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Widening the Circle – 2/26/2012

Reading: Call Me By My True Names, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.[i]


A few weeks ago I preached from this pulpit about love. It’s an important enough topic that it comes up from time to time. And one of you sent me a note after the service. You confessed that love, universal love, was a concept you struggled with sometimes. There were certain people you just couldn’t see your way clear to loving. Rush Limbaugh was the example in this case, but each of us could come up with our own, I’m sure.

Now, indeed, you do not have to love Rush Limbaugh. You are permitted to have whatever feelings you have about him, good or bad. But I would counsel you with the famous words of the Universalist Edwin Markham: “He drew a circle that shut me out; heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that kept him in.” Deeper than petty grievances or fleeting affections run the ways in which we actually treat each other, the attitudes of malice or kindness that we show to one another. It matters how we draw the circle – not just because it is nice to be treated nicely, and it hurts to be treated hurtfully, but because of the way it shapes the lives we lead.

Allow me to illustrate with a story. This comes from the great Chinese philosophical work the Zhuangzi. Once there was a frog, who lived at the bottom of a shallow well. The well was very small, but he did not understand how small it was. One day a friend came to visit the frog – a turtle, from the great East Sea. When the frog look up into his tiny blue circle of sky and saw the turtle peering down at him, he croaked. “Hello friend; it is good to see you. I bet you were just thinking how perfect my home is! I think it is too!”

And the frog hopped up to the rim of the well. “You see, when I want to go out I just hop up to the rim in one jump. And when I come home, I simply hop back down again. My home has water enough to float in and rest when I’m tired, and nice cool mud to dig my feet into so that they never dry out.”

He was very pleased with himself and his home, but his friend the turtle seemed unimpressed, so the frog continued to boast. “Of all the many creatures that live in this well – the small worms and the little crabs and the tiny tadpoles – I am by far the greatest and most important. I am the lord of this well, which is larger than any puddle or rain barrel I have ever seen. Surely these waters must be the most bountiful in all the world.” After saying all this, the frog invited the turtle, who still seemed unimpressed, to come down into the well and experience its glories for himself. The turtle tried to make the climb down, but he couldn’t get both his front legs to fit into the opening at the same time; he was simply too big.

Then the turtle explained to the frog about his own home. “My friend, I live in a place so vast you cannot imagine it. The great East Sea is so wide and so deep and so far across that no one could count all the creatures it holds.” The frog was unimpressed at first; he assumed that the turtle must be making up a story. But the turtle continued to try to help him understand.

“In the time of King Yu, there were floods nine years out of ten, but the waters of the sea did not increase. And in the days of King Tang, there were droughts seven years out of eight, but the waters of the sea did not decrease. The sea is so enormous that it does not rise or fall according to the rains. It is the greatest happiness to live in the immeasurable East Sea.”[ii]

In life we are sometimes the turtle, and we are sometimes the frog. There’s a concept in anthropology called Dunbar’s Number. This is a theoretical number, somewhere around 150, that’s thought to be the uppermost limit of the number of people with whom we each can maintain stable social relationships. This is the number of people we can truly know as more than acquaintances. If we limit ourselves to the constraints of Dunbar’s Number, only caring about the people we are already intimately connected to, we end up like the frog. A myopic existence, one where we fool ourselves into thinking that our little pool and our particular patch of sky must be the greatest that there is. We grow beyond this narrow, limited state when we seek to treat others with compassion and respect without having to know them first. When we accept, like the turtle, that the sea in which we live is vastly larger than us, and that the countless creatures we share it with exist on their own terms, and not only in relation to us.

Widening our circle, from the size of the well to the size of the great East Sea is not a matter of instantaneous transformation. It is a constant process, as Thich Nhat Hahn said in our earlier reading, “Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—even today I am still arriving.” One challenge in this process is practicing compassion towards strangers, people we do not know and have no special prior connection to. This is hardest when we find ourselves relating to them in the context of our own unhappiness. It can be difficult to think nice thoughts about the soul one car ahead of you in a two-mile traffic jam, even though they are blameless for your frustration. When I find myself on wasting my anger on strangers who don’t deserve it, I sometimes try to imagine the life of this person I don’t know. I picture them eating breakfast or chatting with friends – just being human beings. The practice reminds me that they are just as real as I, just as deserving of life and love, just as much in need of a kind word or a hug or some other reprieve from the challenges of life.

Then there are the people whom we do know, and whom we do not like precisely because we know them. It becomes hardest to treat the people in this group with kindness and decency when they have already shown the opposite attitude towards us: drawing a circle that kept us out. There is a widely read parable with some relevance here; I will summarize it for those of you who have not recently been parents of young children:

This is the story of the Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss. Sneetches are vaguely fuzzy, slightly birdish creatures who spend their lives at the beach roasting marshmallows and frankfurters. They come in two sorts: those with stars on their bellies, and those without. The star-bellied Sneetches had a cruel habit of looking down on those without, and excluding them from their ball games and beach parties. Understandably, this made the star-less Sneetches unhappy.

One day a capitalistically-inclined monkey recognized that there was money to be made from the demand for belly-stars. He arrived at the beach with a peculiar machine and said, “You want stars like a Star-Bellied Sneetch…? My friends, you can have them for three dollars each.” So all of the star-less Sneetches bought themselves stars on their bellies, explained to the original star-belly Sneetches that now there was no longer any reason to exclude them from their frankfurter roasts. The first group of star-havers were worried about this: they might have to examine some of their assumptions and really take stock of their lives, now that they could no longer distinguish themselves from the group they had arbitrarily ostracized.

But the unseen hand of the market was ready, as always, to offer a quick-fix in the place of meaningful personal growth. Up sidled that same enterprising monkey, to say, “Things are not quite as bad as you think. So you don’t know who. That is perfectly true. But come with me friends. Do you know what I’ll do? I’ll make you, again, the best Sneetches on beaches and all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.”

Then stars were removed from tummies, at considerable expense; first from the original star-havers, and then from the original star-nots, in an effort to keep up. And then, “On again! Off again! In again! Out again! Through the machines they raced round and about again, changing their stars every minute or two. They kept paying money, they kept running through until neither the plain or the star-bellied knew whether this one was that one…or that one was this one or which one was that one…or what one was who.”

The economy of the entire beach collapsed, owing to severe capital shortage. Having fleeced every Sneetch, that monkey skipped town. And the Sneetches all learned a valuable lesson, not just that commercial exploitation can be dangerous for sheltered communities, but also the profound spiritual truth that “Sneetches are Sneetches. And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”[iii]

In this story, it is clear who the heels are (besides the nefarious monkey). The star-bellied Sneetches were rude and unkind, and took a superior attitude towards many of their neighbors. Kindness does not require us to treat all people the same – I am bound by love and responsibility to feed and care for my 3-year old daughter, but if Rush Limbaugh wants fried tofu and broccoli he can make it himself. But the reasoning behind any outlook of contempt or superiority is arbitrary, just as all reasons for denying basic kindness to others are just that: arbitrary.

Here is the thing though: you can never be certain which sort of Sneetch you will be. At some point or another, in even the most privileged life, we have all been a star-less Sneetch, on the outside looking in. But even having that experience, we still may harbor private grudges and hidden animosities, like an isolated, indignant, star-bellied Sneetch. If, however, we can begin to move from the perspective of the narrow well to the outlook of the great East Sea, we can start to live out that deep spiritual truth: that Sneetches are Sneetches. The wider circle of life and world connect us, even when we cannot perceive it. Even when we wish it was not the case. So we must be constantly straining against the boundaries of our own circles of compassion, expanding them until they match the one that encircles us all.

“Please call me by my true names,” Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.”

It is the job of a spiritual community like this one to call us by our true names, to remind us that we are connected: to those we know, to those we do not know, and to those we may have come to think of as our enemies. We are here to challenge and to be challenged by each other – as individuals, and as a congregation. To help us grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s number, and draw an ever widening circle of love.

[i] From the collection of the same name, Parallax Press, 1999.

[ii] The Zhuangzi is a Taoist classic named for its (possibly semi-mythic) author, Zhuangzi. This version of the story owes much to the retelling in the collection Harmony, adapted by Chen Hui and Sarah Conover, Skinner House Books, 2010.

[iii] From The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), Random House, 1961.

Love Is God – 2/12/2012

One of our Sunday School classes this year is studying from a curriculum on the theology of the Simpsons, about the lessons and the meaningful discussions that can be drawn from that long-running cartoon show. I’ve admitted to you before that I’m a fan. One of the deeply human moments that I treasure from that program is centered around Valentine’s Day. All of the children in little Lisa Simpsons class are exchanging paper valentines. The second graders are all sorting through their piles of store-bought cards from their classmates when Lisa notices that the class outcast, Ralph, has not received even one. So in an act of mercy, she gives him a valentine, and he develops a powerful and immediate infatuation with her. Lisa finds it difficult to put Ralph off without hurting his feelings. The situation escalates and circumstances conspire such that Lisa ends up telling Ralph in no uncertain terms that she does not like him and never will on national television. The whole thing leaves Lisa feeling terrible, as her older brother Bart treats her to a video playback, rewinding and replaying the recording of the event in order to pinpoint “the second when [Ralph’s] heart rips in half.”[i]

Human beings love each other because we have no other choice in the matter. I could trot out evolutionary theory here about the ways in which attraction, familial bonds and shared commitment of all sorts are beneficial to the survival of the species. I could point to cognitive theories and our growing but still spectacularly incomplete understanding of the brain, which is troubling more and more our dearly beloved concept of “free will”. Instead, though, I will simply say that we must have no choice but to love other people, because it is such a hard thing to do. To love someone, to care deeply about their whole person – not just the parts you enjoy or think are cute – to open your heart to theirs and make yourself colossally vulnerable. If we did not do it out of some in-built imperative, we would never reasonably do it at all.

But it may be, more precisely, that there are two imperatives here. There is the need to connect, to be known and appreciated by another person – and that is a need we certainly cannot escape. The other is the struggle to know someone else and to see their wellbeing and their happiness as a part of our own. That is a hard thing; it is always a risk, and it takes work.

There is a very old story about a woman who fell in love with a man after his first wife had died. When the woman and the man she loved were married she became a stepmother to the man’s son. The woman wanted to have a good relationship with her new son, but he seemed to want nothing to do with her. He hardly acknowledged her, and when he did it was to say things that were unkind. It hurt his poor stepmother a lot.

When she had had enough of crying over this, she went to seek the help of someone said to be very wise and powerful. She asked the wise one to help her, to make her stepson return her love. And she was told that such a thing was possible, but she must first find a lion of the most dangerous and ferocious sort, and return with one of its whiskers. So the woman climbed up into the mountains, where a lion was said to live, lonely and hungry among the stones. She went to the mouth of the cave where the lion lived and it growled at her from the darkness. Carefully, slowly, she set down a piece of meat she had brought with her, and backed away. The lion came out to eat the food, and the two watched each other from a distance. The next day, the woman repeated the same careful process. And the day after that and the day after that, each time staying a little bit closer to the mouth of the cave.

Soon there came a day when the lion came out to greet her when she arrived, and allowed her to stroke its mane. More days passed, and the two spent more time together. Finally the woman felt they had reached the point where she could ask lion for the whisker that she needed. Her friend the lion seemed to understand; it turned its face towards her, and she plucked one whisker free. The woman returned to the wise one in triumph. “I have done what you asked,” she said. “Now will you help me?”

This is what she was told: “To make friends with the lion required great patience and compassion. That is all everything you need.” And so the woman returned to her stepson. And she was patient with him, and compassionate. And it took a long time, and it was hard. But she loved him, and he loved her.[ii]

In the first epistle of John, in the Christian bible, is a line you have likely heard before: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The idea of a God whose fundamental nature and most basic quality is love is common to a number of religions. For the Vaishnavas, one of the many sects of Hinduism, the god Krishna created the universe and everything in it so that all creatures could be a part of what one teacher calls his “love games”. This is a sort of playful back and forth between Krishna and every living thing, a courtship between human beings and the divine with all the intoxication and heartache of a mortal love affair magnified immeasurably.[iii]

It was a profound belief in the loving nature of their God that gave our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors the courage and, in fact, the responsibility, to become heretics. Seeking to emulate that most basic quality of their deity became their most important practice. “We need not think alike to love alike,” the great Unitarian leader Francis David said. “If we can agree in love, no other disagreement can do us any harm,” the foremost Universalist Hosea Ballou said. Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we do not all agree about who or what or if God is – because that proved not to be our bottom line. Instead, our bedrock as a religion is love.

One of you shared a story with me this week, and as soon as I heard it I had to ask you permission to share it from the pulpit. Thank you for saying ‘yes’.

Your story was about your Uncle Bernie. You and Uncle Bernie do not see the world in exactly the same way, you told me. Because you are an atheist, and he is a priest. Over the years you have talked about this and argued through all sorts of questions about theology many, many times. Those arguments were passionate and heartfelt, and always enjoyable. You disagreed with him, and he with you, but you never lost sight of the fact that you were family, and that you cared about each other. And then not so long ago, you went to pay your Uncle Bernie another visit.

He’s gotten pretty sick, and the medication he’s on takes its toll too. You started into the old debate and you could see Uncle Bernie had a point he was reaching for that he just couldn’t find or couldn’t get out. That was the moment that you lost your will to argue with him: it wasn’t a fair fight any more. There are other ways you and your Uncle can enjoy each others’ company now. You can still talk about this and that, and have a piece of pie together. You still love each other, and that’s what matters.

The existence of God is a point on which people of good will may disagree. It is the existence of love that matters, in a place called here and a time called now. Loving another person teaches the courage to protect them, and the appropriate fear of things that are harmful to life – theirs, or any other. Love teaches us to hope, even if just for a smile, or a kind word, or a touch. Love teaches us pain, at losing a person or a relationship; and love also teaches us how to live with that pain, and still continue to love. Love drives us to free ourselves and each other from systems of oppression: to break chains, confront tyrants, and throw open prison doors. And even the memory of love is a comfort in hard times.

So when we say, as we do this day, that our faith moves us to stand on the side of love, this is not some empty, idle pleasantry. Our history and our present theology require us to support and defend love. All people must be free to love whom they love and to form and sustain mutually caring and equitable relationships not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of everyone. When families respect each other; when lovers care for one another; when friends trust each other, the love they share hallows the world. We learn how better to live with kind and open hearts, not only from the love we experience ourselves, but also from the love that we see practiced by others.

For those that believe in the right of people who love each other to get married, there was some good news this week. A bill to extend the freedom to marry to same sex couples in the state of Washington passed the legislature there, and will likely be signed into law in the next few days. Marriage law in Washington is a case I have been following for some time now, with a personal interest. You see, my partner Sara and I were married in Seattle, and so our marriage is, among many other things, a matter of Washington state law. Because she is a woman and I am a man and the state agrees with our assessments of ourselves in this regard, it was not particularly hard for us to become legally married there.

In the debate about marriage equality, it is often said that straight folks who are already married shouldn’t get angry or afraid about gay people sharing their same rights – because making the law more just and inclusive won’t affect their relationships. They’ll still be just as married; nothing will change. My perspective on this is different. When marriage equality finally comes to Washington, my marriage will change. It will get better (which is a hard trick, given how good it already is). Because Sara and I will know that the privileges and protections we enjoy are not being withheld from others who need and deserve them just as much as we do. And because the society that we live in will have taken one tiny but meaningful step towards the side of love.

You have heard that they were told, God is love. But what our tradition tells me, is that love is God. Love is the thing that matters most. It is the highest value. It is the wisest teacher, the mightiest liberator, and the greatest comforter. So the work of our faith, and of this congregation, is plain before us: to kindle the fire of love in every heart, and to establish justice in all the spaces between those hearts. Such a calling is a challenging thing to answer and to work towards. It is always a risk, and it requires hard work – just like any other expression of love.

[i] The Simpsons, Season 4, Episode 15, “I Love Lisa”

[ii] Forms of this story appear in many cultures; this version follows most closely that of Gail Forsyth-Vail from Stories in Faith, Skinner House Books, 2007

[iii] Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krishna, by James D. Redington, Motilal Barnisidas Publishers, 1990

Remember Not To Forget – 2/5/2012

I remember my grandfather’s voice. I remember the time I fell out of the bunk bed in the middle of the night, and had to get stitches in my lip. I remember my wedding, and I remember the hard work that went into planning it. I remember all of the words to all of the songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I remember just a few of the really great sermons I’ve heard in my life, and all of the ones that I passionately disagreed with. I remember state capitals and the Pythagorean Theorem and the rules to obscure board games. But still, sometimes I forget things. Read More >>

Welcoming Guests from Every Direction

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sometimes called the Abrahamic faiths because all three trace their ancestry to the household of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. Abraham is viewed as the symbolic father of all three religions. And in the stories about the man and his household, they are renowned for their generous hospitality. It is said that Abraham’s house had a door on each of its four sides, to make it easier to welcome visitors no matter what direction they came from. Read More >>


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