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Back to the Garden – 6/21/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Small Needful Fact


Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.[i]

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

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



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

Split This Rock Poem of the Week,

Peace, Not Quiet – 6/7/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Psalm 34:14

[ii] Matthew 5:9

[iii] Qur’an 25:63

[iv] West India Emancipation speech (1857).

[v] From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A Long Summer to Ripen

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

–Theodore Parker

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

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

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

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


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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