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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This to me is a miracle.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dance, Dance, Revolution – 4/5/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[i] Go ahead and watch:

[ii] Emma Goldman, Living My Life

[iii] 2 Samuel 6:14


[v] The Acts of John 95:

Goodbye, Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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