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A Revolution of the Spirit – 12/24/2016

In his novel, Hogfather, Terry Pratchet, the British fantasy-satirist, now of blessed memory, tells a story about Death. Not simply the very real fact of life, death, but the embodiment of that fact: a grim, yet affable fellow who appears as a skeleton in a black robe, carrying a scythe, and who’s duty it is to usher on the souls of the departed, when it is time for them to depart the mortal realm. In this story, Death has to sit in, temporarily for the Hogfather, another fictional character clearly styled on the person called, in the United Kingdom, Father Christmas, and who we know better, here in the United States, as Santa Claus. So it is that Death dons the red suit and the white beard and sets about the new task before him: delivering presents to all the children of his world.

Things do not go smoothly, as you might have guessed. When a little girl asks him for a gift, he hands her a sword. Not a toy sword, mind you; not a play sword made of wood or of plastic, but a very real, full-sized, excruciatingly sharp metal sword. Immediately, the nearest adult scolds him for it. “You can’t give her that! It’s not safe.”

Death – whose every line is always deadpan – explains, “It’s a sword. They’re not meant to be safe.”

Another responsible voice pipes up, “She’s a child.”

“It’s educational,” Death provides.

“What if she cuts herself?” the concerned fellow asks.

Answers Death, “That will be an important lesson.”

Tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate Christmas, and coincidentally, the beginning of Hanukkah as well. Both occasions are meant, in our culture, to be times of merriment and joy. Opportunities to gather together with family and friends, invitations to express our generosity and care towards each other, and especially a time for children – to enjoy treats and presents and be taught the songs and rituals of this season. Peace and hope and happiness are the most common watch-words of these festivals, and I wish all of that for each of us. But like Death’s gift of a sword to the girl in the story, neither Christmas, nor Hanukkah, is meant to be safe, and it would be a disservice to our children to pretend otherwise. Allow me to explain.

The Rev. Tim Yeager, labor organizer, peace activist, and Anglican priest, sets the scene for the Christmas story with these words,

Once upon a time, in a land far away on the edge of a great empire, there was a people with an ancient culture, a storied past, and a great literature, who had been conquered by a technologically advanced imperial power. They were occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt local despots who collaborated with the foreign oppressors. There were periodic revolts of local peasants and slaves that were put down mercilessly.”[i]

Very nearly the same introduction could be used for the Hanukkah story as well. It occurred in exactly the same place, only about two-hundred years earlier, under a different empire with the same crisis of corruption, collaboration, oppression, and the merciless attitude of all tyrants towards dissent. In both stories, this predicament is not new. The people are not freshly conquered; they have labored under the yoke of empire for some time already. But there is something catalyzing in this moment, which is why the story starts here. In the Hanukkah narrative, that catalyst is a new, draconian edict from the Greek emperor Antiochus, forbidding the practice of the Jewish faith. This sparks the revolt that eventually leads to the expulsion of the Greek forces. In the Christmas story, King Herod, a collaborator who depends entirely on the occupying forces of Rome for his power, has just heard a rumor that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. So, willing to commit any evil to protect his throne, Herod turns with violent force against all the children of that city. Just after the traditional end of the Christmas story, when the shepherds and Magi have all gone home, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have to flee from their home country, to be refugees, for a time, in neighboring Egypt.

Both Christmas and Hanukkah are stories of revolution. In Hanukkah, that’s quite literal. In Christmas, it is a revolution disrupted. The teacher Jesus will come of age, and preach his message of peace and justice, and be struck down by Rome for it. Both stories have this quality of tragedy about them. For the Maccabees that led the revolt against the Greeks went on to found the Hasmonean dynasty, remembered for excesses and religious intolerance of its own, as well as for a power struggle which ultimately invited the forces of Rome into the land of Judeah. And only a handful of centuries after he preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the followers of Jesus would choose to accommodate themselves to the empire of Rome, rather than seek any longer to dismantle it. The leadership of the Christian movement chose to embrace the brutality of the imperial machine, so long as its emperors would kneel before the cross, rather than their former, pagan altars.

The progression from a revolution of the oppressed to an empire of oppressors is always the same. It begins by the replacement, in our ideals, of justice and mercy with strength alone. Once strength has been made the only object of our worship, there soon follows a confusion, such that we cannot even recognize strength any longer, and have to settle, instead, for cruelty.

But take heart, dear friends, take heart. For none of these tragedies has the final word on this shared holiday, tonight. Not if we are willing to take into ourselves the painful but important lesson that though hope can triumph, in our lives and in our world, it never triumphs without first being fought for. It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”[ii] In every time of crisis, whenever any people grow weary of being oppressed, the holy spirit of revolution still dwells within, waiting to be born.

The familiar carol, “O Holy Night,” which we will hear from our choir and perhaps sing along with in a moment, was written by a Christian but set to music by a Jew, and its rarely sung third verse, as translated from the original French, by an American Unitarian abolitionist, contains these lines,

Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease![iii]

Merry Christmas, and a Happy Hanukkah, to you, dear friends. Please remember this night, and in the year ahead, that these holidays were not meant to be safe. But they were meant to be beautiful, and hopeful, and glorious. May they be so this year, for us and for all the world. Amen.



[ii] The Gospel According to Matthew, 10:34

[iii] Credit is due to Rev. Yeager, again, for this observation

The End of Good Manners – 12/11/2016

At the start of JRR Tolkien’s famous novel, The Hobbit, his unlikely and erstwhile hero, Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet, comfortable life in a pastoral, quasi-medieval land called the Shire. Bilbo is a hobbit – the hobbit, of the story, in fact – a member of a small-statured branch of the human family that, at the start of the story, are renowned only for their love of good food, leisure, and the simple comforts of home.

Then, the strangers come to town. A band of adventurers pour into Bilbo’s home, uninvited, there to recruit him to join their quest for treasure and glory. Now, hobbits are hospitable folk, but these interlopers weren’t merely hungry and unlooked for – they were terribly poorly behaved. They make an utter mess of both his table, and his house. They even sing a little song about it:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!

Blunt the knives and bend the forks!

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates—

Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

This goes on, in fact, for another two-and-a-half verses. The scene comes at the beginning of a story originally written for children; a playful-spirited adventure tale. But because it is the prelude to the much longer, much darker and more complicated Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is really the threshold of a world-spanning crisis, nothing less than an epic battle between the justice, and tyranny. And it all begins with the upheaval of a complete disruption in the social expectation of table manners.

Every society has standards for polite behavior. In Japan, it is customary to slurp one’s noodles noisily when eating them, as a sign of satisfaction. In most Arab countries, it’s considered very rude to let anyone else see the bottoms of your shoes. And, of course, the standard for whether one ought to arrive early, on time, or late for a social engagement vary wildly, not just from culture to culture, but also within them – I say this as a north-easterner who spent several years living in California. There is an order to every human group that is built not out of laws but out of habit, precedent, and expectation. When we are sufficiently comfortable with and accustomed to these, well, customs, they become invisible elements in the background of life. We only notice them again when they begin to break down. In the film, No Country for Old Men, two aging Texas law-men commiserate in a diner about the sad state of the social fabric. Their conversation quickly drifts from the serious and immediate problem of a killer on the loose, chasing after a vast sum of money, to what they see as the larger problem. One laments the sight of teenagers with, “green hair, and bones in their noses.” The other opines that, “once you stop hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the rest is soon to follow.”

But it’s not just old Texas lawmen who associate manners and the unwritten expectations of society with a peaceful and healthy order. In differing amounts and for different definitions of good manners, this is actually a very common attitude. And I submit that we are, all of us, much more likely to feel attached to and defend the customs that somehow benefit or protect us personally than the ones that are irrelevant or antagonistic towards us. Complex table manners, for instance – all that business about which fork to use – may be very well-suited to folks who can afford multiple forks. To those of more modest means, the rules might still matter – but the chances are a good deal less.

Still, practicing careful manners and following standards of behavior meticulously has been a survival strategy for many people from marginalized groups. This includes African-American mothers emphasizing the importance of a neat, clean, respectable appearance to their children – because they knew their children would find themselves in dangerous situations in their lives, and that the slight edge of conforming to social expectations about clothing, hair, or manner of speech could make all the difference in those crucial moments. The same principle was at play in many of the arguments used to advance marriage equality in this country. That campaign emphasized the sameness, the normalness, the respectability of same-sex couples, and indeed, same and mixed gender couples can be very similar to each other. But they can also be different; in principle, this should have no particular bearing on whether or not any such couples, or such people, deserve respect. But in the moral universe of manners, difference is, at best, always suspect. The unwritten rules of society – any society – may comfort some, but they afflict others, or at least fail to shield them.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote,

I, too, sing America.


I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.



I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”




They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—


I, too, am America.

The stifling and unjust expectations of the table eventually give way, as Hughes describes, and the old order is ended. The breakdown in good manners isn’t always a crisis for those on the margins – sometimes, it is an opening into the possibility of liberation. In just a few weeks we will be celebrating two holidays – Christmas, and Hanukkah, which begins on the same night as Christmas Eve, this year. Both festivals recall a time and a place where the social contract had begun to unravel. In Judea in the 160s BCE, the Jewish people of that place had already lived as subjects of the Greek-speaking Seleucid empire for well-more than a hundred years. The arrangement was not just, but it was dependable, and the people of Judea were allowed to retain their language, religion, and culture so long as they obeyed Greek law and accepted Greek control. That was the case, until it wasn’t. There eventually came a Seleucid king who forbade the practice of Judaism in Judea and banned its holy texts, its festivals, and the teachings of its traditions. The polite order had become impossible to accept; it’s the uprising that followed that forms the basis for the holiday. Hanukkah is the celebration of a victory won by people who refused to continue to practice good manners in the face of colossal injustice. There is no such thing, we must remember, as a polite revolutionary.

The Christmas story, of the birth of the teacher Jesus, also opens with Judea under foreign occupation, this time by the Romans. The yoke of imperial domination weighed heavily upon them, and strained the traditional relationships between land owners and the poor. Customs of mercy that had allowed the very poor to survive, and the working poor to eke out a living were abandoned by the owners in favor of maximizing profit, spurred by the demands of the Roman economy and the pressures of its tax code. It was into this world and its unraveling social fabric that Jesus was born. His movement never quite cohered into an organized rebellion – we can argue as to why, but the most straight-forward answer is that he was murdered by the state before his campaign could have a decisive confrontation with Roman rule. But Jesus, it is sometimes strangely forgotten, was a man who did not care about manners. According to the accounts of the Gospels, he presumed to lecture his elders on scripture and religious law when he was still just a boy – hardly the last time he would speak in a manner someone else might call ‘impertinent.’ He frequently issued religious rulings to his followers that flew in the face of established practice – such as his ban on divorce, and allowance that people could work for pay on the Sabbath if it were necessary for their survival. And he instructed those who would be his followers that they must first leave their families behind to do so – a nearly unthinkable breach in a society built around family structures. Jesus’ teaching was grounded in love and justice, and a particular compassion for the poor and the oppressed; but it had no time for social convention or custom. Any such that stood in the way was tossed aside without hesitation.

My friends, we find ourselves, today, in an age when the social compact is once again unraveling. Where what once seemed unacceptable has come to pass. Where what was normal is no longer normal anymore, and in particular where the overt rhetoric of hatred based on race, religion, national-origin, gender, gender-expression and sexual identity, which many of us thought had been banished forever to the periphery of our politics and our discourse, has now come roaring back into the center of power. That old way, now gone, relied on custom to render out-and-out bigotry unacceptable in polite society. That custom never did its job properly. It was never thorough enough, never sought out the roots of injustice deeply enough, and it never did enough to change hearts. It was pleasant enough bandage over ugly wounds of our nation. Still, there is danger in the loss of that poultice – the spread of infection, the further worsening of the patient. But there is no restoring the deeply flawed spell of normalcy and “we don’t do that sort of thing here.” Instead, the work before us is to replace the passive protections of convention with the active work of loving relationship. For the best form of manners, after all, are never really manners at all, but honest expressions of care and respect for others and ourselves. As in the tale of the young man who sat at the table beside his mother, and pointed out with glee that his father had rested his elbows on the table – something the boy had been chided for many times. But then his mother pointed out that the child’s father had only made this grave social breach after his guest had done the very same. The host was not being casually offensive or intentionally disrespectful: he was simply trying to make his guest feel at ease, and reassure them that he was not judging them on arcane points of etiquette.

The poet Rachel Kann had something to say about how the turning point we are now passing through as a nation calls for all of us to reimagine what is possible and escape from the constraints of the polite into the wide open field of the truly kind, and justice-oriented. In her recent “What to Tell the Children,” composed only a few weeks ago, she writes in part:

Tell them that everything is not ok,

And knowing that is ok.

Tell them that pretending

That what is unacceptable is fine

Is what got us to this sick and dysfunctional spot on the timeline.

Apologize for any prior attempts to teach them denial.

Tell them you were blinded by desire for comfortable numbness.

Express that you had the best of intentions,

That you were working within a broken system,

Where few benefitted at the expense of many,

That you laid low,

Kept to the status quo,

Obediently played your role,

But those days are over, because

Now you know better.

The decidedly not normal moment in which we live, in which bullying is rewarded at the ballot box and hate crimes are measurably on the rise is not an era I would have chosen for the raising of my children, or for yours. But it does allow us to face honestly how the old, polite order served few and stifled many. Now is no longer the time for good manners, if ever, in truth, there was such a time. We live now in an age that calls on us to be more bold than that. To be ready to speak out of turn, to misbehave, to endure the clucking judgement of the powerful and the comfortable – among many other hardships – in order to be true to what is right and just. This is not the work of being polite, but the work of being real, and really loving towards each other. It is not that we must abandon every standard of how we had previously been together in society, but we must re-measure them. We must be fearless in our willingness to discard any social rule which serves to accommodate corruption or follow along quietly with injustice. So as the old standards and mores fall away one by one each day, it is important not only to acknowledge that something large and crucial in our culture has changed, but to be engaged in imagining and bringing into being the far greater future that remains possible, together.


Spirit, Law, and Covenant – 12/4/2016

In the year 325, an ecumenical council of bishops in the early Christian church was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine in the city of Nicaea, in what is today North West Turkey. This First Council of Nicaea was a crucial organizational meeting in the history of the early church, and it’s most famous product is probably the Nicaean Creed, or at least the original version of it. An amended version of that creed, which begins, in English, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…” has been used in Christian liturgy and practice for nearly 1700 years. Today it is employed in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, as well as most major Protestant traditions, and is generally considered to articulate ideas essential to Christian belief. It was not in any sense the first creed in human history, and it is not the only creed ever espoused even within the Christian church, but it is the archetype of what a creed is – an example so important that it greatly shapes the definition of the word it is attached to.

Establishing that creed was not the only order of business at Nicaea. In fact, it was part of a larger project attempting to codify doctrine within the Christian movement, specifically around the exact nature and character of Jesus. The overwhelming majority of leaders at the council held that Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father – that somehow the Son was equally as old, equally as unchanging, and equally as much God as the Father – co-eternal, and co-divine. If you’re a student of doctrinal language, you may recognize this as the standing doctrine and official teaching within all of Christian orthodoxy. I would offer that a vast number of faithful, practicing Christians have theologies that differ from this, but there is always a gulf between the official teachings of a faith and the beliefs-in-practice of its membership, especially when those teachings are particularly narrow, or arcane. In any case, this was the side that won out, while on the opposing camp was represented by a Christian leader from Egypt named Arius.

Arius is, in some sense, our theological ancestor. He is sometimes credited as being the first Unitarian. In fact, he held a position that I think most of us would see as only a slightly distinguishable from the orthodox view – agreeing that Jesus was divine, but that God the Father must have come first, and created the Son. Arius and the camp he represented were condemned as heretics at Nicaea; effectively expelled from the church. Arianism became a term for anyone who questioned the orthodox position on the divinity of Christ – all the many and varied shades of Unitarianism included. In fact, the original version of the Nicaean creed ends with several sentences condemning the ideas of Arius’ faction. A small anecdote I feel I can’t ignore three Sundays before Christmas: It is reported in some sources that during the council, one of the members of the soon-to-be-orthodox wing became so offended by the very presence of Arius in the proceedings that he struck him in the face in anger. That zealous bully, who wasn’t content simply to win the argument, or to banish his opponents from the church and set up more than a thousand years of persecution for anyone who might think like them, had to start throwing punches instead. That fellow was Nicholas of Myrna – that is, Saint Nicholas, on whom the modern character of Santa Claus is very loosely based.

I provide this little history lesson to offer one of the many reasons for why we Unitarian Universalists practice a creedless faith – because when people start writing down creeds and making folks recite them, and determining who is acceptable and who is not on the basis of them, it has not gone well for us in the past. As an Association of Congregations – the way in which we organize ourselves – we have agreed to make no creedal test, either for the admission of a congregation to our ranks, or for the entrance of any person into any of our congregations as a member. And yet, we do still make statements about who we are, and what we hold dear, and how we seek to live and work in the world. The distinction between any of these statements and a creed is first that we explicitly refuse to make them compulsory – we acknowledge that they are imperfect, and incomplete, and that embracing them is not a hard-and-fast requirement to be a part of who we are. But there’s also a difference in their content – our theological statements tend to focus not on explicit truth-claims about unseen or unknowable things, but on our values and ideals and how we will put them into practice together. This morning, I’m going to focus on one-such statement that we share in together, every Sunday, as a congregation: our Affirmation of Faith. I’m going to take this line by line, and provide some stories and anecdotes to explicate each:

As we read a bit ago, Love is the Spirit of this Church. A colleague of mine once told me about a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the middle of this country. That congregation had established a tradition, in one Sunday service each year, of celebrating its status as a Welcoming Congregation – committed to actively affirming, welcoming, and including Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer folks. My colleague – a queer woman herself – tried to be both honest and kind when she explained that the service didn’t say much to her. It seemed to be more about celebrating for the straight members of the congregation than for really lifting up the voices of the GLBTQ folks it was ostensibly centered on. But then, one year on that particular Sunday, a guest in the pews stood up in the middle of the proceedings. The visitor apparently didn’t get the memo about what could be expected in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and more to the point, didn’t have the manners to keep their peace or leave. Instead, the guest stood up and called out, “What is this, some kind of gay church?”

That was enough to silence the lay person at the microphone, and there was a brief hush in the sanctuary. Until someone else stood up. A long-time member of the congregation; older, straight, sort of taciturn, with a gruff personality. This is what they said, “Yes. This is a gay church. We have gay people here, and we love them like we love everybody else. If you don’t like that, you can leave. If you want to stay, then sit down.”

The principle that comes first and foremost for who we are as a congregation, how we treat one another, how we seek to treat ourselves, our planet, and all the people we share it with, is love. It is the spirit that suffuses every other element of our community. It is not passive, it is not meek; frequently it is the animating force that stirs us to action, that demands we take a side, intervene, challenge the way things are. Right at the start of his public career as a civil rights activist, during a speech in support of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Second line: And Service is its Law. A few of you have heard me tell a Christmas story from near the beginning of my own ministry, when I served a small, rural congregation in Western New York. I had begun my time there just after serving as a chaplain at the big hospital in the city an hour away, and one day I got a phone call from my former boss. In the chapel at the hospital there was a place where anyone who needed to could write out a prayer on slips of paper. The chaplains gathered up those slips every so often, and read them aloud – all at once – as a way of honoring the intentions and the hopes they expressed, before one of the staff took them home to bury them in her garden. They’d held the prayer reading earlier that day, and gotten one of a sort they very rarely receive. It was a prayer from a mother for her children and family, because Christmas was coming, and she had nothing to give them. And on that slip of paper, was her name and address. She lived in the same little town where my little congregation was.

I could not be in church that Sunday – I was only their part-time minister. But I called up a member of the leadership, and told him the situation; I didn’t give the name, of course, but I asked if he thought the congregation might want to make some response. That was all I could do; I left any decision up to them. What they did, was to take up a special collection that Sunday. The church saw 10-15 people in its pews on a good Sunday. Together they scraped together more money than would have made it into those collection plates in three months time. And so it was that I and the chair of the board, found ourselves waiting in her car the next night, outside the dark, empty house of a stranger, wondering how we were going to get this money to her if she was not home. And then a car pulled up, and the family got out, and nervously, we approached. We explained who we were, and what we were there for. The folks were confused, and then elated. They invited us into their home. The woman who had left that prayer in the hospital chapel began to talk about how we’d be seeing them in our church real soon. And this is what the board chair said to her, in response:

“We’d love to see you, of course. You’re welcome any time. But we’re not here tonight to get you to join us. We’re here because we had a chance to answer someone’s prayer. Thank you for giving us that opportunity.”

Law, at its best, gives form and shape to spirit. In fact, it can be the thing that returns us, again and again, to that spirit, when we would otherwise have lost track and sight of it.

The next line: This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace. Another story about another congregation, this one out in California. Like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, it has its origins in the Christian tradition, and when it was built a very large, very expensive glass window in the image of the teacher Jesus was put up right at the front, right behind the pulpit, at the very center of the worship life of the congregation. The years wore on, and Unitarians became Unitarian Universalists. The Christian consensus gave way to a blessed diversity of theologies and spiritual paths. And so the congregation thought, perhaps it was time that they considered doing something about that window. There was much discussion and negotiation. A great deal of time and thought was put into it, and finally the congregation held a vote on whether or not they ought to remove the window and seek to sell it or give it away to a museum or some such and replace it with a different, more inclusive image, or simply with clear glass, to let more light into the sanctuary. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of removing that window. That was very clear when it was taken. But what else was clear from the discussion that occurred at that meeting was how dearly and closely held the members of that congregation who did identify as Christian cared about and loved that window. So after the vote had been held, someone approached the microphone from the winning side and asked if they could take another vote. That they would hold the decision to remove the window until such time as the congregation could reach a true consensus; until the side that had lost the vote could be fully reconciled to that outcome, or some new strategy for increasing the inclusivity of their worship space could be found. That motion passed unanimously.

Next line: To seek truth in love. This story comes from a mentor of mine, when she was still serving a congregation. There was a year when the chairship of an important committee fell to a person who it seemed obvious was not up to the task. She was a fine person, a beloved member of the congregation, but she was disorganized and not known for her leadership skills. And at the first meeting that year of this particular committee, everyone else was in attendance, and the chair was late. And my mentor looked around the room, and she could see it on people’s faces that they weren’t excited about the year ahead, and serving alongside this person – who was the only person who had said ‘yes’ when the question was asked, “who will chair this committee?” And so my mentor said this, (I’m going to call the person Jenny, because she needs a name for this story).

“Let’s help Jenny be a real success this year. Let’s make it a point to help her be the best chair that she could possibly be, and to make this committee’s work as successful as it can possibly be. I think she deserves that win.” And that’s what those people did. They were the best followers they could have possibly been, following through an doing everything that was asked of them. The minister mentored Jenny closely over the course of that year, making sure that she kept up with appointments and deadlines. And with help, and with her own hard work, Jenny was the best darn chairperson that that committee could have possibly had.

We often confuse the truth with unkindness. “What do you think of my casserole?” “This casserole is simultaneously lukewarm and slightly burnt. This is an objectively terrible casserole.” But the full truth is only expressed when it is said in love. “I’m grateful you made this casserole for us to eat together.” That’s the truth, if you care about the cook. Jenny had it in her to be a great leader, if other people loved her enough to help her accomplish that.

And finally: And to help one another.

There’s a congregation on Long Island that is so wealthy that the whole of our Association routinely turns to it for financial support. This is not just because they’re in a relatively well-to-do part of the world; their wealth is the direct result of their generosity of spirit as a congregation. The story goes that there was a woman who was very rich and very much alone. She was a widow and had no descendants. She did not belong to any congregation, but she was attended to by a nurse who was a Unitarian, and knew that she was sad, and lonely, and had no one else. So the nurse asked her minister to come and visit this woman who was in her care, even though she had no particular connection to his congregation, and both foolishly and wisely he said, ‘yes.’ As the story was told to me, their meeting did not make any great impression on the minister, he did not spend a great deal of time or emotional energy, he just went and visited and thought that that was that. Until this woman died, and left to that congregation the bulk of her inheritance, which included oil and gas rights for the North Sea so vast that they are still paying dividends today – the basis for the wealth of this otherwise non-descript congregation on Long Island.

Friends, I do not promise you that every time we help each other we are going to get a major windfall of millions and millions of dollars. What I promise you is that every time we help each other it is as worth it as if we had gotten a major windfall of millions and millions of dollars. The words share each Sunday are words only. They are empty and meaningless unless supplied with the actions that give them animating force. Our work together, Sunday and every other day of the week, is to give them that animating force. To breathe life into old language, and to make the world and ourselves better for it.

Soul Wise, These Are Trying Times

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

With these words, Thomas Paine opened the first of his 16-pamphlet series, “The American Crisis.” His text was dated December 23rd, 1776, still relatively early in the Revolutionary War – 240 years ago, this month. He wrote at a time of upheaval and division – we often forget that the War of Independence was opposed not only by troops from Britain, but also by many of the American colonists themselves. He wrote to encourage his fellow future-countrymen, to lend them courage in a conflict which would take nearly a full decade more to resolve.

Many years later, after Paine’s opening line had gained a rarefied status as an example of stirring rhetoric, the stylist E.B. White offered several counter-examples, to illustrate the sorts of phrasing that fail to inspire. His most egregious offering – “Soul wise, these are trying times” – seems to me a fitting summary of the moment we find ourselves in, as a nation. A time of upheaval and division, once again, but also a time marked by a particular ugliness of thought, word, and deed. I know from talking with many of you that you have deep fears for our country, and as one who has pledged to speak the truth to you, I must confess that I share many of those same fears. But in times such as these, when the soul of our nation is troubled, and so troubles each of our souls, the role of a church such as ours becomes all the more pressing, and all the more clear. It is simply this, friends:

To provide refuge, from the dangers posed by the most coarse and cruel elements of our society. To aid and protect those most at risk, and to offer shelter against harms both physical and moral. Shelter for the body, and shelter for the spirit.

To offer replenishment, to anyone and everyone who gives of themselves in the service of others. To renew and refuel, revitalize and restore teachers and healers and activists and organizers of every possible sort. Offering physical and spiritual sustenance to sustain them in their work, on behalf of the common good. Whether they be professionals or volunteers; no matter how great their efforts, no matter how small their contributions.

And to nurture revolution. For what is the great calling of religion in the human heart, but to challenge us to examine with profound honesty our own selves and the world of which we are a part, to notice how vast is the gulf between things as they are and things as they ought to be, and to demand of us our highest efforts in closing that gap. Revolution is not merely a synonym for armed insurrection, but rightly labels any true transformation in a person, community, or culture. And across long ages and wide continents, the struggles to upend oppression, colonization, exploitation, and tyranny have, in an uncountable number of cases, depended upon the catalyzing energy of spiritual community. This month, we celebrate two such revolutionary, anti-Imperial movements, from long ago and far away, in the festivals of Hanukkah and Christmas.

In truth, I believe this work was just as much called for and just as much our calling on November 7th as it was on November 9th. Only it seems there is now a greater urgency for it, in our hearts and in our world. This holiday season, and every month and year that comes after it, let us rededicate ourselves and our community to these three, great purposes.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Unforgettable Mercies – 11/20/2016

I don’t consider myself to be a very good giver of gifts. I had a friend once who would say to each of his friends, on their birthdays, “This is my gift to you this year: I didn’t get you anything. Now you don’t have to worry about getting me anything next year.” And I thought that sounded like a very amicable sort of arrangement. But every so often, I do manage to remember a holiday or a milestone, and send a loved one or acquaintance something appropriate to mark it with. And a certain small percentage of the time after that, something else happens, and no matter how many times it does, I never fail to be completely taken off-guard by it: that something, is that I get a thank-you note in the mail.

This always leaves me confounded and impressed – that someone had the level of organization necessary to execute such an intentional practice of gratitude. The unexpected is usually more memorable than the anticipated, and so acts of kindness and consideration can often feel more meaningful when they take on an unexpected form or come to us from an unexpected source. Let me give you an example:

In 1995, Tupac Shakur was one of the biggest names in hip-hop, in the whole of the American popular music scene, in fact. He was also in the midst of a nine-month prison stint. He was the first artist, in fact, to have an album reach #1 on the Billboard charts while incarcerated. A prison is, by its design and intent, a grim and unkind place. No matter the circumstances that bring a person to that place, it is a hard and painful thing, for a human being, to live in a cage. After his release, Tupac was asked in interviews about his experience in prison. He talked about the authors he’d read – Sun Tzu and Niccolo Machiavelli. He offered his thanks to the friends, family, and fellow artists who had supported him. But there was one name on that list who stuck out as sort of an odd duck: Tony Danza.

For those of you who don’t know, Tony Danza was a rather famous actor in his day – he’s still working today, in fact. He had a couple of very successful TV shows, tending to play big-hearted, quick-witted working class characters. He was not, however, someone you might have expected to find, in the mid-90s, in the orbit of the gangsta rap genre. But, like much of America, he’d listened to Tupac’s music, and knowing that the poet was then behind bars he felt moved to write to him. Not just a small note – long, deep letters, more than one. And receiving those letters, from a stranger he didn’t know from Adam, clearly meant something to Tupac Shakur. Up until his death, far too young and far too soon, Tupac continued to talk in interviews about his gratitude to and appreciation for Tony – a man he hadn’t known before, whom he now considered a friend.

It is said the teacher Jesus said, in the course of a story to his students, about the sorts of kindness most worthy of appreciation, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.”[i] Our gratitude is stirred most – or, at least, it ought to be – when we receive some mercy that we deeply needed. This is true even in the cases of an act of compassion we didn’t consciously know we needed, or that we could not have articulated the need for. It is also true – and this is particularly important – even when that unforgettable mercy is mutual, rather than one-sided. An exchange of grace that each of the parties to it needs as much as any other.

A friend of mine was generous to give me permission to share one of her experiences with you this morning. The scene unfolded earlier this week. That friend, Samira, was driving a long distance, late at night, and stopped at a nearly empty service plaza to pick up a few things for the rest of her trip. A lot of people, in this country, and some of us, here in this room, have felt less safe, and more on-edge since the election. Its outcome sent a message of hostility and unwelcome to many of us; it’s only natural for folks to be more guarded, and skeptical of strangers they encounter. Samira herself had had an unsettling experience on election day – a stranger, making an assumption based on her skin color, had muttered at her, “You dirty Muslim, we shouldn’t let you vote.” Samira is actually Jewish, but it’s tragically common for people of South Asian descent to be targeted on the assumption that they’re Muslim. One of the hallmarks of bigotry is that it rarely bothers to do its homework.

That encounter on Election Day, and what came after it, when a young boy who’d also heard the insult spoke up on Samira’s behalf, actually made it into an article in the Washington Post.[ii] But alone, at night, in the nearly-empty store, Samira found herself assuming that the white woman ringing her up had most likely cast one of the 60 million votes which had increased Samira’s sense of alienation from her own country. And then, she noticed that this woman was wearing a safety pin on her clothing. We talked about this last week. The symbolic meaning of this practice – an import from Great Britain – is that the person wearing it promises to extend safety to anyone else around them who might need it. To make sure that if someone is targeted or harassed for who they are, they will be there to do what they can, to intervene. For a very new practice, it has a lot of critics on both the right and the left. My counsel to you last Sunday continues to hold true a week later: the symbol is hollow unless you are determined to follow through on the commitment it implies.

Seeing the pin, Samira complimented the stranger on it, and that is when the store clerk’s whole demeanor changed. She shifted from a shallow, casual interaction to a much deeper one. The woman talked about how seriously she took the commitment of wearing that pin. She spoke about her identity as a veteran, coming from a military family. “This is America, and we are better than this. We have to be better than this…I can’t tell you it will be okay, but I can tell you that there are decent folks who will go down fighting. I put my life on the line to protect America, and it wasn’t for this.” When she wrote about the whole thing later on, on Facebook, Samira said this about it. That, “…for just a few moments, I was back in the United States in which I want to live.”[iii]

My friends, each of our lives depends each day upon a thousand or more acts of simple and meager kindness. The mundanities which carry most of us through life rarely get acknowledged by us, and to some degree that is alright. But there are still moments that come to us as benevolent surprises, unforgettable mercies. Such fragmentary instances have the power to reshape our lives and ourselves, if we are willing to open our hearts to them – and to the practice of gratitude which they stir up in us. The time of Thanksgiving this week is set aside in our national consciousness for us to reflect together on what is most precious in our lives and worthy of our gratitude. Even though it is beset on all sides, by the commercial encroachment of Halloween before it and the ever-widening juggernaut of Christmas-consumption, after it. Even under the all-too-real, all-too-terrible specter of the colonization of the native peoples of this continent, still there remains a crack in the door of our collective heart. Not simply wide enough for the smell of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to waft through, but sufficient to allow in the light of wonder, and of hope, at the beauty and the possibility of this common world we share.


[i] Matthew 25:35-36


[iii] From Facebook, November 16th, 2016. Retold with permission of the author.

What To Do When The World Falls Apart – 11/13/2016


Do you remember the movie, Bambi? The story about a cartoon deer, growing up in the forest? It’s generally considered to be a children’s movie; I’d venture to guess that the majority of us have seen it, including a majority of the children. It’s also a movie that’s pretty honest about fear and grief and loss. It has some very sad moments, and some hard truths in it. I wanted us to be together this morning – all of us, of every age – so that we could practice a similar honesty. In all times, but especially in times of crisis, people who care for and respect one another owe each other the truth, and this applies as much to children as to anyone else.

So I will say to all of you now a version of what my partner and I said to our children, on Wednesday morning: Donald Trump is going to be our next President. We didn’t want for it to happen, but it is. He’s promised to make a lot of bad rules, and to be mean and unfair to a lot of people. That’s why we’re worried, because we’re thinking about the people he may hurt. But we are going stay true to our values, and help each other stay strong, even as the world around us may not, because that’s what a family does. And the strength that we have as a family isn’t just going to be for us; we’re going to be strong together, and we’re going to use that strength to help other people who need it, because that’s another thing that a family does.

Wednesday was a hard morning for a lot of us, whether we were trying to explain the situation our country now finds itself in to our children, or simply to ourselves. The aftermath of the election, in terms of the scope and degree of emotional response in large numbers of people, felt a lot like what follows a natural disaster or other sudden loss of life. I don’t mean that as hyperbole, I mean it in a sober, measured way, as someone whose job it has been to accompany people in moments of profound trauma.

There’s a moment in Bambi, near the end, that’s very frightening. There’s a forest fire, and hunters, and a chase. Bambi leaps, and falls, and for a moment, we don’t know if he’s going to make it or not. If, after this week now passed, you empathize with that image, of a crumpled deer lying on the ground, then this sermon is intended to stand in for what happens next in the movie. The bent but unbroken young buck begins to stir and wobble to his feet, as from off-screen, we here a voice. It is Bambi’s father calling out, urgent, but clear. “Get up, Bambi! Get up!”

My instructions for what to do when the world falls apart are not limited to this particular situation, so any of you don’t resonate with the sense of calamity surrounding this election can keep them on hand; crisis comes to each of us in time, no matter how comfortable, or well-insulated we may be. The first one, you may have already heard: Go to church. When we are overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, we need to connect with others and to replenish our spiritual resources. It is an essential purpose of any spiritual community to sustain and support its members and friends in the hard work of living. Indeed, this is a definitional matter – any group that accomplishes this, however formal or informal, traditional or not, is a spiritual community, while any group which does not, no matter its historical purpose or identification with organized religion, ought not to flatter itself with the title of spiritual community. A good synagogue, temple, masjid, gurdwara, or church will be a natural supplier of many of the things you will need: solace, encouragement, the tools to forge meaning out of meaninglessness, people to work alongside, and, in the majority of cases, strong coffee. Church is also, and I hope this is obvious, a very appropriate place to cry.

The next step is to take stock of what has happened. I put this after seeking out a spiritual community because it is so easy to spin-out into the limitless depths of anxiety and self-doubt when we approach a dire situation from a place of isolation, without any grounding or anyone to offer a reality-check. What has happened, in this instance, is that a person who made bullying and hate-speech into a cornerstone of his campaign, and whose policies dehumanize and endanger immigrants, people of color, disabled people, Muslims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and, in particular, transgender people – has been elected our President. And this, in turn, has further emboldened the most hateful and violent agents of white supremacy, Christian supremacy, male supremacy and heterosexual supremacy in our country. The social compact that pushed such overt contempt for the lives of others out of the mainstream of what is acceptable in society has been badly damaged. Through its cracks, very real danger is pouring through.

I don’t want to sugar-coat any of this, but I do want to say two things about it. The first is simply factual, the second is theological. First the fact: though he received the support of a terrifying number of people, Mr. Trump did not have the votes of even a majority of those voting, let alone of all citizens. If you are feeling alone, please remember that. As for the theological: there is an idea abroad in the land that good always triumphs over evil, that love always wins out over hate. It’s a pleasing sort of idea on its surface, but it can also lead us to blame ourselves when things go terribly wrong – we wind up excoriating ourselves and each other for the slightest hint of imperfection, thinking this must be the reason for our suffering. But the simple observation of history shows that this is not so: the right does not always win. Greed, contempt, and the thirst for power often succeed. That is why we are called to struggle so hard against them; it is why their challenge is always on-going, and why it has to be faced again and again by every generation in every new age. It is not that justice always prevails, but that justice always ought to prevail; it is always worthy of our highest effort, which is why every time its ideals are thwarted some of us humans pick the banner up again, and carry it on.

The third and final step we need to take when the world falls apart is to find out what can be done, and to do it. There is a pop song that’s been on the radio for the last little while. You may have heard it, perhaps, when you were frantically turning your radio dial away from NPR sometime in the last several days. In it, the singer asserts that he is willing to stand in harm’s way for a friend, even for a stranger. But then he immediately interrogates himself; it’s easy to make such a claim when there’s no danger at hand. He closes the thought with this line: “Hypothetically, I’m the man, but literally I don’t know what I’d do.” Well, friends, now we get to find out. Let me confess something to you, of which I am deeply ashamed: until Wednesday I had not realized how complacent I had allowed myself to get, under the Obama administration. I remained critical of many of the things my government does; signed petitions, went to rallies, campaigned for changes in the status quo. But on some level, I now must admit, I had begun to think that even if I managed only B-level work on behalf of justice and human dignity, the victories would keep rolling in. It was always a mistake to entertain that notion; the last five days have just made clear the depth of that mistake.

As the person this congregation has called to be its spiritual leader, I had to answer two questions on Wednesday, when it became clear how much greater the work of liberal religion was to become in the next four years. The first: are you ready to give yourself over to this struggle? I took my time to arrive at the answer, but humbly, and deeply aware of my own faults and limitations, I said, “Yes.” The second question was a lot like the first: is your congregation ready for the same? That answer came loud, and fast: “Heck, yes.” I am standing before you this morning because I trust you as co-workers in the labor justice, and I believe that you are up to the great challenge that history has placed before us. If I didn’t, I would have cried with you and held your hands on Wednesday, and turned in my keys on Thursday.

Many of us here this morning are afraid, afraid for our most basic wellbeing, with the election of a man who denigrates us and winks at violence against us. To you, my friends, I say much the same thing that I said to my children: we are going to help each other stay strong. Where your rights or your bodies are threatened, we will be there. We are going to uphold our values together and help to answer your fear with courage, because that is what a congregation does. And we are going to use the strength we build by standing up for one another to reach out and do the same for as many other people and as many other groups as we possibly can – because that is also something a congregation does.

Now, I need to say something to any of Mr. Trump’s supporters who may be listening. I don’t know for sure that you’re out there this morning, but I also don’t know for sure that you’re not. First, and I mean this quite truthfully, I want to thank you for showing up this morning, and for staying here. You had to know something like this was coming, and it’s likely harder-edged than you expected. I’m grateful you stuck with it. My message for you is this: I still love you. I meant what I preached last Sunday: whatever happened on Tuesday and whatever you did or did not do about it, you still have a place here, and I am still prepared to be your minister. I can’t imagine this has been a sterling week for you, either. Almost no one, and no one, I have to believe, who would have any interest in being here, relishes being associated with a figure scorned by so many around them. I would not be surprised if you felt some need for pastoral support in this, and I promise you I am available to supply it. Just call me, and let’s set an appointment; it is my duty, one I gladly perform, to care for the souls of my congregation. Our political disagreements are no barrier to this. But I want you to understand something up-front. Both because of his stated policy goals and the people that his rhetoric has given aid and comfort to, the election of Donald Trump has created very real danger for many of the people in this room. For members of your family, for neighbors, for strangers across the country and around the world who are entirely innocent and undeserving of this threat. And it is because I care about you, because I am called to be your pastor, that I am obligated to try to help you understand that. But in another four years, you can do the same thing over again, if you like. Just do not expect that your opposition will stop or slow down my or this congregation’s doing what we are called to do to confront hatred and injustice.

I cannot yet call what lies ahead for us good, but it is profound. We are going to need to speak out every time the rights of one of us or one of our neighbors in infringed. We are going to have to offer sanctuary to anyone and everyone who needs it. We are going to be called upon to answer every hateful word or deed stridently, with a love that knows there are some things love cannot abide. As a congregation, we’re going to find out how and when and where this manifests together; some of that discovery we’ll be doing today in fact, as we have an important discussion about our role in the work of racial justice after the service today, and I have already accepted an invitation to accompany our youth group to a vigil at the immigration detention facility in Boston later this afternoon – anyone who’s interested, you’re more than welcome to join us. But there are two other immediate things I want to offer you this morning. The first comes from a colleague, Rev. Ashley Horan, a practice she calls Neighborhood Love Notes. She’s inviting other Unitarian Universalists – and anyone else – to use chalk to make displays of love and beauty in the areas around their congregations and homes. Messages of welcome, inclusion, celebration and appreciation – much needed counterweights to a world now being crowded with contempt and scapegoating. Your chalk is waiting for you by the exits – please take some with you, and do wonderful things with it.

The second invitation involves the safety pins here on the altar. A few of you are already wearing them, so I know that the word is out that, in a practice originally imagined by an American living in Great Britain, a good many folks here in the US are wearing single, closed safety pins prominently on their clothing. This is meant to signify that the wearer is committed to extending safety to anyone who is marginalized or targeted. To watch for any threatening, bullying, or hateful behavior and to make it their business to come to the aid of whoever needs help. There is already, I’ll tell you, a backlash against all this, that it’s too easy and shallow. But I am offering it to you because I believe this safety pin is worth exactly as much as you commit to it. That’s why I’m distributing them without any ritual – rituals create social pressure to participate. I only want you to join me in this after you have reflected deeply and seriously on whether you will follow through on the unspoken pledge. Will you turn towards something ugly, when everyone else looks away? Will you trust a stranger who says, “I need help?” Will you practice de-escalating a situation, and tie your comfort and security together with someone else’s? As I said, the pins are here on the altar. You are free to take one – or not – following the benediction. In fact, if you are already wearing one, and what I have just said has given you some reservations about it, you are also welcome to leave yours in the bowl. Take some time to reflect, and to steel yourself for the work ahead. I’ll be happy to give you a new one, when you’re ready to put it on again.

We Unitarian Universalists have long been concerned less with the mysteries beyond death than with the way humans create paradise or perdition here on earth. It’s been a hell of a week. So, sprinkled with tears as necessary, let’s get back out into the world, and help to heal it.

The Sacrament of Democracy – 11/6/2016

I am obliged to begin my message this morning by saying something very clearly, up front: I neither have, nor do I desire to have, the spiritual authority to tell you how to use your vote. No matter what you do, or do not do, have done or have not done, on or before this Tuesday, I have no special power to offer you any reward or punishment, whether theological or ecclesiastical. I can neither threaten hell nor promise heaven as an inducement – my Universalism takes both the carrot and the stick off of the table. And while there are a great many things that I would say you or I could do wrong, come Tuesday, none of them will change your status here. Neither I, nor this congregation, make any endorsement of any party or candidate. What exactly you will do with your one wild and precious vote remains, quite thoroughly, up to you.

If I say that this has been a particularly sour and anxiety-filled Presidential campaign process, full of much wailing, and gnashing of teeth, I rather doubt that many will rise to its defense. I have found in the last few months that only three possible outcomes remain, when the subject of the election comes up in conversation between two or more people: fight, flight, and mutual obsession. The fight option should be fairly self-explanatory: a tense and quite possibly heated exchange between strangers, co-workers, or family members, arguing about the merits of one’s chosen candidate – or more likely, the flaws of another. Flight is also pretty straight forward: it is the impulse to avoid the subject at all costs, by avoiding the subject, changing it when encountered, actively leaving the room when it is brought up or literally pleading that the group turn its attention to something, anything else. To be clear, I’ve seen all four of those possibilities play out. The third option, after fight and flight, however – mutual obsession – might require a little more explanation. This is when two or more people manifest the free-floating angst in this election by exchanging numerous scraps and tidbits about it – fragments of polling data, semi-obscure stories from the political press, comparisons to little-known episodes from American history, and theories about exactly how things might unfold, come Election Day. As one who has chosen this third option again and again, this election season, I have to own up to what it actually is: a way of appearing to be bravely engaged in confronting this frightening spectacle consuming our nation, while really it’s just yet another spin on flight; obsessing over minutia as an intellectual dodge.

My calling as your pastor, to care for the wellness of each of your souls and to lend what aid I can in trying times, exhorts me to offer some comfort, here. To remind you that no matter what world we wake up to on Wednesday morning, the earth will continue to spin, the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west, and life will continue on. All of which is true. But I am also compelled by my role and by the covenant we share to fumble towards prophecy: to speak to you plainly and honestly about what matters most. So I will say this: elections have consequences. Their outcomes matter, and in fact our shared faith demands that we take them, and our role in them, seriously. To some of you who would wish that this was all over, or would all go away, that may sound more like the hard truth than the comforting reassurance. But I say it today, because I believe it to be both. Here’s why:

There is an old Jewish fable, about a boat which set out to sea on a long journey. It carried both people and cargo, and the captain of the ship assigned those people – of whom were quite poor – each a little plot in the hold, just as though they were goods to be sold. The voyage was long, and by the middle of it the passengers had run out of food, even after sharing and carefully portioning what little they had. So, with their bellies hungry, the people appointed the Rabbi who was among them to go to the captain and ask for his mercy. The Rabbi explained to the captain that the passengers in the hold were going hungry. Yet, the ship’s cargo contained a great deal of food meant for sale when they arrived at their destination. Couldn’t the captain open just one of his crates, and distribute enough food to make sure no one went hungry?

The captain refused. The food was his, and he planned to do with it as he chose; whatever that was, it was no business or concern of the Rabbi. The Rabbi was sad to hear this, but not surprised. He convinced the captain, however, to come with him into the hold, to little square of floor that had been assigned to the Rabbi as his portion. When they arrived, the Rabbi produced a hand drill, and began to drill into the floor. The captain yelled at him to stop – even a small hole would let the whole ocean into the boat. The ship would be lost, and everyone and everything aboard it as well. The Rabbi kept on doing exactly what he had been doing, drilling closer to the water underneath and around the boat with each turn of the crank. “This is my part of the hold,” the Rabbi explained. “I paid for it, and you assigned it to me yourself. It is mine, and I plan to do with it as I choose. Whatever that is, it is no business of concern of yours.” Ashamed at the mirror the Rabbi’s actions held up to his own selfishness, the captain relented, and opened one of his crates to feed the hungry passengers.

It is our faith that all of our lives are connected to each other. That our world is not defined by 7.4 billion private interests, but ultimately by a single, common good. The rights, and the worth and dignity of the individual, we affirm and defend. But it is not because each of us is a precious jewel, beautiful but alone. Rather, we are each threads in the same garment: when one of us is diminished, the whole of us suffer the loss. These two deep understandings about ourselves and our world – the unique value of the one, and the shared value of the all – constitute the first and the last of the seven principles which our Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote. It is from these two, that all others proceed, and one of them, the fifth principle, names our explicit commitment to democracy as a religious imperative.

Even when it is being supported, democracy is often presented as a compromise of sorts. Of course, goes the argument, we each would prefer to have a dictatorship which followed our own preferences perfectly, but because none of us would wish to live in anyone else’s dictatorship, deciding matters together, or electing representatives who will do so for us, is the next best option. “Democracy,” as the British statesman Winston Churchill once put it, “is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But what I tell you is this, and I pray that you remember it on Tuesday: I could not, and you should not, ever be content to live in a dictatorship. No matter how convincing the rhetoric of the man – and friends, I’m sorry, but it’s always a man – ginning up the crowd is. No matter how grand his promises or seductive his prejudices – even if he professes to hate exactly whom you hate, and love exactly whom you love, and vows to return the earth to your favorite, imaginary era of lost perfection, neither joy not security will follow for you, once he makes his ascent. When you give your own power over to a would-be-emperor, who so neatly and absolutely divides the world between the righteous and the vile, between the sheep and the goats, you will never be safe on the side of the angels. Everyone, but the one who is king, is simply waiting in line for their turn to be persecuted. Your only hope to avoid becoming a victim of the regime that you championed is that your life might be shorter than the length of the line ahead of you.

We are not religiously committed to democracy because there is some spiritual magic in the act of voting; there are other ways of making decisions that can be equally democratic, or more so. We do not commit ourselves, as a movement, to this principle, because there is some inherent good in the electing of others to make our most crucial collective decisions for us. There are many different ways to practice democracy, to pursue the elusive ideal that are subject to a decision – who must suffer for it, benefit from it, or in any case, live with it – must be the ones who make that decision, together. So there is no reason why our faith compels you to do anything in particular with yourself this Tuesday, except that this is the particular system we have at this time, and if you are a citizen of this country, and legally an adult, and have not been stripped of your right by incarceration, then you have some power over what sort of world we will wake up to on Wednesday. Whether or not the people in the hold will continue to go hungry, indeed, whether or not we will all wake up to a hole in the boat.

Whether you retain the right and responsibility of the franchise or not, you have the still some power, I promise. To volunteer, to campaign, to organize. If you do not like candidates available to you in this election, find someone you would like better – yourself included – and encourage them to answer a call to public service. If you do not like the system of our voting itself, I urge you to work to change. There is much more we could do, as a nation, to ensure that every person who wishes to can exercise their right to vote, and that those votes can lead to outcomes and officials that better reflect the intent of the people who cast them. Of all the electoral systems in the world, we are among the most hostile to the creation of new political parties – we could only be more so if they were banned outright. And the rigidity of our two-party system distorts the major parties we do have, and leaves them either beholden to the most extreme attitudes of their base or insulated from their chief concerns all-together. Perhaps you’d like to do something about one of those problems, or both.

A political election, like nearly everything else in life, is a collision between the ideal, and the practical. In any choice regarding parties, candidates, or legislation, there is some degree of compromise involved. Unless you, or someone you love and trust even more than yourself, is running for high office, then there will always be some space between what you might wish for, and the options available to you. But democracy is not holy because it is pure, it is sacred because it is messy. Because it is complicated enough to matter, and touch upon the real problems faced by people in their real lives. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there is work to be done on Wednesday. Some of it will be different, pending the outcome, but much of it the same. The struggle for the rights and dignity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people will still be far from over. The millennia-old dominance of men over all other genders will still be in place – no matter who wins, friends – and still need to be finally toppled. The architecture of racial injustice, built up over long centuries of suffering and death, still today the cause of so much suffering and death, will still need to be dismantled. The ethos which holds that one religion is superior and all others inferior will still be abroad in the land and in need of confrontation. Your power, this Tuesday, to make some incremental progress in each of these areas is real, and for that reason it is a profound responsibility. It is also just one link in a long chain: whether that chain is pulling us all up or holding us all down will depend on what we do on Wednesday, and every day after. That is my good news for you this morning.

And know that, having said all of this, I am largely preaching to the choir. That half or more of you have voted already, and that the decision of how you would vote was made by you months ago. So if what I have said to you this morning you already basically know, then I call on you to get out there folks, and tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell strangers in the street. Tell everyone you can, that they have power, too. Whether or not they realize it and whether or not they want it. Not enough of it, in most cases, but we can all get a little bit more of it, if we use what we have, together.

I want to close with a brief word about the four questions appearing on the ballot here in Massachusetts. As with candidates and parties, I won’t presume to tell you how you ought to vote, but I do feel a responsibility to illuminate the moral framework in which each of these matters rests.

Question 1 asks about adding a new slot parlor in the commonwealth. People are largely entitled to do as they will for recreation, and I find no basis in our tradition to deny a person’s right to gamble, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or engage in any of the other vices I don’t enjoy, any more than we might deny someone’s right to eat fried food, or drink excessive amounts of corn syrup, or stay up too late reading about the election on the internet – all vices that I am provably in the thrall of. But the business of commercial gambling depends upon exploiting addiction. Without people who are psychologically compelled to gamble – rather than merely enjoying it as an occasional distraction – these businesses can’t generally turn a profit. With or without one more slot parlor, there will still be opportunities to gamble, and to do it in Massachusetts. I cannot, therefore, see an argument for creating one more opportunity for a private business to make money on the backs of people struggling with addiction.

Question 2 asks about approval for new charter schools in our state. Of the four questions on our ballot, I believe this may be the most controversial among people in this room. As a movement, our commitment to ensuring accessible, quality education for all people is possibly our single most unswerving commitment. Nationally, charter schools are championed as a source of innovation in public schooling, providing an increase range of choices to children and their guardians and promoting greater opportunities for learning. It would be impossible to say that no charter school has ever succeeded in this regard – it would only take one committed teacher, or one accomplished student to disprove that, and there are certainly many of these. But also, nationally, charter schools have served as a vehicle for undermining the victories of teachers’ unions, for side-stepping accountability to local communities, including parents, and have offered a back-door for private, for-profit businesses to grow wealthy at the expense of the children they purport to serve. Again, it would be wrong to say that every charter school is the problem, but it would also be wrong to dismiss all the structural criticisms based on the individual students, teachers, and parents who have had positive experiences. As a product of public schools myself, and specifically of alternative public schools which were teacher-centered in their leadership and student-centered in their outcomes, I believe fiercely in the need to reform and restore our system of public education which has been systematically denigrated and dismantled in the 17 years since I graduated from high school. I’m not convinced that charter schools, in their current form, should be an increasing element of that project. I also know, from talking with some of you, that this is an issue which reasonable, principled, compassionate people can disagree on. I ask you to remember that, no matter whether you are celebrating or lamenting the result on Tuesday night, someone seated near you this morning will be doing the opposite.

Question 3 would ban the sale of caged animals for their meat, eggs, or other produce. I suspect you already know what your vegan minister thinks on this issue. My advice to you is as it always is with regard to food: know where yours comes from. Understand what goes into its production. And if you cannot stomach any element of that process, let that guide you as to what you choose to put into your stomach.

Question 4 would legalize the recreational use of marijuana by anyone 21 or over, something that is already permitted for medical reasons and largely decriminalized for all other purposes. I say largely, because as long as the sale and production of the substance is illegal, there are and still will be people arrested and punished for doing what is supposed to be a negligible, tolerated misdeed. Despite the fact that the assumptions strangers make based on my haircut, lead folks to try to sell the stuff to me on a somewhat regular basis, I’m not a particular fan of marijuana, and I don’t promote its use. I would say that I feel towards it about as I do towards alcohol: I’d just as soon as not our society were rid of the stuff, but it’s easy for me to dismiss an intoxicant I do not take pleasure in. I find no nobility in judging others for their enjoyment of the stuff, however. Should this measure pass, there will be work to do on the regulation side, and charge you that if you vote yes, you will have some responsibility to ensure that this new, lucrative industry does not go to benefit only affluent and almost-exclusively white entrepreneurs. If the poor people and people of color, presently in jail for the sale or production of marijuana are locked out of this new, legal industry, a profound injustice will have been compounded. But I will also say this: if you have ever smoked pot, when it was against the law for you to do so, and you didn’t go to jail for it, you need to vote yes on this measure, if only to ensure for others, the same luck which you enjoyed.

No Second Chances, Only Many First Ones

The other night, I returned from the store with my groceries in tow, and in a rush I tried to bring them all into the house too quickly – making two trips, when I ought to have made three or four. I set the first batch of bags on an empty space on the kitchen counter, even though it was not a wise place to put them: there were too many bags, and not enough space for them. I went back out to the car for the rest, and on my way back in I heard it – the crash of one of those bags slipping off the counter and onto the floor. It happened to be full of apples, which tumbled and scattered across the kitchen floor, rolling under chairs and over to the heating grate. I responded with exasperation and some words I won’t repeat here.

As mistakes go, my sloppy, hurried chore work had a very low cost. The apples were salvageable, and not badly bruised – they’ll most likely all still be eaten. But there is no denying that what happened happened, that however little the repercussions for my family’s fruit supply, there’s no way to undo it, exactly. Spill a glass of milk and you can clean up the mess, get out a fresh glass, and fill it up with milk again. But that first glass was still lost; there’s no getting it back. And while objects are usually fairly interchangeable, people never are. When our choices and our mistakes affect others, the stakes become dramatically higher.

In the late 1960s, Unitarian Universalism (like every other movement or organization in the United States) was faced with a profound moral challenge. The struggle for racial justice – which was, then as now, older than the republic, and which had been marked and defined by violence and suffering since the first beginnings of colonization and slave-holding in this hemisphere – had reached such a degree of visible intensity that white people and predominantly-white institutions all across the social and political spectrum were forced to grapple with growing demands for societal transformation. Our movement had, in its history up to then, made some laudable contributions to the goal of racial equity and a truly just society. We also had a sorry number of failures to our name. Our Association of Congregations received a new opportunity to act or fail to act when a campaign of black Unitarian Universalists called for the creation of a major new initiative to support people of African descent within our movement.

Their demand – the creation of the Black Affairs Council, and its funding for a sum of one million dollars spread over four years (an enormous sum to our small institution in 1968) – was initially approved by the elected delegates of our General Assembly. They were bold enough to do this, over-ruling a more middle-of-the-road proposal from the Board and President of the Association. The work began; grants were distributed and new efforts were undertaken, including programs to foster the real, full inclusion of black people within our existing congregations, and to form new congregations specifically devoted to reaching out to black communities. Unfortunately, the project did not last even for those four initial years. Many white leaders (and some black leaders) within the movement disagreed with the organizing strategy of the Black Affairs Council, which they saw as being based on separation, rather than integration. The BAC had overwhelming support from people of color within the Association, and sizeable support from our white membership, especially among the younger leaders. But the conflict was enough to get the amount of money set aside for BAC in its second year reduced from $250,000 to $200,000. This came across to many as a vital promise irreparably broken. The BAC and its program essentially collapsed, and a painfully large number of black (and some white) Unitarian Universalists (an entire generation of leaders) left the movement in anger and despair.

I recount all of this to you now, because of what happened just this past month. The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective – a contemporary effort by black Unitarian Universalist leaders – presented its program to support and expand the role and visibility of black people within our movement to the Board of Trustees of our Association. Our national Board voted to fund BLUU with $300,000 immediately, and a guarantee of $5,000,000. That’s a less than the value of one million 1968 dollars would be adjusted to 2016, but it’s in the same ballpark – a dramatic, and serious commitment of our common resources. The Board has expressed its determination to make the visionary choice and see it through this time. There are no second chances, but there are frequently new first ones. Finding, and following them, is the challenge.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


Go Down, Death – 10/30/2016

James Weldon Johnson was a lawyer and an activist and a diplomat, and also one of the great poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his most famous works is a collection of poems called, “God’s Trombones,” which attempted to capture the style of preaching he heard growing up in a black church in Jacksonville, FL. That title – God’s Trombones – comes from the voices of the preachers he heard in church, which seemed able to express and to amplify the full range of human emotion; just like a trombone. In one of the passages in his book, Johnson paints a picture of a God who reigns as a king in heaven; a king who watches over each of his earthly subjects, and takes a keen interest in each one. He writes,

Day before yesterday morning,

God was looking down from his great, high heaven

Looking down on all his children,

And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,

Tossing on her bed of pain.

And God’s big heart was touched with pity,

With the everlasting pity.


And God sat back on his throne,

And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:

Call me Death!

And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice

That broke like a clap of thunder:

Call Death! — Call Death!

And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven

Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,

Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.


And Death heard the summons,

And he leaped on his fastest horse,

Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.

Up the golden street Death galloped,

And the hoofs of his horse struck fire from the gold,

But they didn’t make no sound.

Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,

And waited for God’s command.


And God said: Go down, Death, go down,

Go down to Savannah, Georgia,

Down in Yamacraw,

And find Sister Caroline.

She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,

She’s labored long in my vineyard,

And she’s tired —

She’s weary —

Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

On this Sunday, each year, we gather to remember those whom we have loved and lost. And that can’t help but to make this a solemn occasion: in every death there is loss, and sorrow, and grief. But there can also be relief in death: the prospect of rest from a hard life, or simply a long one, well-lived. Every life is different, and so not every life has to bare the same degree of struggle or pain. The gift of being alive, of having the privilege to experience the world we share, and be a part of it – that makes the hard parts worth it. But when life ends, the labor of it does too. Yet still, whatever it was that we accomplished in our too-short time here continues further on without the need or benefit of our toil. It passes to those who loved us and knew us. The work of their hands carries us on, as the memory of us persists in those who continue the effort and live to savor its fruits.

The neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman put out a book several years ago called “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.” In it, he offers forty different possible versions of the afterlife, a bit like James Weldon Johnson offered his. In one of these forty little stories, he imagines that after we die, we go on to a mundane but spacious location, “like an infinite airport waiting area.” There’s coffee and tea, and efficient fluorescent lighting. Everyone is actually there to wait to pass on to the real, final afterlife, about which nothing is known, other than the assurance that it is much nicer than its antechamber.

The dead only move along into their final state when someone on earth says their name for the last time. This might mean very little waiting at all, or it might take an extremely long time. The vast room has an exaggerated ratio of famous people to more anonymous folks, because anyone who can manage to get their name into the history books can expect to be sitting on the moderately comfortable chairs for a very long time. The folks who have the hardest time in this arrangement are the ones who are remembered for the wrong sorts of reasons, by people who never knew them or particularly cared for them. Eagleman gives the example of a farmer whose farm became the site of a small liberal arts school after his death. Every week the tour guides mention his name in the course of their duties, connecting him to a school he knows nothing about and cares nothing for, causing him linger on. But if a person remains known on earth for who they were in life, the experience of waiting isn’t bad at all, no matter how long it is.

That is what we owe to the ones we love, we who live on after them. To remember them kindly, and honestly. To take wisdom, inspiration, courage – all that we can, really – from the experience of having known them. They have passed on into the rest beyond death; the work, however, continues. It is up to us to do it, so that the memory of them might continue to shape the world of which they were and will always have been a part.

A few years ago, the radio journalist Scott Simon sat with his mother in the hospital, accompanying her through her final days of life. With her participation and blessing, he cataloged the experience on Twitter, typing out short little snippets of their time together. In one of those tweets, he records the following:

Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?”

She means pain, dread.


She says, “But we’ll go on forever, you & me.”


Nothing in this world lasts forever, and eventually the joys of life end together with its hardships. But there is, never the less, and no matter what formula for an afterlife we do or do not entertain, a sense of the eternal in the communion we share with the people we love. Long after they, and we, are gone, it will continue to echo through the universe.

A Feast of Trumpets – 10/2/2016

The much-beloved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “Darmok” turned 25 years old, this past week – which means that it has officially crossed the line between the cultural references I have to be careful with using, so as not to alienate the older members of my audience, and those I have to be judicious with, so as not to alienate the younger folks. But, anyway. In this episode, Jean-luc Picard, the captain of the USS Enterprise, encounters a new species of aliens which pose a peculiar problem. You see, he and his crew depend on a universal translator for communication, an extremely helpful piece of 24th-century technology which can translate any language into any other language. The translator does its job with this new species, but it can only translate the raw, direct meanings of words. The newly encountered language, however, depends entirely on metaphor – every phrase and sentence contains a reference to characters or events in stories and legends from this alien society. Without an understanding of those stories, all the captain’s initial attempts at communication fail. He can understand every sentence, but he can’t gain the meaning expressed by any of them; tensions flair, and the prospect becomes very real that this first encounter may turn violent.

I begin this morning with a reference that I know not all of us know, about what can happen when we try to communicate with someone whose references we don’t know, because today’s worship honor’s a festival that I know many of us do not know much about. So, a few facts to begin with. The setting of the sun tonight will mark the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, to be followed in about a week and a half by Yom Kippur – together these are knows as the High Holy Days and the time between them, the Days of Awe. In the Jewish tradition, this is the most sacred time of year, even though they tend to be little-understood in American society in general. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year – or rather, the most important of several different New Years in the Jewish tradition, sort of like the difference between the modern ideas of a calendar New Year and a fiscal New Year. It literally means, “the head of the year,” and in the Bible itself the Hebrew the term for this observance is Yom Teruah: “day of blasting” Blasting as in the blast of sound from a horn – specifically the ram’s horn or shofar, which we heard earlier. One of the more poetic translations sometimes offered for that title is the Feast of Trumpets.

It is traditional to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but the traditional liturgy calls for much more than just belting out one brief, simple blast. A complex and physically demanding series of notes is required, culminating in a blast so long and loud that it should leave the person delivering it spent and out-of-breath, and the congregation hearing it shaken with awe. The Baal Shem Tov, the great eastern European mystic credited with founding Judaism’s Hasidic movement, is said to have told a story to explain the power of the sound of the shofar.

Once there was a prince, who was the son of a wise and just king, who ruled over a noble country. The prince was taught right from wrong, instructed by his father in morality and ethics, and grew to be a kind and curious young man. One day, his father gave him a set of instructions to complete his learning. He sent his son to a far-off country, where none would know or care that he was a prince, and told him to live among the people there, to seek work and a livelihood, and learn what he could among them.

The prince found that this new country was not like his own. For the people there did not seem to care for one another; most times they were indifferent, but when they were not indifferent, they were cruel. The prince did his best to make a new life among them without losing himself and the values he had been taught, but he could not struggle against the whole society surrounding him forever. Eventually, their customs became his customs, and their way of thinking his way of thinking. Over time he lost his ethics, and his language, and his old name, and even the memory that he had ever been a prince. He became just another unfriendly face in a cold and callous country.

But then, one day, long after he had forgotten himself, a carriage came to his adoptive city, carrying the monarch of some far off nation on some diplomatic mission. Recognizing his father’s carriage, the prince remembered just enough of himself to know how much he had forgotten. He ran to his father, but he realized even as he did, he would never be recognized. Nothing remained of his once fine robes, his face was worn and changed by a hard and bitter life, and he could no longer remember his own first language. Peering through the window of the carriage, seeing no recognition on the king’s face whatsoever, the prince did the only thing he could think to do: he cried. He wailed, in fact, wordlessly and loud – a lament for all that he had lost of himself. This is what caused the king to finally recognize his own son: the sound of his child’s cry.

This is the sound that the Baal Shem Tov compared the sound of the shofar to. He understood it as the cry of his people, recognizing their connection to the Divine – bent, broken, and all but lost in the mistakes of the year now passing away – and crying out to God to renew that relationship. I think that he was quite obviously right, at least as far as his observation that the scream of your child has a unique effect on the mind of a parent. My experience has been that both of my children can scramble my brain pretty much any time that they want to. But that sense of being scrambled usually comes when I’m trying to focus on anything other than them and them alone – that’s what they’re crying about, after all. The sound of one of their wailing forces me to zero in on them and whatever they have going on – it clarifies what my priorities are, in that moment, similar to a different Jewish story about the observance of Rosh Hashanah.

In a rural Jewish village, in the old country, a man took his teenage son to the synagogue for the first time on Rosh Hashanah. The son new nothing of the prayers or the liturgy; he didn’t even recognize what was going on or what day it was without having to be told. The story is vague on exactly why this is; the oldest versions I could find describe the son as simple or uneducated. But his father clearly knows the prayers himself, and values going to the synagogue, and becomes embarrassed at his child’s questions, and frustrated to be made a spectacle of in front of the whole community. It seems unlikely he had simply neglected to teach any of his religion to his child; more likely, he hit some barrier he didn’t know how to reach beyond. Perhaps the son has a learning disability, or a cognitive disability; it may be that a prayer-life grounded in reading and memorization is beyond the young man’s grasp.

Sitting next to his son, red-faced and almost shaking with frustration, the father tells him to just be quiet, so that perhaps not everyone in the village will realize his shame: that his child cannot join in on even the most basic prayers. The son was quiet – until he heard the sound of the shofar. He listened to the instrument as it played its part in the service, and when it was through, he stood up and answered it in the only way available to him. The son was a shepherd, and he would often whistle to his sheep – so he whistled as long and as loud as he could, until the sound filled the sanctuary. And his father was even more embarrassed than before. Now, there is a mystical idea in the Jewish tradition that Heaven is like a vast city, set all around the outside with gates that open and close in order to let in certain prayers and keep out others. So this story concludes with the secret that on that particular Rosh Hashanah, all of the heavenly gates were closed, so that no prayer on earth could be heard, until that young man whistled, wanting with all his heart to offer what he could to his community, to join the congregation in their worship – in that moment, every gate was thrown open, and the prayers of the world could enter Heaven once more.

The sound of a trumpet – or of a shofar; the cry of a child; the voice of a person once silenced, but yearning to be heard; any of these things can serve to wake up the soul, just a little bit more. To disrupt our complacency, to shake us out of our moral slumber and challenge us to see the world a little bit more honestly. In medieval images of angels, you sometimes see them blowing great long horns. Such images are sometimes associated with the end of time – that trumpet blasts will hail the day of judgement and the end of history on earth. In an old black-and-white movie I remember watching with my mother once, when I was a child, Jack Benny plays an angel sent to earth to blow that fateful trumpet blast. Luckily for everyone alive, he can’t seem to do the job right, and even more luckily, he is not actually an angel at all, but an earthly trumpet player in an orchestra who’s fallen asleep on the job.

The angel horns from those medieval paintings and statues are called clarions. That name shares a Latin root with the word clarify, and that’s exactly what the shofar, and each of these other sounds, and any number of other jarring confrontations to the senses can serve to do: to clarify things for us. The shofar is the clarification of the ending of one year and the beginning of another, but every moment is the end of a year’s worth of moments behind it and the beginning of another year ahead of it. I would say, in point of fact, that each moment has its own trumpet blast, its own clarifying signal, challenging us to put down what we’re doing and do instead what must be done. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we shrug-off, ignore, or just honestly miss the voice or the scene or whatever it was that, if we had actually fully experienced it, would have helped us to remember ourselves, and moved us closer to being the best that we are capable of being.

In one oft-remembered moment from our own Unitarian Universalist history, the poet, naturalist and iconoclast Henry David Thoreau landed himself in jail in the town of Concord, for refusing to pay a tax in protest of the institution of slavery, then nearly twenty years from being officially ended in this country. His friend, the great essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to see him and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Came his reply, “Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” It’s rare that the moral confrontation of any given moment is as loud a trumpet blast, metaphorically-speaking, but Emerson and Thoreau’s story reminds us that sometimes the difference between what we are doing and what we ought to be doing really is put that startlingly simple for us.

In that old episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation – and I can call it old, now, because as of this week it has attained an age at which a human being would be able to rent a car without any exorbitant, additional fee – the key to understanding a language based on unfamiliar metaphors was to work alongside someone who spoke it. Facing a challenge together necessitated many attempts at communication. Even when most failed, it was possible to learn, bit by bit, a little at a time, until the beginnings of understanding formed. Similarly, I submit that we are called to listen for the trumpets that herald each new moment and sound the particular challenge of the now – racial injustice, wealth inequality, and environmental crisis have all been sounding quite loudly in my ear, of late. This isn’t something to be done with the expectation that we’ll catch that clarion every time, or even more than a tenth of it. It’s to be done because, bit by bit, we learn – about the trouble of the world and our own power to answer it. And from that learning, the possibility of purpose to drives and shapes our lives begins to form.

Take a Knee

In the first congregation that I worked, each of the lovely, ornate box pews included an odd element that I didn’t immediately identify on first seeing them. They seemed a little like very short, very narrow benches, set opposite to the actual seats, and their tops weren’t level – they had a distinct slant to them. Having always lived, up to that point, outside of New England, and gaining my experience of Unitarian Universalism there, where our congregations tend to be more distantly removed from the Christian history in which our movement has its origins, I guessed that these distinctive pieces of church furniture were footrests. Based on my observation of their use by congregants, I think that was a common misunderstanding. It was some months before someone more knowledgeable than I explained that actually these were kneelers, meant to provide something more comfortable than the hard wood floor when the liturgy called for the congregation to kneel.

Of course, that congregation, like the overwhelming majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations – including our own – no longer had any collective religious practice of kneeling. But in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and in many branches of Protestantism, the congregation is called to kneel in every service, particularly when receiving Communion. If you’ve ever visited a masjid – a Muslim house of worship, the term for which literally means “place of prostration” – then you know that they most often lack pews or rows of chairs, and are generally carpeted throughout. This is because in Islam, the standard position for the worship service and for prayer is on one’s knees, frequently on a special rug or sajjada. (One such sajjada, which was given to me as a gift from my little brother, hangs on the wall of my study at First Parish.) Judaism is much more circumspect about kneeling than are the other two Abrahamic traditions. This is not because it is considered somehow wrong or undesirable as a position for prayer, but because it is held to be such a profound and powerful religious act that it is reserved, in almost all cases, for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur (which will be observed this year in October). And while the most familiar image you have of a Buddhist in seated meditation may be with their legs folded, kneeling (depending again on the particular branch of Buddhism) is also very common.

To kneel is a cross-cultural sign of reverence and respect; it is a physically-serious position, not a comfortable or casual one. But lately, it has become a point of significant contention, as a wave of silent protest – sparked by Colin Kaepernick, of the San Francisco 49ers – has seen athletes kneeling at sporting events during the Star-Spangled Banner. Kaepernick and many others have chosen to kneel, rather than to stand, during the national anthem in order to protest racial injustice, conditions in which black and brown people can be and are being killed without anyone being held accountable for their deaths. As he himself put it, “…this country stands for freedom, liberty, and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” I, personally, applaud this protest, and I am not alone in doing so, but the voices speaking against it – calling it unpatriotic, hateful, even somehow criminal – have been very loud indeed. We live in an era when the extraordinarily simple and personal act of kneeling can be a flashpoint of anger – this is how far apart we are stretched as a nation in our understanding of the racial reality that we and the 318 million other Americans live within. For all the hate that has been heaped upon him, the burning of his jerseys, the challenges to his patriotism and his person, Colin Kaepernick has, by taking a knee, challenged his country to talk more about that racial reality, and perhaps to actually engage more actively in changing it.

Such a dialog begins at home, which is why I and your Social Action committee have committed to making learning and deep conversation around race and justice a priority for our congregation this year. As one beginning for this dialog, I hope you will make a special point to join us for Sunday worship on October 23rd, to help me welcome our guest, Cherish Casey, to speak about working for racial justice, particularly here in Essex County. The next night, on Monday, October 24th, I’ll begin the first in a series of workshops here at First Parish on race as an idea, an experience, and a force that shapes the world we live in. I hope you will consider joining us for that, as well.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Facing the Facts (Or Not) – 9/25/2016

In 1633, the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei, was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition to defend himself against the charge of heresy. He stood accused of holding Copernican views – the then quite radical idea that the earth revolves around the sun – and of trying to convince others of this same position through his writings. In Europe in the 1630s, this was a very serious crime – the church still taught then that the sun revolved around the earth, and the contradiction of that doctrine could be answered with imprisonment, or even death.

Of this crime, he was convicted, and found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” Galileo was ultimately sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life, prohibited from publishing any further writings, and required to recite the seven penitential psalms at least once each week for the three years following his conviction. Even before he could begin this punishment, before he would be released from prison, Galileo first had to officially recant, declaring the view of the cosmos he had articulated and championed in the past to be both odious and wrong. This he did; in order to preserve himself against any further punishment, including the real threat of torture, Galileo declared before the court that the sun revolves around the earth, while the earth remains perfectly still. And so the story goes that once he had been released and his jailers were out of ear-shot, he made a small addition to what he’d said of the earth in court: “And yet, it moves.”

Each year, at our annual church auction, I offer up a sermon as one of the items for bid, with the winner to choose the topic I will reflect on or the question I will attempt to answer. This morning’s message is this year’s auction sermon, and its topic was chosen by Bruce Egan. A man of science and a person concerned with the plight of our planet and our society, Bruce asked that I speak to the observed fact of climate change and its steadfast deniers, but more broadly to explore where in us this impulse to stubbornly ignore compelling arguments comes from.

We’ll begin with climate change itself, the smaller of the two topics, being only a question of the survival of innumerable species of plants and animals and of human civilization as we currently know it. Globally, average temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, sea levels are climbing and deserts are expanding. Each of these things is a fact – observable, verifiable, and monitored closely by a vast array of scientific professionals and amateurs devoting their time and effort to better understanding the predicament of the world we share. If – as is almost mathematically certain at this late date on the calendar – 2016 proves to be the hottest year ever recorded by human beings, it will be the third straight year in a row that that has happened. There have never been three such record-breaking years in a row in the history of that record, but 15 of the top 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since the year 2000.[i] Our planet, on the whole, is getting hotter; there is no way around that truth short of dismissing virtually all of the data collected in an entire field of science, and to do so would be tantamount to dismissing the scientific method itself.

That this heating of our earth is traceable to human behavior is very nearly as certain. The consensus among climate scientists is that the massive amount of greenhouse gases we’ve added to earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, is climate change’s primary culprit. Again, that increase is measureable and well-documented; another fact, rather than a judgement or opinion. This means that we have, as a species, made the world hotter, that this process will continue and worsen for at least as long as we continue to burn coal and gasoline and other carbon-based sources of energy, and that the consequences for life on earth are vast.

Yet, not everyone accepts this, rejecting either the facts themselves or the rather straight-forward conclusions drawn from them. I feel I should point out that this denialism happens to be an almost-uniquely American phenomena; climate assessments rendered by the scientific community are largely accepted – if not always acted upon – in most other countries, particularly industrialized ones, and those most likely to be adversely effected by rising temperatures and sea levels. But the supreme self-confidence, bordering on self-worship, required in order to pick and choose amongst observable facts according to our own biases or preferences is not something that we as a nation have the monopoly on.

This past week, there was something of a kerfuffle as it was announced in the press that NASA issued a unilateral revision of the astrology’s zodiac, adding a 13th sign and modifying the dates associated with each symbol so that 86% of all people now have a different sign. Never mind that more than half of this is the salacious invention of media outlets more interested in drawing clicks than in covering the world of science accurately. NASA neither claimed nor wished for the right to redraw astrological charts. A NASA employee simple mentioned, on a blog intended to help children get interested in science, that the ancient Babylonians – who first laid out the zodiac – cut some corners in doing so. Because astrology is premised on where certain stars appear in the night sky at certain times of year, it’s possible to check these assumptions against the observations of modern astronomy – and the two simply don’t line up. Casually mentioning this – once again – verifiable fact, raised enough ire to almost completely distract from what ought to have been the week’s far more surprising astronomical news that Pluto has been found to be emitting X-rays.[ii]

I want to make a confession here. Those of you that know me will likely not be surprised when I say that I do not put much stock in astrology, or in any special connection between the motion of the stars in the heavens and events here on earth. But it is not a tradition that I’m completely ignorant of, and having known the astrological sign I associated with my birthday for the whole of my life, I am well-accustomed to it. The common personality descriptions associated with my sign – Scorpio – I happen to feel describe me fairly well. I consider its assignment to me arbitrary, but that doesn’t stop me from resonating with it. And certainly, if someone were to try to tell me that though I had always understood myself to be a Scorpio, I was, rightly, a Libra, I would not be open to their argument, no matter how solid their logical take-down of historical astrology. So though it has its origins in sloppy reporting, I can sympathize slightly with the folks who got caught up in all this hoopla.

From the significant (if passing) success of flat-earthers, moon-landing conspiracists, and the purveyors of the pernicious lie that there is any credible evidence to link the development of Autism with routine vaccinations – there would seem to be something in us ever-ready to ignore the facts before us. Bruce, you asked me to reflect on what the cause here might be, and I have identified three main factors in the rejecting of copious but somehow unsatisfying data. The first and perhaps most predictable of these is the motive for profit. As the great muckraker Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”[iii] This goes a long way towards explaining climate denial, at least among its chief proponents: major petrochemical companies have vested interests and deep pockets, and have bank-rolled media stories, junk science, and political campaigns all pointed towards countering or obfuscating the broad consensus among climate scientists.

Of course, it’s not only misinformation that materially benefits us that we sometimes cling to. Often it’s information that would be significant and useful to us that we struggle to ignore. For instance, the ratio of worker to CEO pay in the United States has become less and less favorable to workers over the last 40 years, and this is far from secret – it’s been analyzed, publicized, and discussed at length. The ratio currently sits at something approximating 300:1 – on average, it would take the annual salaries of 300 workers to amount to the yearly pay of a single CEO. Yet, when Americans are asked to estimate this ratio, their average answer comes out to 30:1, underestimating by a factor of 10.[iv]

There are at least two other major reasons beside personal gain for why we ignore facts: fear of the truths those facts point to, and the satisfaction of being in-the-know, of being somehow more clever, knowledgeable, or wise than those whose status is supposed to derive from their intelligence, learning, or wisdom. In addition, in our current society, I also see four more specific factors compounding this problem. The first is a mood of anti-intellectualism which alienates experts from non-experts and holds up a lack of expertise as qualification in and of itself. The second is a public discourse obsessed with false-equivalency: everything, it seems, must have a counterbalance; there must be an alternate side presented on every point, no matter how ridiculous or irresponsible that alternate side might be. Third, there is a sort of pre-sorting that goes on when we choose our sources of information, insuring that we will usually only have to confront those facts which complement our worldview, rather than challenging it. And finally, there’s the simple problem of complexity. If any society ever was elegant enough for one person to grasp all its crucial dimensions in full, ours certainly is not. No one can hope to be an expert, or even a well-informed lay person on every possible subject and issue. And again, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if, as a society, we were not so mistrustful of experts.

Distrust pervades our society, in fact, and nothing is so likely to make one person less likely to trust another than the discovery that they differ in their most important conclusions – so that the stage of comparing facts seriously and critically with one another is only rarely reached. Yet it is the comparing and the testing of those things believed to be true that is completely essential to the project of science.

Oliver Cromwell once wrote to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, saying, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The American jurist Billings Learned Hand opined centuries later, “I should like to have that written over the portals of every church, every school, and every courthouse, and, may I say, of every legislative body in the United States.” Less the extremely distinctive and colorful metaphor, this describes one of the pillars of the scientific method: a willingness to entertain the idea that one could be wrong in order to test and retest hypotheses and remain open to new evidence. “I can live,” said the famous 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman, “with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”[v]

The key, though, is not to mistake this principled humility for weakness in the face of delusional certainty. This problem is not unique to the matter of scientific inquiry – it also speaks to our own faith as Unitarian Universalists, which requires of us a similar discipline of humility in spiritual matters, and which counsels us explicitly to heed the results of science. This can, at time, leave us feeling as though we are defenseless, lacking the armor of theological hubris that any of the competing modes of orthodoxy offer to their adherents. But to seek the truth in the active presence of doubt requires strength. It asks of us a profound commitment, and as we live that commitment out it, in turn, makes us stronger – by the insights it offers, and the follies it frees us from making.

It is fitting, perhaps, that we began this meditation on fact and falsehood with a story that is most likely apocryphal: there is no contemporary record of Galileo’s ever having said, “And yet, it moves.” Still, the phrase does seem to have been associated with him even before his death; people, whether they’d heard the words from him or not, had by then already come to associate him with the plight of facts before the power of political authorities. In the short term, power has many ways to win out; but on a long enough timeline, the facts, however inconvenient or unpopular, are all but inescapable. Now that may seem a frightening reality – the truth is rarely all good news, and the implications of climate science are that we must, beginning as close to yesterday as possible, reorder our society dramatically to stem and resist its effects or else face an inevitable and far more dramatic reordering brought about by its unmitigated consequences. But the other side of that fact is the truth that we have, as a species, built something so vast and so complicated that it has fundamentally changed the nature of the world we live on. Having done so once, it seems undeniable that we have the capacity to do so again – it is only a question of whether we will face the reality before us, and put our strength and courage to work.



[iii] From his book, “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked”


[v] From “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman”

Called Again, and Again, and Again – 9/18/2016

“Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” History records these as the words of the first telephone call. A one-way message sent from device’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was working in a different room of the same building. And the story goes that this sentence was not carefully formed or pre-planned with an eye towards its historical import. Instead, it was a spontaneous and somewhat desperate utterance, prompted when Bell had spilled some acid in his laboratory. Which means that the first call made on the original telephone – the archaic ancestor of that sleek device you most likely have right now in your pocket or your purse – was a cry for help. And that’s what brings us together, this Sunday and every Sunday – but, wait. I should explain a little bit more first.

My message to you this morning is the first in a ten-part series which will be spread across this church-year, from now until June, examining each of ten different sections of our congregation’s liturgy: the elements that together make up our Sunday-morning worship. Today, we begin with the Call to Worship. Why do we do it, each week? What purpose is served by my coming down off of the chancel and opening our order of events with some strange story or odd anecdote?

The answer, at its base, is a rather simple one. Some years ago during my annual Question and Answer sermon, I was asked about this and I explained things with a rather violent metaphor; after the service one of you came up to me and wisely offered something more palatable to replace it with. So here is the improved version: The service begins by tilling the soil, and eventually progresses to the point of planting seeds in the earth. You may think of the Call to Worship, then, as the moment when the plow begins to dig away at the dirt in earnest.

Each of the great prophets has some first transcendent moment, signifying the beginning of their intimate relationship with the Divine, and the start of their particular work trying to reorder the world according to what is right and just. Moses, you probably remember, has his encounter with the burning bush, wreathed in flame but never consumed by it. The voice from the bush gives Moses his mission – to liberate his people from slavery – but its first instruction is much more immediate. Moses is told by the bush to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Even the beginning has a beginning, the preparation that comes before he even takes on the mantle of prophecy.

It’s a little less iconic these days, but the teacher Jesus has a moment like this as well. In the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told that Jesus went to the Jordan river, to be anointed with water by John the Baptist, a prophet who lived in the wilderness and called on the people of the cities and villages to repent from their unjust ways. At the moment of his baptism, the three stories describe a dove descending from the sky, and a voice from on high announcing its pleasure with Jesus. The Christian Bible doesn’t really present any direct account of Jesus’ internal life, nor does it offer stories in which he argues with God – something of a major theme for other leading biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. This is what allows for the common orthodox interpretation of Jesus – incapable of being surprised or uncertain, because he is a being who exists beyond time. But I find the more human interpretation of the teacher far more compelling, in which he would be shocked by the sudden appearance of the dove and the voice, right along with John and the other spectators, just as awe-struck and disoriented as Moses had been by the burning bush.

In the story of Muhammad’s call as a prophet, he was alone, just like Moses. He had gone up into a cave in the mountainside above his city in order to pray and reflect. And then, the story goes that the angel Jabreel – Gabriel – appeared to him and showed him a few lines of text written in the sky out of flame. “Read” Jabreel commanded. Muhammad wanted to comply, but he literally could not; like most people in his place and time, he was illiterate. The angel shook him and commanded him again and again, Jabreel could not make Muhammad read what he could not read. So eventually, instead, the angel spoke words and Muhammad recited dutifully the first lines of the message entrusted to him: “Bismilllah al-Rahman, al-Rahim…”

Muhammad’s story includes an element that those of Moses and Jesus and most of the other big names leave out: the immediate aftermath of a prophet’s call. Muhammad comes down from the mountain shaken and disturbed by what he has experienced. It was profound, but also frightening, and when he sees his wife, Khadija, he tells her all that has happened and confesses his fear to her. He cannot imagine why a relatively unimportant man, such as him, should be chosen by God for a prophet and so he worries that his senses are false, or that some evil force is trying to deceive him. Khadija, however, listens to her husband’s story and believes him, and she offers reassurance, reminding him that he is a good and respected neighbor who deals justly in business and upholds his responsibilities to family. He seems a very wise choice for a prophet to her. It is for this reason that Khadija is credited as the first Muslim; she fully believed in and embraced the revelation that came to Muhammad, even before he did.

While these three episodes are ancient stories about singular individuals, their calls to prophecy share with our Call to Worship a sense of disruption. The ordinary, the familiar, and mundane are upended by something luminous. This is what the Call to Worship exists for: to call us out of our everyday, unexamined lives and into a different form of engagement with the world. Rather than awe and mystery intruding into the familiar – a common way of looking at calling stories – I would say that we, like every spiritual seeker who came before us in human history, simply have to be woken up to the wonder and majesty which already suffuse the world, but which we spend most of lives distracted from. The dove is always descending, the sky is always filled with words of flame, the bush is always burning – its just that we are only occasionally capable of noticing.

In his poem, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry writes about the numbing and dangerous nature of the prevailing order of things, and our duty to step outside it, to rail against it, and to try to see it change for the better.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.


So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.


Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.


Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion – put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?


Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.


Yet, despite Wendell Berry’s matter-of-fact counsel, stepping out the conventional is rarely easy. The discipline of a spiritual practice can – somewhat ironically – help to overcome the gravity of the way things are. But it is still difficult, if not impossible, to break free of sheer practicality by will alone. For most of us, most of the time, we need some stimulus to jolt us out of the rut of the familiar.

Kurt Vonnegut, in the made of language of his invented religion of Bokononism, used the term ‘vin-dit’ as a name for an experience which is sudden, jarring, and odd in just the right way to push the person who has it into a sense of disorienting awe. When the protagonist in his novel, Cat’s Cradle has such a vin-dit, he describes it this way: “The room seemed to tip, and its walls and ceiling and floor were transformed momentarily into the mouths of many tunnels—tunnels leading in all directions through time. I had a Bokononist vision of the unity in every second of all time and all wandering mankind, all wandering womankind, all wandering children.” In that particular vin-dit involved a bizarre coincidence with a stone angel from a hundred years ago that was ordered but never paid for. Obviously, that level of individualized-service is not possible, gathered to guarantee, gathered together, here, on a Sunday morning. But that is the kind of experience we’re striving for.

The poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes about listening and waiting for that calling to come,

I have heard it all my life,

A voice calling a name I recognized as my own.

Sometimes it comes as a soft-bellied whisper.

Sometimes it holds an edge of urgency.

But always it says: Wake up my love. You are walking asleep.

There’s no safety in that!

Remember what you are and let this knowing

take you home to the Beloved with every breath.

Hold tenderly who you are and let a deeper knowing

colour the shape of your humanness.

There is no where to go. What you are looking for is right here.

Open the fist clenched in wanting and see what you already hold in your hand.

There is no waiting for something to happen,

no point in the future to get to.

All you have ever longed for is here in this moment, right now.

You are wearing yourself out with all this searching.

Come home and rest.

How much longer can you live like this?

Your hungry spirit is gaunt, your heart stumbles. All this trying.

Give it up!

Let yourself be one of the God-mad,

faithful only to the Beauty you are.

Let the Lover pull you to your feet and hold you close,

dancing even when fear urges you to sit this one out.

Remember- there is one word you are here to say with your whole being.

When it finds you, give your life to it. Don’t be tight-lipped and stingy.

Spend yourself completely on the saying.

Be one word in this great love poem we are writing together.


Which brings me back around to Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson. As I said at the beginning, the first phone call was a cry for help, that’s the same thing that brings us together, this Sunday and every Sunday. Not because that’s what the Call to Worship is, but because that’s what the Call to Worship awakens us to: the need for help, inside ourselves, and the people around us, and the very earth itself. We wake up on a Sunday morning, and we come to this place, so that we can wake up for a second time. And we answer the Call, each Sunday, by greeting each other, because now we are a little more ready to live together in spiritual community. Now we are ready to help each other, and ourselves.

The River In Drought, Or the Ocean in Flood? – 9/11/2016

One of the contradictions of life in a desert, is the crucial need for salt. Sweating in the heat causes the body to lose that essential mineral, and so humans and other animals have to make up for that loss somehow, even as they face the more obvious struggle of finding water. There’s a scene that addresses this in a movie from the 1970s about life in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. Although the film was marketed as a documentary, it’s clear the film-makers weren’t deeply concerned with accuracy and authenticity – so don’t take this story as fact, but here’s the scene:

One of the Saan people, the folks who are indigenous to this section of Africa, one of the driest places in the world, has a hunk of rock salt, but what he needs most is water. A monkey watches him taste the salt and recognizes what it is, so the man devises a plan. He digs a small hole into a termite mound, just large enough to wedge the salt inside. Once he goes far enough away, the monkey comes over to retrieve the salt. The hole is big enough for its hand to get into the mound, but one it has its fist around the salt crystal, it can’t get it back out again. This gives the man time to catch the monkey, help it escape from the trap, and treat it to all the salt it could want. The man is happy to share, you see, because now the monkey is very thirsty, and once the man releases it, it leads him right to a hidden trickle of water which it has been drinking from. First the monkey had no salt, and then too much. First the man had no water, and now he has the monkey’s.

Each September, we renew the cycle of our life together as a congregation with the Water Communion. Water is so essential to life on earth, it seems natural enough that this should be the symbol of our coming together into community. But this summer – which looks to have been the hottest ever recorded by humans – has been marked by tragic extremes of water. Drought, which has mostly just been a hardship for our gardens and farm lands here, has been deadly in California, as dry brush and rainless weeks let forest fires rage. While in Louisiana, an excess of water has proven just as destructive and deadly, with whole neighborhoods submerged, houses destroyed, lives forever changed. And this past week, the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota drew national attention as they confronted the prospect of an oil pipeline – now, thankfully, put on hold – which would intrude on their sacred lands, and, in particular, endanger their water supply.

We live in a world shaped by the extremes of too much, and not enough. Our country suffers from an excess of consumption – of food, of oil, of just about everything – yet, it also suffers from insufficient food, insufficient shelter, insufficient safety and dignity, for too many of us. The drive for more and more leaves us with less and less; of material things, some of us, but just as often of the immaterial qualities of purpose and meaning.

This weekend marked the official beginning of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims are commanded to undertake once in their lives, provided that they have the means and the physical capability to make the journey. That pilgrimage entails a number of rituals and ceremonies, several of which are drawn from the story of a woman who is called Hajar in the Qur’an and Hagar in the Hebrew Bible – one of many figures who appear in both books, and in both traditions.

This is the way the story goes: Hajar was left, alone, in the desert, trying to keep herself and her infant son, Ishmael, alive. They had no water left. She ran back and forth between two hills, searching the dry earth for water – very soon, the pilgrims in Mecca will re-enact this story by making seven circuits between the hills of Safa and Marwah; just shy of a two mile walk, all told. That trip once took place outside, but the need to ensure the safety of so many pilgrims has led to substantial innovation: today the procession between the two hills is made through a beautifully-appointed building, with wide hallways, air conditioning, and a special express lane set aside for the elderly and the physically disabled.

Hajar scoured the desert around her, but she found no water, and eventually she had to set her son down – perhaps because she had lost the strength in her limbs to carry him any longer. Once he was set down, Ishmael kicked at the ground beneath him, and where his heel struck the earth, water sprang forth. So much water, in fact, that Hajar had to spring into action to rescue her child from the flood. She called out to it, “Zome! Zome!” – stop, stop – and from this phrase comes the name of the well of Zamzam, another site visited by pilgrims making the hajj.

The close of this story is that while Hajar and Ishmael were alone in the desert for a terribly long time, just after the spring appeared, so too did a group of travelers. And Hajar, who had been so thirsty that she thought she would die, immediately called out to them, inviting them to come, and share the fresh water. She was not concerned about how much there was, or how many of them there were.

The hajj is a time of celebration in Islam. Beginning tonight, and stretching through most of tonight, it will have its apex in Eid al-Adha, which is Islam’s single biggest holiday. And this time of joy intersects this year with the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the day of suffering and violence that has so vastly effected our national psyche and the course of world history over the past decade and a half. For fifteen years, the predominant American response to an episode of profound unsafety has been an all-consuming demand for safety as an absolute, a guarantee. Fleeing from not-enough safety, racing towards too much, at all costs.

In her story, Hajar also goes from not enough to too much of something that she desperately needs. But her solution is not to keep scrabbling for more – she doesn’t keep digging for more wells after the first, nor does she hoard up what the ground puts forth. Instead, she shares what she has, as freely as she can. The earth is now too hot, and our civilization, too cold, for us to allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by too little and too much, racing back and forth between those two poles like the pilgrims between Safa and Marwah. What we need now is the determination that what there is is to be shared; without first counting the amount, or the number to be divided between. We must offer what we have to each other, and be determined to better understand one another, to overcome the fear of what we do not have, and the emptiness we already have too much of.

The Ground We Hallow By Our Meeting

This summer, during an outing with my family in Lynch Park, I came across an odd tableau. The rose garden on a summer afternoon usually has a fair number of people in it, wandering among the flowers, or children (sometimes my children) playing on the brickwork and under the stone awning. But on this day, the space was crowded with visitors, and all of them were…sitting. Some were chatting in small clusters, but most had their heads bent down, peering into their hand-held devices.

They were, as you may already have guessed, playing Pokemon Go, the hand-held game which had just been released a week-or-so before. The game (which, at its heart, is about collecting cute, cartoon monsters) depends on a form of augmented reality. Through the modern magic of your phone’s GPS, the game keeps track of where you are in the real world, and its special map has designated certain places therein as important to the game. You need to physically visit them in order to acquire useful items, train your digital pets, or find new ones. And it turns out the Lynch Park’s rose garden is one of these key locations – a wise choice for a place that players will want to visit in order to rise in level and advance within the game.

An unadvertised consequence of this game design – and the dramatic surge in popularity it had upon release – has been to put lots of different people who didn’t necessarily know each other before into the same spaces at the same time. It even provides some built-in conversation-starters: “I just caught Pikachu!” “How many Pokemon do you have in your Pokedex?” A game which – no judgements – was created by a corporation to be entertaining, and thus profitable has, as a byproduct, begun fostering interactions. And in every such interaction lies the potential, however small, for something holy to occur.

My mentor and childhood minister, the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert wrote,

                We meet on holy ground,

Brought into being as life encounters life,

As personal histories merge into the communal story,

As we take on the pride and pain of our companions,

As separate selves become community.

Now, I can’t claim anything quite so profound as this was happening in the rose garden that day. I wouldn’t know – I hadn’t joined the game yet, worried about its drain on both my time and my phone’s battery life. But when I found out a few days ago that our congregational home at 225 Cabot Street is also one of the game’s special locations (we’re a PokeStop, for those hip to the lingo), that sealed my fate. I installed the game last night; I can’t resist an opportunity for transcendent encounters with the other people sharing this earth with me.

And I hope that you cannot resist such opportunities either, because this month, as we return from the summer sojourn to Sundays of worship at the yellow church on Cabot Street, I can promise you: life will encounter life. We will take on the pride and pain of our companions. Our separate selves will become community again and again, and we will put the strength we build together, towards acts of love and justice. I hope I’ll see you there.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Stillness, In the Midst of the Storm

It has been a hard summer, so far. Stories of violence and death have crashed into our national consciousness and our private hearts nearly every week so far. The tension in our political system is more intense, more extreme, more full of anger and of fear – that is not just your imagination, or mine. It is a painful reality, one amongst too many in these hot and troubled days.

In the midst of a crisis – and surely, friends, we have been in one after another, lately – it is natural and understandable to want for that crisis simply to disappear. For whatever is dangerous or frightening or disturbing to depart – and if it won’t, the desire shifts just slightly, and we begin to yearn for escape. In dangerous times, this is all-too-often the meaning behind a call for peace – in the public square, or in our own homes. It’s a peace that simply the absence of tension. That sort of peace can be arrived at simply by ignoring a problem, sweeping it aside, or justifying some new or greater wrong in order to do away with whatever has disturbed the hollow peace. It’s tempting to rush to respite, but there’s no real solace there. Suffering is a part of life – to flee from the suffering of others won’t take us any further from our own.

Instead of choosing flight, or the wishing away of our fears, I would propose we need to practice being still. I don’t mean still, in the sense of inactive. I mean still, in the sense of not reacting. What is needed in this age, like every other, is the determination to resist the currents of calamity, to face the world as it is, beautiful and wounded, and to choose to act out of wonder at that beauty, to dress those wounds. To be still, in the middle of the storm, seems a heroic impossibility, but consider:

A chalice is a container.

In our faith, it holds a flame.

A flame that spurs the tongues of prophets,

That flashes with the light of truth,

That melts the sheath of ice around the heart.

Though the fire we light each Sunday is little,

The flame behind it is impossibly vast.

And yet, our chalice is big enough to hold it all.

Your heart, also, is big enough to hold it all. Or it least it can be, in cooperation with a great many other hearts. As I begin my seventh year as your minister, I know that my heart alone is not sufficient to the challenge of the world we share. It is the greatest mercy of life that we are all on earth with each other, at the same time. Strengthening and challenging and emboldening one another. We come together to find a stillness, to hold and carry it, and to move forward with it in the direction of an earth more fair. This summer now, like in every other season, our work continues.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Pastoral Letter on the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando, FL – 6/17/2016

There are no words, in any language I know, that can capture sufficiently the wrongness of death. It’s loss is infinite, for every human life is woven together into the vast and sacred tapestry of being. When even one of our lights goes out from the earth, the planet, the cosmos, the very Divine itself is made less. As both the Talmud and the Qur’an affirm: when one life is stolen from the world, it is the same as if the whole of the world had been destroyed.

For 49 sacred and beautiful lives taken this past weekend, there are no words. There are not enough tears in the ocean to cry, there is not enough breath in the sky to fill our lungs full enough to wail and to grieve. In this country and many other places, the gay club is a sanctuary. It has been so for generations: a place where people disowned and denigrated – by their family, by their religion, by their society, or all three – come together to celebrate the sacraments of being loudly and irrepressibly alive together. To experience the communion of each others’ company and the simcha of laughing and dancing and being exactly who they know themselves to be – sometimes for the first or the only time. That such a sanctuary should be shattered, and by a man who seems to have been trapped in a prison of his own self-hatred…there are no words.

There are not enough tears in the ocean, and yet we must cry. There is not enough breath in the sky, and yet we must wail. There are no words, and yet we must speak. Speak because this horror had its roots in hatred and injustice, and our grief, and our anger are energy for work. The hard work of confronting such hatred, of dismantling such injustice, of shouting and singing and laughing and dancing again and again the truth our faith affirms: that humankind’s diversity is not the cause of its failure, but the source of its beauty. That the luminous mystery of our wide variety as a species – from how we look and speak and dress, to what we believe and how we worship, to how we love, how we have sex, and how we express and transgress the great multitude of our genders – that this is Holy, that this is Truth, that this is the very manifestation of God themselves.

May the Source of Peace send peace to those who mourn, especially to those of us who are Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, and/or Queer, and most especially to those who are also people of color – to all those most deeply harmed and targeted by this attack. All of us have a duty to speak and to act against this terrible act and the long-standing evils that laid the groundwork for it; but let us also remember that those of us who are straight and/or white have a profound duty to listen. May peace come in its time, but may it be a peace which is struggled for, built by the hard work of human hands to make the world more whole.

There are no words, friends, and yet we must speak. And in that unfailing human determination to do the impossible – to name the unnameable, to bind up what has been broken, to heal what has been torn asunder – in that Divine imperative, lies our hope.

Amain. Amen. Amin.

Yours in Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

What To Do On Your Summer Vacation

As a congregation, we meet for worship every Sunday. We come together seeking meaning and solace and wisdom and the renewal of singing and praying and talking with each other. And we also come together as a discipline, living out the commitment that there should be some shared, public expression of liberal religion at least once a week, in the parish we serve. Once, when each of us needed it on some Sunday morning in the past, there was church. So there should be for the next person who needs it, too.

So there will be services, all this summer long. By the end of June will be outside rather than in for a few months, to make the most of the warm sea air, and avoid most of the hottest days of the year for our beloved (and well-insulated) sanctuary. Our summer services at Dane Street Beach have become a beloved tradition for us, and I very much hope I’ll see all of you there. But I know that work and travel and the varied pace of summer life will mean that I’ll see at least a little less of some of you. So this seems like a good time to remind you of something that is true the whole year round: we are Unitarian Universalists whether it is Sunday or not. Whether we make it to the church (or the beach) or we don’t, the fact of our religion persists. And while joining together in worship is a great way to express our faith, there are many, many others besides. Here, then, I will offer you seven other practices and actions we can take on any day we aren’t (or are) in worship:

  1. Turn towards the holy in someone you would otherwise quarrel with, quietly despise, or ignore. This doesn’t mean ignoring a conflict of the necessary kind, or forgiving a wrong when no amends have been made; it is simply and humbly to acknowledge that the fiery furnaces that forged the atoms of your body forged those in theirs as well. Each life we encounter matters to an infinite degree – no matter what. Sit with that truth; turn it over in your heart for a little while. Find something to do, or say, or think which affirms the value in that other person’s being alive.
  2. Make amends for a wrong you have done someone else. Apologize, if you haven’t. Offer restitution, if you can. When all else is impossible, show a special kindness to someone new, in honor of the mistake you can’t take back.
  3. Provoke your spiritual palate. Find something that touches the realm of deep meaning and clashes with the first language of your soul – a quote from the Bible, a theological claim from a family member or friend, or some moment of comedy or drama from a modern novel or television show. Find that something, and take it seriously enough to grapple with it. You may find you only dislike it more, but work for more clarity about why you disagree with it, and determine what your answer is to counter it with.
  4. Go looking to learn something that you didn’t know before. Do a little research. Ask people questions (‘yourself’ and ‘Siri’ both count as people for the purposes of this exercise, but try to go beyond both). Don’t just accept everything you are told, but value the direct experiences of others, and yourself.
  5. Challenge someone in authority to use their power in the service of love. Write a letter, send an email, make a phone call, carry a picket sign. Contact your senator, or your city clerk, or your boss, if you are feeling especially courageous. Somewhere in the world there is a change you know is needed, but is not yours to make. Find where the power to make that change is, and speak your truth to that power.
  6. Support your community. By some act or gift, large or small, help to make a group of which you are a part stronger.
  7. Mend your corner of the web. Take stock of the network of mutuality in your life, and try to pinpoint a relationship that is weak, or broken, or bent away from something nourishing into something harmful. Reach out to someone who needs you – or to someone you need, so that you both can know you are not alone.

Any one of these, done well, could be very difficult. But all of them are entirely possible. On a good day, (such as a single morning at church) a person could do all seven. I’m going to challenge you to find one to do each day this summer. Between our Flower Communion in June and our Water Communion in September, there are 11 weeks. That’s 77 opportunities. Put this list on the fridge, or carry it around in your pocket. Ask yourself, each day, “What is it that I have done today, because I am a Unitarian Universalist?”


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

A Meditation on Walking the Streets of Jerusalem


Someone whose name you do not know,

And will never get to know,

Walked these streets.

Winding their way,

Between market stalls and masjids,

Churches and fountains,

Synagogues and bathhouses.

Their feet, bare or shod,

Scraped over these old stones,

When they were fresh and new-cut,

Joined by the wheels of carts,

And the hooves of animals.

All of this happened once,

And then a thousand,


Thousand times afterward.

In an uncountable parade,

Of unnamable pilgrims and workers,

Paupers and occupiers,

Merchants and mendicants.

Each one scuffing these stones just a bit,

As they passed over them.

Until they were worn so smooth,

That you have to walk carefully on them now.

Watch your step, or you might fall.

Like rain from the sky,

Or dust in the wind,

Strangers made these streets as they are.

Crafted slowly, over long centuries.

Made holy, not by the places they connect,

But by the people who polished them,

With their oblations of ablation;

The prayers of their feet.

Whether you walk now here in anger, or in awe,

In piety,

In fear,

Or simply in the mundane course of life,

Your steps join with theirs.

You are a part of the procession,

That has hallowed theses stones,

By hollowing them.

And long after you have left this place,

Or this life,

Those stones will still be smoother,

Than they would have been,

Without your feet.


A little something from my trip, dear friends. It’s good to be home. See you Sunday.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

There’s Always More To It Than That

News came in the last few months, from folks at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, about the collision of two black holes, roughly 1.3 billion light-years away from our own precious star. And though that, by itself, is a spectacular thing to imagine, the actual reason for the announcement – the news of the news – was that the collaborative project between researchers from a host of different schools and institutions had learned of the collision by observing the gravitational waves it produced. This being the first ever observation of such waves, it was a pretty big deal.

Hold that thought for just one second though, if you will. I am now more than halfway through my sabbatical period, the time generously afforded to me by our congregation for rest, renewal, and exploration. It’s been a good and fruitful time, and one I look forward to sharing more about with you when I return at the end of April. But March gave me the opportunity to come back to First Parish for a brief visit. I didn’t come back to check up on you, I promise, but I couldn’t help checking in, as long as I was around. What I found is that you all have been doing a great job in my absence. The congregation has stayed active and vital, its service and justice work has continued and grown, attendance and participation have been strong, and the staff and lay leaders have done an excellent job stepping up into places where I might normally have stepped in.

I knew that we were a strong and capable community before I set the schedule of this sabbatical with our board. But the degree to which y’all have pulled together, stuck together, and kept having fun together, honestly fills me with wonder. I’ve had a sabbatical before, and one hears spooky stories from colleagues from time to time, about everything that might go wrong. Instead, I find myself grateful for how much has gone right. What I’ve seen in my brief time back feels a little bit like a discovery, since the information is new to me. But in another, more accurate sense, all of this confidence and ability was here all along.

This brings us back around the gravitational waves. I recently brought up this major scientific discovery (major enough to catch fire in the popular press) with my go-to science consultant: my father, who is a retired physicist. In his usual, patient way, he acknowledged my excitement, while pointing out that the existence of these waves has been generally accepted for some time now – in fact, a Nobel prize was awarded for identifying indirect evidence of their existence back in the early 1990s! Similarly, what’s news to me about what our congregation can accomplish together may not be news to you. But, like the universe we inhabit, there is always more to who we are and can be together, the longer and harder that we look.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


Fear of Missing Out

I knew, when I first began making plans for my sabbatical, that I would miss First Parish while I was away. I knew that I would miss the people, and the building, and the rhythm of my work. And when I began to work with the Music and Worship Committee to make concrete plans for the services that would take place here in my absence, I felt a tinge of regret that I would be missing out on some of the gifted preachers and heartfelt messages that we managed to secure for the worship calendar.

Despite being away for two entire months, now, the news of First Parish still makes its way back to me. And from the reports I have heard, I can say that although I knew I would miss you, and though I knew that I would be missing some wonderful hours of worship, I wasn’t prepared for how many memorable Sunday experiences I would miss. From the messages offered by some dear, local colleagues, to the different voices and powerful personal stories shared from within our congregation – I’ve found myself thinking over and over again, ‘I wish I could have been there.’ And I was just told that this past Sunday, ya’all sang Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game in church – I love that song! And I missed it! Dang!

Neopagan, ecofeminist author and activist Starhawk wrote:

“We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been — a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.”  

Belonging to a community comes with it a fear of missing out on its trials and triumphs, and a certain amount of disappointment when such truly important milestones are passed while we weren’t there to be a part of them. Or at least, that’s how it is for most members of most communities – this sensation may only feel novel to me because I’m so accustomed to being tuned into and present for most of what transpires at First Parish. But these last two months, I’ve been in an unfamiliar role. It’s given me a taste of what it’s like for any member of our community when work takes them away from town for weeks at a time. When the arrival of a new child leaves them feeling like getting up and out the door to church on Sunday is too much of a challenge. When age or illness or depression leaves them unable to drive to join in worship on Sunday morning, or unable to leave their home at all.

Each of us humans yearns for a place where arms will hold us when we falter, where others will lend their strength to ours, and help us to be free. For those of us who catch our glimpses of that luminous thing called ‘community’ here, every Sunday morning (or Wednesday evening, or Saturday afternoon, or any day and time that church can happen), is another chance to taste that flavor. And every moment that we miss it, is a loss. I have the benefit of two little respites from my sabbatical this month – rejoining you to lead worship on March 6th and March 27th, and I look forward to them very much. But this time away has already made me more deeply aware how great a loss being cut-off from spiritual-community can be; it’s made me more determined than ever to reach out to those who are with us less than they would wish to be. I hope that you will consider that predicament with me as well, and reflect on what you might do to respond to it as well.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

A Message From a Fellow Congregant

In the recent film, The Big Short, which tries to craft an informative and entertaining story out of 2008’s global economic crisis, the narrator of the tale freely admits to the audience that he has a problem. Money is something that most people don’t want to think too much about – beyond wanting more of it, at least. And his story is all about money – particularly the complicated details of it that would make almost anyone lose interest. So, in order to explain the more obtuse financial concepts that are essential to the movie, he brings in an assortment of movie stars, pop singers, and celebrity chefs to provide the necessary background with simple, accessible metaphors. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it helps people to listen to a message they might not otherwise hear.

In a way, it’s not so different from a practice we follow here at First Parish each year. During our annual pledge campaign, we normally invite a few members of the congregation to share with you some of their own story and what motivates them to lend their financial support to our church. I always appreciate the folks who say, ‘yes’ to doing this, because hearing from your fellow members and friends makes real the message of stewardship and generosity in a way that I don’t think my own words from the pulpit can. (Those of you who have seen The Big Short may now be noticing that, in drawing a subtle parallel between my annual role and that film’s narrator, I have cast myself in the role played by Ryan Gosling – for which I make no apologies.)

But at the moment, I am on sabbatical. I’m still your minister, of course, but I’m refraining from the normal work of that role. Which means that right now, my most active responsibility to our congregation, in some ways, is as one of its many members. So I’m going to take a moment here to do what I normally invite and recruit others to do – to explain why I pledge my financial support to the church each year:

If I picture my and my family’s budget – and I invite you to picture your own along with me – most of the recipients of the money spent by my household are places like Speedway and Market Basket. Merchants who provide things that I need – gas and groceries – in order to get through my daily life. Some of those companies I might feel a little bit better or a little bit worse about doing business with; some of those products a little more comfortable or uncomfortable about my having to buy them. But the overwhelming majority of the items on my list of annual expenses are neutral ones: they have no deeper meaning than to meet basic needs.

Giving to support First Parish changes that. It puts something on the list which is not just about the material necessities of life and work. Having First Parish as a part of my family budget helps to ground that budget as an expression of our values as a family, and so each year we commit to making what is, for our income, a serious contribution to the congregation. To ensure that this statement of our values reflects more than just our day-to-day needs, or passing wants. We give enough so that it changes what else we spend our money on. Because being a part of our congregation changes each of us, here in my household, and its work is to change everyone else whose life is touched by it. I pledge to First Parish because First Parish matters to me. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t, but because it does, I must.

Now is the season for having your own conversation, within your household or within yourself, about what First Parish means to you, how it connects to your values and to the vision of the world you would one day wish to see. You’ll make your own decisions, as each of us do, each year. But if First Parish matters to you, as it does to me, then I call on you to make it something that matters to your budget as well.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Walk from place to place. Meet people. Get in adventures.

There’s a scene in the film Pulp Fiction where mob enforcer Jules Winnfield tries to explain to his co-worker, Vince Vega, what he plans to do after they finish their current job. “…basically, I’m just gonna walk the earth.”

Vince: “Whatchu mean, ‘walk the earth’?”

Jules: “You know, like Kane in Kung Fu. Walk from place to place. Meet people. Get in adventures…I’ll just be Jules, Vincent, no more, no less.”

In attempting to answer the question, ‘what will you be doing on your sabbatical?’ I’ve been tempted to answer in much the same way as Jules: Walk from place to place. Meet people. Get in adventures. Of course, I do have some plans for my sabbatical time – which begins on January 1st, at the end of this week, and will end on April 30th (with two brief interludes of return at the beginning and end of March). And so I can expect that a lot of that walking will be in and around Beverly. A lot of the people I’ll be meeting will be inside the books I’ve been meaning to read for the last six years but never managed to. And a lot of the adventures I plan to have will be had with my children.

But the point is that the point of this time is to be. Not to accomplish some particular goal. Not to meet some particular metric. But simply to be. I confess that there’s something in there that’s more than a little bit scary as I stand at the edge of the next four months. A friend and colleague once described the experience of ministry to me as constantly feeling like a failure or a life-saver, switching back and forth many times each day with no in-between. That might sound tiring – and it can be – but it can also be profoundly satisfying. Now, for the next four months, my work as your minister will be simply to be Kelly, no more, no less.

With humility and absolutely no irony at all, I would ask you to pray for me as I attempt this – to hold your hope for me in the sanctuary of your heart, by whatever method has meaning for you. I, for my part, will be doing the same for you. For while I am away on my sabbatical, my hope for each of you is that you will also find some time to practice being. To walk from place to place. To meet people. To get in adventures.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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