Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Jul 23, 2019
Walking is one of my very favorite things to do. Paris is an exceptional city to walk through. It is dense enough that like New York, San Francisco, or Chicago it has not only neighborhoods but micro-neighborhoods. Each city block has its own character. The Marais, where we’re staying, changes from block-to-block. Moving through the city at night, wandering back from dinner with an old friend who lives here, I passed through densely packed streets filled with bistros, almost empty plazas where perhaps a half-dozen people lingered over a dinner at an oyster bar, and a bookstore prominently displaying the works of English speaking anarchists translated into French (Emma Goldman, Kenneth Rexroth, and one or two others). There were also massive billboards advertising upcoming plays, many many closed wine shops, a quality comic book shop, and a cheese shop that had won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (thus signifying it had some of the best cheese in the country).
The people watching was wonderful and, at the same time, not a little disheartening. Mixed among the vibrant couples out for a stroll, the beautiful groups gathered for dinner, the jazz aficionados seeking the best club, the confused tourists trying not to lose their way, were those who have found themselves at society’s margins: prostitutes gathering along the Rue de Saint-Denis, where they have gathered for generations; an African street vendor grilling corn over a wood fire in the impossible heat; and too many people trying to sleep in the streets.
This was what I love about walking. It makes it difficult to ignore the broader social reality—inequality, stratification, the multi-cultures of the city piled upon each other... When I am in a car traveling from place-to-place it is possible to remain oblivious to human worlds other than mine. When I walk I must, on some level, perhaps only briefly, perhaps for just a fraction of minute, engage the humanity that surrounds me and of which I am a part.
Jan 14, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, January 13, 2019
This is my first Sunday in the pulpit since we began live streaming our sermons to our Tapestry and Thoreau campuses. I want to begin by sharing a greeting to the members of the congregation who are worshipping with us in Richmond, Texas. You will note that I did not extend my greeting to Spring, Texas. You may have heard by now that the Tapestry campus has decided to go its own way. First Church is no longer providing them Sunday morning worship services.
This shift is a significant one for First Church. It means that, once the Board takes action, you will no longer be “one church in three locations.” I think it is a healthy transition. In the five and a half months that I have served as your interim minister, Tapestry has never felt integrated into First Church. They have wanted to maintain their separate identity, including their own logo, web site, and social media. They have not been excited about receiving videos of the sermons from the Museum District campus. It is best to bless them and wish them the best in their efforts to grow as an independent congregation. They might be going their own way but we all remain Unitarian Universalists. We all remain committed to the collective project of building a strong Unitarian Universalism in the Houston area.
My experience of Thoreau has been quite the opposite of my experience with Tapestry. I experience the Museum District and Thoreau campuses as increasingly integrated. The shift to live streaming is further solidifying the connections between the two campuses. For those of you who do not know, live streaming means that at about the same time folks here at Museum District are listening to this sermon another fifty to sixty people are joining us virtually in our new sanctuary in Richmond.
We have live streamed two services in the last four weeks. Both times I have been here at Museum District. And, after each of them, I have interacted with members of the congregation who attend Thoreau. We were able to talk about that week’s sermon. It made me feel more like the minister of both campuses than I had in the past. We shared an immediate common experience, a recent shared experience of worship. A shared experience of worship is at the heart of congregational life. And we can find all sorts of ministers, theologians, and other scholars who tell us this in some fashion or another. The late Harvard Divinity School professor Conrad Wright observed, “a church must have some element or elements of common experience shared by its members, to unite them and make a community out of a collection of individuals.”
The theme we are examining in worship this month is transformation. The process of creating a religious community out of a group of individuals is a transformative process. It changes our individual identities. Together we become Unitarian Universalists. Together we become, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And in this becoming my sense of self shifts. The perceiving I, the Colin that is preaching this sermon, is a different self than I would have if I was part of a different religious community, or if I did not belong to one at all. The same is true for the perceiving you, the each of you, sitting in the pews. Gathering together as a religious community changes each of us.
But that is the point, is it not? Most of us want to be part of a religious community because we feel like our life would not be complete without one. Yesterday, we had a new member class. Like most new member classes I have been involved in over the last decade, we invited people interested in joining First Church to share a little bit about their personal religious journeys. What brought you here, we asked them.
The details of these stories are confidential. I am not going to share them. But I can reflect upon the themes that emerge from them. And one theme stood out, as it does so often when I ask people why they have come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It runs something like this: You felt like something was missing from your life. You were unhappy with the stilted or confining theology of other religious communities you have been part of. Maybe they did not welcome you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity. Maybe you did not resonate with their teachings about Hell and damnation. Maybe you wanted a more capacious tradition, one that allowed room for doubt and dissent, one that welcomed you, even encouraged you, after you realized you were an atheist or agnostic. And so, you started doing some research, or you met someone from this congregation, or your friend or relative found Unitarian Universalism, and you discovered that this was a community where you felt like you belonged. “For a long time, I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it,” is not an uncommon thing to hear said when someone shares their journey to Unitarian Universalism.
Occasionally, someone who has raised Unitarian Universalist, like me, participates in such a class. Their story has a slightly different spin. It might go this way: You grew up Unitarian Universalist in another city. Unitarian Universalism has always been an important part of your life. It taught you that critical thinking was essential. It taught you that love is the most powerful force in the world. It taught you that the pursuit of justice, the work of building beloved community, is at the heart of what it is to be a religious person. To paraphrase Rebecca Parker, it provided you with a place where you felt accepted in all of your humanity.
The stories share a common thread. Your participation in a Unitarian Universalist community has changed, is changing you, is helping you become a more authentic person. When you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation you enter, as Parker puts it, “a sanctuary for the recovery of soul and a school for the transformation of society.”
Alternatively, when you join a Unitarian Universalist congregation you commit to the intertwined projects of individual and collective transformation or, as I sometimes describe it, the work of individual and collective liberation. My sermon title this morning gets to a key tension point in this enterprise: Where to begin? The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras once observed, “There are two sides to every question.” My question might be approached while thinking about his wisdom. When we are seeking transformation should we begin as individuals or should we begin as a collective?
Four observations as we consider this question. The first, transformation requires intentionality. The second, transformation is an individual project. The third, transformation is a collective project. And the fourth, real transformation is most evident in the ways we live our daily lives.
Let us start with the first of these observations: transformation requires intentionality. I suspect that this is something you already know. We just rang in the New Year. And what do many of us typically do on New Years? We make resolutions! Show of hands, how many of you made New Years resolution this year? I did. I do every year. In fact, I make some of the same resolutions every year. I am going to spend a little bit more time meditating. I am going to be better about going to the gym. I am going to lose five pounds--do not ask me why it is five pounds. For the past six years I have been trying to lose five pounds. And for the past six years my weight has remained exactly the same. What about you? Do you have resolutions that you make year after year?
If you do, the point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself. The point is to remind us that transformation is difficult work. And that it requires us to be intentional about our actions.
This leads me to my second observation. Transformation is an individual project. It involves me changing my behavior in some way. The best way I know how to do this is to nurture religious discipline, what some of us call a spiritual practice. This might be prayer, meditation, tai chi, or yoga. How many of you have a regular spiritual practice? I do. And if you do not, I highly recommend it. I am a steadfast practitioner of that old Puritan and transcendentalist discipline: journal writing.
I have a regular writing routine. It begins with reading. Most days, I begin the day by reading three things: a sermon or a text on the art of preaching, three to five pages of poetry, and a bit of scripture from one of the world’s religious traditions. Next, I spend a couple of minutes outlining the main argument of the scripture. And then I write in my journal for fifteen minutes.
This week I have been reading Otis Moss III’s “Blue Note Preaching a Post-Soul World,” an anthology of traditional Japanese poetry, and Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible. Each of these has opened up my experience of the world in some small way. Otis Moss III pushes me to remember that preaching and worship, the collective work in which we are now engaged, has to wrestle the tragedies of this world if it is going to be meaningful. At the same time, we need to celebrate beauty and joy. Moss is the senior minister of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest left-leaning black churches in the country. He writes, “Blue Note preaching, or preaching with Blues sensibilities, is prophetic preaching—preaching about tragedy, but refusing to fall into despair.”
When I read this passage, I was reminded that if preaching is to be authentic, if it is to do the work of transformation that it is called to do in the world, it must confront the earthly powers and principalities. It must point out that the federal government shutdown is a manufactured crisis, a temper tantrum, created by a political leader who is not getting his way. He does not care about the eight hundred thousand federal employees who are being harmed by his decision to shutdown the government. And it must point out that real leadership is found in those who care about all people. And that when we remember that we can find beauty and joy in this troubled world. It is not present when we look to the fools who create political crises. It is found in the ways we care for each other and create community in the midst of such crises. And so, I will say again what was said during the announcements. If you are a federal employee, if you are impacted by the shutdown, and if you are having trouble paying your bills because of it, come see me and First Church will do what we can to help you.
The section in Proverbs I have been reading for the past week is devoted to pairing antithetical ideas, much like blue note preaching. Though rather than calling us to find the beauty in tragedy, Proverbs contrasts the wise and the foolish. Some of its verses speak to our present situation, “The tongue of a righteous man is choice silver, / But the mind of the wicked is of little worth” or “What the wicked man plots overtakes him; / What the righteous desire is granted. / When the storm passes the wicked man is gone. / But righteousness is an everlasting foundation.”
I actually left my reflections on traditional Japanese poetry to the end because several of you have asked about my trip to Japan. And, well, my daily spiritual practice figures into a story about my trip. The anthology I have been reading features the work of two of the central figures in the Japanese literary canon: the poets Matsuo Basho and Yosa Buson.
They came to me one night when I was in Kyoto. Well, actually, they opened the world to me a little in Kyoto. I had been wandering the ancient former capital for the whole day. I was tired and slowly wending my way through the dense streets of hyper-neon and tight old buildings to my hotel. And I thought about stopping for a drink. And there it was, a sign in kanji, which I do not read at all, the English word jazz, and an arrow pointing up a flight of stairs. Art Blakely, Horace Silver, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Gregory Porter, Miles Davis fan that I am I followed the sign and found myself in a Japanese jazz bar.
It was not devoted to live music. Rather, it was a place where one could go to listen to jazz vinyl records. There were a few thousand of them crammed in a space that seated maybe sixteen people--ten at the bar and another six in a booth. Sixties bebop was playing. I ordered shoju, a kind of Korean hard alcohol, and opened up a novel I had brought with me: “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiromi Kawakami. And then soon after, it happened. A man and a woman came in. They glanced at me suspiciously, asked in English what I was reading, recognized and praised the author, and somehow in their broken English and my non-existent Japanese we constructed a conversation about Japanese literature--a subject I know precious little about.
It was when I mentioned that I had read Basho and Bosun that conversation took its turn. Until then they had viewed me with generous hesitation. But somehow, I could recognize Basho’s frog poem when they recited it to me Japanese. Do you know it?
An old pond —
Of a diving frog.
And they gave me a little Buson, maybe this one?
Fuji all alone--
the one thing left unburied
by new green leaves.
And so, there we were talking about literature and art and jazz and soon about what I needed to do while I was in Kyoto. It turns out that David Bowie’s favorite place was a bit outside of the city, an old Zen temple named Shoden-ji. And they promised me that if I went I would find quiet.
The next day, I found myself taking a bus forty-five minutes outside of the city center. I walked through a bamboo groove. There was practically no one there. The quiet was, well, the quiet was almost all consuming. The leaves barely spoke. The wind did not seem to blow. The sound of no sound.
Up some stairs I climbed, and into the temple I went. I was there for almost two hours. There were maybe ten people who came in during that time: first, sitting on the veranda overlooking the eight-hundred-year-old Zen garden--three groups of perfectly sculpted bushes, three then five then seven, in front of short white wall framed by a mountain; next, wandering through the temple looking at beautiful painted screens of natural scenes; and finally, sitting on the veranda again.
I am not sure if that experience in itself changed me, transformed me. But what I do know is that my daily practice of reading poetry opened up that unexpected temple to me. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen. It renewed my confidence that people can create and sustain beauty.
This brings me to my third observation, tranformation is collective work. My experience in Shoden-ji was my experience alone. But it was actually a significant collective undertaking. The temple had to be maintained for eight hundred years. That’s more than thirty generations. Without the collective efforts of thousands of unknown people across time my own experience would not have been possible. The collective effort formed the opportunity for me to have the experience of renewal that I had at that temple.
It is also a collective effort, this work of worship, that turns us from individuals into the community we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. When we sit in the pews together, when we sing together, when we listen to the sermon or the special music together, it actually does something to us physiologically. It puts us in synch. The pattern of your breath and mine come close to each other.
This is especially true when we sing a hymn. When we sing we find ourselves breathing together. We find ourselves in rhythm together. That creates the shared experience of being in community together. And through that experience we can come to know each other. Actually, our opening hymn, #346 “Come, Sing a Song with Me” makes this argument. Will you turn in your hymnal and sing the first verse with me?
Come, sing a song with me,
come sing a song with me,
that I might know your mind.
And I’ll bring you hope
When hope is hard to find,
and I’ll bring a song of love
and a rose in the wintertime.
I want to think about the words for a moment. It is an invitation to join a community, “come sing a song with me.” It is an invitation to share the self with another, “that I might know your mind.” It is a suggestion that together we can undergo the process of transformation: “I’ll bring you hope / When hope is hard to find.” It is actually a promise about how we might live together. If we join together in song, put ourselves in synch, the song suggests, we can change ourselves and the transform the world. We can find hope even while we feel despair, discover the winter rose, hear the song of love.
Remembering that we can come to a place where we can find hope and a song of love in a world full of turmoil is something that can transform our lives. It can give us the strength to carry on when we cannot otherwise carry on.
This brings me to my final observation about transformation. Real transformation is most evident in the ways we live our daily lives. It is the way in which a regular religious discipline or spiritual practice shifts our understanding of the self slowly, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. It is the way in which being part of a religious community changes our weekly habits. Rather than belonging to the church of sleeping-in or early Sunday brunch, we devote ourselves to the project of collective liberation and self-transformation. Instead of making our way alone, we join in a covenant with other members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston to, in Rebecca Parker’s words, “break through silence and in great laughter... [shake] the foundations of this world’s structures of denial and exclusion.” Instead of giving ourselves over to despair, “we struggle,” in the words of the great Santee Dakota and Mexican poet John Trudell,
taking each day
one at a time
the mending and the breaking
creating patterns for our life.
We struggle knowing that transformation is about shifting the patterns of our lives. The patterns that change slowly as we pursue a religious discipline. The patterns that change slowly as we are part of a religious community. The patterns are evident in the ways in which we orient our lives: towards the great projects of self-transformation and collective liberation.
So, where to begin? With individual or collective transformation? I suppose that it matters little. Each is bound up in the other.
Transformation, the work of the religious community. Transformation, a project that requires intention, a commitment to be transformed. Transformation, an individual project, something we pursue on our own seeking to shift, to open up, the self. Transformation, a collective project that requires the work of many. Transformation, a daily project, whose evidence is written in the very flesh of our lives.
Transformation, this Sunday, as we conclude our sermon, let us open ourselves to its possibilities. Let us commit or recommit to keeping a religious discipline. Let us sing together. Let us bring each other hope. Let share the song of love. Let us remember that through such actions we can transform our world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Nov 1, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, October 29, 2017
It is rare to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of something. We celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this congregation a few weeks back. Were you there for the ecumenical camp meeting? It was a memorable affair. The sun, bright and hot, the bandstand filled with representatives of the diversity of the local faith community; I said a few words about Unitarian Universalism. I shared with the gathering the sentiments of our Universalists ancestors who believed that a loving God does not punish his or her creations with eternal damnation. And I offered a blessing for Ashby’s next two hundred and fifty years. Members from our congregation collaborated with the congregationalist church across the street in a moving performance of bluegrass gospel. There were prayers and hymns to Mary by Father Jeremy St. Martin, the local Catholic priest. The local pentecostal church closed the event with an electrified praise band.
However rare it is to have a two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it is even rarer to have a five hundredth anniversary. And, yet, here we are, marking the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Today we fill our pulpit with talk of a religious revolution. Thousands, no tens of thousands, no perhaps even hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries contain, this Sunday, similar words.
As we think about the Protestant Reformation, it is worthwhile to cast our minds back to the sultry Sunday afternoon of the ecumenical camp meeting. In the four participating congregations, we can see four of the major strains of religion that emerged after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on a castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ashby Congregational Church could be taken to represent what scholars call the Magisterial Reformation. This is the mainstream of Protestantism. It finds within the Bible divine sanction for earthly authorities.
St. John the Evangelist might stand for the reforms sparked within the Roman Catholic Church as a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The very fact that Father St. Martin spoke and prayed in English rather than Latin should remind us that the Protestant Reformation dramatically reshaped the Catholic Church. A major complaint of Luther and many of the reformers who proceeded him was that the church did not speak to people in their own languages. Some even argue that Luther’s greatest accomplishment was translating the Bible into German.
Crossroads Community Church may symbolize the nineteenth and twentieth-century Protestant reactions to rigorous biblical criticism. These have coalesced in more recent decades into pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. Such congregations often take the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, only scripture, to the extreme and insist that the Bible contains literal truths that contemporary science and biblical scholarship have shown to be empirically untrue.
Our own First Parish Church embodies what has been called the Radical Reformation. The great Unitarian Universalist historian George Huntston Williams described the Radical Reformation as a “a radical break from the existing institutions and theologies” of its times. He claimed it was driven by a desire “to restore primitive Christianity and to prepare for the imminent advent of the Kingdom of Christ.” The radical break that the Radical Reformation represented remains familiar to many of us, even if the forces that drove it seem less so. None of us, I imagine, want to go back to the religion described in the Christian New Testament or anticipate the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God. Most of us, I suspect, are attracted to Unitarian Universalism because it proclaims theological views that are still held suspect by the larger culture. One of these is that a loving God does not offer eternal punishment.
The Magisterial Reformation, a reformed Roman Catholicism, pentecostalism, the Radical Reformation... with his apocryphal bang, bang, bang, Luther did not intend to hammer the sixteenth-century Catholic Church into separate pieces. He intended to reform it, to purge it of corrupting elements. None of his ninety-five theses called for the creation of a new church. He sought instead to repair an existing one, to help call it back to, in his view, the true theology and practice of Christianity.
Yet, Luther’s ninety-five theses broke the Catholic Church into a thousand pieces. Today there are Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, and, well, the list could go on and on to encompass another hundred, nay another two hundred, variants of Christianity and Post-Christian traditions. This mosaic of religious belief and practice could not have been imagined by Luther when he perceptively declared, “There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.” Nor could have even a shadow of it passed across his eyes when he complained, “those who preach indulgences are in error.”
The great variety of found in world Christianity offers perhaps the single most important, and obvious, lesson from the Protestant Reformation. Our actions have unintended consequences. These words may appear trite. They may seem the wrong lesson to lift-up as we mark the beginning of the articulation of the five great solas of Protestant life. You might think it would be better to focus this morning’s sermon on sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria--only scripture, only faith, only grace, only Christ, and Glory to God Alone--as we remember the bang, bang, bang of Luther’s theses.
And, yet, what is more applicable to our lives, debates about the finer points of Protestant theology or considering how our choices can have unintended consequences? The later is really one of the great moral questions. Especially, when we consider the question the issue of accountability. Are you responsible if you intend good but cause harm? Are you responsible if your actions have unexpected benefits?
Think about it. We can imagine examples from the mundane, sublime, and grotesque. Ever buy a squash and scoop out the insides when you prepare to cook it? I remember doing so in a house I lived in some years back. We had a compost pile. I dutifully put the stringy squash bits, rind, and seeds in it. Next year, squash vines growing from the compost pile! Was I responsible for planting the squash?
There are entire schools of aesthetics devoted to appreciating the unexpected, unanticipated, or unintended. The great jazz artists knew this. Mile Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum... Each has been quoted as saying some variant of, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note.” “There are no mistakes in jazz.” Or “do not fear mistakes. There are none.” For these musicians, the unexpected consequence of an action was to expand the range of possibilities, to increase the amount of beauty in the world.
My favorite these jazz aphorisms comes from Herbie Hancock by way of Miles Davis. It seems that as a young musician Hancock was frustrated with his progress. He felt stuck in a rut. All of the choices he made resulted in obvious, and therefore uninteresting, melodies. So, he went to Davis for advice. Davis cryptically told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.” Which he took to mean, don’t make the choices that will result in the obvious melodies. Open yourself to unintended and see what happens. Hancock did this and, reportedly, experienced a breakthrough.
Chance and the unintended do not just haunt beauty or the compost pile, they can have dire impacts on our lives. The very term accident has gruesome connotations. A truck hits a bicyclist who is in the driver’s blind spot. An airplane breaks apart due to a defective part. A building burns after the insulation on wires fails and an electrical blaze erupts. In such situations, we struggle to explain who is responsible for dire outcomes. Sometimes, the answers are obvious and it is possible to hold an individual or entity to account. The electrical company skimped on materials for the wires. The airplane part was rushed into service even though the manufacturer knew it might not be entirely reliable. Other times it is much more difficult to discern who is responsible. Sometimes accidents, no matter how awful, are just that, accidents: black ice on the road can cause the most careful driver to lose control; a knife can slip from the hands of the most experienced chef and result in bloody injury.
We live in a world derived from the unintended consequences of Luther’s actions. Perhaps this gives him far too much credit. There is certainly a school of historical thought that the Reformation would have happened without him. Efforts to transform the Catholic church were well underway before he issued his Wittenberg theses. When she was growing up, my mother’s family belonged to the Moravian Church, a denomination founded by the followers of Jan Hus some fifty years before Luther found himself in conflict with the papal authorities. One of the professors at Starr King School for the Ministry, one of the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries, is Waldensian. This is a Christian movement that split from the Catholic Church in the twelfth-century, some four hundred years before Luther was even born.
And yet, there some truth to the great man of history theory found in Luther. At the very least, if he had not bang, bang, banged on the castle door in Wittenberg then we would be talking about some other event that precipitated the Protestant Reformation this morning. What that would be or who it would involve we cannot know.
And so, here we are, in this world created by Luther’s unintended consequences. Should he be held accountable for them? Luther himself believed that our human actions were such that whatever we did we were more likely to cause ill than good. This is at the center of his theology. He thought we humans were too prone to error, too incapable of making good choices, too thoughtless to understand the consequences of our actions to achieve salvation on our own. It was only through the grace of God, meditated through Christ, that we might earn eternal assurance and escape damnation. He believed that faith was the path to secure this grace and that only a limited number of people would find it. The rest of us were damned.
The subsequent history of Protestant Christianity could be cast as a long argument over who is to be damned and who is to be saved. Most Christians seem to agree that only some are worthy of salvation. Which is to say, only some can fully escape the unintended consequences of their actions.
Our Universalist ancestors thought different. They believed that God loved everyone. If no one could escape the unintended consequences of their actions then everyone must be loved. There are great and folksy stories about how the early Universalist theologian and evangelist Hosea Ballou explained this doctrine. Linda Stowell relates one of these tales:
Ballou was [out] riding... when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. "All right," said Ballou with a serious face. "We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it." The farmer was shocked: "That's my son and I love him!” Ballou said, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!"
The spirit of stories like this are encapsulated in the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, that we believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Whatever the consequences of our actions, each human life has worth and dignity. It really is a radical statement and one that runs counter to almost every dominant trend in our society. It suggests we question the criminal justice system, the distribution of wealth, the use of force in solving conflicts... If each human life has worth and dignity then our society needs to think about punishment, economic equality, and violence differently.
Luther would certainly have disapproved. As the leading representative of the Magisterial Reformation the one thing he did not want to do was question the earthly organization of power. And that really is, in the end, what makes us Unitarian Universalists the heirs to the Radical Reformation. We question the powers and principalities. We do not hold that governments have been divinely sanctioned or that the social order in sacrosanct.
This an uncomfortable position. To declare that all are loved, or that each human life is important, is truly an act of faith. To do so and suggest that we should question the power and principalities, the major institutions of our world, is, well, subversive. Even today, in 2017, five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it remains a radical act.
Let us return to the ecumenical camp meeting. There were four churches present, all heirs in some way to the Protestant Reformation. The congregationalists, upholding the mainstream Magisterial legacy; the Catholics, with their largely English language liturgy; the pentecostals, with their particular version of sola scriptura... In a technical, theological, sense none of these traditions truly proclaim a divine universal love for all of humanity. Each argues that the path to salvation, or true religious expression, lies through them alone. In contrast, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all, not all Christians, not all Americans, but all across the planet. A radical doctrine and, perhaps, an unintended consequence of Luther’s splintering bang, bang, bang.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we consider all of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, let us remember the radical love at the heart of our own faith. It remains ever subversive. We close with words attributed to our Universalist ancestor, John Murray:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.
May it be so, Amen and Blessed Be.