sunrise

Service Times

Sundays
10:00 AM

newcomers

Church Calendar

A Welcoming Congregation

welcoming

Standing on the Side of Love

standing

Password Protected Directory

book

Volunteer Involvement Form

Choosing to Fall – 5/31/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

How

Did the rose

Ever open its heart

And give to this world

All its

Beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light

Against its

Being,

Otherwise,

We all remain

Too

Frightened.[i]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

Like the seal upon your hand.

For love is fierce as death,

Devotion is unyielding as the grave;

It burns like a blazing fire,

Like a mighty flame.

Vast floods cannot quench love,

Nor rivers drown it.

If a person offered all their wealth for love,

They would be laughed to scorn.[ii]

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.[iii]

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

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

[ii] Song of Songs 8:6-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I’m glad to hear that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying for a Dream – 5/3/2015

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

The Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel said that,

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

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

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

You, who gave me my first name, you

Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of

Other seekers–desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.

 

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

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought

Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare

Praying for a dream. (…)

 

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, and if faced

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

[iii] Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning

[iv] Benjamin Franklin, The Way to Wealth

Being Iconic To Each Other

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

Prayed with patient (Yes/No)

Discussed concerns about health and mortality (Yes/No)

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

Etc.

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

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

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

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

sunset

First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915

978-922-3968

Office Hours: Mon 8:00 - 11:00 am & Tue-Fri 8:00 am - 12:00 pm

office@firstparishbeverly.org

Site maintained by webmaster Amy Carlin