Apr 17, 2020
The question is one that a lot of religious people and leaders are asking themselves right now. The global health pandemic means that responsible congregations throughout the world have shuttered their doors to physical services for the foreseeable future. Some are continuing to use their sanctuaries to film online services, others are producing online services directly from the homes of clergy and staff, and some are not meeting at all. Many are hosting online religious education, meditation, small group ministry, and social forums.
The situation is in many ways a new one. This is not the first time when religious communities have had to close their physical spaces during a time of pestilence and plague. But it is the first time that such a mass closing of worship services has taken place when technology is broadly available for almost any congregation to have some kind of online presence.
There are a lot of people trying to figure out what to do and how congregations should react to the situation. The UUA has a lot of advice. I’ve also read pieces from Sightings and from the remnants of the Alban Institute. As I have been thinking about these dynamics myself, I have been seeking answers to five questions: 1. Why have an online congregation? 2. What is an online congregation? 3. Who participates in an online congregation? 4. Where does an online congregation meet? 5. How does an online congregation meet?
1. Why have an online congregation?
This turns out to be a bit of trick question. The answer that immediately comes to mind is that we have an online congregation because our congregation can no longer meet in-person. And so, the online congregation becomes a representation of, a metaphor for, or even a simulacrum of the physical congregation that is (we hope temporarily) shuttered.
In the case of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, an online congregation is a sort of placeholder that exists to provide a way for the members and friends of the shuttered physical congregation to continue to connect with each other. It also a way for us to continue to serve the wider community by making publicly available the kind of programs we normally offer throughout the week. So, for instance, in addition to our online worship service we have a weekly online forum that I am curating and many small groups that meet over Zoom.
My description of why we have online congregations leaves aside entities like the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF)--a non-physical Unitarian Universalist church that provides services for anyone who cannot, or does not want to, connect with a congregation that gathers in-person. But, this leaving aside also raises an issue. There are some online congregations--Unitarian Universalist and otherwise--that existed prior to the pandemic. One of the principle questions that newly online congregations like mine will need to answer in the months that come is: What distinguishes us from previously existing entities like the CLF? The Robert Koch Institut, roughly the German government’s equivalent of the CDC, is forecasting that it might be as long as 18 months before large physical gatherings are safe again. If that is true then this question will become all the more important.
2. What is an online congregation?
A painting of a synagogue is not a synagogue. A photograph of church is not a church. And an online congregation is not a physical congregation. It is both representation of a congregation that meets in-person and something different than a congregation that meets in person.
In some sense, an online congregation might be regarded as what Benedict Anderson named an “imagined community.” Anderson coined the term to describe nation states that are bound together by the imaginations of their individual citizens. It is an act of imagination to envision that people who live in Houston and Chicago have something in common while people in Houston and Mexico City do not. Imagined communities are typically bound together by the use of shared symbols (such as flags) and rituals (like voting or holidays). They can be bound together by other things as well--currency, language, bodies of law--but that appears to be less important than the use of either symbol or ritual.
Online congregations are imagined communities because their members--or participants--imagine themselves to be part of the same religious community. We cannot gather together in person. We cannot easily interact with most other members of the congregation. But we can imagine ourselves to be joined in religious communion.
This imagined aspect of community is quite different than what takes place on a Sunday morning. And that opens up another question: How do congregational leaders sustain the imaginations of their members so that they continue to imagine themselves to part of the same imagined community? There are various strategies that might be deployed and First Houston is using a number of them. We have videos posted online twice a week: a weekly forum and a weekly worship service. We offer numerous online Zoom gatherings: small groups, online classes, and virtual coffee hours. We have Facebook pages for both of our campuses and send out email messages twice a week. We have a program where volunteers from the congregation call other members between once a week and twice a month. I keep this blog...
What might not be obvious is that in some sense religious communities have always been imagined communities--even if local congregations have not been. The very function of the Pauline letters in the Christian New Testament was to knit to together scattered local congregations--many of which were probably very small--in such a way as to help them imagine themselves as part of the same religious movement. The shared hymnal that Unitarian Universalists serves a similar function. And so does almost all scripture and liturgy--which allows people to imagine contiguous communities across time and space.
3. Who participates in an online congregation?
This might be the most disruptive question in my list. And it is something that depends a lot on the technology choices that congregational leaders make and how they choose to advertise their congregational offerings. The staff and I have decided to make the offerings of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston open to all who are interested in them. We are posting prerecorded services to YouTube and inviting people who are interested in participating in our online meetings to preregister for them. This is essentially what we did prior to the pandemic: Sunday services were open to anyone who wanted to visit and programs were open to anyone who registered to participate in them.
There is, however, one striking difference: anyone in the world who has access to internet and who wants to can view our prerecorded services or register and participate in our online programs. We have seen two shifts in congregational life as a result. First, we have had a small number of non-Houston based people participating in either our program offerings, such as our parents group, or viewing our Sunday services online. We have received, for instance, some Sunday morning offering donations from people who don’t live in the Houston area.
Second, we have been able to draw from non-local people for participation in our programs. We have specifically done this through our visual meditations. They have drawn from artists through the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Those artists have shared the videos with the friends and families, thus increasing the reach of the congregation. I have also started to do this through my forum guests. Of the four people I’ve done forums with thus far two have been local (Kim Waller and Diana Tang) and two have been from outside of Houston (Kate Coyer and Ty). Thus far, the most watched forum is one featuring a guest from outside Houston.
My big questions here are: What will this larger reach mean for the congregation when we begin to gather again in person? Will we want to keep people from outside of Houston engaged in congregational life? If so, how will we do that?
4. Where does an online congregation meet? and 5. How does an online congregation meet?
These last two seem like they should have obvious answers: on the internet and through multiple platforms. However, I think that the answers can be somewhat nuanced or complicated. For instance, the online congregation need not meet only through the internet. I speak regularly with folks from First Houston on the phone and we have a LINKS program where each member of the congregation is assigned a volunteer who calls them on a regular basis. These are forms of meeting that fall outside of being strictly online. I also find them to be more effective than a lot interactions mediated by the internet.
As for how, well... there are a lot of different platforms available. We have decided against livestreaming services in favor of pre-recording them and posting them as YouTube videos. This allows us to have an easy public face that anyone who wants to can access and also doesn’t lock people into participating at a particular time. Right now, we have just over 900 households viewing our YouTube videos on a regular basis--almost triple the number who attend the congregation when we meet in person.
There’s been a strong tendency towards religious communities using Zoom to host various kinds of online gatherings--something we’re doing. I suspect that as the months pass we’ll shift the exact how of we meet online. Technology will most likely evolve and we’ll find somethings to be more effective than others. For instance, it already seems clear that the programs that we offer for general check-in are not nearly as popular as the more structured ones. It might also become clear that alternative platforms to Zoom are more effective for the congregation’s needs.
In sum, there are a lot of unknowns about how the next several months will unfold. Religious communities like mine will need to continue to adapt. The pandemic brings with it both grave challenges and some interesting opportunities for congregational life. Both addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunties will probably take a fair amount of imagination. I’m actually excited to see how religious communities adapt themselves. And I hope that in our efforts to adapt the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston will continue to be what has been for more than a hundred years: a community devoted building the beloved community and uncovering the potential lying within each human heart.
Jul 5, 2019
I want to begin our sermon this morning in what might seem to you as an odd place. I want to begin with an apology. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Unfortunately, I did not have this important anniversary on my calendar when we sat down to plan the June worship services. What was on my heart was figuring when to conclude our occasional series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We have done seven services on the principles as they currently exist. I wanted to make sure we had service as part of the series on the proposed eighth principle before too much time had passed. The wording for it reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
We will engage at greater depth with the principle in a moment. But first, I want to return to my apology. We should have devoted the entirety of our service to marking the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. And we did not. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, if you love someone who is part of that community, if needed your church home to honor the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall and if you feel that I have given that momentous event short shrift, I am deeply sorry. You are a vital part of this community. I see you. I love you. You are loved by this church. And we will do better in the future.
In the spirit of loving heart of our tradition, I offer you this poem by the Rev. Theresa Soto. They are a minister and transgender activist. They are also a leading voice in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Their poem:
--dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer
and gender-expansive friends and kin
(and those of us whose gender is survival):
let me explain. no,
there is too much. let me sum up*.
you are not hard to love and respect;
your existence is a blessing.
your pronouns are not a burden or a trial;
they are part of your name, just shorter.
someone getting them wrong is not a
poor reflection on you. it is not your fault.
your body (really and truly)
belongs to you. no one else.
the stories of your body
the names of your body’s parts
your body’s privacy
the sum of your body’s glory.
it is not okay for anyone
to press their story of you
back to the beginning
of your (of our) liberation.
we will find the people ready to be
on the freedom for the people way.
we will go on. no one can rename you
Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift
of being and saying who you are.
mostly, though, your stories belong to you.
your joy and complexity are beautiful
however you may choose to tell it (or not
tell it). some folks (cis) may take their liberty
for an unholy license. you are beloved. please
keep to our shared tasks of
Let me repeat those last three lines:
keep to our shared tasks of
Whatever the topic of the service, whatever the message of the sermon, that is what it is really all about. It is why we gather. It is why come together and create community. It is why there is currently a discussion within the Unitarian Universalist Association about adding the eighth principle. So that we might:
keep to our shared tasks of
Again, the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
There is a certain sense in which my thoughtless around the anniversary of Stonewall emphasizes the importance of the eighth principle. The eighth principle calls us to be accountable to each other and to work on dismantling systems of oppression not only out in the world but within ourselves and within our institutions.
And central to that work is recognizing that individually and institutionally we occupy certain spaces within society and have particular identities. You see, I was able to forget about the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall because of who I am. I am a heteronormative cis-gender white male. And even though I have plenty of friends who are part of the LGBTQ community, even though I have read texts on the history of sexuality, queer theology, and gender theory by people like Gloria Anzaldua, Leslie Feinberg, Michel Foucault, Pamela Lightsey, and Audre Lorde, even though some of my favorite musicians include gay icons such as the Petshop Boys, Frankie Knuckles, and Sylvester, even though I know how to strike a pose and vogue, my our consciousness is rooted my specific social location. And that social location makes it possible for me to forget to put something as important as the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall on our liturgical calendar.
Recognizing that we each inhabit particular social location is central to the work of liberation. It is one reason why scholars like Pamela Lightsey begin their texts with statements such as: “I am a black queer lesbian womanist scholar and Christian minister.” Lightsey teaches at the Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard Theology School. She is the only out lesbian African American minister within the United Methodist Church. Her work focuses on pushing Methodists and Unitarian Universalists to recognize that the majority of our religious institutions were not created by or for queer people of color. She argues that “institutional racism continues to be the primary instrument used to enforce personal racism.” And that if we want to be serious challenging racism in the United States we need to work on it within our own institutions. Her act of stating her own social location is meant to provoke people like me to make my own social location explicit.
Too often people like me often from a space of white normativity. We assume that our own experiences are typical, even universal. And we are oblivious to the ways in which the institutions we inhabit have been constructed to serve people like us. One good test to figure out how much you might operate from a place of white normativity is the “Race Game.” Have you ever played it? Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The preacher was an articulate white man.”
I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is a belief. And it is taught to children.
Thandeka recounts the stories of how many people of who believe themselves to be white learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:
See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see
We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee
She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin
Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say
Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...
It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.
I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.
I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.
The effort behind the proposed eighth principle is to prompt Unitarian Universalist congregations to challenge their own unspoken racial codes. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles are implicitly anti-racist. Moving from being implicitly anti-racist to explicitly anti-racist might help us to reveal the ways in which our institutions were primarily built for people who believe themselves to be white. And most of them certainly were. All Souls, DC, the congregation behind the eighth principle proposal, has been a multiracial community for more than a hundred years. More than a hundred years ago, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass used to worship there. Yet All Souls includes among its founding members John Calhoun, one of the principal defenders of slavery.
As you might remember, in addition to being a minister I am also an academic. Over the last several years much of my research has been into the history of white supremacy. It has convinced me of the necessity of adopting the eighth principle. While working on my dissertation, I read thousands of pages of texts from the Ku Klux Klan. I studied the history of the Confederacy and the ideology of chattel slavery. And I learned that until the middle of the twentieth-century white supremacists thought of themselves as liberal. They promoted the values of free speech and freedom of religion. They just thought that these freedoms were only for people who believed themselves to be white. Their position was sometimes implicit--they did not state such freedoms did not extend to everyone. They just refused to extend them to all of humanity.
Each year prior to the Fourth of July I read Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is a reminder that so often the liberal principles of freedom have not extended to all people. Their proponents have assumed white normativity. So, let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for those who believed themselves to be white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.
For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”
The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you believe yourself to white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.
The eighth principle is a vital effort to address the social construct, the collective sin, of racism. Racism requires institutions to maintain. The eighth principle challenges to place our institutional commitment to dismantling racism at the center of our faith tradition--not on its periphery. It challenges us to make Unitarian Universalism explicitly anti-racist, not implicitly so.
Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” The proposed eighth principle calls on Unitarian Universalists to break our institutional silence.
And breaking this silence requires people like me recognize that our perspective is not universal. It is just as vital for me to sometimes say, I speak as a cis-gendered heteronormative male who society has labelled white as it is for someone like Pamela Lightsey to specify her position. Such specificity means that in a country which devalues the lives of LGBTQ people and people of color we make it clear that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. This means breaking assumptions that the experiences of people like me that our experiences our universal, that this country honors everyone’s inherent worth and dignity because it has historically honored the worth and dignity of men who believe themselves to be white.
This is difficult work. It means making mistakes. It means apologizing. It means learning from those mistakes and then trying to do better. And it means committing to stay together in community because we believe that our community can be redemptive. It can be a place to overcome the sin of separation. For we understand that in the face of all of the difficulties and challenges, all the fear and assumptions, there is a higher truth: love is the most powerful force there is. Love can bind us together. Love is stronger than hate. Love can change the world.
In the knowledge that it is so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Jan 22, 2019
“...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God... the Brotherhood of Man... the Leadership of Jesus... Salvation by Character... [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are... well... we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
-- declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation--deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers -- or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo... So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery--which we call the Civil War--brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws.... A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation--Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown--struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Sep 25, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 23, 2018
This month our theme in worship is hospitality. For Unitarian Universalists hospitality, or radical inclusivity, is at the core of our theological vision. This congregation’s decision to desegregate in 1954 was a decision to be radically inclusive. You were the first historically white church in Houston to make such a decision. More recently, your decision to become a Welcoming Congregation was an act of radical inclusivity. You made an intentional choice to be a religious home for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
The decisions to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation were not political decisions. Instead, they came from the radical love found at the core of our universalist heritage. Universalism is a form of dissident Christianity that claims that God so loves the world that she cannot condemn any person to eternal suffering in Hell. Not one single person. Not you. Not me. Not anyone. Universalism teaches that God loves everyone, no exceptions.
There’s a fragment of a poem from the poet Edwin Markham that captures something of Universalism’s sentiment of radical inclusivity. It reads:
He drew a circle and shut us out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the will to win,
we drew a circle and took him in.
The second circle is the wider circle. The wider circle is the circle of care and concern, the circle of love, that somehow, impossibly, is so wide that it takes in even the enemy. It takes in even the person who sought to cast the speaker out. The wider circle is a wonderful metaphor for the theology that inspired your commitments to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation. These were acts of radical inclusivity.
Radical inclusivity might sound like an intimidating phrase. It need not be. At its core it is a simple idea. It is creating a community to welcome the stranger. It is getting to know each other. It is recognizing the human in the other. It is like “The Rabbi’s Gift,” our story from earlier. Something profound happens when we realize that each person in the world, you, and me, and all the people outside of this sanctuary, is equally a child of universe. We all contain “the likeness to God,” as foundational Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing told us. We all have something to teach each other about living amid the maddening rush of abrupt rain, piercing sunlight, and generative ground that form life’s tapestry.
Radical inclusivity is a recognition of this truth. It need not be hard. It can be something as simple as introducing yourself to someone else. There used to be a button floating around Unitarian Universalist communities that made this point. “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another,” it read. Today, after the service, you can commit this radical act. You can walk up to someone you do not know and say, “Hello.” Who knows what marvels you might open up by meeting someone not already in your circle?
Meeting someone not already in your circle... Here is an odd thing about interim ministry: When a congregation calls a settled minister the congregation and the minister take time getting to know each other. The minister meets with the search committee for a full weekend. The search committee agrees upon a candidate. And then the candidate comes and spends an entire week with the congregation. At the end of the week, the congregation holds a vote to decide on whether or not they want to call the minister.
The process that led to my coming to Houston was more abbreviated. It was facilitated through the Unitarian Universalist Association’s interim matchmaking process. I was hired by the Board rather than called by the congregation. This is a drawn-out admission that you did not have much of an opportunity to get to know me before I appeared in your pulpit at the beginning of August. We should fix that. If I am going to suggest that you introduce yourselves to people you do not know then I should let you get to know me a bit better. I should say, “Hello.”
There is a meme floating around the internet that is popular in my circles. I thought it would serve as a nice introduction. It is on the front of your order of service. It is a Venn Diagram of the ways preachers, DJs, and bank robbers overlap. They each urge people to “put your hands up.” This Venn Diagram encapsulates some of the communities that have taught me about radical inclusivity: preachers, DJs, and bank robbers. I am a preacher. I came of age in the DJ culture of hip hop, house, and techno. And, well.... I have something to say about bank robbers.
Put your hands up.
We begin with DJ culture.
I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, hip hop, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:
Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”
Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape have something to teach us about radical inclusivity. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?
We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time... no longer constrained by fears that keep us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”
These experiences of beloved community are experiences of radical inclusivity. They are experiences we can foster in church. We can foster them through the creation of worship that makes space for everyone, that proclaims that all are welcome, and all are loved. There are few other spaces in American society that have the potential for people to gather across the dividing lines of race and class.
Years ago, amid the shambling concrete of abandoned factories, I witnessed that music could bring people together in the country’s most divided cities. Black, white, gay, straight, suburbanite, loft dweller, drag queen in fabulous silver go go boots, baggy jeans wearing break dancing trickster, everyone united in “One Nation Under a Groove,” just as rgw original funkster George Clinton told us to. Our Universalist theology of radical inclusion challenges us to build religious communities that are capable of drawing such wide circles. Later, in some other sermon, we can talk about how difficult and challenging this work can be. But this morning I want to offer you a simple truth. Radical inclusivity begins with saying, “Hello,” to someone you do not know and inviting them into your circle.
Put your hands up.
The bank robber Willie Sutton was once supposedly asked, “Willie why do you rob banks?” “Because that is where the money is,” he’s alleged to have replied.
I first heard Sutton’s words when I was in my early twenties and living in San Francisco. While I was there I got to know the folk singer Bruce Phillips, whose stage name was Utah. By the time I met him, Utah Phillips had been a Unitarian Universalist for more than fifty years.
He had a weekly radio show on KPFA, KPFT’s sister station in Berkeley, and occasionally did concerts at Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Bay Area. Over the course of our conversations, listening to his radio show, and attending his concerts, I discovered that Utah had a particular affinity for bank robbers. “Working-class heroes,” he used to call them.
He often quoted Willie Sutton. And he liked to talk about Kid Pharaoh, a minor criminal from Chicago. In an interview, Kid Pharaoh had confessed that he had a political philosophy. He said, “I’m dedicated to one principle: taking money away from unqualified dilettantes who earn it through nepotism... Take it away from... [them]. Hook, crook, slingshot, canoe, we must shaft [these fellows]...”
In my conversations with Utah, I learned he praised bank robbers for three reasons. The first: his praise provided a radical critique of society. The second: it was an act of drawing the circle wider: reminding his audience that everyone, even the criminal element, has something to teach the rest of us. The third: he admired their clarity and honesty of purpose. They went to the place where the money was and took it.
Utah did not advocate robbing banks. But he did urge people to be clear about who they were and why they did what they did. That was the way he lived. He had been a critic of American society, the military, and our economic system ever since he returned to the United States after fighting in the Korea War. Part of his critique was that changing the world began by listening to the voices at society’s margin.
Parallels to his position can be found in the words of the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, our friend Susan Frederick-Gray. She tells us, “the circle never gets drawn wider from the center. The circle grows wider because the people who live at the margins, at the edges, who see how exclusion is happening, are leading and organizing and working to break down those walls. So we all have to be standing in the margins, pushing for greater liberation for all people. That is the way we make the circle wide.”
In Susan’s vision, we Unitarian Universalists engage in radical inclusivity when we listen to the voices at the margins of our society, are clear about our theological vision, tell the truth in the public square, and invite the disenfranchished and disempowered into our circle. It is really not that different from Utah’s more controversial invocation of bank robbers. He told stories about them to be funny. But he also told stories about them to provoke his audiences to think about who in society we should be listening. By suggesting that even a criminal element has something to teach us he was being radically inclusive and drawing the circle wider.
Put your hands up.
You may have figured out by now that I am something of a Saturday evening juke joint Sunday morning choir kind of guy. I have learned an extraordinary amount about radical inclusivity from my participation in communities outside of the church. I have learned an equal amount from lifelong engagement with Unitarian Universalist communities. Otherwise, I would not be a preacher.
And now, we come to the part of the sermon where I make a confession. Everything I have learned in church and all of my sermons can really be distilled to a single message. It is found in the twentieth and twenty first verses of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. There we find Jesus in conversation with a group of Rabbis. The Rabbis asked him, “‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ He answered, ‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is!” For the kingdom of God is among you!”
Other translations read, “the kingdom of God is within you!” Either way, the point is this, we Unitarian Universalists believe we can create the beloved community here on this good green Earth. Indeed, we understand that is the only the thing that has ever happened. It is not up to someone else. God is not going to do it for us. It is not going to happen somewhere or somewhen else. This luminous now is all we have been given.
That is a core message of our tradition. I know this because I spent my formative years in Unitarian Universalist religious education. I know this because I have studied and taught Unitarian Universalism in our seminaries. And I know this because it is what I constantly catch glimpses of as preacher and religious leader of Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Right now, our fourth through sixth grade youth are participating in Our Whole Lives. OWL, as it is called, is Unitarian Universalism’s sexual education program. That is correct, we teach sex education in church. And we do not teach it in the abstinence only fashion found in Texas public schools. Such an approach suggests that there is something wrong with the human body and our natural, embodied, need for physical connection. We Unitarian Universalists take a different view. We hold that we humans are embodied creatures and that being sexual is part of what it means to be embodied. We do not teach that abstinence until marriage is the only way to be responsible. Instead we teach that as creatures with bodies and hormones we need to learn to be responsible, respectful, and loving with our partners. We teach about consent. We teach about birth control. And we teach that there is nothing wrong with living in a world with a multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender expressions.
Note that this is not the explicit content of the fourth to sixth grade OWL program. That is much more focused on helping children understand their changing bodies and changing hormones as they go through puberty. But the messages I just shared are those we will eventually communicate to them when they reach high school OWL. And those messages are just a practical, embodied, recognition of the truth found in Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
That is a truth that encourages us to practice radical inclusivity. It is the theological principle which inspired you to desegregate and become a Welcoming Congregation. It is why so many of you give money to support this congregation and the work of its three campuses. And it is a theological principle which can sometimes be realized with a simple introduction, a “Hello” that begins to draw the circle wider.
Are you with me? Put your hands up.
Would that I could end on that precise high note. But the phrase, “Put your hands up,” requires a closing coda. I need to acknowledge that it is a phrase sometimes used by the police. For some people, particularly some people of color, it invokes the specter of state violence rather than celebration, the voices on the margins, or church.
Committing ourselves to radical inclusivity means we are called to recognize that, despite our best intentions, our very words and actions can contain traces of the brutalizing violence which are endemic throughout society. Rather than flee from this truth it is better to confront it. Each of us sometimes turns away from the wider circle and seeks to push people out. But that is why we gather, Sunday morning after Sunday morning. We gather to recognize our own human frailty, the ways in which we have failed our higher vision, and encourage each other to continue to try to live into it. The spirit of such actions were found in the Jewish Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which just passed. They were reflected in our story this morning, our responsive reading, and they are in the words from Markham’s poem which we return to as I close:
He drew a circle and shut us out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the will to win,
we drew a circle and took him in.
Let the congregation say, “Amen.”
Nov 6, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, November 5, 2017
This past May I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I spent the first half of my decade as a clergyman as a parish minister and the last five years in the stilled and musty halls of the academy. I started my ministry in Cleveland in September of 2007. Since, I am serving a parish again in the fall of 2017, I thought this autumnal morning would be a good opportunity to reflect upon some of what I have learned in my ten years as a minister. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson gave this advice to aspiring clergy, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought.” Those words were read during my ordination. I have attempted to follow Emerson’s advice and pass my own life through the fire of thought.
As I have, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I have learned as a religious leader can be distilled into two sentences: The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. Neither of these observations is original to me. William Blake, “Man was made for Joy & Woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro the World we safely go / Joy & Woe are woven fine / A Clothing for the soul divine / Under every grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.” To claim we are what we do is to invoke ethical traditions that stretch back to Confucius and Plato.
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. Some of what I say over the next few minutes might be a little difficult to listen to. If you find it all disturbing I welcome a conversation after the service. I hope that you will listen my words in the spirit they are given. They come from a belief that it is only by confronting the hard parts of life that we can grow as individuals and as a religious community.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I felt called to the ministry because of the Unitarian Universalist tradition’s powerful legacy of social justice work. I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought that one way to do that was as a minister. It came as something of a surprise to me when I realized early in my ministerial training that one of a minister’s central functions is to be present to death. I was barely two months into seminary when I was asked to officiate my first memorial service.
Now, there are only two kinds of memorial services: easy ones and hard ones. The easy ones come at the end of a long and honorable life. The deceased’s family and friends gather one last time together to celebrate all that was and all that has left been behind: the love that remains after death.
Then there are the hard ones: the tragic accidents; the incurable diseases that strike down the youthful; the lives that end all too soon. Memorial services like these bring to me the words of the Greek poet Glykon: “Nothing but laughter, nothing / But dust, nothing but nothing, / No reason why it happens.” I find it impossible to offer an honest rationale, a satisfactory explanation, for why horror has happened to one person and another has escaped it. The best I can do is recognize that our human lives are ever shaped by our choices and the choices of others. So much of the pain we suffer has its origins in deep historical systems of racial, economic, and gendered oppression. And yet, such explanations are unsatisfying, for they all suggest that so much of our lives, and the suffering we experience throughout them, is due to little more than blind chance. “No reason why it happens.”
My first memorial service was a hard one. They had been husband and wife. They had died tragically in their early twenties. They were my friends. We had actually all lived together right before I started seminary. And so, it seemed natural that when they died I was asked to organize a service.
My two friends were what we call “spiritual but not religious.” They were not Unitarian Universalists. Instead of a church we decided to hold the service in backyard of the apartment building where they had lived; where we had lived together. Several other of our friends lived in the building. My friends had been alienated from their birth families. The building was the place they most felt at home. It was decided that as part of the service we would scatter their ashes in the apartment’s back garden.
The service began. A late autumn Chicago night, we had candles against the cold. The stars struggled through the murk of city lights. The wind came, damp and icy off the lake. Hearts heavy, we sat in silence. I said some words, read a poem, then another, led a prayer. The stories started. They began somber enough--the attempts to reason through the unreasonable, the ache of loss--but slowly our spirits shifted. Someone shared about the couple’s dogs. They had owned two toy poodles. They loved to groom those dogs. It was almost as if they practiced topiary on them. The animals’ haircuts were often misshapen bouffants. Slightly smashed spheres, triangles, or even squares could be found at the end of their tails or on the tops of their heads. That was not their most endearing feature. It turns out that poodle fur takes vegetable based hair dye wonderfully. And so, on their evening walks the dogs would roam along the lakeshore--a cascading calliope of electric blue, neon green, shocking pink. Thinking about those dogs still makes me giggle.
Lightened by canine stories, grins on our faces but damp still in our eyes, we knew it was time to scatter the ashes. Chicago is not called the Windy City without reason. The person charged with the task either made a miscalculation or simply was not paying enough attention. She tossed a big handful of ashes into some flowers. They flew back on us, getting in our hair and clothes. A moment of shock and then the laughter began. And so, there we were, laughing and crying, not knowing exactly when one emotion started and the other stopped, covered in what someone euphemistically called “dead girl.” Baptism by ash. Have you had a similar experience? Where in the face of the truly awful something of the shear utter unbridled joy of life crashes through?
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. James Baldwin made something of the same point in “The Fire Next Time.” It is probably Baldwin’s most widely read text. Written in the midst of the civil rights movement, it is a meditation on what it means to be black in America, the illusion of white innocence, this country’s deep structures of racial violence, and how we might find a modicum of hope. An enduring theme throughout the book is that despite of whatever horrors exist in the world, beauty endures. At the close, Baldwin recollects his childhood in a poor Harlem family, “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”
One might mistake Baldwin’s query as an elegy for lost innocence. But he had rather something else in mind. The question is not about innocence but resilience. It is caught up in the reality that in a racially just world, the particular beauty of those moments would never have existed for Baldwin. As he struggled to make his way through the world, a black, gay, atheist writer, he saw beauty persisting. There are stories of beauty that can be discovered amongst some of the greatest human horrors.
The words of Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein reflect this. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
There is so much in those two sentences. Beauty, generosity, friendship, some scant hope, and, of course, the backdrop of almost unfathomable horror. To observe that beauty persists amongst horror is not to provide moral justification for the unspeakably awful. It is instead to suggest that we are ever haunted by hope.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s essay, Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “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.” To meet this challenge is to survive in a world is all too often hostile to our humanity.
And so, we come to my second lesson, we are what we do. I do not mean this in any sort of trite vocational sense. I am not saying that your measure, or mine, can be counted as the sum of our professions or the amounts of our salaries. Instead, I am taking an ethical position, aligning myself with a particular ethical tradition, virtue ethics.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. And then, finally, there is the tradition of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has a long resonance within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... The great Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves by nurturing such virtues.
Virtue is like a muscle. It grows with exercise. The brave person is brave. The generous person is generous. The person who is filled with gratitude practices gratitude. We are what we do. These virtues come from the habits that we form. Those habits can be shaped by our religious practices. The main reason to join a Unitarian Universalist community, I have come to believe, is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate virtues in a community that models those virtues. The community also holds us accountable to each other and provides us a space to reflect upon our actions and our habits when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Think about your own involvement in the life of First Parish. Our community encourages us to practice virtues together. When we speak truth to power from the pulpit or stand vigil on the town common we are being honest and brave. When we share our joys and concerns we are providing a space for gratitude. When we make a financial pledge to the congregation we are practicing generosity. And when we fail to do these things we can hold each other accountable. Has your involvement in First Parish made you a braver, more gracious, or more generous person? Unitarian Universalism has nurtured these traits in me. After my decade as a minister, I know I am a braver, more gracious, and more generous person than I would be if I was not a Unitarian Universalist. This community and the broader community of Unitarian Universalism help me to be so by holding me accountable. What about you? We are what we do.
Finding beauty amidst horror is a virtue that can be nurtured by religious practice. Religious practice is something that we do together. It is the ritual life of our community and it is spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, yoga, or journal writing that we encourage each other to maintain. One of the most powerful religious practices in this community is music. Singing together, listening to Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft settles my spirit. It is a regular practice of letting a little beauty into life, even if only for a few minutes on a Sunday morning.
My heart is very heavy these days. It is undoubtedly a pathetic truism that the state of the world is bleak. So bleak that a litany of all of our planetary troubles is unnecessary. They sit almost constantly on many of our hearts and minds. And yet, the practice of beauty that I find in music helps to sustain me, helps remind me that there is hope, that life and the human community will find a way to continue. It is like the verse from our earlier hymn:
Through all tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
If sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We are what we do. We practice beauty in the midst of the horrors and difficulties of life. When we do, we make the world a little more beautiful in its turn.
And so this is my prayer for each of us. No matter the murk and mire, the hard times and brutalities, the bleak winters of despair, the springs or autumns with seemingly little hope, may we cultivate a practice of beauty so that we may all ever ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
Amen and Blessed Be.