Nov 18, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 17, 2019
The Trappist monk, mystic, peace activist, and scholar Thomas Merton wrote about how he decided to pursue saintliness. One spring night he and a friend were walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. The subway was being dug. The street was torn up--there were banks of dirt “marked out with red lanterns” lining sidewalks and piled up high in front of the shops. This was the 1940s. It was before Merton became a monk, when he was still a young man. Merton and his friend, someone who went on to become a noted poet, were arguing, passionately, about something.
Suddenly, Merton’s friend turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
Merton recalls his answer, “I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English...,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged.”
Then Merton tried to formulate his response. He said, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
Merton’s friend was not satisfied, “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton admitted that he was confused. And so, his friend continued to press him. “What you should say,” Merton’s friend informed him, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
“A saint!... ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’,” was Merton’s reply.
“By wanting to,” his friend said simply.
Merton was filled with self-doubt. “I can’t be a saint. I can’t be a saint,” he answered back. He recounts that in that moment, “my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the they must reach... cowardice.”
Merton’s friend would have none of it. He told him, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Merton described this story in his spiritual classic the Seven Storey Mountain. It was the first major work that he published. For many people, especially of the Vietnam War generation, he went on to become exactly the person who his friend was prompting him to be, a saint.
Merton’s Catholic theistic theology may not resonate with most you but his narrative touches upon the theme of our sermon this morning. This is my second sermon for you on courage. We might define courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. We exhibit courage when we acknowledge our fears, admit that there are ills which might befall us, and act anyway.
Last week I spoke with you about collective courage. Collective courage is the way that we can collectively face our fears and struggle to find new ways of being. It is the expressed in the seventeenth-century universalist phrase, “turn the world upside down.” It is the act of working together to confront social crises--great and small--and then attempting to reorder society.
This week I want to speak with you about individual courage. What I mean here is finding the courage to become the person you feel called to be. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about finding “the courage to be.” We humans are born with the knowledge that we will die. We witness the mortality of others and realize that death will soon come for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but each breath draws us closer to our moment of expiration. This can make us anxious. No matter what we do--no matter how carefully we eat, how much we exercise, or how many doctors we see--the threat of death cannot be overcome. “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself,” wrote Tillich.
In the face of our individual impending extinction it takes courage to continue along with life. And it takes even greater courage to be and to attempt to become, to recognize ourselves as poised on the existential void and still strive to live a life of authenticity. For Merton, it took an extraordinary amount of courage to pursue the vision of sainthood that he found with his friend that New York City night. It meant rejecting all of anxiety that told him he could not or would not or was unable to or that his life was too insignificant. Instead, it meant somehow moving past all of that and coming to recognize, in his words, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
The courage of becoming has long been prized by our religious tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” Our characters might be described as the total sum of our virtues and vices. Virtues are things about us which are praiseworthy. They are the accretions of our actions. Our actions become our habits and then eventually our habits turn to virtues--or vices--and these become our characters. And we Unitarian Universalists have long taught that we are not born with our character fixed in place--born wicked as many a conservative religious tradition teaches. But rather we are born with the capacity to become, the capacity to develop our virtues and vices.
Thomas Aquinas, the twelfth century theologian, identified four principle virtues. These are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. Over the next several months as we explore how to develop the spiritual and resources that will allow us to address the grave crises of the hour and of our lives we will be examining some of these virtues. We have started with courage because developing the courage to be is essential if we are to pursue the other virtues. Without courage it is difficult to gather the wherewithal to figure out how to be ourselves. William Ellery Channing, another nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian, wrote that the courage to become ourselves might even “be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature.” When we find it we open ourselves to the rich possibilities of life and confront the truth that we have a responsibility for forming our own characters.
Bob Schaibly used to frequently remind this congregation of this truth. During the two decades he served here he often told you some variety of, “life... [does] not have a meaning; we give life its meaning, or rather we give our lives their meanings.” Bob’s death this week prompted me to go read a number of his sermons. Reading them I found that he also often told you some variant of, “You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.” The recognition that life does not have an intrinsic meaning, the realization that we are born with what we need to pass our time on our muddy planet, it takes courage to face these truths starkly. It takes courage to admit to them and then open ourselves to becoming ourselves.
I spent a portion of this summer thinking about courage. As some of you know, Asa and I were in Europe for about five weeks with my parents. You might remember that everyone else in our family is in the arts. My father is an art historian and photographer. My mother was a ceramicist in her younger years and then, after she retired from teaching, served on a musem board. She, incidentally, makes all of my stolls. My brother is a figurative painter. His girlfriend is fashion designer. And Emma is pursuing a career in fashion photography.
Traveling with my parents meant immersing ourselves in the arts. We spent about a week in Arles, France at the giant international photography festival there. Rencontres d’Arles is even larger than Houston’s FotoFest. It brings close to a hundred thousand people to the ancient Roman city where Van Gough painted. It is a premier event in the arts world, a bit akin to the Cannes Film Festival.
My parents go most years. This year was very special. One of their closest friends, the Czech photographer Libuse Jarcovjakova was one of the featured artists. She was given the former Saint Anne’s church as an exhibition space. The building has been stripped of religious iconography. The stones have been washed white and a blonde wooden floor put in. The side chapels and the nave have been converted into a gallery that allowed Libuse to exhibit more than two hundred of her images.
Libuse is about the same age as my parents. This was her first major show. It would something of an understatement to say that it was a smash success. During the week that we spent together in Arles there were major articles about her work in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the Guardian. Walking around Arles with her was what I roughly imagine moving through Cannes with a well-known movie director. People stopped us in the street or came up to us and introduced themselves to Libuse while we ate in French cafes.
It would be fair to say that Libuse was in a bit of state of shock. In the space of a week she went from a complete unknown to an international art celebrity. And there are two things about Libuse and courage that I want to share with you. The first is about her art itself. And the second is about her life as an artist.
Libuse’s photography comes from straight from her life. It is her record of courageously becoming. Which is no small thing. She, as I mentioned earlier, is Czech. She came of age in Communist Czechoslovakia. She is also queer. To put it mildly, being a queer artist was not a form of authenticity that was largely tolerated by the Marxist-Leninist authorities. And yet, over the course of more than twenty years she took thousands of black and white photographs documenting her life, lives of those she loved and the lives of those she just happened to encounter. She used photography to attempt to make sense of her life. She told me, “Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.”
The images that garnered the most attention were from the T-Club, which was one of only two gay clubs in Prague during the Communist-era. Never entirely legal, Libuse describes it as a place for: “Convulsive laughter and genuine tears. Insightful conversation and superficial coquetry. One-night stands and love for life. Beautiful young men and beautiful young women. Effeminate “B´s” and respectable-looking gentlemen, who rebounded from their families. Female footballers, waiters, taxi drivers and most probably the secret police too.” In this “place of eternal carnival,” as Libuse called it, people were able to find the courage to be themselves.
And Libuse took photographs of them as they lived that courage. This Transgender Awareness Week, one image in particular stands out. It is of a young postman from North Bohemia who traveled to Prague to visit the T-Club. He wanted to be a woman and gender transition was not possible for him in that repressive society. And yet, there is Libuse’s photograph. In it, the young postman appears as the woman he longs to be. She’s wearing a blonde wig, flirting with the camera, beaming in a long fur coat, courageously, fully, being herself.
Libuse empathy for her subject pops right out of the frame. I can only imagine the courage that was necessary to both take the photograph and be its subject. It is quite possible that either act could have cost the photographer or her subject their livelihoods. For Libuse, even the attempt to be an artist took courage. You see, she came from an artistic family. Both her parents were artists. But they were not the kind of artists approved by the Communist Party. They painted modern abstract canvases. The Party wanted socialist realism, which depicted working people living an idealized life under the Marxist-Leninist regime.
When Libuse graduated from high school the Party had its revenge upon her parents. They her made undergo what was called forced proletarization. In other words, they denied her a college education and tried to make her become a factory worker. She wanted to be an artist like her parents. She did not give up the courage to become. Instead, she told the factory officials that while she worked in the factory, she wanted to document the glorious life of working people had under the Party’s leadership. So, she took her camera and made photographs of people at work. But she did not do it in service of the regime. Instead of showing workers nobly toiling away, she took photographs of them engaging in their everyday acts of resistance--goofing, napping, ignoring supervisors, or doing whatever else they did when they showed up to the factory and did not work. I particularly like the images she made of the creative ways people found to sleep at work--under desks, in giant steel tubes, behind piles of wooden crates...
It took a lot of courage for Libuse to make such defiant photographs. Finding this courage was necessary for her to be herself--to become an artist when her society told her explicitly that she could not be one. It also helped her to develop a sense that courage and beauty are found in everyday life. In conversation with me, she explained a bit of her philosophy, “Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
It takes courage to recognize the specialness of ordinary life. We probably will not become famous religious teachers like Thomas Merton. And we probably will not become internationally known artists like Libuse. But we can find the courage to be ourselves. After all, this is what both Libuse and Merton recommend to us. It is also what the virtue of courage offers us. When we cultivate it we find within ourselves the ability to shape our character. We are born not good or bad but with the ability to choose and in order to do so we must be courageous.
I had initially thought to end our sermon there, but the events of the week require further observations about the courage of being. I speak, of course, of the week’s impeachment hearings. They have demonstrated extraordinary instances of the courage to be by civil servants. The women and men who have testified in front of the nation have offered case studies in how we can shape our own characters. They each have decided upon a profession and then performed its actions, cultivated its habits, and, ultimately, found them embodying its virtues.
It is clear that one of the virtues of their profession is courage. In the face of intimidation by the most powerful man on Earth, the President of the United States, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine, testified on national television. In a telephone call, the President of the United States had said to the President of the Ukraine that he was displeased with Yovanovitch and that she would “go through some things,” words that for me recall mafia movies. Yet there she was, in front of the world, offering information that may well lead to the impeachment of the President.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, to “be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” And in her testimony, Yovanovitch demonstrated that whomever the President might be she can be relied upon to perform her professional duties. It was a demonstration of how she had cultivated the virtue of courage. It was a demonstration of the courage of being--of embracing the role, the profession, she had chosen for herself.
Her testimony reminded me of words by the civil rights organizer, Ella Baker. Baker said, “I am here and so are you. And we matter. We can change things.” Baker’s words are an invocation of the courage of being. They remind us that we are here and that what we do matters. It takes courage to accept this, courage to admit, as Bob Schaibly taught, that we make the meaning we find in life. Yovanovitch was reminding the world that civil servants play a significant role in government. However much the President of the United States might slight her and her State Department colleagues, they remain actively involved in shaping the destiny of the federal government. And their professional virtues, of which courage is but one, are a significant reason as to why.
Not all of us are civil servants, just as not all of us are artists or great religious teachers. And yet, there is something about the courage to be that it is found in the lives of each person I have talked with you about this morning that recommends itself to each of us. It takes courage to recognize that we have within us the potential to be something and then courage to search for that something. It is the ordinary courage of life, not something extraordinary, and it is something we can find within us.
That is what Libuse tries to communicate with her photography. Her work is not of important religious leaders like Thomas Merton or successful government officials like Marie Yovanovitch. It is of regular working people like the woman from Bohemia dressed in her furs outside the T-Club, finding a space to courageously be the woman she knew she was despite having to live as a postman. It is of regular working people discovering the courage to be their human selves amid a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime--to goof off at work, to sleep on the job.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Such courage might mean admitting that you are uncertain of who you are supposed to be and living with that ambiguity. That is certainly something of what Bob Schaibly suggested in his sermons. Before we find the courage to be we must first discover the courage to recognize that it is we who make the meaning of our lives. In some times and places this is much easier to recognize that in others. Living in New York, the child of relative wealth and privilege, it was no doubt easier for Thomas Merton to accept that he could become who he wanted to be than it was for Libuse in 1970s Prague. Finding the courage to be a queer dissident artist under the Soviets and refusing to let the officials of a totalitarian regime be the people who made meaning from her life was extraordinarily difficult. It meant creating in secrecy, without recognition, for decades. And yet, she found the courage to be.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Have you found it? Can you accept that we make meaning in our lives? It is a significant responsibility. And it means accepting that our ordinary lives--yours and mine--can contain the meaning we give them. We might be hemmed in on many sides. We might not come from lives of privilege or have the advantages of a fine education or struggle with poverty. But we can find the courage to be and discover within ourselves the resources to make meaning in our lives. And to accept that such meaning will change over time. It is like Bob Schaibly said, “at different times the meaning of your life may have been to do God’s will, or to do justice, or to love mercy, or to enjoy the fruits of creation, to complete your education, to raise your children, to get these kids through college, and so forth.” Your meaning is your own if you can cultivate the courage to make it.
This belies the universe having cosmic meaning. And it takes courage to face that, as the poet Cristina Peri Rossi wrote:
“Se necesita mucho valor
para tanta muerte inútil.”
“One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death.”
Death, like life, is only given the meaning we provide it. It takes courage to face that and to give our lives, and ultimately, our deaths meaning. And so, let me give the last words to Bob Schaibly who gave his life, and his death, meaning in part by serving this congregation, Unitarian Universalism, and our human world:
You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.
May we each, as members of this religious community and as members of the great family of all souls, cultivate within us the courage to find what we need within Bob Schaibly’s words.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Sep 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 25, 2019
When I was a kid, maybe in second grade, I was given a homework assignment. I was told to make a diorama of the water cycle. How many of you have had a similar assignment at some point in your schooling? It is a pretty familiar one.
I proceeded with it as instructed. I got some blue paint. I got some green paint. I got some brown paint and white paint. I got some glue and some little cotton balls. I got some construction paper. And I got a shoebox and set to work.
Well, actually, my mother and I got to work. Remember, I was seven or eight years old. I do not know about you but when I was that age homework really meant work, I did with my parents, at home.
Like most seven-year-olds, I was probably cranky towards and a bit unkind to my mother as she helped me assemble my diorama. I may have even resented her for making me do my homework assignment. Whatever the case, over the course of a week or so we transformed a plain shoebox into a model of the water cycle.
There was a large blue body of water--probably Lake Michigan since we lived near the Great Lakes. Water evaporated from it and then condensed into clouds--little fluffy cotton balls. After the clouds came precipitation. I almost certainly had fun portraying a grand thunderstorm with lighting and torrents of rain striking the Earth. From there, I showed how water flowed over the green and brown ground--painted in solid unmixed colors straight from the tube--into the rivers and then back into the lake.
There were a lot of things that my diorama did not show. It did not show the sublimation process. That is the process whereby ice converts directly into water vapor without converting into liquid water first. This mostly happens over the polar ice sheets.
My diorama also did not show transpiration. That is the process where plants absorb water from the soil and then push it out through their leaves as water vapor. Nor did it show infiltration. That is when water neither evaporates from the source, nor flows into a river, nor is absorbed by a plant, but moves deep into the soil. It seeps down and increases the ground water table.
Remember, this was second grade. Such concepts are a bit complicated for most seven-year-olds. I may not even be doing a good job of describing them now. Whatever the case, my diorama did not show other things. One of its most glaring omissions was its attribution. I claimed sole credit for its construction. Painted on the back of the shoebox were the words “by Colin Bossen.” A more honest attribution would have been, “by Colin Bossen and his mother Kathy Bossen, who by turns, assisted, cajoled, and threatened him until he completed it to her satisfaction.”
It also completely omitted the processes by which most humans get water. The majority of us do not get it directly from the lake, from the clouds, or from the ground water table. We have a complicated infrastructure of water treatment plants and sewer systems that transport clean water to our homes. And we have drains, toilets, and pipes that remove dirty water from them.
This summer, I found myself thinking about my second-grade water diorama, and all the things it omitted, when I was in Arles. Arles is a small city in the South of France. It is might be most famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year painting. His canvases of his time there include his famous bedroom with its blue walls, blue clothes, blue pitchers, blue doors, yellow bed, yellow chairs, and rich, textured, wooden floor. They include glowing night scenes, a cafe along cobblestones, with wooden chairs and crowds sipping cognac, coffee, absinthe, wine, or, well who knows, as adults and children stroll into the darkness. And they include well known images of Arles fading Roman ruins.
The heart of Arles remains the old Roman city. The Colosseum and the Amphitheater are still in regular use. They are surrounded by mazing Medieval streets, dense clusters of stone buildings bursting out into plazas and squares and interrupted by flowers hanging from balconies or in plentiful pots right outside two-hundred-year-old doors.
Arles also remains a city of the arts. It is the site of one of the world’s largest photography festivals. You might know that my father is a historian of photography and museum curator. My parents travel to Arles every couple of years to take part in the festival. This year, my son and I joined them.
It is an amazing festival. The exhibitions are generally located in medieval buildings that have been temporarily converted into art galleries. And it was in one of these--a fifteenth century Gothic church--that I found myself thinking about my water diorama. More accurately, I found myself thinking about the things that my diorama omitted.
The church has massive vaulted ceilings. It is made of stone. It has elegant arches. It is spacious and seems to go on and on. Inside of it was a huge exhibition of the work of the French photographer Philippe Chancel called Datazone. It was a terrifying collection of photographs. Chancel has spent the last several years traveling the world photographing sites of catastrophe. He describes his subjects as “traumatized ecology, chaotic deindustrialization, and the toxicity of modernization.”
He takes photographs of collapsed houses and abandoned factories. He takes photographs of piles of rubbish--mountains of plastic bottles and rusting iron. He takes photographs of tankers that have been run to ground. Their steel and valuable components are being stripped and recycled by workers who labor without any safety equipment.
Many of his photographs of water. They do not depict the clean water of the water cycle--the clouds and lakes that my diorama inelegantly displayed. Instead, they portray all of the omissions from the diorama. Water in Africa that has been rendered toxic after being used in oil extraction. Water filled with chemicals, glistening, thick, and black rather than transparent. Water in Flint that is filled with lead and rendered undrinkable. Water that has been packaged and sold in plastic bottles. These plastic bottles return to the waterways and pollute them--creating masses of floating plastic islands and then slowly dissolve. As they do, they place tiny pieces of plastic particulate in the world’s water supply. Water in Antarctica. Beautiful, luminous, floating clumps of ice. Massive, white fading into blue, crystal layer upon layer. Objects almost too gorgeous to imagine. Icebergs created by our warming planet as glaciers calve into the ocean. Not a sign of a healthy planet but a sign of a planet in distress.
In that building, created so that a congregation might gather and worship the most high, might connect with something or someone greater than itself, Philippe Chancel portrayed how humans have become disconnected. He showed how we have become disconnected from water and disconnected from each other. He showed the danger of forgetting, of omitting, the fullness of the water cycle. Clouds form over the polar ice caps. We need them to survive. Water travels through the Earth. Chemicals placed in the Earth will mix with water. We need clean, unpolluted, water to survive. He showed the danger of forgetting that we are dependent upon a human built infrastructure to have safe water in our homes. Flint does not have safe water. Newark does not have safe water. We have forgotten that we are dependent upon our collective infrastructure and we are destroying our cities. We need infrastructure to survive.
When I envision my second-grade diorama now I think about all of things it omitted. Each thing absent could have taught me a lesson. If my mother’s signature had been on the work it would have reminded me that I am always part of, connected to, the larger human family. My work, my accomplishments, are dependent on the work of others. None of us are in this world alone. If human infrastructure had been present, I would have been reminded that we are connected to, dependent upon, things like sewers and water treatment plants for our survival. We need them to live. And if the water table had been present, I might have been reminded that our collective human actions impact water, that our actions, for good or for ill, connect us to the whole of the planet.
And, this Sunday, this water communion, as we gather as religious community for the start of our liturgical year, as we mingle our waters, let us remember that we connected and dependent. We are connected to and dependent upon the larger human community. We are connected to and dependent upon the infrastructure we have built to bring us safe water. And we are connected to and dependent upon the planet, with its mass of water that gives us life.
There is always a larger truth. We are not alone. We are part of something greater, more beautiful, more complicated, and, yes, more fragile, than we can imagine.
Let us remember this truth, now, and always.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Jul 11, 2019
We spent the majority of our first day in Arles with Libuse Jarcovjakova. She’s an old friend of my parents and for years she’s met with my father’s students in Prague to show them her work and give them a lecture or two on photography. Today was not much different, except that we were in Arles rather than in Prague.
After breakfast we all gathered in the hotel’s conference room and Libuse gave her talk. It was more of a dialogue between her, my father, and Judy Walgren than a formal lecture. I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about the difference between social documentary and personal documentary photography. She said, “When I am doing some social documentary photography, I have done some research... Personal documentary, I use it like self-help. Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.
Another short note, it is mostly about very ordinary life. It is mostly about something that is very close to you, which is very obvious. Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
One of my father and Judy’s students asked Libuse a question about selfies. This was her response: “I spent five years in West Berlin from 1985 to 1989. There was an exhibit there last year of my work. In the exhibit there were over forty selfies. Living in West Berlin in the 80s I felt very lonely. The selfies were something that helped me to find myself. I was never thinking about my looks. I just wanted to document. I hate myself in many of them. I am just ugly there. I felt horrible. I had no money, no friends, no language. It was a historical moment. But perhaps a good example of what the selfie can do.”
Immediately following her lecture we walked down to the church in the center of town where her exhibition is. It is one of the best exhibition spots in Arles and they had something like two hundred of her images--stretching from the mid-seventies to the late eighties--on display. I bought the exhibition catalog. The images form a remarkable archive of people on society’s margins in Communist Czechoslovakia.
While we were there Libuse gave a second talk. Again, I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about taking photographs in the factory where she worked as a teenager. She said: “At the factory they didn’t care that I was taking pictures until they realized that I wasn’t taking photos of the heroic worker. That was what the Communists wanted. I was taking pictures of people goofing off, sleeping on the job, not working.”
She continued: “In those days, I was very adventurous. I was regularly moving into groups of people that were totally different from me and trying to be accepted. Step-by-step I worked with them and that opened doors. With Vietnamese and the Cubans I taught them the Czech language and I was living with them. They suffered from racism. We teachers were the only Czechs who would spend time with them. And so they wanted me to photograph them. And I took the photographs. I was inside their community. It is necessary to have empathy to join a group like this.”
Reflecting on her body of work she observed: “I had the good luck that I didn’t work on assignment. I had a free hand.”
In response to the question: “What made you ready to show the work?” Libuse said: “Ten or eleven years ago I was unknown. I was always unknown. When I went to my studio I felt a sadness. I had all this work that I hadn’t shared. And so, little-by-little, I began to share my work with some professionals. Then a professional wanted to see both my journals and my images. I felt like it was too personal. I felt like it was gossip. But then I read somewhere that the most personal is the most universal. And I shared more of my work. And I got feedback, especially from young people. They felt like they were reading their own stories.”
In response to the question: “How do you feel now?” Libuse said: “Every morning when I wake up I’m totally empty. I’m very happy. I know it is amazing. People are approaching me and I am know that I have touched their hearts. It is very important for me now not to be in the archives but to be making new work.”
When one of the students asked her how she got her start, Libuse replied: “I am from an artistic family. I got visual art as a heritage. Being in touch with visual culture was very important. My father was a painter and so was my mother. My father had a big personality. I decided I couldn’t be a painter because of him. So, at the age of 13 I got my first camera. At the age of 15 I started to study. Everyone hated my work. And I was very shy about showing it to people. That changed when I started working at the factory at the age of 19.”
When asked, “Were you influenced by punk at all?” Libuse said: “I had almost no influence of contemporary photographers. I knew Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. I had never heard of Nan Goldin.”
That was the last question that she answered during her talk with my father and Judy’s class. After that my family, Judy, her son, Libuse, and Libuse’s niece and grand nephew all went to lunch. We had dinner together as well and then went our separate ways for the evening.
Jul 10, 2019
We met my parents, Judy Walgren, and their students at Charles de Gaulle to catch the train to Arles in the afternoon. The morning was uneventful, we both slept in, and we arrived in time to get a bite to eat before we all got on the train—McDonald’s again for my son and the French pastry chain Paul’s for me.
It turns out that I speak the best French of the group—a rather pathetic statement given that I can only muster enough French to ask for directions, order food, and buy something. Nonetheless, it came in helpful as we traveled. The train ride to Arles consisted of two trains. The first a high-speed train from Paris to Lyon; the second a local train that went from Lyon to Arles. There was a lot of difference between the two trains. The first was modern. It had assigned seats and air conditioning. The second was an artifact from perhaps the 1960s. There were no assigned seats and the car was broken up into a series of cabins of eight.
The most challenging part of the trip was the transfer between the trains. We had exactly 13 minutes to do it. Thirteen minutes to get the luggage of sixteen people—and Americans generally don’t travel light—from one train to another. My French came in handy. I got off and asked directions from a train agent. He answered in English—a fairly common phenomena since many people speak much better English than I speak French—and I was able to steer the group in the right direction.
We barely made the train, but we did, only to discover that without assigned seats many of us had to stand. My son went off with his grandfather and I made my way into a cabin with a handful of extra seats. It was partially occupied by the largest Frenchman I’ve ever seen. He was probably seven feet tall and occupied two seats. The cabin was quite small which gave the whole experience a somewhat surreal feel, especially once people had crammed into all of the seats around him.
The rest of the trip to Arles was uneventful. We saw some beautiful countryside—lavender fields and vineyards—and some delightful towns filled with buildings with stone walls and clay roofs. We arrived exactly on time—8:00 p.m.—and made our way through the streets of the city to the place where we are staying. It is directly across from the Roman coliseum and smack in the center of town.
After checking-in and depositing our bags we went to a pizza place, that also serves Provençal food, for dinner. The service was slow—they managed to forget my son’s order and he ended up eating some of my Dad’s pizza. The waiter was impatient with our lack of French. But overall, the food was quite good. Most people had pizza. I had Provençal style tuna, which was served with a baked eggplant covered in a cheese sauce, some kind of vegetable terrine, a baked tomato, and rice. Towards the end of the meal Libuse Jarcovjakova and her niece and grand-nephew joined us. She and my parents had a long conversation about her sudden success. In addition to pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian, she’s been covered in Le Monde and several other French and Italian publications.
Tomorrow we’re supposed to spend most of the day with Libuse. She’s giving a gallery talk to the students and we’re all having lunch and dinner together. I suspect we’ll spend most of the time in between settling into our apartment.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Dec 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 2, 2018
It is good to be back with you. I hope you all had good Thanksgivings--not too much food or drink. I was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then here for the holiday. My parents came to visit. We had Thanksgiving with some of their friends who live in Meyerland. Then we visited other friends in Dallas. I managed to keep myself to a single slice of pecan pie, which is probably why I can still fit into my suit this morning. It was hard. Pecan pie is my favorite.
Actually, I like pecan pie so much that I think of it as a kind of ordinary miracle. Ordinary miracles are the wondrous things that fill our human lives. Birth, death, the cycle of life, there is something about it all that transcends human comprehension.
Even as something as simple as pie can transcends human comprehension. There is an enormous amount of stuff that goes into making the most ordinary pastry. There are the pecans--products of earth, wind, soil, sun, water, and difficult human labor. So much must happen for us to even have these sweetmeats. And then there’s the flour, the butter, that strange English treacle called Lyle’s Golden Syrup... And of course, the necessity of having someone who actually knows how to bake a pie.
This is a skill with enough nuance that its mastery is the subject of much debate. I do not know about your family but in mine there are different schools of thought on how to prepare a good pie crust. Everyone agrees on what a good pie crust is--it is light, flaky, slightly salty, and holds together under fork. Few folks agree exactly how to make it. Some claim that a good pie crust requires lard. Many object to the use of lard on the basis that it is not vegetarian friendly. Others advocate for substituting some of the water with vodka. I fall into the camp that freezes the butter before using it in the crust--it creates a tender bite.
The ideal pecan pie somehow transcends these debates. It is a miracle that combines chemistry, human ingenuity, and evolution. Sometimes when I eat pie, I actually manage to remember this and recall that our lives are filled with mystery and wonder. The real question is not, What is the best way to make a pie crust? The real question is, We will open ourselves to the mystery and wonder that surround us? I detect something of this line of questioning in Marge Piercy’s Hanukkah poem, “Season of Skinny Candles:”
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
The holiday season is a time to remember the ordinary miracles that fill our lives. The candles that poke holes into the season’s lessened light are reminders of the spark that rests within each of us. They are reminders that our universe is mysterious and wonderful. It is good to pause every now and again and just take it all in.
It can be hard at this time of year to do so. I do not know about you, but I find the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years to be an exceptionally busy time. In addition to all of the family holiday preparations, there is all of the stuff that happens in congregational life. There are events like last night’s fantastic church auction, after which I am afraid I need to apologize to my neighbors for playing the kazoo a little too enthusiastically with my son. There are seasonal parties. And there are special worship services. This year we are holding a solstice service on the 21st at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of the 23rd, and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve starting at 7:00 p.m.
These services offer us the opportunity to pause. The Christmas Eve services I lead follow a fairly traditional format of lessons and carols. However, they vary in one substantive respect. I do not just draw from the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, I use readings from the non-canonical gospels--ancient texts that tell stories about Jesus which did not make it into the Christian New Testament.
I do this as a reminder that within the context of the broader Christian tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a heretical movement. Our views are closer to those of the people who were kicked out of the ancient Christian church than they are to the Roman emperors and theologians who created the doctrines central to contemporary Christianity.
Take Arius and Origen of Alexandria, two early Christians whose theologies are held to be heretical by much of the Christian orthodoxy. Arius preached that Jesus was a human being who had obtained moral perfection. Once Jesus did so he was adopted as a child of God. Origen taught that at some point in the future there would be “the perfect restoration of the entire creation.” That is a version of universal salvation, the idea that in the end all souls will be united with God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets its name from these two ancient heresies: Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a human being rather than a god; and Universalism, the story that the love of God is all powerful and that God condemns no one to Hell. The past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association William Sinkford summarizes these positions this way: “one God, no one left behind.”
This view is one of the reasons why contemporary Unitarian Universalists often are comfortable drawing wisdom from the world’s religious traditions. We understand religion to a universal human impulse. There are ordinary miracles to be found through engaging different rituals, stories, songs, places, and teachers.
This attitude has been with Unitarianism since its very inception. In sixteenth-century Europe, Unitarianism emerged as what is called a hybrid faith. Almost five hundred years ago, in places like Poland and Transylvania, Unitarianism developed at the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its practitioners recognized that adherents to all three religions were children of the same God. In her study of early European Unitarianism, Susan Ritchie observes, “Convinced that Christians, Muslims, and Jews were a part of the same religious family, Unitarians resisted theologies of God that could not be freely shared across these traditions.” They recognized that the miracle of existence which we humans share cannot be captured by the teachings of a single tradition. As our own Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, our living tradition draws from “from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual lives.”
All of this goes some of the way towards explaining why at this busy time of year we honor the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the turning of the year that is the winter solstice. It also helps explain how someone like me can identify with Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. As I think I have told you before, I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother was raised Moravian. My father was raised Jewish. This meant that growing up we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays: Christmas and Hanukkah; Passover and Easter. And in my house, we still do.
Tonight, is the first night of Hanukkah. Today and next Sunday we are honoring both the Christmas season and Hanukkah as part of the service. We have some Hebrew songs, some Hanukkah poems, and next week we will light a special menorah called a hanukkiah. Carol recounted the basic outline of Hanukkah story earlier for the big idea. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over a Greek king who decided to put an end to local religions. He forbid the practice of Judaism under pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were conducted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was defiled. When the Maccabees were eventually victorious they set out to rededicate it. They searched the Temple for oil with which to light the Temple’s lamps. The Talmud relates, “they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest... And there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit the lamps from it for eight days.”
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a single day’s oil lasting for eight nights. It is a tiny moment of divine agency--the only miracle the extension of the light across eight days. Why eight? Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “Since the whole universe was created in seven days, eight is a symbol of eternity and infinity.” The eight days of light are reminder that our world is filled with the ordinary miracle of existence.
The idea that the world is infused with the miracle of existence or the spirit of the divine is present in all of creation is found in many Jewish teachings. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have explained the story of Hanukkah to his disciples this way, “Listen, and I shall tell you the meaning of the miracle of the light, at Hanukkah. The light which was hidden since the days of creation was then revealed. And every year, when the lights are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh. And it is the light of the Messiah.”
Let us dwell on the second to last sentence of Rabbi Pinchas’s interpretation, “every year, when the light are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh.” This is the message of the season, miracles are ever present in our lives. The hidden light of creation, the miracle of our existence, is waiting for us to rekindle it at all times. We need to only to open ourselves to it--to find the ordinary miracle in the pie or the light of the candlelight.
I learned something of this myself when years ago I studied with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Paul Mendes-Flohr. When he taught he refused to ever fully close the door of his classroom. He said that it was possible that the Messiah, the great teacher who would bring about human redemption might come at any moment. He did not want to miss the announcement by shutting the door. A miracle, the light of creation, might shine forth right now.
This was the central teaching of Rabbi Pinchas. He lived in the Ukraine during the eighteenth-century. He was a companion of the great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov. The words Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew mean the Master of the Good Name. He taught, “the world is full of enormous lights and mysteries” and that we can find them if we are open ourselves to them. It was alleged that he knew the secret name of God. And he was held to be a great miracle worker.
One story has it that once he prayed on Shabbat in a field full of sheep. The sheep we so moved by his prayers that they, “assumed the original position... [they] had held when... [they] had stood at the throne of God.” Other stories relate that he was regularly visited by the Seven Shepherds of Israel: ancient biblical figures whose numbers include Abraham and Moses. Still others tell of how he could travel great distances quickly and appear mysteriously to provide counsel to the perplexed. But most of the stories involve him finding the miraculous in the everyday, of discovering after gathering for an evening service that, “The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky.”
Unlike Rabbi Pinchas, the Baal Shem Tov does not appear to have left any teachings about Hanukkah. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday. It fits a general pattern of resistance to persecution commemorated by many Jewish holidays and summarized by some Rabbis as, “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.” The special food of Hanukkah being latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of light.
The holiday itself does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Its story is recounted in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, texts which were preserved by Christians. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and Passover are all more important. Yet, starting in the nineteenth-century, it became central to Jewish life as the Christmas season became increasingly commercial. Many Jewish families wanted to match the excitement of the Christian holiday with its bright lights, trees, carols, presents, and feasts.
Some Jewish parents even wanted their kids to experience something of the thrill of Santa Claus. They surprised their kids with fairly extravagant gifts. In my father’s family this took a something of absurd twist. When my father and his siblings were little my Grandmother Lorraine decided that the joy of latkes, dreidels, gelt, and gifts was not quite enough. So, she invented the Hanukkah Birdie.
The Hanukkah Birdie was a bird who brought Jewish children gifts throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. My grandmother rarely did things halfway. She actually commissioned an artist to paint a Hanukkah Birdie mural on a cloth that could be hung in my grandparent’s house. It featured a bird carrying presents in its beak. Every year at Hanukkah time my grandmother would take out the mural and her kids would know that the holiday had arrived. My father remembers, “It gave us something tangible, like our Christian friends had.”
It would be easy to make the story of my Grandmother and the Hanukkah Birdie a story about assimilation, especially since only about half of her grandchildren fall under the category of observant Jews. I would like to draw a somewhat different lesson. The human desire for miracles is something that transcends time and culture. We never know where we might find them. One of our central religious tasks is to open our selves to the miracles. It is to kindle the light of creation, as Rabbi Pinchas would have Jews do, or find the miraculous in nature, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.
You might hear in all of this some kind of theistic position, some kind of argument for the existence of God. That is not the message of this sermon or the point of the candles of hope that we kindle during the holiday season. Instead, I am suggesting we approach to the world like the great mystics. Louise Gluck takes such an approach in her poem “Celestial Music.” You will recall it is a dialogue between a theist and an atheist. There is no resolution to the theological positions in the poem. Instead, Gluck writes:
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only cloud, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height
Celestial music, white business in the trees, either one a miracle, either available to us, like the lights of the season, like nature itself, each day of our lives. Pecan pie, the flames of the hanukiah, pearls of light on Christmas trees, the great teachings of mystical Judaism, the wisdom of our own Unitarian Universalism, may all of these things remind us of a simple fact: the world is filled with ordinary miracles. We can encounter them each of the days of our lives.
And now, let the congregation say Amen.