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Mar 31, 2018

Our Foremothers' Blessing

as preached at First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, March 25, 2018

Yesterday, Asa and I attended the March for Our Lives in Boston. It was inspiring to be in a group of tens of thousands walking from Roxbury Crossing to the Common. In a time when it is easy to despair, a movement started by high schoolers against gun violence is inspiring. The leadership of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been an important reminder that no matter how young, or how old, we are we can work to change world.

I understand that here in Ashby the March for Our Lives hosted by the congregation was quite a success. I have been told that over a hundred people turned up and there were moving speeches by several of local high school students. It is wonderful that our social justice group was able to organize such an event.

Before we get started with the sermon proper I thought it would be nice to bring the spirit of the march into our sanctuary and sing a classic protest song from our hymnal. #170 in the grey hymnal "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" is a pretty good expression of the feelings a lot of us have in response to the epidemic of gun violence. We can sing it without accompaniment, a cappella.

Thank you for singing with me. Let me start the sermon proper. When she was very young Margaret Fuller stopped on a staircase in her parents' house and asked herself four questions: "How came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?" These are big, religious, questions about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. I suspect that many of us have asked ourselves similar ones at various times in our lives. Certainly, as a religious community, we are called to ask parallel questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? How did we get to be this way? What shall we do about it?

Our religious tradition encourages us to draw from a variety of different sources when we try answer such questions. As theological liberals the most important source that we draw from has always been personal experience. It is a core principle of religious liberalism that theological reflection begins with our personal experiences. As the official list of our sources begins, we draw upon "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder... which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."

Personal experiences are not enough on their own. To find answers we turn to collective wisdom in its various forms. Collective wisdom tempers our experiences and aids us in their interpretation. One of the places we can look to for collective wisdom is in the lives and teachings of our religious ancestors.

We are blessed to number among our religious ancestors some of history's most illustrious names. Several U.S. Presidents, including John Adams, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft were Unitarian. We can claim artists and musicians like the composer Bela Bartok and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Our rolls contain social justice activists such as the leading women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the civil libertarian Roger Baldwin and the pioneering abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; scientists like Charles Darwin, Linus Pauling and the astronomer Maria Mitchell; and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Beatrix Potter.

The lives and actions of such people point the way towards the answers we might find for our big questions. This morning, in honor of Women's History Month, we are going to seek answers to our questions by exploring the lives of some of our liberal religious women ancestors. The contributions that Unitarian Universalist women have made to our movement, and to humanity, are significant. They easily merit several volumes rather than a single sermon. So to help us focus we will hone in on the life of a particular Unitarian woman, Margaret Fuller.

Fuller was a central member of the circle of writers, ministers and activists that we have come to call the transcendentalists. She edited their groundbreaking literary journal the Dial. She was also the first full-time foreign correspondent for a U.S. based newspaper and a pioneering women's rights activist. She wrote "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," a book that has come to be regarded as the foundational text of this country's women's rights movement.

Fuller's life was tragic. She drowned, with her husband and toddler son, off the coast of New York at the age of 40. Emerson, wrote on her death "I have lost in her my audience."

Fuller possessed a mind and an education that was almost unparalleled by any in her generation. She was born into a prominent Boston area Unitarian family. Her father, Timothy, was a congressman and successful lawyer. He sought to give her all of the educational advantages that he might have given a son.

He oversaw her education himself and before she was ten Margaret could read Greek and Latin. As an early adolescent she worked her way through the major works in the Latin canon and read Shakespeare and other English poets. Later she was sent a progressive school where she studied French, Italian, mathematics and the natural sciences. This was at a time when schooling was not available to most girls. The schooling that did exist for them emphasized the development of the skills necessary to manage a household and attract a husband.

New England society in the early 19th century was not structured to give women like Fuller opportunities. She wished to attend Harvard College, but it was only open to men. She wanted to make her own way in the world but all of the professions were closed to women.

She was, however, able to find a position as a teacher in a progressive school run by Bronson Alcott, the father of the writer Louisa May Alcott. She taught there and then briefly at another school for about two years before launching out on her own. Instead of starting a school she developed her own educational model. It was called the conversations and it was only open to women. A conversation differed from a lecture in that it was more participatory. Instead of announcing a topic and then holding forth on it the converser tried to inspire participants to engage in their own reflections.

Alcott, who had launched a co-educational series of conversations, called it a "Ministry of Talking." The hope was to bring the participants into a communion around a shared idea. For Fuller her conversations were essential as they offered, in her words, "a point of union to well-educated and thinking women in a city… boasts at present nothing of the kind..." She wanted her conversations to be a place where women "could state their doubt and difficulties with hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others."

In this way Fuller's conversations combined emotional support with intellectual stimulation. At a time when she could neither teach at a university nor preach from a pulpit Fuller was able to create a space where she and other women could further their education and deepen their spiritual lives. It was a safe space to explore matters that were largely regarded as the domain of men.

Her conversations proved to popular. They attracted many of the leading women of Boston, a number of whom were Unitarian. Women from as far away as New York came to participate.

It was not enough for Fuller. She wanted a larger audience and after running her conversations for a few years gradually stopped to concentrate on her editing and writing. Over the next few years she published two books, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" and "Summer on the Lakes," edited the Dial and, ultimately, secured a position on the New York Tribune.

She worked in New York for close to two years before, in her mid-thirties, accepting an offer to travel to Europe. The newspaper did not want to let her go and so made her what at the time was a remarkable offer. It would continue to pay her as long as she wrote about her travels for its readership.

Prior to Fuller's offer no newspaper in the country had a full-time correspondent in Europe. When she accepted the Tribune's offer she made journalistic history. She also created a remarkable record of mid-19th century Europe. She met with, and wrote about, many of the leading literary, political and artistic figures of the continent. She visited the poet William Wordsworth, befriended the French writer George Sand, Sand's lover the composer Frederic Chopin, and the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.

Mazzini was to a play an important role in both Fuller and Italy's future. In a Tribune column about him she wrote words that ultimately might be taken for a summation of both her personal justice philosophy and Unitarian moral theology. They read, "there can be no genuine happiness, no salvation for any, unless the same can be secured for all."

This sentiment was certainly present in her "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." In it she argued that human development and liberty would never be complete until both men and women enjoyed the freedom to develop their full human potential. In this she was partially inspired by her own Unitarian tradition, particularly the teachings of William Ellery Channing and the pioneering British feminist Mary Wolstonecraft, author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."

Fuller noted that Channing's claim that all souls contained within the likeness of God extended to women as well as men. Wolstonecraft's call for women's rights inspired Fuller but it was her achievements as a writer in general, and not her "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in particular, that was important. Someone like Wolstonecraft, who was both successful and, because of her gender marginalized, demonstrated to Fuller both the women's potential and the sad reality that that potential went largely untapped.


The intellectual and religious relationship between Channing, Fuller and Wolstonecraft suggests how exploring the life of one of our foremothers is related to our annual stewardship campaign, which runs the month of March. We have a religious tradition because of those who came before us. Fuller's work built off of the teachings and writings of other religious liberals like Channing and Wolstonecraft. Our religious community benefits from the heritage Fuller and others like her have bequeathed us.

That bequest is a generous gift. It is a gift that we can repay by preserving and, if possible, improving our community for the next generation. This is the very definition of stewardship, preserving what we have been given so that it might be passed on. Such stewardship is rooted in both gratitude and generosity. We do it because we are grateful for the gifts that we have been given. We are generous because the generosity of previous generations has ensured that we have a tradition to inherit.

As stewards of a tradition we are also tasked with its guardianship. I am reminded of this each election season when politicians and religious leaders on the right try to co-opt our liberal religious tradition for their own purposes. An example of this which you may be aware of is an anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List. The list creates voting guides to anti-abortion politicians. It claims that in doing so it is working "in the spirit and tradition of the original suffragettes."

Such claims are revisionist history. Anthony's opinions about abortion are not particularly clear. The quotes that the List uses to bolster its claim are ambiguous. One for instance, seems to point more to a critique of a male dominated society than an attack on abortion. Anthony observed, "The statutes for marriage and divorce, for adultery, breach of promise, seduction, rape, bigamy, abortion, infanticide-all were made by men." Another comes from a diary entry written after she visited her brother and found her sister-in-law sick in bed after an abortion. She wrote, "She will rue the day she forces nature."

Even if these quotes represented an anti-abortion sentiment on Anthony's part it is difficult to use them to suggest that she would have been part of the so-called pro-life movement. Abortion in the nineteenth-century was something different from abortion in the twenty-first century. Abortions, like most medical procedures then, were risky and pregnancy itself was frequently life threatening. Just as importantly, children often did not survive childhood so attitudes towards the importance and value of a child's life were different than they are today.

These differences remind us of one of the most important lines separating religious liberals from religious conservatives. As religious liberals we hold truth to be mutable and changeable. What is true for one generation might not be true for the next because human culture is always changing and human knowledge is always expanding.

We believe, in other words, that revelation is ongoing and continuos. As Fuller's good friend Emerson preached in his famous "Divinity School Address," we are charged to "speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new revelation."

This is not true of religious conservatives. In contrast to us they belief that the truth is unchanging and that religious knowledge is fixed. In their minds, a quote taken from a scripture written three thousand years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Likewise a passage from a diary written a hundred years ago must mean the same thing today that it did then. Because of this lack of critical sophistication, Emerson described conservative's belief about revelation this way, they understand that "the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead."

It is not our tradition to believe that revelation was given once for all time. If it was women like Anthony and Fuller would have accepted the roles society assigned for them. Instead, Anthony and Fuller believed that social norms and society change over time. If those were unjust people could struggle to change them.

In evaluating whether a group like the Susan B. Anthony List can claim to be the stewards of the tradition they say they represent we must ask two questions: Are they comfortable with the changing nature of society and a changing understanding of truth? Or do they seek to preserve the current social order and social understandings? If the answer is that they are comfortable with social change then they can rightly claim their role as stewards. If not, then not.

At the core of the tradition that Fuller and Anthony represent is the conscience; the idea that within us we each have the ability to make moral decisions. The way Fuller cultivated this ability suggests that most elusive of beasts, the Unitarian mystic and spiritual tradition. It is often lamented that we Unitarian Universalists do not have a tradition of spiritual practice of our own. The majority of us who engage in spiritual practice borrow it from another tradition. We practice yoga or meditation, we engage in prayer. But when asked what sort of spiritual practice we have within our tradition we are frequently at a loss.

The life of Margaret Fuller, and her transcendentalist contemporaries, suggests that there is an authentic Unitarian spiritual practice. The purpose of that practice is to nurture the conscience. Its discipline is three-fold. It begins with contemplative journal keeping. In the journal a person regularly records his or her daily interactions with others and struggles with the wider world. One of the reasons we know so much about people like Fuller and Emerson is because we have access to their journals.

Journal keeping is supplemented by engagement with the natural world. Each of the transcendentalists wrestled with humanity's relationship with nature. In "Summer on the Lakes," for instance, Fuller sought to understand how the Great Lakes region was being transformed as it was settled by Europeans. She wanted to know what was being lost in that process and what was being gained. Additionally, throughout her life she regularly took three or four hour daily walks to center herself.

The third part of the discipline is putting the conscience into action. As the conscience is discovered through the journal and stimulated in the natural world it leads one to act. For most of the transcendentalists these actions were taken as individuals. Henry David Thoreau famously went off into the woods and committed civil disobedience on his own.

Ideally, this spiritual practice all takes place within a community where people are free to dialogue about their discoveries. The community can offer support when the struggle of conscience becomes difficult. It can also offer correction and guidance when one appears to act counter to the conscience.

Fuller's time in Europe led her to put her conscience in action not as an individual but as part of a reform movement. In the late 1840s she moved to Italy and supported the efforts to unify the Italian peninsula under a single democratic government. At the time Italy was broken into nine different states, each ruled by a monarch or despot.

Inspired by her friend Mazzini, Fuller became part of the movement to change that. In doing so she met and married a young Italian aristocrat. The two had a child and when the Italian revolution of 1848 collapsed they fled to the United States together. They did not to make it. Their ship sank, and the entire family drown, within sight of the shore.

But after her death Fuller's legacy has lived on. Looking to her life we find some possible answers to our questions: Who are we as Unitarian Universalists? We are a justice seeking people called to follow our consciences. How did we get to be this way? Through a rich tradition that reminds us that truth is ever changing and knowledge ever expanding. What shall we do about it? Be good stewards and carry that tradition forward.

That it may be so we close with these words from another liberal religious leader, Loretta Williams:

We, bearers of the dream, affirm that a new vision of hope is emerging.
We pledge to work for that community in which justice will be actively present.
We affirm that there is struggle yet ahead.
Yet we know that in the struggle is the hope for the future.
We affirm that we are co-creators of the future, not passive pawns.

So may it be
and Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Parish Church Ashby Margaret Fuller March for Our Lives Susan B. Anthony Ralph Waldo Emerson Mary Wollstonecraft William Ellery Channing Loretta Williams Susan B. Anthony's List Abortion Giuseppe Mazzini

Feb 3, 2018

You and I (Ashby)

as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, January 7, 2018

Happy New Year! I am glad I am with you for the first Sunday of 2018. I hope that however bitter the winter, the coming spring and summer will be sweet for all of us. As longtime forager for mushrooms, I think a wet winter augurs well for the spring. I like to imagine that somewhere deep beneath the crusts of frozen snow this year's morels are already stirring. It seems best to find natural hope in the ice during a season like the one we are having. You probably have your own mental tricks for getting through the winter.

The season, for me, is a reminder of a general claim I want to make about our religious life together and what it means to be human. We need each other to survive. We can only make it from one bitter winter to the next because of all of the infrastructures of human society--the collective cleverness that created furnaces, that first cultivated fire, that built heated houses, and crafted warm clothes.

This month during the two services I am leading we will be exploring how we come to know the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. The technologies we use to survive the winter are products of our collective efforts. The same is true of whatever path we might take towards that which is called enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana. That path is not one we travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.

The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:

"If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist."

The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.

This past year we celebrated Thoreau's two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, "I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town." He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, "Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson..."

My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague's assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau's connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.

When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic "Walden:"

"When I wrote the following pages... I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, 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."

"I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself," such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self we are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...

We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.

I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.

One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce "Utah" Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: "You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed."

When I think about Ammon's words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from all of the privileges of economic class and racial caste that I was born into. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and an escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. He rendered salvation as "the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims." He suggested that there is "great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal."

We might put Royce's thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, "lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself."

But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, "Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression." The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world "armed to the teeth" then we must do so together.

This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.

Lorde advises us, "community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist." I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience is my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.

There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we will either achieve together or we will perish as a species like fools. Has that not been the true story of all of the tumultuous news of the last year? Is that not the story of the news of all of the years of our lives? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?

In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.

The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travelers what they are doing. They reply, "making stone soup." The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so, it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.

After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:

May my words,
however imperfect,
and our time together,
however brief,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
achieved together.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsTags First Parish Church Ashby Ralph Waldo Emerson Thich Nat Hahn Stone Soup Josiah Royce Ammon Hennacy Audre Lorde Utah Phillips

Two Bodies, One Heart (Ashby)

as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, January 21, 2018

This week marked the year anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump. Shortly before he was inaugurated, I preached a sermon to a different congregation in which I said that one of our most important tasks for the coming years was to nurture the spiritual practices that would sustain us through difficult times. Today, as part of my two-sermon series on the self as social creature, I want us to consider one of those spiritual practices: the practice of friendship.

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. 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's tragic death, she was forty when she drowned at sea, prompted him 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, hustling through Boston, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or driving a taxi through Mumbai's mazing 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 almost always 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 as 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. Just 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. 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 is a pretty powerful common center.

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 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.

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 had never done before but will certainly do again. We delighted in its silky sweet eggey texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and reminds me I should try to make the world a better place. I recommit to justice work and march to oppose white supremacy and racial hatred.

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.

CommentsTags First Parish Church Ashby Ralph Waldo Emerson Henry David Thoreau Margaret Fuller Friendship Aristotle Elizabeth Bishop

Nov 13, 2017

You and I

as preached at the First Parish Cambridge, November 12, 2017

The reading for this sermon was Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Thank-You Note.”

It is always a pleasure to lead service here in Cambridge. As a member of the congregation and a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves elsewhere, I relish the opportunity to worship amongst friends. I am grateful to Adam’s invitation to fill the pulpit. He is off this Sunday speaking at the Indivisible conference in Worcester as part of a panel on “Race, Justice and Action.” It makes my heart glad to know that he is sharing a Unitarian Universalist message about how to “work against racial injustice and white privilege in all the issues we tackle” with a wide progressive audience. One of the most important things we do as Unitarian Universalists is offer our prophetic voice to the public sphere. Adam’s work today is a reminder that what we do outside of these sanctuary walls matters as much as what we do when we gather for worship. In this age of nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe it is crucial that we respond to Martin King’s insight “We must learn to live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” Though the words are unfortunately gendered, they express the deep truth of our era--salvation is social, not individual. Put another way, authentic spiritually or religion in 2017 is not about what any one of us do by ourselves. It is about what we do together.

This is a complicated Sunday to offer a sermon. The Christian theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, “The Christian should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Now, I am not a Christian. Newspapers are not what they used to be. I have interpreted this apocryphal quote as offering a suggestion about prayer and preaching. It implies that our worship should simultaneously be rooted in the reality of the present moment and the depth of our religious tradition.

This week the news has been filled with major stories. If I was to follow the advice of preaching with the newspaper in one hand I would have to construct a sermon that somehow addressed the horror of yet another mass shooting. This time it was at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas. I would need to speak to the almost endless revelations that have unveiled deep patterns of sexual predation throughout the echelons of male power. I would be required to reflect upon the results of Tuesdays elections. The coalition of women, people of color, and transgendered people that won office throughout the country has given many liberals and some leftists cause for celebration in the face of despair. And I would be obliged to gesture towards Veterans Day.

Instead of addressing these events directly I am going to make a general claim about our religious life together. I am also going to offer a gentle nudge about what it means to be human. Adam told me that this month in worship the congregation is exploring different ways of knowing the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. Whatever path might be taken to towards that which we call enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana is not one travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.

The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:

“If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”

The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.

This year is Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson...”

My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.

When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, 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.”

“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self you are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...

We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.

I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.

One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”

When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from the systems of “racial injustice and white privilege” that Adam is off today speaking prophetically against. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...

I owe a lot
to those I do not love.

This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. The originator of the phrase “beloved community,” he rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal.”

We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”

But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.

This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.

Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.

There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Is that not the story of all of the news of the week? Is that not the story of the news of every week? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?

In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.

The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.

After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:

May my words,
however imperfect,
and our time together,
however brief,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
achieved together.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Parish Cambridge Adam Dyer Wislawa Szymborska Karl Barth Thich Nhat Hanh Buddhism Henry David Thoreau Ralph Waldo Emerson Margaret Fuller Grucho Marx Howard Dana Walden Utah Phillips Martin Luther King, Jr. Josiah Royce Audre Lorde

Nov 6, 2017

Through All the Tumult and the Strife

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.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags First Parish Ashby Ordination Ralph Waldo Emerson William Blake Virtue Ethics Glykon James Baldwin Chicago Seminary Gerta Weissman Klein Rebecca Parker Ethics Aesthetics How Can I Keep from Singing?

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