Jan 6, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District, January 5, 2020
Happy New Year! I was not supposed to be in the pulpit with you this morning. But plans change, people get sick, and I find myself with you today on the first Sunday of a new year and a new decade. It is good to be with you. It is good to be with even though the news at the opening of this, what will perhaps be the most important decade in human history, is bitter and harsh. It is good to be with you precisely because it is when the news of the world is bitter and harsh that we need religious community the most.
The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a United States military drone strike on sovereign Iraqi soil has pushed the Middle East into crisis. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi military leader whose political party controls almost fifty seats in the Iraqi Parliament. These illegal acts of war violate both international law and the United States War Powers Act. They may lead to war between the United States and Iran. They have already led to further destabilization of the Middle East. Hundreds of people will almost certainly be killed because of the decision of the President of the United States to authorize Soleimani’s illegal political assassination. Thousands or tens of thousands or possibly even hundreds of thousands of people will die horrible violent deaths if this country goes to war with Iran.
I cannot help but wonder about the timing of the President’s decision to have Soleimani killed. He will soon be on trial in the Senate. The House has passed two articles of impeachment and he could, theoretically, be removed from office. Of course, there is every sign that his allies in the Senate will prevent witnesses from being called or from a serious trial taking place. The Senate Majority Leader even claims that he is coordinating the trial with the White House in order to facilitate a speedy acquittal. The position of the President’s Senatorial allies is clearly concerning. In his year-end report Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., warned “we have come to take democracy for granted.” Roberts will oversee the trial in the Senate. It appears that the Senate Majority Leader’s position has him worried about his ability “to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”
Drawing the United States military into a conflict abroad will almost certainly make it more difficult to have an honest debate and trial on the House’s articles of impeachment. There will be calls for national unity. For the many, the President will be transformed from a divisive figure to a unifying head of state. It will be harder to criticize him. War dissenters and pacifists will be castigated for being unpatriotic. There might even be calls to delay the President’s trial. This country’s liberal democracy may move closer to a defining crisis.
Over a hundred years ago, as the United States entered World War I, the writer Randolph Bourne warned that war is the health of the state. He wrote, “The moment war is declared... the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy... with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, [and] revives all his military memories and symbols... Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.” When war is the health of the state it is challenging to be a critic of either the President or the actions he directs the military to take. It is no wonder then that the current President is not the only one to authorize dramatic violent action during the impeachment process. President Clinton did the same thing in December of 1998 when he launched air strikes in Iraq as the House stood poised to impeach him.
Over a hundred years ago the Unitarian minister, pacifist, and first friend in the United States of Mahatma Gandhi, John Haynes Holmes stood before his congregation in New York City and told them, in the idiom of early twentieth-century Unitarianism: “War is an open and utter violation of Christianity. If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie...”
Today, I believe that the same thing can be said in twenty-first century words. Unitarian Universalism upholds the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Not some people. Not only citizens and residents of the United States. All people. Speaking only for myself, I can rephrase Holmes words: War with Iran is an open and violation of Unitarian Universalist values. If such a war is right, then Unitarian Universalism is wrong, false, a lie. If Unitarian Universalism is right, then such a war is wrong, false, a lie...”
You may have other views. We affirm the right of conscience and the search for truth as central to our tradition. These are mine and they mean that I will never pray nor preach for victory through arms or pretend that the people of Iran are any less human, any less worthy of my love or the love of the divine, than any of you.
And so, this morning, I find myself gravely concerned for the future of this country and this world. I find myself gravely concerned because not only do the President’s military actions represent a political crisis and a crisis in democracy, they are a distraction from what must be the central focus of the next decade: addressing the climate emergency.
The next ten years or so will determine whether or not humanity chooses to address the climate crisis. What we do now will impact the lives of not only our children and our grandchildren but the lives of those thousands of years from now--if there are humans thousands of years from now. At such a moment in humanity history, I find myself often reflecting upon the words of James Baldwin in the closing passage of his magnificent essay “The Fire Next Time.” Baldwin’s essay was written during the civil rights movement, that historic movement to overturn Jim Crow and defeat white supremacy. He saw that movement for racial justice as something that would determine the future of country--whether it would be a liberal democracy or a white supremacist apartheid state. Baldwin wrote: “And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. We are on the precipice because we, as a country, have been unable to overcome white supremacy. The current President is a white supremacist populist and many of his supporters have made it clear that their highest loyalty is to the maintenance of a white supremacist racial order and not liberal democracy.
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. Literally and figuratively, while the world is distracted by the threat of war Australia is literally burning. Figuratively, because the racial conflagration that has raged since Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent is threatening, once again, to consume the country.
The fire next time, in worship we have been focusing on the spiritual and religious tools that are necessary to live through such times of crisis. Today, and for the month of January, we will be focusing on what I believe is one of the most important of these tools: the cultivation of friendships. The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the cultivation of friendships was a crucial tool for those who survived the brutalities of totalitarianism. The creation and sustaining of friendship in such times is a sign that “a bit of humanness in a world become inhuman had been achieved.” And in such hours of crises as the ones we now face maintaining our own humanness and recognizing it in others is one of our crucial tasks. It is difficult to kill others whom we recognize as humans. Killing, especially on a mass scale, often requires the abstraction of human being into a categorical other: the human being who is a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a neighbor becomes the Jew, the migrant, the black person, the indigenous person, the queer person, or the Iranian.
And so, now let us turn to friendship and consider the alchemical power it provides to make us human to each other.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. And whose friendships sustained them through the struggle for the abolition of slavery and their work for the liberation of women. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller drowned at sea at the age of forty. Her tragic death prompted Emerson to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or hustling through mazing, cold, Boston streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were often similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”
“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. A few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. When there are crises in the world, or crises in our lives, a religious community like this one can be a place to discover that are not alone in our struggles. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making, and breaking isolation, is are pretty powerful common centers.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that we cultivate which are praiseworthy. They are qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them. That is one reason why as we have been considering the spiritual and religious tools we need in this era of crisis we have speaking of the virtues in worship.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits. I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I have never done before but will certainly do again. We delight in its silky sweet eggy texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and inspires me in my commitment to work toward justice. He reminds me that we can only build the good society together. We can only do it by imaging the possibility of friendship between all the world’s peoples.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights. Doing so will help us to recognize the possibility of friendship, the community humanity among, inherent in all peoples. Doing so will equip us to thrive in an era of crisis and remember the promise of our faith tradition: someday, somehow, we will remember that we are all members of the great family of all souls and, so united, we shall overcome war and hatred to build the beloved community.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Aug 19, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
We have just rung our church bell twenty-one times. Mallet has struck metal for each of the “twenty and odd” Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia in late August 1619. Their arrival was a pivotal moment in this country’s history. African Americans have provided this country with its some of its foremost artists, religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. African American culture has given the United States, and the world, powerful and popular musical traditions that shaped global culture: the blues, jazz, hip-hop, house and techno, rock ‘n roll, and soul. And African Americans have again and again pushed this country to be a land of freedom and equality rather than a land of slavery and injustice.
The Africans who arrived in Virginia were kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship originally destined for the Caribbean. At least a few of the names given to them by their kidnappers were recorded. There was a woman called Angelo and a couple called Antonio and Isabella. They were the parents of William, the first African American born in the English colonies. He was born free. Slavery did not become hereditary until later.
Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, and the others who arrived with them were natives of West Central Africa. They arrived on an English ship called the White Lion. The ship’s crew is believed to have traded them for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America. And their arrival marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the colony of Virginia.
1619. It is a year that is just as foundational to the United States of America as 1776. The two years represent the contradiction that lies at the heart of the country. From its very inception, the United States of America has proclaimed itself “the land of the free.” From its very inception, the United States of America been built upon unfreedom. It is like the late Toni Morrison observed, “the presence of the unfree [lies] within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Unfreedom has, from its point of origin, warped the very idea of freedom. To build one person’s freedom on another person’s slavery is to turn freedom itself into a lie.
I have a friend who has a joke about this. He says, “Whenever white folks start talking about freedom, I start to look around to see what, or who, they are trying to steal.” Often freedom for people who believe themselves to be white has come at the expense of everyone else. And just as often, African Americans have proclaimed that freedom is either for everyone or no one. It is like Martin King observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This contradiction between freedom and unfreedom has led slavery to be called America’s original sin. Unitarian Universalists, as I said last week, could use a more robust understanding of sin. And theological language is illuminating when we attempt to understand the legacy of slavery.
Sin can be understood as estrangement. Estrangement is a form of separation in which there are, at a minimum, unfriendly feelings between the estranged parties. It is the mission of religion to help us overcome sin. Sin, I am suggesting, is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality. It is something to be found in our human relations (and in our relations with the planet). When I speak of slavery as a sin, I am speaking of a pattern of estrangement that was actualized in the material conditions of people’s lives. The institution of slavery was a set of behaviors, and set of beliefs, that enabled people who believed themselves to be white to imagine other human beings as primarily tools and instruments for producing wealth. When an enslaver looked at someone they had enslaved they did not see the pain in the eyes of another human being. They did not see another being whose purpose in life was to love and laugh, imagine and create. They imagined they saw someone who existed to serve them, who existed to be exploited to build wealth. In their crass imagining the enslavers estranged themselves from their own humanity. In their fierce resistance those who had been enslaved proclaimed theirs.
Sin is overcome by practicing and preaching love. For if sin is estrangement then salvation might be understood as a coming back together, a reunification. And the impulse that brings us back together, and that binds us back together, is love. I am not speaking of romantic love. Instead, I refer to what in the Christian lexicon is called agape--goodwill towards all; the desire that all humans can be free. Salvation, the overcoming of estrangement, then should be understood as basing our lives, and our society, upon a love that honors all human beings.
Sin and salvation, freedom and unfreedom, all of these have a distinctly earthly flavor. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches us not to look for salvation in the next world but to see it in this one. It teaches that sin is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality, but something found in human relations. This is why the Universalist lay leader Fannie Barrier Williams said, “I dare not to cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice...” It is why the Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown prayed, “May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore to love.”
Freedom and unfreedom... 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia. They arrived after enduring the brutal Middle Passage. They had been forced into a ship in Angola and cramped below deck. We have no words from them describing their experiences, but we do have the words others who survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was one of them. Kidnapped as a young boy in what is now Nigeria, he published “The Interesting of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” the same year the United States Constitution became the law of the land. He described the Middle Passage as “filled with horrors of every kind.” He recollected his time confined below deck this way: “with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”
At least two million people--daughters, sons, children, mothers, fathers, parents, lovers, friends, artists, prophets, singers, geniuses, dancers, poets, human beings--died in the Middle Passage. Some succumb to illness. Some were beaten to death when they resisted. Some jumped from the ships rather than endure unfreedom. Let us honor them with a silent prayer.
And a poem: “August 1619” by Clint Smith.
Over the course of 350 years,
36,000 slave ships crossed the Atlantic
Ocean. I walk over to the globe & move
my finger back & forth between
the fragile continents. I try to keep
count how many times I drag
my hand across the bristled
hemispheres, but grow weary of chasing
a history that swallowed me.
For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.
I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.
I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.
The soft hum of history spins
on its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost ships
wash their hands of all they carried.
The soft hum of history spins / on its tilted axis. 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia not as slaves but as indentured servants. Europeans who lived in the colony were in a similar legal state. Indentured servitude was a system whereby an individual was bound to work for an employer for a particular period of time. At the end of the contract the individual was free to sell their labor to whomever they liked. If they could find land to work, they were also free to live as a farmer. Many poor Europeans made their way, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the English colonies as indentured servants.
Why is this technical distinction between indentured servitude and slavery necessary? Because slavery was created explicitly to divide Africans and poor Europeans. United in mutual love they were a threat to the wealthy elites of the colonies. Estranged through slavery, Africans and poor Europeans could both be exploited to produce wealth for the rich men who owned plantations and factories.
This condition of estrangement was intentionally created to shore up the power of the wealthy. It was created through the legal system. The Africans who arrived in Jamestown, if they lived long enough, died free. Their children were born free. They sometimes united with the children of European indentured servants for greater freedom for the poor. This mutual love was unconscionable to the men who owned most of the land in the colonies, men who understood freedom as the freedom to earn money and not the freedom to be. They passed laws that, in essence, created race and created slavery as a racial condition. First, they passed laws that declaimed that only African people could be slaves. And then they passed laws that said that an individual’s legal status followed that of their mother. If the mother was an African slave then the child, no matter the color of its skin, would be a slave.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Africans resisted and imagined true liberation from the beginning. They ran away almost as soon as they arrived in the Americas. In the dismal swamps, the mountains, in the deep recesses of the forests, they formed maroon societies. Sometimes joined by poor Europeans who had fled indentured servitude, sometimes joining with Native Americans, free Africans created communities where true freedom was the norm. Interracial solidarity--the salvation of mutual love--overcame the sin of slavery. These communities, as the political philosopher Cedric Robinson has described them, were “communitarian rather individualistic, democratic... Afro-Christian rather than... materialist.” Over the centuries they provided safe harbor for people escaping slavery. Over the centuries they offered a space where people could dream freedom dreams outside of or on the edge of a society where freedom only existed for some people. Many of these free maroon societies lasted until at least the Civil War when they provided bases of operation for African American guerrillas and Union loyalists in the struggle end chattel slavery that the Civil War became.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Here is an uncomfortable truth about the United States: enslaved people laid the foundation stones of the White House. Enslaved people placed the Statue of Freedom atop the Capital dome. The American Revolution was at least partially about the freedom of men who believed themselves to be white to enslave others. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed in England itself. Men like Thomas Jefferson feared that Britain would eventually abolish slavery in the English colonies. This dynamic prompted the English writer and politician Samuel Johnson to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of” slaves?
Throughout the history of this country it has most often been African Americans who held out a different vision of freedom. It is not a vision of freedom based in the ability to enslave others—a vision of freedom rooted in estrangement. It is a vision of freedom based in a belief, in the words of the abolitionist Martin Delaney, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” It is a vision of freedom organized around the idea of universal equality.
The great W. E. B. Du Bois called it abolition democracy. He coined the phrase abolition democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and transgender people.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
Abolition democracy is the greatest of the American political traditions. It is only one that actually offers the possibility of freedom for all people. It proponents form a pantheon saints. In that pantheon are people of African descendant like Phyllis Wheatley who said, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” And Harriet Tubman who wrote, of the struggle for freedom, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.” And Frederick Douglass who gave a speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” And Martin King, and Ella Baker, and Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others. It is a pantheon that includes not only people of African descent but all of those who have held out a vision of love that can conquer hate, a vision in which the estrangement of sin can be overcome by the salvation of equality.
Writing about the contradiction between unfreedom and freedom that lies at the heart of the United States, W. E. B. Du Bois argued more than a hundred years ago, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Writing as an advocate of abolition democracy, though she does not use that term, the African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones posed her answer to Du Bois’s problem in the form of a question, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
It is a hope that I cling to in these troubled days. It is why I look to people of color and women for leadership in the face of a blatantly white supremacist President who aspires to authoritarianism. It is the saints of abolitionist democracy who have most boldly articulated a different view--a view that proclaims the salvation of love for all. In this desperate hour, when democratic societies are under threat, when racial injustice is increasing, when inequality is growing, when we face the existential threat of climate change, let us turn to their vision of freedom. Let us a proclaim and live an understanding of freedom not born from estrangement and separation but love and unity. For now is the crucial time, not just for you and for me but for all who come after. We live in a moment like the one James Baldwin wrote of at the end of his magnificent meditation on the civil rights movement and race in America, “The Fire Next Time”:
“If we… do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Let us inscribe the words of Baldwin, and all the other abolition democrats, known and unknown, on our hearts. 1619. On this four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, who we know only by the name given to them by their kidnappers, and the other “twenty and odd” Africans who came with them, let us commit ourselves to a vision of freedom for all. It is not a vision of freedom to exploit. It is a vision in which you and you and you and I and all of us can truly be who we ought to be. It is a vision we find articulated in the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which I now invite you to join me in singing.
Jul 29, 2019
This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.
We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.
About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.
Jul 16, 2019
On Bastille Day I took my son and Judith Walgren’s son on a day trip to Marseille. We didn’t see much of the city. We really only had two destinations in mind: the Chateau d’If and Ratonneau, a small island off the coast. Both are part of an archipelago a short ferry ride from Marseille’s Old Port. The boys wanted to go swimming—it was pretty hot—and a trip to the chateau and then Ratonneau afforded us the opportunity to see one of Europe’s most famous sites and take a dip in the Mediterranean.
First, we had to get there. We took a commuter train from Arles to Marseille. The trip was a little less than an hour. Afterwards we took a taxi to the Old Port to catch the ferry. As we walked along the wharf to buy tickets, we saw numerous fishermen selling their catches. I saw mackerel, octopus, sea bass, lobsters, and a good half-dozen other things I didn’t recognize. There was also a metallic painted man who moved when paid a euro and puppeteer with a skeleton marionette.
Once we had our tickets, we discovered we had to walk all the way across the wharf to find the dock for our ferry. It took about twenty minutes. Midway through we stopped at one of the many little bistros that line the street. I had a whole sea bass cooked in parchment and served with rice and a salad. The boys had cheeseburgers. The meal was a bit less than fifty euros.
After lunch we got on the ferry and rode it out to Chateau d’If. The chateau is probably most famous as a setting for Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I have always loved Dumas—I have read the entirety of the Three Musketeers saga, Queen Margot, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a fun imaginative exercise to go on a literary pilgrimage. The chateau wasn’t exactly like I had imagined it. I’d always thought that Dumas’s hero Edmond Dantes was locked in an underground dungeon. In fact, the chateau had no underground level and many of the prisoners were kept in cells on the second and third floors.
Dumas is an interesting literary figure for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he is revealing of the way in which the Western canon—whatever it is and whatever it actually consists of—hides a certain amount of racial diversity within it. White supremacists and some misguided liberals often assume that the cannon is entirely white. This is not true. A great number of the foundational Christian theologians were actually North African—Augustine and Origen to name two—and some of the authors that people sometimes assume to be white were in fact people of color. Dumas, for instance, was black. His father Alexander-Thomas Dumas was the first person of color to serve as the general-in-chief of a French army. He was probably of sub-Saharan African descent.
How much does this matter? It depends. How much do the stories we tell about ourselves matter? I happen to think a lot. Actually, I think that one of the key distinguishing human features is our ability to create narratives about ourselves and our communities. Understanding that European art, literature, and philosophy have always been in some sense multiracial or multicultural lays lie to the notion that there is some kind of racially pure European society that innately superior.
After tromping around the old castle for an hour so—its interesting features include stone graffiti carved by both political prisoners from the 1848 uprising and the 1871 Marseille Commune—we caught the ferry to Ratonneau. It is a beautiful Mediterranean mixture of chalky cliffs, stony hills, and jagged fjords surrounded by clear cool water. After a fifteen-minute walk we found a stony beach. The boys practically leapt into the water. It was a joy to watch them. There is something about the unbridled joy of children that is contagious.
We swam for about two hours—I read a bit of James Baldwin in between dips in the ocean—and then made our way to the ferry. We caught a taxi to the train station and would have been at our hotel by eight o’clock if our train hadn’t ended up being delayed by an hour. It was an imperfect end to an almost perfect day. However, there’s something to be said for European candy. A small dose of it kept the boys happy while we waited an interminable time for the train to start.
Feb 5, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 17, 2019
Today we kick-off First Church’s annual stewardship drive. My task this morning is to offer you what sometimes gets called “the sermon on the amount.” It is often a difficult sermon to preach. The three topics generally considered taboo to discuss in polite company, are, after all: sex, money, and religion. Stewardship combines two of these: money and religion. It did occur to me that I could bring a discussion of Our Whole Lives into the sermon. Our Whole Lives is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum. If I spoke about it we could then have all three. That might everyone really squirm. But Jonathan Edwards I am not. Today is no occasion for “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Instead, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our life together, the entity we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And giving money to support the congregation is one way we celebrate our life together.
Dan King, our Assistant Minister, likes to say that stewardship works best when we give until it feels good. That is what I am encouraging you to do this morning: to give to the congregation in such a way that you feel good about the level of support you give to First Church. I am not going to get Marxist on you and suggest that we follow old bewhiskered Karl’s adage: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Instead, I want to encourage you to feel good about your contributions to First Church. Well, actually, I want you to feel good about First Church. And if you feel good about First Church, I think you will feel good about financially supporting the congregation.
Our theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “weaving a tapestry of love and action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.” For Unitarian Universalists stewardship really is about justice. Our institutions, our churches and our Unitarian Universalist Association, allow us to live out our commitment to the transformative power of love in public.
I will talk a more about the theme in a moment. But, first, whether you are here at Museum District or listening to the sermon via livestream in Richmond, I want to pause and make a point of inviting you all to stick around after the service for Souper Bowl Sunday. It is our kick-off event. It is a chance to share a bowl of soup, relax, and celebrate the great community that is First Church. It is just one of the many opportunities to connect that we are offering throughout the month. We have a number of people who have volunteered to serve as visiting stewards. They will be visiting with other members of the congregation and listening to your stories about what First Church means to you. Meeting with one of them is not obligatory. These meetings are opportunities to deepen your connection to First Church by reflecting with other members about the role the congregation plays in your religious life and in the wider world.
Weaving a tapestry of love and action... We say those words each week as we bless and express gratitude for the offering. Well, actually, we say, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.” What I want to offer you this morning is what preachers call an exegesis of the phrase we say each week as we bless the offering. An exegesis is a fancy word for interpretation of a text.
“Weaving a tapestry of love and action,” I want to offer you one more fancy word as we proceed with our exegesis of our much spoken text. That word is hermeneutics. If exegesis is the interpretation of a text then hermeneutics is the method by which we arrive at the interpretation of a text. The exegesis: the meaning. Hermeneutics: how we arrive at the meaning.
Exegesis, hermeneutics... These words are two of the central tools we use in the collective religious exercise we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church used to define religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” He often followed this definition with this series of observations, “Knowing we must die, we question what life means. ...the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious question: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What’s life purpose? What does this all signify?”
We come together to interpret the texts of our lives--to infuse them with meaning. Unitarian Universalism offers a set of hermeneutics to do so. As a religious community, we interpret the texts of our lives using a specific set of principles. I am not talking about the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Those date to the middle of twentieth-century. Our liberal religious tradition is much older than that. What I am talking about is the principles behind the principles.
The twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur described the primary principles of our religious tradition as: freedom, reason, and tolerance. In making meaning from the rich mess of our lives, he believed, our tradition called for “complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds... the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition... generous tolerance of differing religious views... rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship, or polity.” Freedom, reason, and tolerance... We are free to believe what we must believe. We are called to put our beliefs to a rational test. Tolerance, the beliefs that I hold need not be the beliefs that you hold.
My friend Gary Dorrien is one of greatest living interpreters of liberal theology. He makes the claim that the distinction between theological liberals and theological conservatives is that we insist that religion “should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” If religion is to matter, we say, then it must relate to our lives today. It must help us live in this world. It must not be antithetical to the findings of science.
Building off the work of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has long argued that all of these intellectual statements are good and well but they leave our tradition without a foundation. They do not tell us where our beliefs come from. They do not describe the ground on which we stand. And that is a mistake. Because, Thandeka argues, our theology does have a foundation. It is founded on love. Specifically, it is founded on the experience of connection that each of us has to the all. The experience of connection between the self and the all is the fundamental religious experience. Liberal religion begins, she observes, not with rational arguments but with the feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves.
Thandeka is careful to observe that this feeling of connection escapes clear religious labels. She writes, “for Christians... [it] is God... For Buddhists... Sunyata... For Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.” But however we describe it, it comes to each of us.
I have noticed that the moments in my sermons that people connect with the most are often the sections in which I narrate such an experience of connection--whether it is my own or someone else’s. This might be because the deepest truth of Unitarian Universalism is that the text we are trying to interpret is the text of our own lives.
When I talk about finding meaning in the joy of dancing or discovering it while sitting in a Zen temple in Japan, I suspect that many of you connect with the ways in which you have made meaning out of similar experiences. The meaning I find in the unadulterated beauty of a flowing flock of birds over a parking lot sunrise might be different than yours. Maybe I encounter meaning, connection, deep emotion in the rough notes of a Latin jazz album as needle scrapes across vinyl and you do not.
But somewhere, each day, there is some experience, some series of experiences that you have where you connect with something--or someone--other than yourself. Perhaps you find that experience through your family. Perhaps you do not. Perhaps it is mostly among the moss-covered oaks. Perhaps it is in the hum of the train tracks as the streetcar slips by on a Sunday morning. Maybe it is on your bicycle as ride you along the road, the wind, the push of the peddles, the spin of the wheels, offering a sense of exhilarating motion.
Wherever you find connection, I suspect that if you regularly come to First Church it is because of you have found a community that helps you make meaning of it all. A community that helps you weave your life into the larger tapestry that is First Church. I suspect that this is true whether you sit on the cool wooden pews of this sanctuary or amid the lush greenery of our Richmond campus.
Such meaning making is why we ritually celebrate life’s passages as a religious community: child dedications, weddings, and memorial services. Child dedications--the celebration of what a new life means to a family and to the community, a celebration of the enduring possibility of human existence. Weddings, a celebration of two people coming together, attesting to the deep connection they feel, and promising to each other that their lives will be more meaningful together than separate. Memorial services, the great summing-up--the celebration of the life that has been, the meaning it offered, and the ways we who continue can find meaning and inspiration.
Unitarian Universalist minister Kristen Harper describes the daily unfolding of our meaning this way:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
When we say, we are “weaving a tapestry of love and action” what we are really saying is that we are collectively making meaning out of our lives. And that each day in our life together we have the opportunity to make further meaning. That meaning can be found in each experience, each moment, we share.
Our exegesis does not end quite there because really we have just covered the words “weaving a tapestry of love.” We have not talked much about justice. I started our sermon with a claim from Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And each week we dedicate ourselves to action. That is, we dedicate ourselves to living out our commitment to love in public.
This is what we are called to do today and all of the days of our lives. We all know that the human species is in the midst of a grave existential crisis. As I wrote in this month’s newsletter column:
Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested?
Our ability to make meaning together has equipped us to do this work for justice in the world. And, today, it is the work that we Unitarian Universalists are called to do.
And now, I need to be real with you. I do not often talk with you about the specific work of being the interim minister of your congregation following the negotiated resignation of your previous senior minister. Since I arrived in August, there has been too much to do. We have been working on launching our Richmond campus. We have been working on making First Church be one worshipping community in two locations. We have been working on winding down our relationship with the Tapestry congregation, our former campus in Spring. The Board and I have been working on governance. There have been multiple staff transitions. Nikki Steele our much loved Congregational Administrator is moving to Virginia. The congregation’s devoted long serving organist Bob Fazakerly is retiring. And so is the Rev. Dr. Dan King. There has been a lot going on.
But now, on stewardship Sunday, for the sermon on the amount, for just a few minutes, I want to talk with you about my interim work. One of my primary tasks is to hold up a mirror to the congregation and ask you to look at yourselves. Such work can quite uncomfortable. This is one reason why interim ministries are intentionally only a couple of years and why congregations are generally happy to see the interims go when their ministries end.
One thing I want you to see when you, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, look at yourselves is the way that the staff have been treated. It is true that your previous senior minister’s negotiated resignation was over his treatment of staff. But once I got here and started to look into it the picture became more complicated. The issue was not only that he engaged in bullying of staff. The issue was that the congregation was not abiding by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. Salaries were being paid sort of according to guidelines. Everyone was paid at least the minimum level recommended by the UUA. Few people were paid according to their level of experience or tenure with the congregation.
Far more problematically was the benefits situation. It was not uniform. It was out of whack with UUA’s standards for fair compensation. Some people got benefits and some did not. I brought this situation to the Board’s attention shortly after the congregation received a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellett. And the Board took action, committing the congregation to follow the UUA’s fair compensation guidelines going forward. This has meant ensuring that all qualifying employees receive appropriate benefits--health insurance, life insurance, pension, disability insurance, dental insurance, and the like. It has also meant making some progress on adjusting staff salaries so people are paid according to their level of experience. All of this is costly and there is more ground to be gained in the issue in justice for the staff’s compensation. The total annual bill for fixing the situation is $72,000 a year. The money from the Kellett bequest is not enough to make this sustainable without an increase in pledge income.
There are some of you who will want to understand how this situation came about. And I willing be talking with you about it elsewhere. But the most important thing for you to know is that the Board is committed to making sure it does not happen again. They have hired a consultant to work with them, and by extension the entire congregation, on reimagining First Church’s governance so there is more appropriate oversight going forward. I have recommended that the Board conduct an annual audit of employee records and compensation to ensure future justice for the staff.
Now, I promised you at the outset that this was not going to be a modern rendition of Jonathan Edwards’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I believe with James Baldwin, “With the best will in the world, no one now living could undo what past generations had accomplished.” Which is to say, we cannot rewrite history. What has been done has been done. But we can change things going forward. We have that power. Indeed, we are committed to that proposition as a community weaving a tapestry of love and action.
And what I really want you to do is to feel good about your connection to First Church. This is a wonderful community that does much good in the world. You were the first historically white congregation in Houston to desegregate. You launched Hatch Youth in the midst of the AIDS crisis to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied youth. You provided important services to the wider community through your Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. You have supported more than fifty first generation college students with your Thoreau Scholarship program. You have been a beacon for speaking out against injustice, for speaking up for the oppressed, for binding up the broken, for transforming lives for the better. There is so much to be proud of.
And today, in this historic moment, when humanity faces one of its gravest crises. Unitarian Universalism has a vital role to play in confronting it. For First Church, this means the opportunity to grow, not for growth’s sake but because the way we Unitarian Universalists make meaning is vitally important to the world. There is an opportunity to grow both here at the Museum District and out in Richmond. The Board has also committed to making the Assistant Minister position full-time and to transitioning one of the Administrative Assistant positions to a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator. The Kellett bequest is also being used to honor these commitments as well as to help pay for some long-deferred maintenance on the Museum District campus--including fixing the elevator, the roof, and replacing carpet and stucco that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
This opportunity to grow is an opportunity to help more people weave their lives into our meaningful tapestry of love and action. In order for it to be realized we need to remember that building justice in the wider world requires that we treat our staff equitably. Indeed, I might suggest we carry our exegesis of “weaving a tapestry of love and action” a little further. If we did so we might observe that the lives of the members of the congregation are the threads that form the tapestry that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. But the building and staff provide a portion of the loom on which you weave. Without each the work of all would not be possible.
And so, when I say I would like you to give until it feels good, that means I would like you to give so that you feel good about the tapestry of love and action that First Church is weaving. I want you to feel good about First Church as a religious community. And I want you to feel good about the work that First Church does in the world.
In that spirit, I would like to close not with my own words but with yours. I invite you to say with me the words that we find in our order of service and repeat week after week, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.”
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.