Aug 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 12, 2018
It is good to be with you this morning. And it is good to be in Houston. The opening words of our sermon come from the Australian pop singer Natalie Imbruglia’s wrenching break-up song “Torn.”
I’m all out of faith.
This is how I feel, I’m cold and I am shamed
Lying naked on the floor.
Perhaps these words sound familiar. Perhaps you have been there yourself. All out of faith, heart sick, dreams ruptured, the once neatly woven fabric of your life torn into jagged pieces that cannot neatly be stitched back together.
Maybe you were there just this morning. And maybe today, somehow, someway, you got up off the floor. You put on your bright yellow summer dress, your favorite black t-shirt and jeans, or your linen coat and tie, and you made it here. I do not your story. But I know this: if we love the world we will be wounded. And if we want to continue to love the world then we must do the work of healing. It is like the words from one of our earlier songs, “every scar I see / A place where love is trying to break in.” Or as the writer Alice Walker put it, “healing begins where the wound was made.”
The title of our sermon is “The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart.” It is inspired by Alice Walker. She wrote a book with the same title. I chose the title to acknowledge that I begin my interim ministry with you following the resignation of your previous senior minister. Some of you might be upset at him, at other members of the congregation, or about all that has passed in the last year within your religious community. I do not know. I am just beginning to learn your stories. But I know this: the health of your congregation depends in part at looking at the ways you have been wounded in the past, at the ways you might have wounded each other in the past, and then collectively engaging in the work of healing. Since healing begins where the wound was made this will require us to be honest with each other about how we have been hurt in the past. It is only by acknowledging the wounds that we experienced, and the pain we feel, that we can begin to find the way forward. And that way forward is with a broken heart.
But then world is heart breaking, is not? How often does your heart break? It seems I encounter something heart breaking almost every day. What about you? I am new to Houston. I arrived about a week ago. Already, I found that homelessness is an endemic problem where I live in Montrose. Just Friday I passed near someone whose story I am sure is heart breaking.
I am unpacking my apartment. And if you are anything like me, part of unpacking is the process of discovering all of things you do not need. Why are there two cuisinarts? Where did Biscuit, our cat, get twelve catnip mice from? Who packed them? How is it that I am still carrying around my tax records from 1999? And so, if you are anything like me, moving always involves trips to the Goodwill.
There I was. Standing in the Goodwill parking lot, convincing the manager that he should take all eight of my old folding bookcases, when a young man pulled up on a bicycle. He was shirtless. He was carrying a backpack. He opened it and took out a half case of beer. He sat down on the asphalt. The manager asked him to leave. He yelled back, “call the cops. I ain’t going anywhere.” Again, he was asked to leave. Again, he yelled, “call the cops.” I do not know how the story ended. The folks from Goodwill graciously accepted my collection of miscellaneous, and mysterious, kitchen implements. And I left with the certain knowledge that whatever happened next would be heart breaking. The police would come and forcibly remove the young man from Goodwill’s property. Or he would leave and spend the day’s heat somewhere else, drinking his way through twelve cans of beer.
Children in cages; endless cruelty to refugees in Europe; the violence of white supremacists in the United States; the rising, building, gathering crisis of climate change; endemic misogyny; the deaths of countless people of color at the hands of the police; uncivil discourse; gloating tyrants; war, war, and war... We only need to turn on the television, look online, or glance in a newspaper to discover things that can break our hearts. It is like Susan Sontag once wrote of the New York Times, “An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
And yet, amid all of this horror and heart break there is joy and beauty to be found. Maybe not for all us. Maybe not all the time. But it is there: a delicate blue weed flower cracking through the gaps in concrete. The joyous warmth of children. The spaces between dancing salsa beats. Ochre oil clotted on taut canvas. The common tenderness we might share with each other on Sunday morning once the service has ended. I find wisdom in one of the most popular readings in our grey hymnal, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese:”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the world goes on. I have said little of our private pains. There are the wounds of the world. There are whatever wounds exist in this congregation. And then there are the wounds that we have suffered in our lives. The loss of a parent. The loss of a spouse. The loss of a child. The end of a marriage. Struggles with addiction. Poverty. Bullies for bosses. All of the disappointments and disillusions that cast shadows upon our lives. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes the poet.
The way forward is with a broken heart, Alice Walker tells us. But is it? I have been cold, shamed, and on the floor. And when I have been it has seemed that there was no way forward at all--heart sick, wounded, whole, or otherwise. What about you? To believe that the way forward is with a broken heart is an act of faith. It is not a rationale claim. It is a statement, sometimes against much evidence, that there is hope yet to be found in the world. And sometimes it seems like we should be all out of faith. And yet... and yet... there is a way forward. The sun in early morn will crack across mountain tops and bring the morrow. Spanish moss will continue to hang from ancient oaks. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,” advises Mary Oliver.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Walker wrote the book twenty years after the end of her marriage. It is a thinly fictionalized series of accounts about how she made her way forward after a divorce that left her bewildered, heart sick, and lonely. The world that she thought she was going to create, to build, was forever gone. She is someone now who her young self could never have imagined. In the opening paragraphs, she tells her readers, “You do not talk to me now, a fate I could not have imagined twenty years ago.”
“[A] fate I could not have imagined,” there are few better words that capture loss. Walker’s marriage did not begin with the imagination that it would end in bitter discord, “[y]ou do not talk to me now.” When it begins, few imagine a ministry ending in disappointment. And yet, marriages and ministries both sometimes finish in sorrow.
The way forward is with a broken heart. We continue after life’s disappointments. In Walker’s book she weaves the torn fabric of ruptured lives into healing quilts. In one story, the narrator finds joy in “the woman I love now.” In another, two sisters encounter comfort, peace, and a modicum of delight when they travel back to their family’s old home. In a third, a father and a daughter discover solace in each other after years of difficulty. “[T]he world cannot be healed in abstract,” Walker informs us.
I suspect that if you are like me, you have been wounded in particular ways. I imagine that if this religious community is like other religious communities, it has been wounded in particular ways. It is only by addressing our specific injuries that we can begin to heal from them. And that healing is not something we can do alone, as isolated individuals. It is something that can only be accomplished together. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” counsels Mary Oliver.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Learning how to make our way forward, yours and mine, with a broken heart is deeply religious work. It might even be the central task of the religious community. There are few other places in our lives where we can be honest about despair. Again, and again, I have learned this during my ministry. The newcomer who tells me he’s visiting the church because his parents have just died. The transgender woman who shares that after years of alienation she has finally found a religious tradition that will love her without exception. The refugee who speaks almost no English and needs a place where she does not feel alone on a Sunday morning. A religious community like this one must be a place of love and healing.
That is the message our Universalist religious ancestors gave us to give the world. They said we were the church of “God’s love unlimited.” God’s love unlimited. No matter who you are, no matter the depths of your despair, no matter who you love, as members of this faith community we are called to love each other, to love the world, to face despair, and to collectively find our way forward with broken hearts.
This is deeply religious work. It requires the faith that somehow, someway, love will find us when we are shamed and on the floor. And that faith is not always easy to find. Sometimes it seems we cannot find it at all. But it is there, in the midst of heart sickness. There is always the possibility that we can learn to love again, that we can be gentle enough with each other to commit to the loving work of healing. There is always the chance that we can find a way forward.
Early Christianity was organized around finding a way forward with a broken heart. It began as a religious movement of those who continued after the heart-breaking loss of their beloved rabbi Jesus. Our second reading, the Epistula Apostolorum, was offered to remind us of this. It is a heretical text from the early second century of the Common Era. In it, the members of the early Christian church try to move forward after almost unimaginable disappointment. They had experienced great love in the person of their teacher. They had hoped for divine justice in the face of cruel empire. And their love and hope had ended in their leader’s death.
They reminded each other that love remained. They urged the members of their community to follow their master’s teaching: “But look, a new commandment I give you, that you love one another and obey each other and (that) continual peace reign among you. Love your enemies, and what you do not want done to you, that do to no one else.” They believed that if they had faith, somehow, someway, they could learn to love again. And through their love, they knew, they could heal each other and the world.
Let us forget for today that their message somehow became confused by the theologically orthodox over the centuries. Instead, let us hear in the words of the Epistula Apostolorum the expression of the church of God’s love unlimited. The theistic language may not resonate with you. Even if you need to translate it, I hope you will feel the transformative, healing, vision of love captured in those ancient words. They plead with us to find a forward way with a broken heart.
All this morning, I have suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. I have invoked Walker’s wisdom, “healing begins where the wound was made.” But I have said almost nothing of the work of healing. It is early yet. I do not know your stories. All I know is that whatever healing work must be done, in our lives, in this religious community, and in our beautiful, fractured, world, is work that we are called to do together.
I am here, during this interim time, to do that work with you as best I can. During this transitional moment in your congregation’s life I promise to be as tender with you as I can. I will as honest with you about the wounds in your congregation, and in the world, as I can. I will be as honest with you about my own struggles and wounds as is appropriate. Throughout this period, I pledge to love you as best I can. I only ask that you have the merest glimmer of faith that whatever wounds there are in your lives, in this congregation, and in our luminous world we can find a way forward with broken hearts.
That it may be so, I invite you to join me in that spirit that some call prayer and others call meditation:
Oh, great spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others call the goodness to be found
in human life,
or name not at all,
be with me,
be with this congregation,
its members and friends,
its children and elders,
and all the people of this religious community,
as we engage in the work of healing
There is so much pain,
so much hurt,
to be found,
addiction, disappointment, war, loss,
None of us need suffer alone when we remember
that love can heal.
Let us remember that each human
is born with a beating heart
and the capacity to love.
Let us learn to awaken
that love within
and reach out to each other
so that we might heal each other
and this glorious world.
So that we may do good work together,
let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 11, 2018
Dear Members of the First Houston Community:
I am excited to be joining you this month for our time of interim ministry! My first day in the office will be August 7th. August 12th will be my first Sunday in the pulpit. I will be preaching at the Museum District. I will be preaching there again on August 19th and at least once at each of the campuses during the autumn. The services for the month of August will help us set the tenor of our work together. They are designed to focus our attention on the religious tasks before us as First Houston moves through a period of unanticipated transition during a time of profound cultural, ecological, moral, and political crisis.
I promise it won’t be dispiriting! My work while I am with you will be to help guide you through the transition while remaining honest about and engaged with the broader crises we face as a human species in this moment of history. One of the most important religious practices we can cultivate is the ability to find beauty and joy while we confront the disappointments and horrors of the world. As Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker writes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” Some Sunday you might find me wearing a clown nose or engaging in an act of lyrical foolishness just as a reminder that joy should be constantly invoked.
Over the next few months my columns will share information and stories about the interim process. But, before I close with a piece of poetry, I would like to just tell you how excited about I am accompanying your congregation through its period of transition. I hope it is a time of growth and deepening for all of us.
It is a time, however, which will necessarily come to an end, for that is the nature of all things and, more particularly, the nature of interim ministry. I will be with you as you move through your period of transition. And then we will go our separate ways. And so it seems appropriate to conclude this month’s column with a fragment from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker:”
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
I pray that this time of transition is a time of blessing for all of us. See you soon!
PS Let me share with you a bit of logistical information. My office hours will be Tuesday through Thursdays, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with other times available by appointment. Mondays will be my study day and Fridays will be reserved for sermon writing. Saturdays will be my day off. I will be available to the church two evenings a week, most likely Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Jul 7, 2018
I have been asked to fill-in at the First Parish in Needham tomorrow. I will be preaching a sermon on friendship. Service starts at 10:30 a.m. It will be my last in the Boston area before I start at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Houston.
Jun 20, 2018
This is my last sermon with you. It is not my last time in Ashby as your minister. That will be the evening of July seventeenth when I come to enjoy a concert on the green. Nonetheless, this morning is the last time that the collective you, the members and friends of First Parish Church, will listen to me in my current capacity--as your minister. Which is too bad. There is still so much that I would like to say to you and share with you. I cannot say all of it. What I can do is continue our conversation from earlier in the month. It is in some sense the same conversation we have been having all year. It is an attempt to answer the question: What is the purpose of the church? Or, really, as I said before, it is an attempt to answer three interwoven questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
In my last sermon I suggested that one way we might answer these questions is to claim that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. When we learn these skills we can make a difference in our own lives and in the wider world.
Some might argue that this is an answer that comes from the Unitarian part of our tradition. It suggests a certain faith in human nature. It suggests that we can collectively improve our lot and our selves. The claim that we have the ability to improve our selves is one of the claims that was at the heart of the Unitarian controversy in the nineteenth century. That was the conflict between liberal and orthodox Christians that eventually led to the First Parish Church splitting in two. The liberals, who believed that humans have the capacity to improve our selves, became Unitarians and stayed in this building. The orthodox, who claimed that human nature was inherently wicked and could only be redeemed with divine intervention, built the church across the street.
This morning I want to suggest a different purpose for the church than one that comes from the Unitarian tradition. I want to propose a purpose rooted in the theology of our Universalist ancestors. The purpose of the church is to love the Hell out of the world. Yes, we gather to further democratic practice and to build a more democratic society. But we do this because we are called to love the Hell out the world.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He writes about how he once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven.” What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
In New England, one of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. For several years he was a circuit rider who traveled throughout the region spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. You might recall one I have shared with you before. It was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. I imagine it was of the type that many of you live in: a large creaky wooden amalgamation of home and barn with the livestock living not all that far from the people.
Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s eldest son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it when he went out late at night partying and carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. I have used in a couple of sermons. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing through rural New England spreading the gospel of universalism. There is truth to this portrayal but it elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from I Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like I Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was a Christian theologian who lived in the second and third centuries of the common era. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived almost two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism because it helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new friend. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point though, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.” You explain. You give them your elevator speech. You might quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or maybe you quote our own Liz Strong, who reflecting on her childhood in Universalist church, wrote: “the center of my religious faith was a powerful belief in the inherent goodness and worth of all life. I believed in a god who loved me and all of creation.”
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
But what comes next? I wonder that about in the story of Ballou and the farm family. Did the family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people someplace in rural New England who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. There is a lot of Hell in the world. And we know by now, from long experience, from all the prophets, is that the only way we can get rid of that Hell is through the power of love. It’s like Kenneth Patchen says in his poem, “The Way Men Live is a Lie:” “There is only one power that can save the world-- / And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.”
There is a lot of Hell in the world right now. This week we learned that since April the United States government has separated 2,000 immigrant children from their parents. 2,000 children. Separated from their parents. That is about as close a definition to Hell as I can find. It comes from the opposite of love. It is built upon the opposite of compassion.
The people who migrate to the United States do so because they have no other choice. It is an unbelievably difficult decision to uproot yourself and your family and travel thousands of miles, not knowing what you will find on the other end, in the hopes of making a better life. It is a decision that people only make when all the other options seem worse. Those options are sometimes to stay home and watch your children starve to death; to stay home and be murdered by paramilitaries; to stay home and be butchered by gangs; to stay home and be killed by an abusive spouse...
Immigrants provide net economic benefits to this country. Ask any honest economist and they will tell you that the United States is a wealthier country because of immigration. Immigrants have brought a wonderful diversity of art, food, and culture to this country. Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and William de Kooning are all iconic American artists. Each one an immigrant. Pizza, a gift from immigrants! St. Patrick’s Day comes from immigrants!
Hate and fear close the borders and try to keep immigrants out. Loving the Hell out of the world demands that we open the borders and let the poor, the marginalized, the frightened, the hungry, and the huddled, in.
Love over hate. This is an actual choice we make. Hate comes from a belief that all of nature can be reduced to the red tooth and claw. There is only so much in the world. You have to compete to get what is yours and damn everyone else. This is a view that turns immigrants into criminals. It prioritizes law over justice. It separates children from their parents. It falsely believes that the United States is worse off with all of the richness that has come from immigrants.
This is kind of hate is a choice. It is a choice that is sometimes based on a misreading of the Unitarian Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species.” It misunderstands observations such as “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” It bolsters this wrong interpretation of Darwin with false readings of the Christian New Testament like the one offered by the Attorney General this week.
Competition is certainly a factor in nature but in sits in tension with cooperation. Social animals like humans and honeybees cooperate with each other. Social animals survive by working together. The building of roads, the creation of schools, the development of science, the construction of a church, the maintenance of a congregation... All are acts of cooperation. Each comes from an often unarticulated belief that we are better working together, striving together, than we are alone.
Love the Hell Out of the World; we are faced with a choice. We can turn to hate or we can turn to compassion. That is why we Unitarian Universalists gather for community, we encourage each other to turn towards compassion. Competition or cooperation, hate or love, it comes down to a wager. We can choose to believe, like orthodox Christians, God will punish all sinners with eternal fire. The fire is coming for us like it was coming for the ne’er-do-well farmer’s son. The country cannot absorb more immigrants. Or we can bet upon love. That God, the perfect parent, will not condemn us to the inferno. That today, in the richest country in the history of the world, there is enough for all of the frightened, the starving, the poor, who come to our borders seeking sanctuary.
It is a bet on what is at the core of our humanity: love or hate, cooperation or competition. To love the Hell out of the world means to choose cooperation over competition. It means to suggest as, did Kenneth Patchen,
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
What have you chosen? As individuals? As a congregation? To love the Hell out of the world? That peace is more redemptive than violence? That we need to march, not fight, for our lives? That love is more powerful than hate?
I leave you with those rhetorical questions. They suggest answers to our three interlaced questions from the beginning of the sermon: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
Those are your questions. You will have to wrestle with them as long as this congregation remains. But now, I have to go. And before I do, let me say this:
I hope that you will continue to love the Hell out of the world.
I love you.
I will carry you in my heart as long as my pulse continues to beat.
And I am deeply grateful for our year together.
Thank you for everything.
Let us give the final word, again, to the poet, who wrote in his non-gender neutral language:
Force cannot be overthrown by force;
To hate any man is to despair of every man;
Evil breeds evil--the rest is a lie!
There is only one power that can save the world--
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Jun 18, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Church:
Tomorrow will be my last Sunday with you. I have changed the topic of the sermon to “Love the Hell Out of the World” to fit with the sermon the I preached on June 3rd. In that sermon I suggested that part of ministry with you had been organized around three questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world? On June 3rd I offered one way to answer those questions. Tomorrow I will offer another.
As part of the service there will be a second special collection to support the UUA’s Practice and Promise Campaign. The first special collection caught a few people off guard and we fell short of our fundraising goal. The Parish Committee decided hold a second special collection to give people who hadn’t yet had an opportunity to contribute to do so.
I am excited about the BBQ after the service on the common. It will be bittersweet for me. I have really loved the year that I have spent with you. It is difficult to say goodbye to your charming church building, historic graveyard, farms, farm houses, and greening woods.
After Asa and I left church on Sunday we visited with some members of the congregation who gave of us rhubarb and stumbled upon a small farm selling duck eggs, chicken eggs, and homemade teas. I also found a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom which the farmer was gracious enough to give me. The whole experience underscored just how special of a place Ashby is and how much we will miss being with you twice a month.
The poem I close with today will be used in the service tomorrow. It’s by the poet Kenneth Patchen. A few of the words aren’t quite pulpit appropriate and I’ll gloss them tomorrow morning. Here, however, is the poem in full:
"The Way Men Live is a Lie"
The way men live is a lie.
I say that I get so goddamned sick
Of all these pigs rooting at each other's asses
To get a bloodstained dollar--Why don't
You stop this senseless horror! this meaningless
Butchery of one another! Why don't you at least
Wash your hands of it!
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
The man who says, "I don't believe in war,
But after all somebody must protect us"--
Is obviously a fool--and a liar.
Is this so hard to understand!
That who supports murder, is a murderer?
That who destroys his fellow, destroys himself?
Force cannot be overthrown by force;
To hate any man is to despair of every man;
Evil breeds evil--the rest is a lie!
There is only one power that can save the world--
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
PS In case you haven’t seen it, I had a piece in the most recent issue of the UU World. You can read “The Universalist Klansman” online.
Jun 16, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, June 3, 2018
I am mindful that we only two services left together: today, and Sunday, June 17th. After that we will go our separate ways. You will stay in Ashby and continue to nurture this precious Unitarian Universalist community. Asa and I will head to Houston. Your congregation has survived for two hundred and fifty years. I have spent a year with you. In that year I have become convinced that your congregation will endure for many years to come. The First Parish Church might be small but you have been here, on the common, for longer than the United States has existed as a nation. I suspect that your Paul Revere bell will continue to ring long after I have turned to dust.
As my ministry with you moves towards its close, I recognize that there are a lot of things that I still want to share. I will not have the opportunity to offer you even a fraction of them. Ministry is a bit like showing up at a party midway through. When you arrive you do not know most of the other guests. They are deeply involved in their conversation. You enter into the conversation. You meet people. You may change the subject some. You might tell a particularly good joke, share a special family recipe, or offer some helpful tips on gardening or animal husbandry. I have an uncle who likes to give people his formula for slug removal when he’s at gatherings. It involves spraying some mixture of beer, dish soap, and, I think, salt, on tomato leaves to protect them from terrestrial mollusks. But after the story, the joke, or the slug elimination strategy, we ministers have to leave the conservation--leave the party--midway through. You all get to stay and continue it. We do not get find out what comes next in the conversation. It goes on without us.
Knowing that this Sunday and June seventeenth are my final parts in the conversation known as the First Parish Church, I thought I would leave with some parting thoughts. This Sunday and the seventeenth I want to talk with you about the purpose of the church. These sermons are gestures towards three questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world? I suggested in my first sermon with you that finding answers to questions like these was necessary to sustain a vital religious community. In the years ahead, I hope that you will ask them and try to answer them.
They can be difficult questions to answer. Some years ago, I was reminded of this when I was serving a congregation in Cleveland. Alongside several of the congregation’s members, I attended an interfaith conference for multiracial religious communities. It was in New York City and featured workshops, speakers, and preachers from across the United States. One in particular I remember was a self-identified progressive Christian minister. In the space of a half dozen years his congregation had grown from a couple of dozen members to several hundred. Everyone at the conference was eager to learn his story.
He told us, “Oh it was very simple. We came up with a clear mission that was both challenging and easy to live into and then we lived into it. Our mission: Feed more sheep. Sometimes to reinforce that this is our mission I come to church dressed in a shepherd’s outfit and carrying a crosier--that’s a shepherd’s staff. We also have a couple of people who wander around coffee hour holding signs that read, ‘Feed More Sheep.’ Visitors will often come up to them and ask what the signs are about. It is a good way to welcome them into a conversation about what the church is about.”
Feed more sheep... The minister went onto explain how this slogan was rooted in both the Christian New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Many of the people who wrote those scriptures came from pastoral communities. They did what many human communities have done. They imagined the divine in their own image. Their God became a shepherd. They became sheep. The texts that they composed are filled with the imagery of a divine shepherd taking care of an ovine flock. “The Lord is my shepherd,” opens Psalm 23. “Feed my sheep,” the Gospel of John instructs.
Feed more sheep... The minister’s point was that it was not enough merely to feed, to take care of, the existing members of the congregation. If the congregation was to truly live out the Christian message, as the minister understood it, then its members had to have an orientation towards growth. They needed to focus on bringing more people into the community to be fed by its religious message.
Feed more sheep... I heard that minister’s story more than six years ago. And his congregation’s pithy summation of its mission has stuck with me. I have to admit his metaphors do not that appeal to me. You, the members of First Parish Church, are not sheep. And I am not a shepherd. The firm hierarchy implied within the slogan runs counter to the radical equality that infuses Unitarian Universalist theology. And yet... and yet... The phrase “Feed more sheep” enabled the members of that congregation to clearly articulate the purpose of their community and the difference that it made in their lives. The slogan inspired them to start a ministry devoted towards feeding the homeless. It inspired them to work towards justice. It inspired them to invite their friends and loved ones to join with them in their efforts. And when they doubted what they were supposed to be doing they could return to that phrase, “Feed more sheep,” to recall that they were supposed to maintain an outward focus.
It is easy to be jealous of such a clearly articulated mission. And certainly, I know some of my ministerial colleagues are jealous of the authority that such a phrase grants them. When I attend ministerial gatherings I occasionally come across another clergyperson who complains that the job of a Unitarian Universalist minister is to herd cats. Cats, you probably know, are not particularly prone to herding. They each tend to want to do their own thing--chase this bit of string; go after that mouse toy.
Neither cat nor sheep herding works as metaphor for the purpose of the church. This Sunday and on the seventeenth I want to suggest two slogans that taken together might be offer a twenty first century Unitarian Universalist statement of the purpose of the church. We will cover one this week and the other next week. This week’s phrase: “We are all leaders.” Next week’s phrase: “Love the Hell out of the world.” “Love the Hell out of the world” describes what we might do when we gather. “We are all leaders” describes how we might organize ourselves.
I choose the phrase “We are all leaders” for today’s service because it is a service in which we are welcoming three new members into the congregation. I offer it as a reminder that a Unitarian Universalist congregation, especially a small congregation like First Parish Church, is run by its members. Your ministers will come and go. You, the members of the congregation, will remain tending to your sacred charge: sustaining this religious community across the generations.
I also offer it because democracy throughout the world is in crisis. It has become an almost constant truism that democratic institutions are in the decline. Certainly, in the United States there is a large segment of the governing elite that is committed to undermining democratic norms. And there are countries in Europe like Hungary who have elected governments that are essentially opposed to democracy.
One reason, I suspect, for this crisis is that many of us do not have places in our lives where we actually practice democracy or learn democratic practice. Most of corporations are rigidly hierarchical. Management makes the decisions. Workers carry them out or lose their jobs. And voting at shareholders’ meetings is based on the principle of one dollar, one vote rather than one person, one vote. Power is concentrated at the top.
Most public education systems throughout the United States do not teach democratic theory or practice. Civics education has long been in decline. According to surveys, most adults would fail a basic civics test on questions such as: What rights are contained in the Bill of Rights? Or what is the term of a member of the House of Representatives?
I certainly did not learn much about how to live in a democratic society in my public school back in Michigan. My high school history teachers generally seemed more interested in teaching us about the nation’s military achievements than its democratic norms. I was taught to honor military veterans but learned little about the veterans of the civil rights, labor, and women’s movements. They were the ones who actually struggled to expand democracy in the country so that it included people other than white males.
As a youth, I learned about democracy through my engagement with Unitarian Universalism. As an adult, I deepened my skills as part of the labor movement. In both instances, the phrase “We Are All Leaders” was crucial to my understanding of what it meant to be part of a democratic organization.
In the 1990s, the Unitarian Universalist youth movement was organized around an ideology known as youth empowerment. This is the idea that youth--with minimal adult guidance and supervision--are capable of creating programming that meets their emotional, intellectual, and religious needs. In my youth group this meant that we actually were in charge of figuring out the curriculum that we would use each year. It also meant that we joined together with other youth groups from throughout the region to put on what we called conferences--weekend long gatherings where youth created worship services, led workshops, played games, and developed a deep sense of fellowship.
I remember these as incredibly powerful events. Certainly, some of the most intense religious experiences of my life took place at these conferences. There was something about the energy of a hundred or two hundred high school students gathered together in a circle, singing songs, sharing stories, staring into the candlelight or walking out onto a field under the moon, that stirred within me a certain feeling of oneness with the universe--that experience of connection that assures me that I am somehow part of something much larger than myself.
All of the aspects of these conferences were organized in collaboration between youth and our adult advisors. We would meet as a group, decide upon a purpose or a vision for the conference, and then elected people to fulfill the roles necessary to execute that vision. The roles would rotate. One conference you might be in charge of planning worship. The next conference you might have kitchen duty. By democratically deciding what we were going to do and then rotating responsibility for doing it everyone had the opportunity to gain the skills necessary for democratic governance and leadership. And community norms and the diffusion of expertise generally meant that things got done well. If last time worship or the food had been excellent there was pressure to make sure that it would be good this time as well. And if you did not know how to plan worship or run a kitchen to cook food for a hundred people there was always someone who had done those tasks successfully who you could ask for assistance.
When I became an active lay member as adult and then a minister I discovered that our congregations and our larger religious association function in much the same way. We all have the opportunity to be leaders. When we take that opportunity we have the chance to develop skills we would not develop otherwise. At their best, our congregations are places where we learn skills to live in a democratic society. They are places where as a member you can gain experience as a public speaker by serving as a reader or leading a lay led service. They are places where you can gain financial management and fundraising skills. They are communities in which you can learn how to run a meeting and develop facilitation techniques to ensure that all of the voices in the community are heard. What kind of skills have you gained through your involvement with Unitarian Universalism? Long before I became a minister I gained many of the basic skills necessary for life in a democratic society through my participation in our faith tradition. We are all leaders.
I suspect that this might be even more true in a community like Ashby. As you all know, Asa and I live in Medford. But I understand that Ashby is still governed by a town meeting. The governance of New England towns are closely related to the governance of Unitarian Universalist congregations. This is not coincidental. This church and the town of Ashby used to be the same entity. And this church and the town of Ashby both stem from the same religious movement. It was a religious movement that believed in democratic governance of both the church and the larger society. It was not perfect and restricted who could participate in that governance for many generations. Nonetheless, that history is an example of how the democratic skills we practice in this congregation and help us to nurture democratic practice throughout society.
The other place where I have learned the skills necessary for a democratic is through the labor movement. One of the readings I picked this morning comes from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was one of the great labor organizers of the early twentieth century. She understood that we learn to live in a democratic society by practicing democracy. As she said, “People learn to do by doing.” A lot of times, people enter a democratic organization without the skills necessary to run a democratic organization. That means that in the routine functioning of the organization people will make mistakes. These mistakes can be learning opportunities, chances to figure out how to do things differently in the future.
My involvement in the labor movement has primarily been through organizers transit workers--bike messengers, taxi drivers, and truck drivers--into independent unions. In each of these cases I saw something similar take place to what I see take place in our Unitarian Universalist congregations. People with little previous exposure to democratic practice gaining the skills necessary to run a democratic society. I have seen a worker with little formal education become a powerful public speaker. I have seen an immigrant new to the United States learn to effectively facilitate a meeting for dozens of people. And I have witnessed a group of workers come together to successfully demand that their employer give them a voice in the management of their workplace. We all can be leaders.
I picked our third reading, Carl Sandburg’s poem “I Am The People, The Mob,” because Sandburg was a Universalist who saw the radical democratic values of our religious tradition mirrored in the practices of the left wing of the labor movement. Much of his corpus celebrates the possibility of democracy to be found in the lives of masses of people. “Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?,” he asks. We can all be leaders, he wants us to remember.
This is one of the messages I want to leave you with as we move towards the end of our ministry together. What is the purpose of this congregation? What difference does it make in your life? What difference does it make in the wider world? As Unitarian Universalists the answers to these questions cannot be to feed more sheep. The answers might be, however, to nurture the democratic potential innate within all of us. The answers might be, that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. In doing so we might both make a difference in our own lives and in the world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Jun 6, 2018
I have placed an embargo on my dissertation to aid in my chances of finding a publisher for the book that will come from it in the next few years. However, I have decided to publish the acknowledgements here so that the many people and institutions to whom I owe a debt a gratitude will not have to wait until the book is published to see them.
The genre of acknowledgements appears to require that the author thanks their family last. I wish to break with form and instead indicate that my biggest debt is to my children, Asa and Emma. The two of you have inspired me to keep working for a better world and to continue to pursue scholarship that I hope will help bring it about even during my most difficult moments. You remind me that the future is always worth struggling for. I am incredibly blessed to have you both in my life and I hope that this dissertation, written as it was in the midst of the tasks of parenting, has not detracted too much from our time together.
My parents, Howard and Kathy Bossen, have been an essential source of support as I have worked to complete this dissertation. Your willingness to travel to Massachusetts so I could travel elsewhere for research trips and conferences enabled me to discuss my work with colleagues and uncover vital archival sources. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, you told me that you objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets.
Being a single parent and a graduate student has been a challenge and I offer thanks to all of those who have helped with Asa and encouraged me over the last several years. Shatha Almutawa, Age and Jim Austin, Jorin Bossen and Liat Shore, Noah and Sara Irwin-Evans, Roxanne Rivas, Wendy Salkin, Nate Silver and Robert Gauldin, Rebecca Silver, Wedstanley Thomas, Sarah Stewart and Andrew Morrow, Kristi Stone, this project would not have been possible without you. Special thanks must be given to Brian, Henry, and Susan Frederick-Gray. I could not ask for better friends or truer comrades. My world is better for having you in it. The world is better because of your leadership.
My dissertation would not have been possible without my incredible committee. Dan McKanan and Mayra Rivera Rivera have been the most generous advisors that I could have hoped for. Mayra, I am deeply appreciative of your willingness to step into the co-chair roll last autumn. Your insights into theology, the Bible, the social and religious construction of race, and the connections between UNIA and the Caribbean have been crucial. Your consistent attention to my text paired with your requests for greater clarification of my claims have made me both a better scholar and a better writer. Dan, thank you for helping me make the transition back into the academy from the parish ministry. You have been a steady companion on my journey. I have benefited greatly from your encyclopedic knowledge of social movements and American religion. And I am thankful for your willingness read to versions of this project in all states, from fragments of rough drafts to final product. Lisa McGirr, as my third reader you have pushed me to more clearly articulate my contributions to the historical discipline and explain why the study of religion matters to the analysis of social movements. Your occasional skepticism has prompted me to dig deeper and read more closely than I might have been inclined to do otherwise. As a result, I think my analysis is that much the better. Sylvester Johnson, thank you for your willingness to serve as an outside reader. I will bring your excellent questions with me as this project moves from dissertation to book.
I owe thanks as well to the many friends, colleagues, and mentors who commented on drafts: Chris Allison, John Bell, Carleigh Beriont, Andrew Block, Ann Braude, Catherine Brekus, Carla Cevasco, Kate Coyer, Bradley Craig, Marissa Egerstrom, Amy Fish, Healan Gaston, John Gee, Balraj Gill, David Hempton, David Holland, Cassie Houtz, Andrew Jewett, Michael King, James Kloppenberg, Adelaide Mandeville, Rosemarie Bray McNatt, Mary McNeil, Laura Nelson, Zachary Nowack, Eva Payne, Catie Peters, Charles Peterson, Andrew Pope, Evan Price, Cori Price, Allison Puglisi, and Simon Sun. Special thanks goes to John Stauffer who encouraged me to include the IWW in my dissertation in the first place. Another one goes to Arthur Patton-Hock. I know you didn’t read the dissertation but your hard work as Administrative Director of the American Studies Program certainly made it possible.
I was lucky enough to present drafts of this dissertation to several different workshops and audiences. At Harvard, members of the North American Religions Colloquium and the Twentieth Century History Dissertation Group read some form of almost all of the chapters. The American Studies Workshop was also very useful. Further afield, the Religion and Violence Group of the American Academy of Religion, Collegium: Scholarship Serving Unitarian Universalism, the Unitarian Universalist Emerging Scholars, L’Association Française d’Etudes Américaines, and Starr King School for the Ministry all provided venues for me to present my work.
Financial support for my research and writing came from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the form of a Merit and Term-Time Fellowship, a Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and three of Winkler Fellowships. I also received a Graduate Seed Grant from Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and several years of support from the American Studies Program. Support from the Fund for Nurturing Unitarian Universalist Scholarship, the Living Tradition Fund, the Joseph Sumner Smith Scholarship, and Joseph Gitler Fund for Religion and Ethics, all administered by the Unitarian Universalist Association, was vital. So too was support from the Biosophical Institute in the form of a Frederick Kettner Scholarship.
Thanks as well to all of the archives and libraries whose staff welcomed and worked with me. Material for the dissertation came from Washington State Historical Society, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia, the Indiana State Library, the Indiana State Historical Society, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University, and Houghton Library of Harvard University. I suspect Morgan Miller is the unofficial archivist of the American left. Thank you for providing me with IWW materials long thought destroyed. I have no idea how you collect everything you do.
Some final thanks are owed to the congregations that I served while studying in graduate school. My summer ministries at the First Parish Lexington and the First Parish Milton, my sabbatical ministry at the First Religious Society of Carlisle, and my year as minister of the First Parish Church, Ashby, all reminded me that religion can play a powerful role in creating movements for justice. The members of those congregations helped me to clarify my voice as an abolitionist and urged me to conduct scholarship that was relevant to the task of collective liberation. It is my sincerest hope that this dissertation is in that vein.
May 22, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Church:
Yesterday during the service I let the congregation know that I will not be able to renew my contract with the First Parish Church for a second year. I have accepted a position as the senior interim minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Greater Houston, Texas. I am both excited and disappointed about this opportunity. I am excited to have the chance to serve a large vibrant congregation as they go through the process of seeking a new settled minister. And I am disappointed to have to draw my ministerial relationship with First Parish Church to a close. I have had a truly wonderful year with you all and will be forever grateful for your accompaniment during my last year of graduate school. Thank you so much for everything!
I will be with you for two more Sundays in June. During the first of those services, June 3rd, we will be welcoming new members into the church. At the second, June 17th, we will be celebrating the congregation’s annual flower communion. I look forward to both of them and the end of the year picnic after the June 17th service.
Again, thank you for the wonderful year! I close by offering you not a poem about endings or leave taking but simply one of my favorite texts of all time, Tu Fu’s “By the Winding River I” as translated by Kenneth Rexroth. The last two lines include a question I ask myself most days as I struggle to make sense of all of the beauty and the madness in the world. I will miss you!
“By the Winding River I”
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again.
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a litte
While, why should men cross each other?
May 21, 2018
Dear Members of the First Houston Community:
I am thrilled to be joining you this August as your senior interim minister. A time of ministerial transition is a very special time for a congregation. It can bring anxiety and hope as you both celebrate First Houston’s past and imagine its future while you prepare for your next settled ministry. I look forward to accompanying you in your process.
A little bit about me: I bring to your congregation a wealth of experience from my more than ten years as a parish and community minister. Next week I graduate from Harvard University with a PhD in American Studies. I love the ministry and this year I have decided to transition back to the parish ministry following several years in the academy. Prior to my time at Harvard I served as the settled minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. And for the last year, I have served as the minister of the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA. My eleven year-old son Asa will be coming to Houston with me. My nineteen year-old daughter is currently a sophomore at Lewis and Clark in Portland, OR. She was actually in Houston this past March with my parents. My father is one of the judges at Fotofest. You can learn more about me via my website www.colinbossen.com.
One of my core beliefs is we should each work to bring a little bit more beauty into the world. There are many ways we can do this: simple acts of kindness, arranging flowers, sharing a meal, creating a work of art, drawing a brush across a snare drum... I love poetry. I think it makes the world a more beautiful place. And so, I will generally include at least a fragment of a poem in each of my regular newsletter columns. Today I offer you “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change” by the Palestinian-American (and Texan) poet Naimi Shihab Nye:
Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.
Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.
Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.
The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.
Nye’s words are ones that give me comfort during times of transition. They remind me that the cliche is true: the only constant is change. Embracing that truism will be part of our work together during my interim ministry. We will work on honoring the past, accepting change, and planning, dreaming, and hoping for the future. I know it will be an exciting time and I am honored to share it with you.
May 16, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, May 6, 2018
This morning I thought I would offer you a sermon reflecting on some religious texts and stories that I have found to be helpful in my own spiritual practice. I want to share with some lessons I have found in the Chinese religion of Taoism. Or at least, the lessons I have discovered in the interpretations of Taoism offered by European and Euro-American thinkers.
One of the things that I appreciate about our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that it has an openness that encourages us to explore scriptures and practices from outside of the European cultures. This openness though should also be exercised with a certain amount of humility and respect. Religious practices develop in particular contexts. When we take those practices and place them within a different context then we change them. We change them in ways that sometimes can make people from the cultures that they came from uncomfortable. To offer an example from our own congregational life, the Seder that this congregation hosts each year is quite different than the Seders held in the homes of Orthodox Jews. I have no doubt that many of the orthodox would be quite uncomfortable with the Seder. And yet, for members and friends of Ashby’s liberal Jewish community the Seder is a meaningful ritual that is a highlight of the year.
Religion is not something that is fixed. Even the most conservative of religious traditions changes over time. To give one example, the Roman Catholic church more-or-less permitted the marriage of priests until the eleventh century. And yet, one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalism is the belief that despite the transient nature of religious tradition there is a certain core religious experience that persists across time and culture. There’s a line from the Hindu Rig Veda that in my reading makes a similar point. It states, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
Liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher have made a similar point when they have argued that religion stems from our experience of connection to something larger than ourselves. As he put it, we experience “everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite.” The experience of connection is a universal human phenomenon. Exactly how we interpret it is influenced by the particular cultures we find ourselves in.
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that there is wisdom to be gained from each particular expression of the universal experience of connection. I can learn from talking with you about your experience. I suspect that you can learn from talking with me about my experience. And I know that we can gain something by discussing the experiences that others have had in other places and in other times.
There’s a certain way in which I think that the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion might be summarized by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you know it? A few verses from it read:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
In the poem Stevens offers thirteen different descriptions of the blackbird. Each is different. Each offers a different understanding of the bird. However, despite the different descriptions there’s only one bird.
In the Unitarian Universalist view, religion is a bit like the blackbird. The world’s different traditions are all offering descriptions of something that is ultimately beyond description: our human place in the great disorder of things.
Now with that set of overly long caveats aside, I want to turn our attention to one of some of the Taoist stories that I have found helpful in my own attempt to lead a more faithful religious life and make my way on this confusing, muddy, planet we call Earth.
The first story is perhaps one you have heard before. In one version it reads, “I, Chuang Tzu, once dreamed I was a butterfly--a butterfly fluttering here and there, without worry or desire, unaware of being human. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, again ‘my own self.’ Now this is unclear to me: was I a man who dreaming he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams he is a man? There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.
On first reading, it is a slippery story. The point is difficult to grasp. The Chuang Tzu does not know whether he is man or butterfly. He is, however, one or the other. He is either a man dreaming he is a butterfly or he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. I suspect that the key to the story is found in the last two sentences: “There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.” Chuang Tzu can either be a butterfly or a man. He cannot be both.
The story communicates one of the core ideas of Taoism, at least as it is understood by European and Euro-American scholars. Everything is understood to have its own nature, its own way of being in the world. Butterflies flutter here and there. They lack worry or desire but instead seek milkweed nectar or quest for sunflowers. People worry about whether or not they are butterflies. The Taoist point seems to be that it does not matter which you are as long as you try to uncover your own nature. But then, it is a slippery story. Your interpretation might be somewhat different than my own.
Much of Taoism a bit slippery like that. Unlike a lot of other religious traditions, it lacks a meta-narrative, an overarching story of existence. There is no central text with a creation story like those found in the Hebrew Bible or Hindu scriptures. And there’s no salvation narrative suggesting that we are somehow flawed beings that need to be saved. Such narratives are found in the Christian New Testament or in the life of Buddha. All of this might suggest a challenge to the motto I suggested earlier, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” However, as the Euro-American scholar Thomas Cleary has argued, “Taoism is based... on the experience of... [the] universal Way, the essential reality which all derivative ways might be comprehended.”
This is quite similar to the liberal theological assertion that at the core of religion is the the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. In Clearly’s interpretation of Taoism, we are part of the universal Way (the Tao), the nature of everything. And we each have our own individual ways, or natures, that stem from it. The purpose of Taoism is to uncover or discover our individual way and live in harmony with the greater way of which we are a part.
I read the contemporary classic the Tao of Pooh in high school. Have any of you read it? It is a charming book that attempts to communicate the core teachings of Taoism in a fashion that is accessible for those unfamiliar with the tradition. It uses the characters from the Winnie the Pooh children stories to share insights its author has gained from Taoism. It has been criticized by scholars as presenting a European reading of Taoism that strips it of its original cultural context. Nonetheless, I find its core insight appealing. It suggests that the authentic religious life is about being present with the self and present to the world around the self. Or, as the text says, "While Eeyore frets... and Piglet hesitates... and Rabbit calculates... and Owl pontificates... Pooh just is."
Another Euro-American interpreter of Taoism named Alan Watts tried to express the same insight with these words, “What we are seeking is, if we are not totally blind, already here.”
Taoism itself is an ancient tradition that originated in China more than two thousand years ago. It emerged as a body of written teachings around the fourth century BCE. I say as a body of written teachings because like most traditions it had a lot of sources. If it is about uncovering what is already here then that is something that people have been uncovering and discovering for as long as there have been people.
The first Taoist text is generally thought to be the Tao Te Ching, the book of changes. It was compiled by someone called Lao Tzu, whose name translates into old master. It is debatable as to whether he was a historical figure or a mythical one. Some claim he was a royal librarian in an early Chinese dynasty. He is said to have eventually grown tired of the intrigues of court life. He quit his position and left the kingdom to seek a life of contemplation. On the way out of the kingdom he stopped to spend the night at the last gate before the wilderness. The gatekeeper recognized him and asked him to leave some of his wisdom behind. And that wisdom was the Tao Te Ching.
The other great Taoist teacher was Chuang Tzu. He almost certainly was a real person. There are records of someone with the same name that appear in the second and third centuries BCE. Chuang Tzu’s text bears his name. It is a book of stories. Some, like the butterfly story, are cryptic or enigmatic. Others make their point a bit more clearly.
I have read the Chuang Tzu numerous times and found in its advice about being who we are to be useful. One story suggests that it is good to have a healthy skepticism of technology. The story is about an old gardener and a young engineer. One day the young engineer was walking back to the capital city. As he walked he came across an old gardener, drawing a bucket of water from a well. He watched the old man. The old man walked over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. Then he walked over to his garden, some distance away, and dumped the water on his vegetables. He repeated this process many times. Walking over to the well and returning with the heavy bucket filled with water until his garden was finally watered.
All of this seemed like a lot of effort to the engineer. He approached the gardener and told him, “Hey, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden much better and with a lot less effort. Would you not like that?”
“What is the contraption” replied the gardener.
“It is a wooden lever. It is heavy in the back and light in the front. It draws water from the well, as you do with your bucket, but in a steadily flowing stream. It is called a well sweep.”
The gardener is said to have looked at the young engineer with an expression of annoyance. And then he is said to have laugh and told the young man, “I have heard my teacher say that those who use tricky tools are tricky in their business affairs, and those who are tricky in their business affairs have trickery in their hearts, and those who have trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure and unspoilt, and those who are not pure and unspoilt have a restless spirit, and those who have a restless spirit, in them Tao cannot exist. Not that I am unfamiliar with such a contraption--I would be ashamed to use one.”
Supposedly, the engineer bowed his head in shame and left the gardener to his buckets, well, and garden. The point of the story seems clear enough to me. Technology can distract us from our inner nature, the experience of what it means to be human in this wild world. Now, if that was true in Chuang Tzu’s day, it is certainly true in ours. How easily do we get distracted by all of the technological devices that surround us. I will admit that my cell phone can provide constant distraction. It can take me away from my surroundings and my relationships. It is easy to get immersed in the little rectangular screen. And when I do I frequently find myself feeling disconnected from the world immediately around me. What about you? Do you ever find technology distracting?
One way I remind myself of my connection to something larger than myself is through my own practice of foraging. It is spring and good things to eat are starting to grow everywhere. They can be found in the woods and in the roadside ditches. Collecting mushrooms and wild greens reminds me of how our earliest human ancestors found their sustenance. It gets me a little closer to the early human experience of the world.
Foraging I have learned to see the world as filled with abundance and scarcity. Viewed this way, the world becomes a place where survival depends upon connection to and understanding of the landscape that surrounds us. And this is very different from the way I inhabit the world much of the time. Sometimes when I am not foraging it does not matter if I am distracted by the glow of a screen. When I am foraging it absolutely does. There is no way I could find dandelion greens or fiddlehead ferns or morel mushrooms if I spent my time in the woods gazing at my cell phone.
Foraging helps me to be present in the moment. It reminds me that being present can be its own reward. And that being present requires me to accept what there is rather than what I desire. And that when that when I do that I can discover things that I might not otherwise discover.
I am reminded of this almost every time I go out foraging. I remember one instance when a friend and I went traipsing through the woods looking for morel mushrooms. It was a frustrating experience. We went to our favorite morel patches and found none. We found elm trees but no morels. We found an abandoned apple orchard but no morels. We looked under ash trees. We looked under oak trees. No morels. This went on for several hours. Suddenly my friend yelled, “Ramps!” And there they were, a large patch of ramps, wild leeks. There was enough for dinner, and the next day’s dinner, and dinner for the day after that.
It was a good reminder that when we are present to the moment we might not find what we are looking but we will find something. And that something is often good in and of itself and worth celebrating. Have you ever had a similar experience? Where you were looking for one thing and then found something completely different? And that thing was glorious?
This, to me, is the message of Taoism, or at least the message of Taoism seen through its European interpreters. As the scholar Alan Watts tells us, “What we are seeking is... already here.” Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church put it another way, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.” Let us say that last phrase together, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”
We cannot be both a butterfly and a human. There is some essential nature to both the butterfly and the human that is unique. Let us accept that nature and, in doing so, open ourselves to the present moment in which we are immersed.
May it be so for each of us.