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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:

[ii] I Corinthians 13:8-10

[iii] I Corinthians 13:13

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


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:

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.



First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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