notwithstanding.)

Among the many projects continuing on in parallel with the work of merger are the plans for my sabbatical, which will take place during the winter and spring of the next church year (2015-2016). This time set aside for study, reflection, and spiritual renewal is set out in the letter of agreement made between us when I accepted your call to be your minister. It will mean that I will be absent from the pulpit for longer than I have been in the five years since I took up this ministry. I and your leadership have already begun to plan out the financial requirements to ensure coverage for worship and pastoral care. I’ve begun to discuss with your staff what they will need in order to work effectively and comfortably in my absence. There’s a lot more to do in the nearly a year between now and when the sabbatical will begin, and there will be much more information forthcoming, and please feel free to bring your questions and concerns to me.

I know that either (and both) of these major events in the life of the church can be anxious-making, and their collision may seem odd, at first. But I believe this can be a fruitful intersection for our community. Learning to be one new congregation out of two similar, but still different communities is going to take a lot of working together – finding ways to get past the pleasantries and really reach a deep place with new folks. And a minister’s sabbatical is a time when the congregation gets to step up to a new level of authority and responsibility. It will provide ample opportunities, I am sure, for all of us – the new, expansive us – to better know and appreciate ourselves and each other. I won’t be present in the same way during this time: travelling a bit, reading and studying, and hopefully starting a new blog. But I don’t intend to disappear. I’ll be playing that same role that I try to play in our congregational meetings, just on a longer timeframe: watching with hope, and frequently pride.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

And Now for a Message From Our Sponsors – 3/1/2015

About two years ago, the early-morning commuters driving along Old Street, in London, faced a rather unusual hazard. Rolling about in the traffic lane, bouncing back and forth between the buildings on either side of the street, was a beach ball. The ball was exactly the sort that you might expect to take with you on a trip to the ocean, or to see being knocked around the crowd at an outdoor concert, except that this particular beach ball was enormous – as in, larger than the average house. BIG. And there it was, just rolling about in the street.

This strange situation had come about because a building development company was renovating a vacant building in the neighborhood and turning it into an office building. At the end of the construction, the new property was projected to be so energy-efficient that it would produce 162 fewer tons of carbon dioxide than an equivalent facility with less stringent environmental standards would have. The construction company was rather proud of this fact, and wanted to advertise it as a selling point for their new building. So they got a super-sized beach ball – bit enough to hold roughly one ton of carbon dioxide – and attached it to the roof of their building. And then, a severe windstorm hit the city, and knocked the ball loose right around dawn. There was some chaos and confusion until one heroic motorist managed to pop the ball and keep it pinned in place with his car. Luckily, no one was harmed, but the whole odd affair comes, it seems to me, with an important lesson: advertising doesn’t always work out the way you expect.

We live our lives surrounded by advertisements: messages in words or pictures, video or music, all of which are trying to sell us something. A hamburger, a car, or a new brand of fabric softener. A weight-loss system, a political candidate, or a new city to move your home or business to. A song, a website, or a television show – which is particularly ironic because often each of those last three things come bundled with advertisements of their own. Something we want to watch, or read, or listen to comes at the price of enduring an advertisement. Every seven minutes or so they cut into the news or the sit-com you’re watching. Before you can see that funny cat video someone sent you, you’ll have to watch this pharmaceutical commercial first. In the early days of television, and well before that in radio, the advertisements on which the medium depended were often given an introductions that has become something of a stock phrase in our culture: “and now for a message from our sponsors.”

This Sunday is the peak of our congregation’s canvass season. It’s the time when we are talking about generosity and stewardship; talking about sharing our gifts and living our values; talking about money, and why this congregation needs some of however much we have. It can be tempting to compare this time to the advertisements that accompany our radio-listening and tv-watching: the unavoidable price of experiencing something we enjoy. The annual interruption of our regularly scheduled program about the search for truth, the struggle for justice, and the cultivation of love and compassion in each of our hearts. First a hymn, and then a prayer, and now and for a message from our sponsors.

It is tempting to see things this way, but I am here to tell you that it is not so. That, in fact, the canvass season, and this service in particular, is a time when we tune in to what is most precious and essential about life in religious community. Here it is, then: what is best about being a part of this or any other congregation is that it expects something of us. Spiritual community challenges us, it calls us to take risks, to attempt things we cannot reasonably expect to succeed at, and to give of ourselves in service to needs that are deep and real. In a world that whipsaws between the emptiness of disconnection disguised as freedom and the cruelty of injustice masquerading as order, the congregation we share asks of us without taking, and gives without denying us the opportunity to reciprocate.

Now certainly, sustaining this congregation is not our highest aim – our purpose must always be greater than mere self-preservation. The covenant we read each week speaks of love and service, peace, truth, and mutual aid. Nowhere does it mention shelling out enough cash to keep the lights on. But we have chosen to come together in the quest for meaning and the project of building a world of justice and peace, and this congregation is the means we have chosen to pursue those lofty ideals. Similarly, money is far from the only resource our community requires in order to flourish and grow: it needs creativity and memory, clear vision and moral courage, and a tremendous amount of hard work. But without the means to keep these lights on, to run the heat in winter, to patch the roof when it leaks, and to pay fairly and honorably for a staff whose own hard work puts music in our ears, an order of worship in our hands, love and self-respect into our children’s hearts, and cleans up just about everything else off the floor – without the money that allows for all of these things, it is possible there might still be a church. But it would not be this church, and it would not be capable of doing all the things that our present congregation does. It would not be capable of dreaming all the dreams that our current configuration allows us to envision.

There is a very famous work by the Persian poet Attar – in English its title is, “The Conference of the Birds.” The poem tells a story in which all the birds of the earth come together to choose a king to rule over them. There is debate and disagreement – their expectations for a leader are, perhaps understandably, pretty high. And then there comes the suggestion among them that the only creature who could possibly reach all their exacting standards would be the simurgh – a bird of legend and magical power, a bit like the more familiar phoenix. So the conference of the birds flew together on a far-ranging quest to find the simurgh.

At the end of their journey they came to the home of the simurgh, but instead of a tremendous, majestic bird, there was a lake. Together as one, the peered into the mirror surface of the water. Each of them saw all of them staring back. Each of the birds was different, each with its own gifts and faults. Separately, none of them could hope to meet the expectations they held for their king. But together – that was a different possibility.

We are this church – together. No one of us alone is all of it, but it takes all of us together to make the one of it. Stare into the pond and see yourself; see the many others beside you – whether here today, or at home, or in the hospital, or anywhere else. See also the faces of those who came before us, who built this place up, sustained it, and passed it on. Finally, see those who have not yet arrived. The folks who haven’t yet reached us and whom we have yet to reach. If we were to take a moment out of the service for a message from our sponsors, these – you – would be them.

Advertising doesn’t always work out the way you expect. The same is true of anything that tries to stir us to action. Life in religious community, for this reason, comes with some guarantee of surprise. Its best sort of surprise – the call to do things that we don’t think we can – is made possible because time and again we choose to do what we know we can in order to help this church flourish and grow. So thank you friends, for all that you do and all you have given, and thank you also for what you are about to give.

 

There But For Fortune – 2/22/2015

[Rev. Kelly[i]:]

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play about betrayal and hatred and despair. In particular how the cycle of wrongdoing and the quest for vengeance against the perpetrator can create a vicious, consuming cycle where all the possibilities of life become narrowed down to one tragic singularity. At one point in the story the titular character, the prince of Denmark, talks with two affable fools, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, about fate. They pronounce that though they are not quite so lucky as they could be, as servants of the royal family they are fairly pleased with the hand that has been dealt to them. And then comes the following exchange:

HAMLET: What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune that she sends you to prison, hither?

GUILDENSTERN: Prison, my lord?

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Why then, your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow for your mind.[ii]

          All three men share the same country. Comparing their respective stations in it, the two servants and their master, it would seem obvious that Hamlet has the better lot. And yet, the country which the two fools are glad to call home, its prince finds to be a dungeon, a prison, a cage from which he cannot escape. The metaphor of prison is a common fixture in our literature and in our speech. It’s used to describe any sort of difficult or desperate situation where the options becomes narrowed to the point of having no choice at all. We talk about the prison of poverty, the prison of ignorance; the Eagles sang about drug addiction as being “prisoners…of our own device.” Some religious and philosophical outlooks view the body itself as a prison – restraining the mind or the soul and keeping it from achieving its full potential.

To be in prison, so the metaphor goes, is to be unable to pursue one’s own sense of purpose. Malcolm X, who was assassinated 50 years ago yesterday, and who spent six years in Charlstown State Prison, not so far from here, wrote years after his release, “Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars – caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.”[iii] To be imprisoned is to have one’s ambition, one’s calling, thwarted and blocked.

[Lisa M. Kirk:]

My heart tells me that the most important thing we can do while we live our lives is take care of each other. With that work we also take care of ourselves as we create community around us. So that, is truly my call. As the call got louder and louder, I realized I could no longer put it aside. I entered seminary and signed on for a Field Education with a Chaplaincy Program for the homeless and marginalized. The chaplaincy program is about companioning people during extreme difficulty. Most are victims of addiction, economic failure, mental illness. I learned early on that I, or any of us, could easily be in their shoes.

Our job was to just be with them. We walked the streets per chance we would run into someone who needed a listening ear and a reminder that they are valuable. We met with them at McDonalds in the morning for coffee.

One particular morning a young woman shared with me her fears of never becoming sober. She cried at the loss of her dignity every time she stumbled up the street, and every time she had to beg a friend for a bed or sleep by the river. I cried with her, holding her hands and praying for her to find the strength.

Every day, these people struggle to keep their dignity. We gave them the space to reclaim it whenever necessary simply by companioning them on their journey.

At the beginning I was so nervous I wondered what the heck I had been thinking to decide to take that route, but by the time I was done, I was so grateful for the experiences and the people I had met. The holy, in the form of peace and love, appeared in each exchange. I was changed. There was no way to avoid that. My heart had opened up even more for these people and the service fulfilled a call, an urge, a want to help people’s lives become easier. A spirit of good energy attached itself to me. On both sides peace and love grew. Human connection is an antidote to so many challenges in life.

I’ve been a part of the Church of the Larger Fellowship Letter Writing Ministry for a couple of years now. It has become a passion that affirms my belief in the inherent dignity of all. My time with the folks on the streets affirmed that my ministry is to the grieving and the marginalized in our world.

I have a story about a man named Norm and me. Norm and I began to write through the CLF a couple of years ago. I contacted CLF; filled out all the paperwork; got notification that I’d been matched with someone…and then, I waited. The waiting was hard; every day I wondered what he was like, was he a UU, would we get along? And so I was a little antsy, nervous, but I was also very excited about it, excited to find out who I was going to be writing with. In any conversation with my friends the topic came up, I expressing my nervousness, but also my hopes that this would be a long lasting meaningful connection. Finally the first letter came. It was thick, in a business sized envelope. More than I had hoped for. I had in my hand the answer to my wonderings and I couldn’t wait to read it. I ran into the house breathlessly, and with some apprehension, with some rumblings in my stomach, and happiness.

Norm’s letters are always 7 or 8 pages long. 8.5 X 11 sized paper, small handwriting. He uses every inch of the paper, sometimes even the margins. In his first letter he told me he identifies as Wiccan and he listed the Goddesses he prays to. He told what each one represents. He explained his belief as New Age-He wrote that every religion has a creation story and a flood story. With numerology, physics, and astronomical science he described how God is our Universe. It was quite an introduction; one I never could have predicted, but it did not disappoint, even though I don’t quite follow it all.

Norm is brilliant and he always has a lot to say. He can talk about the law, history, science, his many theories about God, his own failings and insecurities, and he never fails to say how much it means that I take the time to write to him. I, on the other hand, who spends hours and hours writing sermons, essays, papers, often need a break.

So, Norm and I clashed. Last spring I stopped keeping up with my end of the bargain. It was a very busy time and I stopped writing as often as I had been. Norm finally wrote and let me have it. He was hurt and angry. He was never disrespectful or rude, he was just honest.

I learned that my letters were the only form of communication he received from outside of the prison except a Sudoku subscription that his mom sometimes kept up with. Through a back and forth letter writing conversation for a few months Norm taught me what it is like to be in prison. As a prisoner he has no identity. He is no different from anyone else there. He has the same options, the same schedule, the same everything. He has no choices except those that are laid out for him; he cannot decide to go for a walk whenever he wants, or go to the gym, or have blueberries for breakfast.

[Rev. Kelly:]

The word ‘prison’ stands in as a place holder for any condition or situation in which there is a loss of self-determination. In our society it is most often invoked as a metaphor by people who are distant and aloof from the actual, literal place that is prison, and the experience of it. The current popularity of the television program, “Orange is the New Black,” most certainly not withstanding, much of the point of prisons as they currently function in America is to place certain people at a far remove from the rest of the community.

This was not always the case. Some of you have heard me talk before about the very early days of Christian religious life in New England. In the first towns settled by Europeans there was only one place of worship and attendance was mandatory. That mandate applied as much to folks in jail as it did to everyone else. So each Sunday the prisoners would be led to the meetinghouse, and sit in the same room and hear the same preaching as everyone else in town. And because the discussion of the Gospel was considered essential to the very early puritans, those prisoners had the same chance to speak in church as everyone else did. Some used that opportunity to speak what lesson they found in the readings for that day, and sometimes the lesson they found had to do with their current situation and why they ought to be let out of it.

But that is a far and distant cry from the situation of the modern prison. More than to reform, more even than to punish – though certainly it is a punishing place – the modern prison system serves as a means to throw people away. To disconnect them from the communities and relationships that all human beings need in order to manifest and reinforce our own humanity, and to place them out of sight and out of mind. There are some terrible crimes for which people do go to jail, and I do not mean to pretend that every soul in prison is innocent – although we also know, as a matter of pure statistical fact, that not everyone in prison is guilty, either. But as a society we have lost our sense of relationship to the prisoner, to the point where even once released – having paid one’s debt to society, as we say – a felony conviction remains an eternal blot on a human life. It allows for all manner of legal and social discrimination.

Eugene Victor Debs, the international labor organizer and four-time candidate for the US presidency – the last of those campaigns conducted while he was in prison himself – famously said, “So long as there is a minority, I am in it. So long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. So long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” The institution of the prison, as it currently exists in this country, can only be explained in this way: That those of us who make the system of incarceration possible, with our labor, with our tax dollars, or simply with our non-interference, proceed with the expectation that we and the people we love will never be subject to it. If we all actually believed that any and all of us could be imprisoned at some point in our lives, the institution would necessarily undergo a radical transformation.

[Lisa M. Kirk:]

It is not the prison’s job to build the prisoners up, to help them recover their self-esteem; the job is to break them down, and to keep them broken down. Every day, their dignity is stripped from them by their fellow prisoners and staff.

A few weeks ago a man who spent 18 years in prison visited a class I was in. He was part of a program called Partakers through which prisoners can get their bachelors degrees from BU while they are incarcerated. The professors go into the prisons and teach. This man told us that after he came out of a class a guard berated him telling him that he would never finish school, that he was not smart enough. With his words, the guard attempted to take away his dignity, he threatened his safety, his identity, his independence, his right to fairness. But, the visitor did not respond to the guard, he did not let him take his dignity, he did not take the bait. This is a consistent challenge for these people. Holding on to their dignity means not taking the bait, not trying to save face, avoiding conflict so they don’t end up in the hole, lose privileges or add years to their sentence.

Norm helped me to understand that I didn’t have to answer every single thing in every single letter he sent, which, at the time felt overwhelming to me. His letters are very long and detailed because I am the only one he has to talk with. My letters, even if they’re only a couple pages long, or, now and then a card or a Sudoku puzzle book, tell him that there is someone in the world who cares about who he is, about WHO he is. There is someone who cares about what he’s thinking about, and someone who thinks that he is important. What I came to understand is that he is just like me, just like any of us. He simply wants to be heard, to be counted. He wants to be seen as the individual that he is.

And the truth is that any one of us could be where he is.

I encourage you to join me in this letter writing ministry. In this blessed room, we are surrounded by a bunch of caring and compassionate people. If this community could add the joy of companionship to a number of our incarcerated brethren through pen pal relationships we would be making the world a better place.  It could have a great impact on your life and that of your prisoner, just as it has for me and Norm.

And, as I said, any one of us could be where Norm is.

In a society where people get left behind, we are not immune. The song that this service is named for speaks to that fine line between them and us. The first verse goes like this.

Show me a prison, show me a jail
Show me the prisoner, whose face is growing pale
And I’ll show you a young man
With so many reasons why
And there but for fortune, may go you or I.

 

[i] This sermon was composed and delivered cooperatively by Rev. Kelly and Lisa M. Kirk. Each holds the rights to their respective sections.

[ii] Act II, Scene 2.

[iii] From, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Starting Fires

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously told a story about the affable, well-liked fire chief of a small town. He was polite and agreeable, and he got along well with just about everyone else in the village he served. That was, until one day when the town had an actual fire.

When the alarm went up, the fire chief and his team of fire fighters sprang into action. They raced to the scene, but they found that they couldn’t get near enough to the conflagration to address the flames. The building, you see, was surrounded by local citizens who all had sped there at the sound of the alarm, hoping to help out their good friend the fire chief. They had no hoses or buckets or helmets or axes or any other special equipment. Most of them were just standing around, while trying to maintain a careful distance from the actual heat of the blaze. Someone had thought to bring several squirt guns with them, so the crowd was taking turns squirting tiny streams of water into the fire.

Bewildered and desperate to do his crucial job, the fire chief lost his temper and shouted uncharacteristically at the mob, “Go home! A fire is no time for well-meaning, half-hearted action. Your token effort is worth nothing at all! A real fire requires people who are ready to risk their lives!”

Kierkegaard told this story as a metaphor for faith and religious community. You can hear it quoted with some regularity to lambast the casual church-goer and proclaim that true religion demands of us costly and decisive action. Which would be all well and good, if the intersection between faith and the world we inhabit were like a fire in need of putting out. That metaphor seems wildly misplaced to me, however. If anything, I would say the opposite seems closer to the truth: the place where life and meaning intersect is a fire in need of being lit.

Under this reformed metaphor, you can imagine, perhaps, that larger and smaller contributions to the effort must still matter. More fuel is greater than less, and a match more useful than a lump of flint – at least in the short term. But if the aim is to build a fire – to tend it, to keep it burning, to help it grow – then every person who adds to it really does add something, no matter their amount. We can all be inspired – and ought to be – by those who give more of themselves than we do, who are ready to take greater risks or show greater courage than we have. But the little we can each do now – the first step, perhaps, towards such eventual greatness – is not some hollow gesture or callous obstruction of the real work being done by the true practitioners of our faith.

In truth, we are all equal participants in what it means to be Unitarian Universalists, and in our case a part of the First Parish Church in Beverly. It is to each of us to attempt what the truth of our hearts calls us towards, and not to try to sort our efforts into those of the squirt gun or the fire hose set. In the coming days, you may expect to receive a letter outlining the goals of this year’s annual canvass campaign. We have chosen to dream big this year because we are a congregation with a big mission in its community and in the hearts of its members and friends. Over the course of the next month, I hope that you and your households will discern together how much of yourself you see – or wish to see – in that mission, and join me in making a financial pledge for the coming year. During the service on March 1st, we’ll gather these pledges together with gratitude.

We are tending a fire together, and every last bit we add to it makes the flame brighter and warmer. I encourage you to give as you can, and to increase your contribution from last year, if you are able. The letter you’ll receive includes guidance in making your contribution based on your income and commitment level – my family and I aim to contribute 5% of our income each year, and I hope that many of you will join me in setting that as your goal. But I also remind us all that the difference between the heroic and the easy contribution is not knowable from the outside. Only you know for yourself what might test the limits of your generosity, and what only skims the surface of your abundance.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Lead Into Gold – 2/1/2015

The story goes something like this: in ancient Greece, Dionysus was the god of wine and drinking, madness and spontaneous insight, and generally having a good time. He had a whole company of magical beings who followed him around – the hangers on to his never-ending party. One of his closest attendants was a half-man/half-goat named Silenus. Being a dutiful follower of Dionysus, he was well over the legal limit most of the time, but on one particular occasion he managed to drink enough that he wandered into the garden of the king of Phrygia, and promptly passed out.

That king, King Midas, recognized Silenus as someone beloved of a god, and took good care of him. He made sure he regained his health, and then helped him find his way back to the court of Dionysus. In gratitude, Dionysus granted Midas one wish, and Midas, dreaming of wealth beyond measure, wished that anything he touched would turn to gold. Midas received exactly what he had asked for, and set about turning all manner of common things into gold: cups and bowls, tables and chairs, flowers from his garden – truly, everything he touched turned to gold.

The king was very pleased. Until he tried to eat, and found that food had no special exception to his wish, and anything he brought to his lips would still be rendered valuable, and unchanging, and completely impossible to eat. His joy quickly turned to fear, and soon Midas was beside himself. The final straw came when his daughter, whom he dearly loved, tried to comfort her father. For reaching out to him with a gentle touch, she became a statue. Overcome with grief, King Midas prayed to Dionysus and begged to have his wish – in truth, a curse – undone. Still in a generous mood, the god offered the king a way to reverse the whole affair, by bathing in the river Pactolus. Midas ran to the river and jumped into it, passing his terrible gift into its waters. His daughter, and everything else that he had touched were restored to just as they had been before, and this, the story explains, is why the river Pactolus is so rich with gold that you can sift little bits of it right out of the sand.

The moral of the fable is – and I think this is pretty unambiguous – that one cannot live by gold alone. Seeking wealth – or perhaps perfection, or immunity from change, whatever gold might represent – to the exclusion of everything else can only lead to suffering. In fact Aristotle alludes to a different version of the story in his philosophical work, Politics, in which Midas’ prayer of regret went unanswered, and he starved to death. Now, Midas’ is a pretty familiar story for most of us, I’d wager. All the names and details might not come up for us naturally, but folks probably recognize the name Midas as “that guy who turned everything he touched into gold.” What strikes me about this is that, collectively, we seem to only remember that part of the story.

The primary way we refer to Midas, in our culture, is with the saying that a person who is very successful or talented or good at whatever they do has ‘the Midas touch.’ There seems to be no sense of irony here, whenever it’s used to describe someone in business, or an artist, or whether it’s used to describe someone in the business world, or arts and entertainment, or sports. It’s particularly commonly said of the coaches of particularly successful athletic teams. A Google search for “Bill Belichik” “midas touch,” for instance, yields over 35,000 hits. And many of those are remarks from concerned sports commentators seizing on some moment of less-than-total superiority from the Patriots to wonder if this meant their coach had lost his ‘Midas touch’. Forgetting, apparently, that for Midas, being relieved of his magical touch was not his loss, but his salvation.

The ten-dollar word for transforming anything else into gold is chrysopoeia, and it’s a recurring theme in our legends and in our metaphors. Again, wealth here is the obvious meaning – gold is a relatively rare, and for that reason alone, many different human cultures have valued it and held it to be worth working for, trading for, or killing for. I have a powerful memory from my childhood about just how rare gold is. The memory is of a trip to the hall of minerals at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, which offered the fun fact that if you somehow took all of the gold in the world and melted it down into a single cube, it would only measure somewhere around 70 feet on each side. Now that’s a pretty big cube, but as this exhibit pointed out it’s less than half the width of a football field, so that if you plopped this imaginary block of all the world’s gold down in the middle of a game, it would be inconvenient, but the game could still be played around it. But gold’s meaning isn’t just its rarity and value as currency. Gold also represents success, accomplishment, an ideal or perfection. We talk about the ‘gold standard,’ the ‘golden rule,’ and the ‘golden age.’ And the other key quality of gold as a material is that it doesn’t tarnish or rust. To the ancients it symbolized something eternal, unchanging, and immune to the passage of time.

So the idea chrysopoeia, of being able to change some other material into gold by means of science or magic, is really about controlling and ultimately cheating change itself. Change is an essential quality of time and the universe. Science fiction author Octavia Butler wrote these on the subject:

“All that you touch

You change.

All that you change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is change.

God

Is change.”

It’s sometimes said that the only things that don’t change are dead, but that’s not true – even dead things change. They decay, they decompose, and eventually their forms break down, sometimes into new living things. But the inescapable reality of change is so frightening that we like to tell ourselves we can control it. In his famous poem, ‘Ozymandius,’ Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote of the brazen declaration of power and timelessness contained on an ancient pedestal,

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The civilization that wrote the inscription had long since turned to dust. It’s mighty king’s attempt at immortality might last only a few centuries more before even his name was blasted off the stone by wind and sand. To invoke another famous poet, “Nothing gold can stay.”

There’s a story which is probably mostly legend about Vladimir the Great, a Russian monarch of the 10th century. It is said that he sent members of his court to study the religions of his neighbors, looking for a new faith for his pagan nation to adopt. When he heard their reports, he rejected Judaism because it had no homeland, and he rejected Islam because it forbade alcohol, something he believed his subjects would not accept. He opted instead for Christianity, and made a political agreement to marry a Christian princess. He traveled to Byzantium for the wedding and to officially accept his new religion. Vladimir and all the soldiers travelling with him were to be baptized together and this was not going to be a little sprinkling of water. The local tradition of the time called for a full-body immersion in the Black Sea.

The whole plan was thrown into jeopardy, however, when Vladimir was told that he and his fighting men could not continue the wars of conquest – at which they had been very successful – and still be good Christians. So, according to legend, he devised a compromise. Vladimir and his men each went into the sea with their right arms raised above the water – so that their bodies were baptized but their sword-arms remained unaltered. Vladimir wanted to have all the benefits of a new religion, and the political alliances it would open to him, but pay none of the costs, accept none of the limitations. He wanted to change without changing.

Change is inevitable. So often we try to tell ourselves we can control that change, and we can – but never completely. In the folklore of Ireland and Scotland, there’s a fantastical creature called a selkie – a seal that can swim to shore, take off its skin and walk on dry land as a human woman. In one of the most common folktales about a selkie goes something like this. A young man catches sight of a selkie and becomes infatuated with her. He steals her seal skin from its hiding place and once she is trapped as a human, he convinces her to marry him. For years they live together, make a home, raise a family; the selkie appears to be a wife and a mother, while all being a prisoner. Then one day, their eldest child is rummaging through her father’s things, and opens a certain trunk, and finds a certain seal-pelt. And then her mother sees it, and takes it, and runs back to the sea, never to be seen again. We want for change to serve our ends and no others, but this is never the case. The change that is essential to life is complex, it is messy, and it is unpredictable. And if we try to dictate it completely and totally, we only end up doing harm.

The term chrysopoeia comes from the tradition of alchemy, the forerunner of modern chemistry. The study of alchemy dates back millennia and crosses continents and numerous cultures and religions, but its European incarnation is famous for one particular goal: transforming lead, or any other cheap metal, into gold. In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for wealthy or learned people – anyone with time enough on their hands and access to the right books – to dabble in the so-called art of alchemy. An alchemists laboratory would have had some of the same elements as a modern high school chemistry lab: glass containers for storing, measuring, and pouring different liquids and powders, flames for heating them, tools for mixing. The princes and kings of Europe would sometimes hire alchemists to come work for them, in the hopes that they might in all their mixing and experimenting, actually turn lead into gold and thus solve all of their country’s monetary troubles. Other monarchs feared exactly the same thing happening, but for some other benefactor, and outlawed the practice of alchemy to keep their nation’s economy from being destroyed by someone with the power to effectively print their own money.

But even if there really were alchemists motivated by nothing more than the pursuit of free money, others claimed that the transmutation of lead into gold was just a metaphor for a higher purpose. That purpose was sometimes said to be medical, and the project of alchemy – as far short of the standards of the modern scientific method as it often fell – did lead to some critical advances in medicine. For instance, Paracelcus – a famous alchemist of 16th century – was a pioneer in the study of both poisons and the human mind. In this case creating gold might be a euphemism for, or a precursor to, creating a panacea – a universal cure for all wounds and ailments – or simply for an elixir of immortality.

But others said that even the goal of healing human bodies was just a sideshow on the way to the truly great work: to purify and exalt the spirit of the alchemist and reach a higher plane of consciousness. A lot of what was written and taught about alchemy in its day mixes and blurs the lines between these three goals: wealth, immortality, and enlightenment. There’s a lot of vague, obtuse poetry – “as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing” – and their equivalent to lab instruction illustrations look like the stuff of heavy metal album covers: all dragons, and firebirds, and whole mountains carved with arcane figures. Throughout all this, one of the most common themes is the combining, dividing, and recombining of seemingly conflicting forces. Seeking a union between the mental faculties sometimes symbolized by a king, or a father, or the sun in the sky, and the spiritual qualities represented by a queen, or a mother, or the face of the moon. In a strange way, this focus on mixing and testing and measuring and recombining different elements in order to achieve success and perfection has a parallel to a football coach, again. Someone who combines different players into different arrangements, tests them under extreme pressure, and seeks the ultimate goal of their profession: to win.

I’ve chosen to spend so much time with you today meditating on change and the quest for wealth for three reasons. The first is that on Super Bowl Sunday, I could not resist all the odd ways in which Midas, alchemy, and the search for gold seemed to intersect with the topic I know most of you have had on your minds throughout. The second reason is that the beginning of February marks the beginning of our canvass season, during which the members and friends of this congregation make their annual pledge of financial support. We’ll spend the next several weeks with that process bubbling and percolating away like an alchemical concoction until one month from today, in the service on March 1st, when our pledges will be received and celebrated and consecrated. So I want to remind us of the lesson I believe the story of Midas teaches: seeking wealth for its own sake never goes well. When, as a community, we turn to each other and ask ourselves to lend our treasure to support our spiritual home, it is not and should not be just for the sake of having more money – or more anything for that matter. We hold this season each year not just out of necessity to keep the lights on and the snow shoveled out, but because we find something here worth growing and sustaining. This congregation has a great deal more work to do here in Beverly, on the North Shore, and in the larger world. Whatever we accomplish, it will be because we come together to lend our will, our wisdom, and our wallets to the task.

And the final reason I wanted to talk about change this morning is that we have an important question of change to face today in the special congregational meeting following this service. One of our neighbor congregations in Salem has asked if we would like to join together with them. The question before us is whether we believe our two elements may be combined to create something more precious. Whether we are ready, willing, and able, to embrace the possibility held in this potential change.

The answer in this, as is in so many other cases in life, is going to be up to you. Change, after all, is inescapable – it’s a reality and one we have to navigate – but we have the power to decide how we meet it. Fear of change, of the new, the different, is entirely natural, even reasonable. In every change is a sort of death: the ending of the sameness of the way things were before. But it is also a birth of sorts, a doorway into something different. The end of what has been and the beginning of what may be arrives for us no matter what.

 

Thy Neighbor’s Ass – 1/25/2015

Just inside the door to my study – back there at the rear of the sanctuary – there hangs on the wall a decorative plate. It was a gift from my little brother, who has lived for three years now in East Jerusalem. The plate is decorated with Arabic calligraphy and the words are the entire text of the 113th surah, or chapter, of the Qur’an. This all fits onto one plate because the chapters of the Qur’an get shorter and shorter the deeper into the scripture you go, so that this one, the second-to-last, is only six lines long. The text of this chapter is a common decoration in Muslim homes, and many Muslims recite its words as part of their preparations for sleep each night. It is a prayer for help and protection. Any translation of the original Arabic would be imperfect, but I’ll tell you the poetic rendering that I repeat to myself every time I stare at that plate:

I take refuge in the breaking forth of dawn

Against all the evils of creation

And the evil that dwells in the onrushing night

And the evil of hateful thoughts and imprecations

And the evil of envy

Whether it be in another’s heart or in my own

So you can hear, then, that it is a prayer against evil, and in particular against three sorts. All the dangers and threats that the night may have to offer. All the harms of cruel thoughts and evil wishes. The literal Arabic translation for that verse is, “those who blow on knots,” which is a reference to an ancient pagan practice – this is meant as a shield against curses or witchcraft, to use a locally resonant term. And finally, the evil of envy – with no distinction made between protection from someone else’s envy, and your own.

As I said, I repeat this formula to myself every time I stare at that plate that my brother gave me. When I hung it in my office, I put it in a place where I would see it immediately any time I looked up from my desk – something I do dozens, maybe as much as a hundred times in a day. That prayer for protection from envy is something that I need to be reminded of at least that often – and if I’m being honest, I could use the reminder a good bit more often than that.

About fifteen years ago I was talking with someone who was then a new friend, about what the most challenging moral demand of the biblical tradition was. My answer was an obvious one, but pretty easy to defend: the hardest thing is to respond to hate with love. His answer was a little less common, and challenging enough that a decade and a half later I am still thinking about it: The hardest thing to do, he said, is not to covet. He was referring, of course, to the close of the Ten Commandments – what is either commandment ten or commandments nine and ten, depending on whether one follows the Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic numberings. The Ten Commandments actually appear twice in the bible in slightly different formulations. Here’s that segment from their first edition, in the book of Exodus, according to the beloved and infamous King James translation:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”[i]

It’s a simple enough idea that – once adjusted by the more recent moral insight that people ought not to belong to other people in the way that houses can – seems hard to argue with. Yet, so much of our world is built around the covetous impulse – the feeling of desire for what we do not have, of envy towards others for anything and everything they may possess. A commercial for fabric softener, or beer, or a new model of automobile shows us someone else enjoying fluffy clothes, an evening out, an exciting lifestyle. The scene is there to make us want what they have, to envy them, to covet whatever product or service it is we are meant to connect their enjoyment to. Such envy might just drive us to go out and buy that product which is, after all, the one and only point of all advertising. But here the coveting doesn’t start or end in an object – and it may never even pass through one.

We are conditioned constantly to desire experiences we don’t have, habits we could never afford, bodies that are wildly unrealistic for anyone without the aid of copious free time, a team of personal trainers, and photoshop. The vast array of images and sounds that make up our shared culture are mostly meant to advertise something, and even as this force manipulates us, it’s viewers, it is not really any more kind to the celebrities and media personalities that act out this jealous-making pageant. MTV, in just one example, has quite a long-running program devoted to showcasing the opulent homes of musicians and other celebrities. They play up the luxury and expense of these estates, even though they are often rented, with cars and other flashy attractions on loan to make the episode’s subject appear more unapproachably well-off. Whole careers are built, by this machine, to make us covet our neighbor’s house, or our neighbor’s ass. See for example: Kim Kardashian. This is even something we do entirely to ourselves and each other, with no need for the direct action of any mighty corporation or advertising agency. Facebook, all by itself – not the ads, not the sponsored content, but the pictures and descriptions of friends and family living their lives – has now been shown to leave one in three users substantially less satisfied with their own lives at the end of a given browsing session.[ii]

The ability to assess who has something we do not, and to make a bid against that gap is a skill most of us begin practicing at a very young age. In one scene from his quasi-auto-biographical television show, comedian Louis CK gives the last piece of mango to one of his young daughters, and then has to contend the other’s complaints. “It’s not fair,” she insists, again and again, until her father declares sternly, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” This does nothing to placate her – so he gives up and lets her have a piece of candy as a consolation – provided she takes another to give to her sister. The ways in which envy has shaped human interaction throughout the history of our species are countless. It is implied in the text, and sometimes argued by biblical interpreters, that Cain slew his brother Abel because he was jealous that his brother’s sacrificial offering was found pleasing to God where his was not. Far more recently, it was reported two years ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin had risked an international incident in order to make off with Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring. He saw something. He wanted it. He took it. That ethos has founded whole nations – and snuffed out and diminished uncountable lives.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not unique in their collective stance against covetousness and envy. That is a theme throughout much of human religion – one might say even that it is an essential purpose behind all faith to mitigate our most selfish impulses. In the Buddhist tradition, jealousy is seen as a terrible impediment to spiritual growth. One Buddhist story tells of a monk who lived alone in a small shrine that was supported by a wealthy patron. Because of the regular donations he received, the monk never had to worry about where his next meal would come from, and he could devote himself entirely to study and meditation. Then, one day, a wandering sage passed through town. He happened to meet the wealthy man who supported the shrine, and the rich man was impressed by this visitor’s wisdom and holiness. He suggested that the wanderer stay for a time at the shrine. The resident monk welcomed the traveler outwardly, but inside he became fearful and angry. He wished the rich man’s attention and respect for himself, and did not want to share it. Even more so, he was afraid of losing his meal-ticket.

The next day, when it was time for both monks to go out begging together, the envious one rang the gong to sound the hour and knocked on the guest’s door – but only a with a single fingernail each time, so that no sound could be heard. Then he went out begging alone while the wandering monk continued to sleep. The jealous monk went to see the rich man on his route and ate another fine meal in his house. He claimed ignorance of where the visiting monk might be, but implied that perhaps he was too busy sleeping to see to his spiritual obligations. The benefactor sent the deceitful monk back to the shrine with a generous meal of food for his guest, but when the wanderer woke up he realized that he must have been unwelcome, and left the shrine and the town behind. The original monk was left alone again as he had desired, but his mind was not at peace. The rest of his days were spent worrying over whether that sage would return again, or another rival might appear, and so he could never enjoy the comfort of even one more meal.

One of the Buddhist tradition’s key antidotes to the corrosive effects of envy is mudita – taking joy in the happiness and accomplishments of others. Mudita – usually translated as sympathetic joy – is one of the four immeasurables – virtues which, in the Buddhist understanding, one can never have too much of. To be happy for the happiness of others, to celebrate their accomplishments, and to rejoice in their good fortune: this is the way out of envy. This is the means to overcome covetousness.

I would expect that, for most of us, such sympathetic joy is not foreign, but it also isn’t something that comes easily on demand. One of the aspects of life where it usually feels most natural is in the relationship between close friends and family members, and perhaps most strongly between parents and their children. It’s a common thing for those of us who are parents to express how proud we are of our children. Sometime ago, however, I had a conversation with one of you that made me do some rethinking of whether I ought to say as much, or at least how I ought to say it. Jack Quigley is a long-time member of our congregation, and I’ve shared a number of fascinating and illuminating conversations with him in my comparatively shorter time here. Jack, I thank you for granting me your permission to talk a bit about one such conversation this morning. Jack mentioned to me early this fall that when his children were younger he resisted saying that he was proud of them. This wasn’t because he didn’t rejoice in their accomplishments – quite the contrary. Raising two talented children there was a lot to rejoice in. But somehow to declare that he was proud felt presumptuous, as though he was laying claim to something he did not have a right to. Pride is something one ought to have in oneself – that emotion belonged to his children to claim and to feel. Jack invoked a much beloved stanza from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet,”

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

I agree with you, Jack, that pride is a feeling that we need, first and foremost, to feel for ourselves. And I would not quibble with your decision not to use the term in reference to other people – there are a great bevy of alternatives to express our appreciation for and celebration of our children, our partners, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors, or anyone else. But I also think there may be a way to salvage feeling pride for others, for those of us who might want to hold onto it. Saying that you’re proud of someone can mean that you know them well enough to appreciate their gifts and accomplishments and to recognize that they’re worth feeling good about. Even if the other person doesn’t always feel pride in themselves, you feel it for them. This is mudita, this is sympathetic joy. What we call it matters, in as much as words always matter, but the feeling is what is most important.

Which is why, when I find the green glow of envy creeping in at the edges of my vision, when I note some good luck or accomplishment for a tangential friend or colleague – often on Facebook – and lift my head up from my computer screen for an instant, I take refuge in the breaking forth of dawn. I pray to myself again those words that are inscribed on my office wall. I remind myself that the small and petty instinct of covetousness is nothing before the generous and sympathetic celebration of the universe. Each morning, the innumerable trials and triumphs of the world receive such wondrous fanfare as no human hand could wrought. There is a force that is greater in the human heart than the urge to possess whatever our neighbors might have. And this is the finding of pleasure in another’s pleasure. The finding of hope in another’s hope. The finding of gratitude in another’s good fortune. So this week, friends, I have a bit of homework for us to undertake: practice celebrating the gifts and good fortune of the other people in your lives.

 

[i] Exodus 20:17

[ii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/facebook-study-envy_n_2526549.html

The Myth of Time – 1/18/2015

Tomorrow, our nation will mark its annual observation of Martin Luther King Day, and so this weekend, in churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country his memory is being invoked and his words are being intoned. To join with that practice, I want to begin with a long passage from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which is, in my opinion, the most insightful and eternally relevant of all his well-known writings. Before I begin reading, let me remind you of the context of the text. In Alabama, and in fact throughout much of this country, in 1963 racial discrimination by means of segregation was not only legal but the law. In order to confront an unacceptable status quo, a coalition of local leaders and organizers from across the South led a month-long campaign of protest and non-violent resistance in Birmingham, Alabama, then one of the most segregated cities in America. Dr. King was the leading face of the campaign, and was among those arrested for it on April 12th – the Friday before Easter. While he was in jail, a friend smuggled in a newspaper to him which included a letter published by white faith leaders in Alabama – 4 ministers, 3 priests, and 1 rabbi – denouncing the campaign. They called it ‘unwise and untimely,’ claimed that it was inciting ‘hatred and violence,’ and dismissed it as the work of outsiders. Dr. King penned his response while still in jail, beginning in the margins of the newspaper itself until his lawyers were eventually allowed to bring him a writing pad. Here now is a crucial segment of his response:

“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

It is this myth of time that I wish to speak about with you this morning, this idea that things will get better, left unto themselves. Put plainly like that, I believe that most of us would reject such a belief on its face. It seems straight-forwardly illogical: on the level of our own lives, what we do not attend to generally does not get done. Perhaps you have, like me, surveyed your living space and the clothes you have not folded, the floor you have not swept, and the dishes you have not washed and thought to yourself, “Gosh, the little elves who are supposed to clean my place are really falling down on the job.” ‘Of course time is neutral,’ most of us think to ourselves, when we set out to confront our problems or to change something we feel needs changing. But this thinking creeps back in again, over and over, whenever we consider problems that we hold to be someone else’s and not our own. There is always a direct relationship between our personal distance from an issue and our sense of urgency and necessity towards that issue.

The kitchen-table wisdom that ‘time heals all wounds,’ is something that we counsel others with – rarely ourselves. It is easiest to say, ‘Wait! Be patient!’ when we are not the ones whose patience is being tested. So that anyone who would invoke that famous instruction attributed to the teacher Jesus – “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer them the other,” – must remember this: That the teacher Jesus and his audience were all living under the same military occupation and that his demise seems proof enough that he was under no less threat from it than were any of they. Counseling calm and peace and patience in the face of danger means little if you do not share that danger yourself. And just as an aside here, I should say something about the group of protesters who shut down part of I-93 this week in an act of civil disobedience on Dr. King’s actual birthday. I might quibble with their strategy and tactics, and fret that their action might alienate more than it activates, but their protest still springs from a goal of interrupting the normal course of things and creating urgency. And I must also confess, if only to myself, that their protest was far more than anything I did, for the cause of racial justice on Martin Luther King’s birthday this year.

The human impulse to seek the comfortable is very powerful, and it is not something I want to simply deride and dismiss. The world can be dangerous, and life can be hard, and it is natural and understandable how often we seek to establish for ourselves a firm existential footing; some scheme by which the universe makes sense. In the early days of quantum physics, when the leading minds of science were only just coming to terms with the idea that the whole universe is, at its most fundamental level, a matter of probabilities rather than certainties, there was one notably loud, strong voice of dissent. Albert Einstein, by then already a giant in his field, was deeply troubled by the existential implications of quantum theory and famously argued that, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Fundamental randomness was opposed to real truth, in his view. To this Einstein’s chief adversary, Niehs Bohr is reported to have retorted, “Einstein, you can’t tell God what to do with his dice!”

King’s proclamation that time is neutral is designed to shake the listener out of that moral laziness which makes us all-too patient with the suffering of others. Yet viewed another way it almost reads like candy-coated flattery for time itself. Time which grinds down mountains and scatters nations to dust. Time which dries up oceans and buries dreams unfulfilled. Time, which may be no friend to those with broken bodies or broken hearts, which is the assassin of all living things. In 5 billion years time, our sun will go out – which makes time seem like hardly a neutral thing at all. The poet Saul Williams speaks of struggling against time and the way that history can seem to dictate the present. I’m going to quote him here, but first I should tell you that he uses the phrase, “Sha-Clack-Clack,” I believe, to evoke the tyrannical violence of slavery. And I should also give fair warning: out of respect for the poet, I haven’t cleaned up his language for church. He speaks,

“I am not the son of Sha-Clack-Clack

I am before that, I am before

I am before before

Before death is eternity, after death is eternity

There is no death there’s only eternity

And I be riding on the wings of eternity

Like HYAH! HYAH! HYAH! Sha-Clack-Clack

But my flight doesn’t go undisturbed

Because time makes dreams defer

And all of my time fears are turning my days into daymares

And I live daymares reliving nightmares

Of what taunted my past

Sha-Clack-Clack, time is beatin my ass”

It’s an incredibly common impulse to want to go back and change the past, and makes time travel a theme in countless novels and films. In most of those stories, there ends up being some explanation for why, even if once impossibly transported into the past, we cannot change it. Yet, we do not need to break the laws of physics in order to achieve that feeling of powerlessness before the unfolding of history. This week I went to see the movie Selma, which I commend to you. As you probably know, the film tells the story of the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Already knowing that story, I knew going in that there were three people who would die in the course of it: Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. They were not famous people, not major leaders. They were rank-and-file protesters, and they were murdered for it. As I sat in the dark of the theater, knowing how the story had unfolded when it happened, how it had to unfold again in this depiction, did nothing to soften the shock when it happened on screen. As the film itself portrays, Selma could never have been the axial moment in time that it was without those three deaths. They brought attention, anger, and urgency from people who were distracted, disinterested, and disengaged. But, of course, this can’t justify those killings because nothing can justify killing. So they simply remain frozen in time, sealed behind the immutable glass barrier that separates the present from the past.

It made me think of a midrash, a story from the Jewish tradition elaborating on the narrative and teaching of the bible. The Jewish tradition teaches that the whole of the Torah – Judaism’s foundational scripture – was entrusted to Moses by G-d. In the midrash, it is said, that Moses asked G-d about an intricate detail in the precise calligraphy of the text; it meant nothing special to him, so who was it for? So G-d took Moses forward in time, to visit the academy of Rabbi Akiva, one of the most renowned scholars in all of Jewish history. He would be the one with insight enough to understand and explain even the most minute detail in the careful lettering of the Torah. Moses was to deliver the Torah and promulgate it even though he did not fully understand it, because one day others would come who would peer into it more deeply. There is a comforting message in this story; how we may not fully understand all the consequences of our actions or live to see the realization of everything we work for, but our contributions to the world can still yield great things beyond our reckoning. But the midrash does not end there. Moses asked G-d to show him what the fitting reward for such a great man as Akiva must be, so G-d ushered Moses a little bit further into the future, only to see Rabbi Akiva murdered by the Roman authorities during their occupation of Judeah. He was a martyr; someone killed by those who wished to silence a cry for justice, just like the teacher Jesus. Just like Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. Just like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

This is the generous and terrible neutrality of time: that beauty and tragedy are both made possible by its passage. Kurt Vonnegut praised time in his Humanist Requiem as, “Merciful Time, who buries the sins of the world.” The beauty comes about more often, and the tragedy less so, in those places and times touched by “the tireless efforts,” of all those, “willing to be co-workers with God,” as Dr. King put it. I might say as well – or instead, if you do not understand God as a potential co-worker – that the holy possibilities which time affords are most often realized by those who bend themselves along the arc of the moral universe. That famous quotation of King’s, that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” is a more elegant rephrasing of our spiritual ancestor Theodore Parker’s words,

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The moral universe, and the physical one, through which time passes, only intersect where human action brings them together. Accomplishing the moral repair and social regeneration that is needed in our time as in every time, requires of us hard work, creativity, and a profound impatience with the suffering of others, whether they be near or far, and whether they be similar or different to ourselves in skin-color, gender-expression, language, philosophy, or faith. For this reason, the danger in the myth of time is not only the false idea that time will cure all ills, but the mistaken belief, perhaps unique to the age that succeeded Dr. King, that time has, in fact, already cured all those ills. We have not reached the Promised Land, friends. Not in an era of mass-incarceration, and not in a land of plenty still marred by poverty. Instead, it remains to all of us who might wish to be counted as people of good will, to be co-workers with one another, as we work to turn the march of history to better match the moral universe’s arc.

 

Where the Streets Have No Name – 1/4/2015

The place where I grew up sees a lot of snow, each winter. Specifically, it consistently places in the top 20 of US cities with the highest annual snowfall. There are certainly much colder places to live, and there are a number of towns that see far more severe winter storms on a regular basis, but as far as dependably large amounts of snow spread out over a long season goes, we had plenty of it. Having enough of the white stuff on hand offers a laundry list of opportunities for seasonal diversions – sledding and skiing and snow-person building among them. But it also requires certain chores be undertaken: mostly, the moving around of all that crystalized water to get it from any place where it poses an obstacle to any other place where it does not.

So it was that, on many occasions throughout my childhood, I was tasked with the chore of shoveling out the family driveway. For an adolescent with no particular back problems, it wasn’t such a bad job. The driveway wasn’t particularly large, and the whole thing could usually be done in less than two hours, even after a serious storm. Still, I don’t remember ever enjoying the work. Shifting all that wet, heavy, lake-effect snow around is a slow, monotonous task, and I did not then, and still do not have, the gift for finding a rhythm or a meditative attitude in it. It was simply one of those things that had to be done; the inconvenience of a tiring winter afternoon didn’t really compare to the unthinkable alternative of a blocked driveway with no way to get vehicles in or out.

What I cherished, though, and still do, were those times when fortune smiled on me. Our neighbors across the street were an older, retired couple. In winter, they had the same shoveling problem that we did, that everyone in our neighborhood did. And their solution, rather than a lot of elbow grease and wear and tear on backs that really shouldn’t be taking such, was owning a snow blower. And if I happened to be outside shoveling at the right time, and perhaps if I made myself look particularly pathetic, the man from across the street would sometimes come over to our drive after he’d finished his. Without exchanging words, he’d use his incredibly loud snow-eating and expelling machine to uncover the front section of asphalt, saving me a big chunk of work and time.

That commonplace, deeply appreciated act of neighborliness took my neighbor through and across the street that lay between our two homes. And it’s this place – this odd place, both ubiquitous and ignored – that I want to focus our spiritual attention on this morning. The street – any street – whether a road or a highway or a path, but especially the paved expanse between the blocks of a town or city, dramatically shapes the world in which we live. The contours of urban living, the very essence of what it means to be a city, resides in the street. It is an in-between space that has at least three different roles: the street can connect us, it can divide us, and it can help us to know each other.

The connection should be the most obvious. A street is an open, flat expanse that people can use to travel from one destination to another. Here in Beverly, and in cities all over the world, that means blacktop for cars and cyclists with some space along the edges set aside for pedestrians. But that’s not universal, of course. Some low-lying cities replace roads and cars with canals and boats. Others have streets free of vehicle traffic – usually out of necessity, when the existing space between buildings is too winding and narrow for any car (or sometimes even bicycle) to share the thoroughfare with people on foot. The old section of Jerusalem is one example, as is Fes al Bali in Morocco which is home to over 150,000 people and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.

The way in which streets divide us should be almost as obvious. Streets are dangerous, at least the ones full of cars, which again is almost all of them. This danger is a basic lesson we try to instill in our children. It’s the basis for all the laws and regulations associated with our roadways. And it’s a recurring trope in fiction and media. In one classic Monty Python sketch, a news host introduces a cut-away to ask “the man in the street” his thoughts on an issue. The man being interviewed is standing literally in the street – and so his remarks are interrupted when he is hit by a car. Consider also the classic arcade game, Frogger, in which the player attempts to help erstwhile amphibians navigate a busy highway. Three and a half centuries ago, the realities of travel were so different that getting from Beverly to Salem was an arduous, time-consuming, and occasionally dangerous prospect. With our modern pavement, bridges, and most importantly, cars, we have evolved into a phenomenally mobile society. That mobility comes at a price, though, of being tied together and surrounded by a vast web of streets which see fast-moving, multi-ton vehicles coursing along them at all hours of the day and night.

Even this, however, is not the only element of division created by our streets. The street – interpreted broadly, to include the sidewalk as well – is the point at which the places and properties where we live, work, shop, study, and worship end. The street is public space, the line where private property stops. But this is also what makes the street’s third role in our lives possible: it is a place where we can come to know each other better. In our era, this meaning for the street has been eclipsed and diminished to the point where what I’m driving at may not seem so obvious. Most of what a modern street is there for is to provide a route for our rolling boxes of privacy and anonymity: our cars. Everything else is usually treated as a secondary concern, so that we may want safer intersections for cyclists and crossings for pedestrians, but we blanch at sacrificing speed and convenience for drivers in order to get them. Yet, roads are common space – they are the most common form of common space in our cities, in fact, far exceeding park land and public buildings when measured in square feet.

The street has a role, therefore, as a place of interchange and interaction between people. This does happen on the sidewalk from time to time, when we manage to pull our senses out of the bubble of immediate, personal concern in which we are trained and socialized to live. But think of how it also explodes during those unusual times when we are allowed to use the street for something other than zipping along between the place we have to be and the place we had to be an hour ago. We had one of these moments just this past week, when the street outside was shut down for the local New Year’s celebration. And we also have a more permanent example across the bridge in Salem, where the Essex Street pedestrian mall allows the free flow of people and constant opportunities to notice and engage with each other. This is not all lollipops and gumdrops – I followed with interest some months ago as conflicts between street performers and a street preacher grew large enough that the city had to weigh in on the matter. But the fact remains that the street is most of the space that we hold in common in our cities and towns. It is natural and necessary that we do all that we can to help and to make it serve as a place where neighbors and strangers can connect with and experience each other. In fact, this is the sort of thing we need in order to really become and remain neighbors at all – as opposed to just people living separate, parallel lives in buildings or rooms that happen to be near each other.

Now, this is not the venue for a lecture on urban design, and my education is in theology, not city planning. I want to focus on what the street has to say to us at the spiritual level. These three very practical purposes for the street – a means of connection, a line of division, and a place of interchange – are all very much spiritual matters. How we connect to each other, how we cross the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘thou,’ is fundamentally a spiritual question. It’s a question that gains some illumination from one of the most important concepts in the religious history of East Asia: the Tao.

The Tao is a crucial, influential idea of ancient Chinese philosophy and poetry. It is described, in part, as the source of and force behind all things. The word ‘Tao’ is often translated as the Way – it is a rhythm or course through existence that is in harmony with existence. The Tao is one way of understanding the holy – the central meaning of the universe, whatever that might be – and if it does not literally translate as street, we can see that its meaning is closely related. As Unitarian Universalists, we sometimes talk about the sacred as something that occurs between people, and that the spirit exists in and as the bridge between ‘me’ and ‘you’. God then, or the Tao, or whatever term for meaning speaks to you, can be said to be like the street: made up of the space between, both a pathway through life and a foundation for relationships between lives. The Tao Te Ching – one of Taoism’s most essential texts – observes:

If I have just a little sense

Walking on the great Way

I fear only to deviate from it

The great Way is broad and plain

But people like to take short-cuts

The street knits our neighborhoods together into cities, but it also shapes the contours and limits of those neighborhoods. Streets provide character and form to the places where we live, their yellow lines providing boundaries like a map literally drawn onto the world. The poet Sue Ellen Thompson, in her poem entitled, ‘Home,’ appears to begin with the building itself, but quickly expands the sense of belonging and of where and what home is to include the streets surrounding:

The place your parents brought you straight

from the hospital, where you spent

those endless years of grade-

school. Or maybe it’s the place

where you raised your own

children, where you were never alone.

The place you retreat to after the divorce,

or when circumstances force

you to go there. According to Frost,

they have to—but you know the rest.

 

Who can say for how many weeks

after moving you will lie awake,

staring at the clock-radio, before

you stop listening for the pre-dawn roar

of traffic down your former street—

before the word begins to rise from deep

inside somewhere as you approach

the yellow blinker at Main and Oak,

which, like the porch light your mother

flicked off and on when you and your first lover

were parked at the darkest edge of the lawn,

reminds you where you belong.

          But having a place, a neighborhood, to be, even to belong to, does not necessarily make one a worthy neighbor. About ten years ago I remember reading about a man in England who had alienated all the people living near him by building a race track in his backyard. The smog-spewing, broken-down cars often ran around that loop at strange hours, without about as many emergency calls for vehicle collisions as you might expect. The world has no shortage of examples of lousy neighbors.

Still, it also has plenty of examples of great ones. When I was still in grade school, my hometown had a storm serious enough to disrupt the normal course of life for basically everyone in the city. The Ice Storm of 1991 brought down electrical lines all over town. Whole neighborhoods lost power and heat, but the crews working to restore service could only do so in much smaller pieces: a few houses here, a block there. In the week or more it took to get anywhere close to normal again, the line between warm and safe and cold and in a lot of danger was often a row of hedges, or a fence, or a street. My family spent a full seven days without electricity that winter. We had the means to be safe where we were, and turned down offers from neighbors and friends to move in with them temporarily. We did take folks up on the offer of a place to shower, though. It was during that week that we were driving down one particular street and kept feeling an odd series of bumps. Eventually, from watching out the window, we saw what the cause was: There were long, orange lines of extension cords running across the street. The houses on one side had power – the houses on the other did not. So creative folks had come up with this jury-rigged solution to come to their neighbors’ aid.

The book of Leviticus and the teacher Jesus both agree that neighborliness is religious work, and there is no short-cut through considering the lives and needs of the people who are our neighbors. We cannot be sure what our sense of connection to others will ask of us in each moment, but we can be sure that moving beyond isolation and into relationship will require us to set out and to cross the street.

What Comes Next

Life on this planet seems to have begun somewhere between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago. We know this from the record written into the stones of the earth itself: telltale signs of living things that trace back that far. We have found ancient substances which living processes are required to produce. More directly, we have fossils – the remnants of once-living things slowly transformed into stone. The fossil part is particularly amazing because, from its beginning through the first two-and-a-half-billion-years-or-so, all life on earth was single-celled. For well-more than half of the known history of living things, life has existed in only the simplest, tiniest of forms.

Tiny and simple, but still incredibly creative and diverse. So it was that after a few hundred million years of mutation and evolution, exploring different possible strategies for what life could mean, the first cyanobacteria appeared. They are important, because they were the first living things capable of photosynthesis – drawing sustenance from the sun itself. This new means of gaining energy produced oxygen as a waste product. The ancient world had oxygen, of course, but it was locked up in the earth and the sea. Today, oxygen is roughly 20% of the air that surrounds us, and that is traceable to this early form of life.

Over the course of something like a billion years of making oxygen, cyanobacteria completely transformed their world. Most of the other forms of life that existed alongside them couldn’t tolerate an oxygen-rich environment. There was a mass extinction, sometimes called the Oxygen Catastrophe, which whipped out an uncountable number of different forms of ancient life. The new oxygen in the atmosphere also disrupted a process that was keeping the earth hot, helping to trigger an ice age that measured in the hundreds of millions of years. That cold snap nearly killed off the cyanobacteria, too – life nearly snuffed itself out without ever getting past the one-cell stage.

Yet, living things endured. All that free-floating oxygen made a new course for evolutionary development possible: life that actually depended on oxygen rather than being harmed by it or creating it as waste. And oxygen, it turns out, is very useful in forming and sustaining the sorts of life that are made up of more than one cell. So that today all, or very-nearly all, life on earth traces its origin back to the Oxygen Catastrophe.

We stand now at the cusp of another year, and so I share this little primordial history lesson – familiar to some of us, I know, and news to others – to remind you, and myself, of a few important things. No matter how total the wreckage of the year now past, there is no loss or upheaval so great that hope and wonder cannot follow after it. No matter how complete the transformation from one year, or one epoch, to the next, nothing we are now or will be in the future is ever entirely separate from what has gone before. No matter how strange or unfamiliar the conditions we might encounter in the months ahead, there is no circumstance that the hard-wired creativity of life cannot meet. Whatever the year holds for you, may it lead you to something wondrous.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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First Parish Church

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Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

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