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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


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


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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