Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
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 little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Oct 2, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum District, September 30, 2018
We begin this morning’s sermon with a fancy word, soteriology. Soteriology is probably not a term that is familiar to most of you. In theological discourse it signifies the study of salvation. Salvation, that is what I want to talk with you about today.
Salvation, just by mentioning that word I suspect that a few of you are now glancing around for the exits. You might be wondering if you wandered into the wrong church. Salvation is not a word you hear used in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. It might even be a triggering word for those of you who came to Unitarian Universalism from a more conservative evangelical faith.
Salvation is a concept that permeates most other religious communities. Our friends the evangelical Christians have a salvation story. They want you to join their churches so you can be saved from sin through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our Muslim friends teach that you must be believe in God if you wish to enter heaven. Our Jewish friends tell us that God will someday redeem the world. Buddhism and Hinduism, in their various forms, instruct that it is possible to reach an enlightened state and escape the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus... The philosopher Josiah Royce claimed that salvation narratives are fundamental to the religious community. Writing in the early twentieth-century, using the highly gendered language of his day, he claimed that humanity was in need of salvation based on two ideas. “The first,” he argued, “is the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims... The other idea is this: That man as he is now is... in great danger of so missing this highest aim as to render his whole life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of his true goal.”
Royce’s convoluted prose might be rephrased as this: There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it. There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it.
I want to ask you something: Why are you here? I mean, why are you actually here at the First Unitarian Universalist Church? And why are we here? Why do we gather Sunday after Sunday? Why do we devote our time and our money to maintain this institution? Why do we care about hospitality, the radical act of welcoming the stranger into our community?
I am not going to answer those questions. I am going to tell you a story. It is not my story. It comes from the historian of Christianity Elaine Pagels. Like many scholars of religion, Pagels long had a tenuous relationship with congregational life. Which is to say, despite devoting her life to studying Christianity she did not go to church very often.
This changed “a bright Sunday morning” when she “stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up.” She was “startled” by her response to the service that was underway. The choir moved her. The prayer of “the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments” grounded her. And she thought, “Here is a family that knows how to face death.”
Pagels was in the midst of a deep crisis. Her two-and-a-half-year-old son had just been diagnosed with a fatal illness. She had gone for a morning run and left him in the loving arms of his father. And she found herself in church. She writes, “Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a ... community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”
She continues, “...the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt... In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible.”
Pagels came to church that day because she was in the midst of one of the most profound crises that any of us can face: her child was going to die. She came by accident, not knowing what she was seeking, looking for meaning, for comfort, in an unfriendly universe.
Why did you come here the first Sunday you came? Was it seeking comfort? Hope? Bright uplift from the wallows of despair? Or did something else bring you here? An escape from the weight of human loneliness? A desire for a religious home for your family?
These questions loop back to Josiah Royce’s claim about salvation as the heart of the religious experience. Making sense of despair, or recognizing that despair makes no sense, brushes up against whatever it is that is the purpose behind life.
It could be that there is some great purpose which will allow us to transcend our despair. That, as we read in 1 Peter 3:4, “we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.”
It might be that this purpose is that there and completely undecipherable. Forty-two, that is the answer to the query, “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” found in Douglas Adams’s novel “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” It is an answer. It does not make any sense.
Alternatively, it might be there is no purpose to life, no meaning to despair, beyond what we give it. The ancient Greek Glykon may have been right when he wrote:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens.
Or he might have been mistaken. After all, many people--myself, Elaine Pagels...--have had moments in their lives when we have experienced a profound sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. An instant when we find ourselves startled with a realization and exclaim, as did denise levertov,
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
The dance floor sways. New life comes into being. Glossy orange squash blossoms cast a translucent sparkle on the market table. Rain arrives in an unexpected torrent. That new friend, that other accident of being, stumbles into your life at precisely the perfect time. Or, like Pagels, you find yourself caught at the edge of the desperation, maybe even on the precipice of unbeing. But then something opens up, the purpose of life flickers into view, and we mumble, with Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
When this happens then we might find ourselves agreeing with Royce that there is a purpose to life, and that we are ever in danger of missing it.
Unitarian Universalism has been called a faith without certainty. We gather as a religious community willing to be humble in discerning the purpose of life. The covenant that is our Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles does not promise that there is a purpose to life. It does not offer us a salvation narrative, not even in the Roycean sense. It just binds us together in “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
This statement is an admission that we agree to seek the purpose of life together even if we cannot agree on the nature of that purpose. When we speak of hospitality we mean, in part, that we are a religious home for those who are willing to admit that it might be impossible to ever completely decipher the purpose of life. This is a position of humility. And it allows us to say, with the President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray:
If you are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist,
a theist or an atheist,
you are welcome here.
We can extend hospitality to all these theological viewpoints because we are willing to embrace uncertainty. To rephrase our friend, we say, “The purpose of life you find might be different than the one I find. But we can each gain something from our conversation. So, come, let us seek it together.”
Such a statement summarizes one Unitarian Universalist view of salvation. But it does not offer the totality of our soteriology. Here we might turn to the Unitarian Universalist minister Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley for guidance. She tells, “If, recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.”
This is a social view of salvation. It suggests that we do not find the purpose of life on our own. We find it, together, in community. You may come here with your pain. And I may bring mine. When we gather we might find it is easier to face pain. Sometimes, we even discover something more than that. Sometimes, we discover that we can do something about the world’s pain. Sometimes, we discover that by coming together we can change the world.
The Unitarian Universalist social view of salvation teaches us that we are collectively stronger than we are on our own. Here I want to share an illustration, perhaps inappropriate to this pulpit, that I learned from an old union buddy of mine. He used it in union organizing campaigns. And he learned from an aged radical, someone who was in their nineties in the 1990s and who had taken part in some of the great labor strikes of the 1930s.
My buddy would go talk to this sage, hoary with the scars of struggle, from time to time. And this old man would share stories. At the conclusion of each one he would turn to my buddy and tell him, “Remember, the working class is like a hand. Each finger is weak by itself. But you unite them and them form a fist.”
I warned you. Maybe not the perfect sermon illustration for your pulpit. But it is a tactile reminder of the point: We are more capable of changing the world when we come together. Indeed, we understand that the only way to change the world is by acting together.
Congregations like this one offer us unique possibilities for uniting in the work of changing the world. There is a story about congregational life that demonstrates this that I learned years ago when I was a member of a congregation that placed social justice at the center of its life. Many of the stalwarts of the community were longtime veterans of justice work. They had participated in the civil rights movement. They had marched against wars. They had been pioneers in the women’s rights movement, in the labor movement, and in the environmental movement.
A couple of the older members had turned civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. It gave their lives a great sense of meaning. This was a small congregation and it practiced joys and concerns. Each Sunday members were invited to get up and share some of the sorrow and some of the gladness in their hearts. One Sunday, one of the civil disobedience practitioners got up in front of the congregation. He wanted to share that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time.
The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin. He had been arrested with another member of the congregation, his longtime friend Elwood. Elwood’s health was precarious. He suffered from Parkinsons. He was then at a point where he was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he had wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put an execution hood of Elwood, strapped him in place, and lifted him into the middle of the street, blocking the entrance of San Quentin.
Sometime, later at Elwood's trial, the judge threw out the charges. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. In the judge’s reasoning, this meant that Elwood could not be held responsible for blocking traffic.
I love this story. It illustrates the Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation at its best. We come together to accomplish things that we cannot do on our own. And we act from a faith that the world could be different than it is. And we do so with a knowledge that our individual actions may never tip the balance but that someday, somehow, our collective efforts might just do the trick. California still practices the death penalty. Hal and Elwood are long gone. But whenever their old state finally ends capital punishment they will have played some small part in the struggle.
Our view of social salvation is not unlike the old union song in our hymnal:
Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
This understanding of social salvation gives me comfort in difficult times. What about you? Sharing such a message is one way we practice hospitality. I recognize that we live at time when it is easy to give into despair. And that many people are coming to Unitarian Universalist congregations right now for hope. And they are seeking not just hope that their own lives might resonate with some deeper purpose. They are seeking hope that the world could be different than it is. For the news of the week seems ever bleak.
This seems especially true of this past week. And now I am going to talk about something that might be especially upsetting for many of you. The current nominee for the Supreme Court stands accused of a pattern of misogyny. Three separate women have come forward and claimed he tried to sexually assault them. And yet, unless something changes, he appears poised to ascend to the highest court in the land. The shaming of women, the shaming of survivors of sexual assault, the claim that “boys will be boys,” the attacks on the integrity of his primary accuser, the blatant misogyny of one of the major political parties, all collect into a stark reminder that this country has changed little in the last twenty-seven years. And that this country is systematically unsupportive of survivors of sexual assault. And that it values the privileges of powerful, mostly white, men over those of everyone else.
Our Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation tells us that things can be different. We recognize that the world’s problems have their social dimensions. If sexual assault is to be addressed and men like the current Supreme Court nominee held accountable, then the culture must change. We have power to change that culture, even if it takes us beyond my lifetime, beyond your lifetime, beyond the lifetimes of any of our children, to do so.
Almost two centuries ago, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled the United States trying to learn something about this country. The result was a book called “Democracy in America.” One of the core observations that Tocqueville made in his book was that American society is a network of little groups that people join voluntarily. These voluntary associations were, he felt, the root of democratic practice in this country. Participation in religious communities, in civic associations, in professional groups, in labor unions... This was where people learned democratic habits which he called habits of the heart.
Change these habits and you change the country. That is a Unitarian Universalist view of social salvation. And it means that no matter how despairing we might be about the current political landscape we can always work to change our own community. We do so with the knowledge that we are participating in the difficult work of making the world better. We can teach our children about consent knowing that in our actions we are making a small contribution to changing the culture of the next generation. We can ensure that our congregations are safe spaces for women and survivors of sexual assault. We can do so with the knowledge that by opening up one such safe space we can help make room for others. And when we do this we can admit that we are imperfect, caught in the same culture that has offered immunity to men like the potential Supreme Court justice. And that it is by changing ourselves that we can begin to change the world.
This is part of our mission to proclaim to the world a greater love. It falls alongside our obligation to be a community where people can seek the purpose of life. Sharing both forms of salvation—individual and social—is why we practice hospitality.
And whether you pursue both individual and social salvation, or only find that you need one, you are welcome here. Such a vision is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist hospitality and, with it, our understanding of salvation, our soteriology.
In the spirit of welcome,
in pursuit of the higher purpose of life,
gathered for the work of social salvation,
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.