Nov 19, 2019
as preached on November 9, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, TX
The dedication of a new building for a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a momentous occasion. Every community is made better by having a place for Unitarian Universalism within it. Unitarian Universalists have long dedicated themselves to serving the wider community. Large and small our congregations have improved every city and town, village and suburb, in which they have been located.
In many cases our congregations have been the only places where people could freely gather to share their authentic selves and pursue their authentic truths. We have frequently offered the only religious oasis for the GLBTQ community. We have long been a place for political dissidents and critical thinkers who otherwise could not find a comfortable home. We are a non-creedal religious tradition. We welcome into our ranks atheists, humanists, and pagans alongside liberal, non-Trinitarian, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Historically, we have played a vital role in the struggle for justice.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries our forbearers opened their congregations to abolitionists and suffragists. During the Civil War, the first all black regiment from the North was funded by a Unitarian congregation in Massachussets. Some of the earliest women’s rights conventions were led by our co-religionists. In more recent decades, Unitarian Universalist congregations have played crucial roles in launching the public radio movement, sustaining the anti-war movement, confronting the AIDS crisis, fighting for civil rights, queer liberation, and women’s rights, and working for the environmental justice movement. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were started in our churches.
Our orientation to community improvement and building the just society comes from our theology. We are a this-worldly religion. We find this sentiment expressed by this campus’s namesake, Henry David Thoreau. The story is told that when he was on his deathbed a friend leaned near and speculated, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” “One world at a time,” was Thoreau’s reply.
One world at a time; we Unitarian Universalists do not orient ourselves to some distant heaven. Instead, under the starry firmament of this cosmos and with our bodies placed upon the good soil of this planet we commit to journey through life together. Together we seek the truth, love each other and the human family as best can, and work for the just society.
This campus is named for Henry David Thoreau, a man who attempted to embody these principles. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian in Concord, Massachussets. Much debate has taken place over his connection to Unitarianism as an adult. The pertinent facts are these: he spent his entire adult life in the company of Unitarian ministers such as Theodore Parker, former ministers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian feminists, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody; his funeral service took place in the Unitarian First Parish Church in Concord, and was presided over by a Unitarian minister; and he resigned his membership from First Parish Concord as a protest against a minister’s unwillingness to speak out against slavery. He was, in other words, an archetypal Unitarian--an individual guided by his conscience and living in tension with a society that failed to meet his ethical standards.
Looking to Thoreau’s life we find four lodestones that we would be well advised to take as our own. These are naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion. Naturalism: Thoreau understood that we humans are part and parcel of the natural world. He counseled that the moral law was to be found by looking to the woods and the rivers. This is wise guidance for our contemporary age when we find ourselves ever more tied to the world of technology. His sense that human wisdom was found in the rushing waters and in the knotty forests led him to observe, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The further we get from our connection to the natural world the further we drift from our own humanness. And so, it is good that this new campus we dedicate today is upon five acres of grass and brush--a space to play, a space to see the lights of the heavens, and a space to consider our connection to the great all of being.
Transcendentalism: Thoreau was part of the generation of Unitarian thinkers who came to be known as the Transcendentalists. They believed that religious truth is discovered through intuition. It was not inscribed forever in scripture. It was found by looking within and probing the mind’s infinite fathoms. They understood that the divine resides within each of us. “The highest revelation is that God is in every man,” Thoreau’s great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson taught in the gendered language of his day.
It is difficult to appreciate how radical Transcendentalism was in the nineteenth century United States. It was a religious philosophy that recognized that religious truth was not only found in the Christian New Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It did not point to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was first major religious philosophy to arise in Europe or the United States that taught that the world’s religions all contained wisdom. It opened the way for people of European descent to turn to yoga, meditation, or the poetry of the Sufi teacher Rumi. It is why we Unitarian Universalists use the verses from many traditions in our worship services, such as these from the fifteenth-century Hindu mystic Mirabai: “What is this world? A patch of gooseberry bushes. It catches on the way to the one we love.”
There are echoes of Thoreau’s naturalism and transcendentalism in Mirabai’s words. This is not a coincidence. The Transcendentalists were the first major philosophers of European descent to look to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They found beauty within these traditions and, through them, were inspired to connect more deeply with the divine. When we think of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists we should remember that the moral law lies within but can be found in the wilds of the world, the wisdom of the great religious teachers, and among all those who attempt to live lives of conscience.
Community: Thoreau is often portrayed as the great American individualist. He went to Walden woods to experiment with self-reliance and find freedom. He built a cabin and tried to live by his own efforts. He believed in the sovereignty of the individual conscience. He felt that the slave holding war making society that he lived in was corrupting and wanted to see if he could live apart from it.
And yet, Thoreau’s individualism is only half of his story. He was always seeking truth through community. He and his friends constantly debated and sought to discover their higher callings together. Even in his retreat in Walden, in the cabin he built himself, he ensured that there was room for others. In his famous text he wrote, “We belong to the community.” Throughout his time at Walden he frequently visited his friend Emerson’s house for discussion and dinner.
Thinking about Thoreau we should remember that the success of the individual is rarely possible without the community. Yes, there is a tension between the community and the individual. But it was Thoreau’s relationship with his Unitarian community, that ultimately allowed him to blossom as an individual. Without the support of Emerson or others in his circle it is likely that he never would have succeeded as a writer or philosopher.
Prophetic Religion: Naming a campus after Henry David Thoreau must be read as an act of bravery. Thoreau is one of the most politically radical figures in European American history. It is possible to claim that he is the most important political philosopher that the country has yet produced. His essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more commonly called, “Civil Disobedience,” is one of the foundational texts of the theory of non-violent resistance to government. Thoreau’s belief that the moral law lies within led him to believe that when there was a conflict between moral law and human law the only faithful, ethical, course of action was to choose the moral law. He wrote his famous essay after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay war taxes in support of the Mexican-American War, a war that, incidentally, ultimately brought the state of Texas into the Union and was fought primarily to expand slavery.
The influence of Thoreau’s essay can be traced through the great Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy to Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the mass movements of civil disobedience against injustice, tyranny, and ecocide today. Echoes of Thoreau’s call to the moral of conscience are found in Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, school striking for climate action, and on the streets in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere as people demand a better world.
Thoreau’s prophetic impulses made many of contemporaries uncomfortable. This is all the more true because in the years following his composition of “Civil Disobedience” he came to believe that slavery in South, including here in the state of Texas, could only be overcome with armed resistance. He was a vocal defender of John Brown. He called the man who led the armed raid on Harpers Ferry, the catalyst to the Civil War, “an angel of light” and compared the executed abolitionist to Jesus, saying, “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.”
Thoreau’s endorsement of Brown most likely makes many of us uncomfortable. I have certainly found it challenging to wrestle with. Just as I have found Thoreau’s statement, “The only government that I recognize,--and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small the army,--is that power that establishes justice in the land,” an inspiration in my own attempts to live by my conscience.
What Thoreau’s prophetic postions remind us is that the quest to live accordance with one’s conscience is never an easy one. The path less trod contains many a rock upon which we might stumble. It will often place us as an outlier to the wider society. And we may never know the impact our work for justice will have. Thoreau could not possibly have imagined the influence his essay on “Civil Disobedience” would enjoy across the globe.
Naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion, this campus has been named for Henry David Thoreau. The pillars of his life imply a charge for the gathered congregation as we dedicate this building. We are in era of profound crises: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. Let the namesake of this campus remind its members, all members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and people of good heart everywhere:
that we are part and parcel of the natural world;
that what happens to the green grasses, the rushing rivers, and the singing woods, will, ultimately, happen to our human species;
that there is a moral law within that we must follow in times of crisis if we are to lead lives of authenticity and spiritual honesty;
that there is but one human family and that there is wisdom spread across the planet;
that when we are confronted with injustice we are called to act;
that none of us, ever, is truly alone
and that every individual is stronger for being part of a community.
Oh spirit of love and justice,
that some of us call God,
and others know by many names,
we pray to you that
the Thoreau campus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
will make the community of Fort Bend County
better by its presence,
it will provide a space for children to learn to make justice
and love the truth,
for adults to share and find their authentic selves,
and for all who cross its threshold
or hear its name
to know that here in Richmond, Texas,
there is a religious community
that embodies love beyond belief,
nurtures the good heart,
binds up the broken,
and engages in the difficult,
work of building a better world.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Nov 18, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 17, 2019
The Trappist monk, mystic, peace activist, and scholar Thomas Merton wrote about how he decided to pursue saintliness. One spring night he and a friend were walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. The subway was being dug. The street was torn up--there were banks of dirt “marked out with red lanterns” lining sidewalks and piled up high in front of the shops. This was the 1940s. It was before Merton became a monk, when he was still a young man. Merton and his friend, someone who went on to become a noted poet, were arguing, passionately, about something.
Suddenly, Merton’s friend turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
Merton recalls his answer, “I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English...,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged.”
Then Merton tried to formulate his response. He said, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”
Merton’s friend was not satisfied, “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton admitted that he was confused. And so, his friend continued to press him. “What you should say,” Merton’s friend informed him, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
“A saint!... ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’,” was Merton’s reply.
“By wanting to,” his friend said simply.
Merton was filled with self-doubt. “I can’t be a saint. I can’t be a saint,” he answered back. He recounts that in that moment, “my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the they must reach... cowardice.”
Merton’s friend would have none of it. He told him, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
Merton described this story in his spiritual classic the Seven Storey Mountain. It was the first major work that he published. For many people, especially of the Vietnam War generation, he went on to become exactly the person who his friend was prompting him to be, a saint.
Merton’s Catholic theistic theology may not resonate with most you but his narrative touches upon the theme of our sermon this morning. This is my second sermon for you on courage. We might define courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. We exhibit courage when we acknowledge our fears, admit that there are ills which might befall us, and act anyway.
Last week I spoke with you about collective courage. Collective courage is the way that we can collectively face our fears and struggle to find new ways of being. It is the expressed in the seventeenth-century universalist phrase, “turn the world upside down.” It is the act of working together to confront social crises--great and small--and then attempting to reorder society.
This week I want to speak with you about individual courage. What I mean here is finding the courage to become the person you feel called to be. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about finding “the courage to be.” We humans are born with the knowledge that we will die. We witness the mortality of others and realize that death will soon come for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but each breath draws us closer to our moment of expiration. This can make us anxious. No matter what we do--no matter how carefully we eat, how much we exercise, or how many doctors we see--the threat of death cannot be overcome. “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself,” wrote Tillich.
In the face of our individual impending extinction it takes courage to continue along with life. And it takes even greater courage to be and to attempt to become, to recognize ourselves as poised on the existential void and still strive to live a life of authenticity. For Merton, it took an extraordinary amount of courage to pursue the vision of sainthood that he found with his friend that New York City night. It meant rejecting all of anxiety that told him he could not or would not or was unable to or that his life was too insignificant. Instead, it meant somehow moving past all of that and coming to recognize, in his words, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
The courage of becoming has long been prized by our religious tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” Our characters might be described as the total sum of our virtues and vices. Virtues are things about us which are praiseworthy. They are the accretions of our actions. Our actions become our habits and then eventually our habits turn to virtues--or vices--and these become our characters. And we Unitarian Universalists have long taught that we are not born with our character fixed in place--born wicked as many a conservative religious tradition teaches. But rather we are born with the capacity to become, the capacity to develop our virtues and vices.
Thomas Aquinas, the twelfth century theologian, identified four principle virtues. These are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. Over the next several months as we explore how to develop the spiritual and resources that will allow us to address the grave crises of the hour and of our lives we will be examining some of these virtues. We have started with courage because developing the courage to be is essential if we are to pursue the other virtues. Without courage it is difficult to gather the wherewithal to figure out how to be ourselves. William Ellery Channing, another nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian, wrote that the courage to become ourselves might even “be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature.” When we find it we open ourselves to the rich possibilities of life and confront the truth that we have a responsibility for forming our own characters.
Bob Schaibly used to frequently remind this congregation of this truth. During the two decades he served here he often told you some variety of, “life... [does] not have a meaning; we give life its meaning, or rather we give our lives their meanings.” Bob’s death this week prompted me to go read a number of his sermons. Reading them I found that he also often told you some variant of, “You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.” The recognition that life does not have an intrinsic meaning, the realization that we are born with what we need to pass our time on our muddy planet, it takes courage to face these truths starkly. It takes courage to admit to them and then open ourselves to becoming ourselves.
I spent a portion of this summer thinking about courage. As some of you know, Asa and I were in Europe for about five weeks with my parents. You might remember that everyone else in our family is in the arts. My father is an art historian and photographer. My mother was a ceramicist in her younger years and then, after she retired from teaching, served on a musem board. She, incidentally, makes all of my stolls. My brother is a figurative painter. His girlfriend is fashion designer. And Emma is pursuing a career in fashion photography.
Traveling with my parents meant immersing ourselves in the arts. We spent about a week in Arles, France at the giant international photography festival there. Rencontres d’Arles is even larger than Houston’s FotoFest. It brings close to a hundred thousand people to the ancient Roman city where Van Gough painted. It is a premier event in the arts world, a bit akin to the Cannes Film Festival.
My parents go most years. This year was very special. One of their closest friends, the Czech photographer Libuse Jarcovjakova was one of the featured artists. She was given the former Saint Anne’s church as an exhibition space. The building has been stripped of religious iconography. The stones have been washed white and a blonde wooden floor put in. The side chapels and the nave have been converted into a gallery that allowed Libuse to exhibit more than two hundred of her images.
Libuse is about the same age as my parents. This was her first major show. It would something of an understatement to say that it was a smash success. During the week that we spent together in Arles there were major articles about her work in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the Guardian. Walking around Arles with her was what I roughly imagine moving through Cannes with a well-known movie director. People stopped us in the street or came up to us and introduced themselves to Libuse while we ate in French cafes.
It would be fair to say that Libuse was in a bit of state of shock. In the space of a week she went from a complete unknown to an international art celebrity. And there are two things about Libuse and courage that I want to share with you. The first is about her art itself. And the second is about her life as an artist.
Libuse’s photography comes from straight from her life. It is her record of courageously becoming. Which is no small thing. She, as I mentioned earlier, is Czech. She came of age in Communist Czechoslovakia. She is also queer. To put it mildly, being a queer artist was not a form of authenticity that was largely tolerated by the Marxist-Leninist authorities. And yet, over the course of more than twenty years she took thousands of black and white photographs documenting her life, lives of those she loved and the lives of those she just happened to encounter. She used photography to attempt to make sense of her life. She told me, “Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.”
The images that garnered the most attention were from the T-Club, which was one of only two gay clubs in Prague during the Communist-era. Never entirely legal, Libuse describes it as a place for: “Convulsive laughter and genuine tears. Insightful conversation and superficial coquetry. One-night stands and love for life. Beautiful young men and beautiful young women. Effeminate “B´s” and respectable-looking gentlemen, who rebounded from their families. Female footballers, waiters, taxi drivers and most probably the secret police too.” In this “place of eternal carnival,” as Libuse called it, people were able to find the courage to be themselves.
And Libuse took photographs of them as they lived that courage. This Transgender Awareness Week, one image in particular stands out. It is of a young postman from North Bohemia who traveled to Prague to visit the T-Club. He wanted to be a woman and gender transition was not possible for him in that repressive society. And yet, there is Libuse’s photograph. In it, the young postman appears as the woman he longs to be. She’s wearing a blonde wig, flirting with the camera, beaming in a long fur coat, courageously, fully, being herself.
Libuse empathy for her subject pops right out of the frame. I can only imagine the courage that was necessary to both take the photograph and be its subject. It is quite possible that either act could have cost the photographer or her subject their livelihoods. For Libuse, even the attempt to be an artist took courage. You see, she came from an artistic family. Both her parents were artists. But they were not the kind of artists approved by the Communist Party. They painted modern abstract canvases. The Party wanted socialist realism, which depicted working people living an idealized life under the Marxist-Leninist regime.
When Libuse graduated from high school the Party had its revenge upon her parents. They her made undergo what was called forced proletarization. In other words, they denied her a college education and tried to make her become a factory worker. She wanted to be an artist like her parents. She did not give up the courage to become. Instead, she told the factory officials that while she worked in the factory, she wanted to document the glorious life of working people had under the Party’s leadership. So, she took her camera and made photographs of people at work. But she did not do it in service of the regime. Instead of showing workers nobly toiling away, she took photographs of them engaging in their everyday acts of resistance--goofing, napping, ignoring supervisors, or doing whatever else they did when they showed up to the factory and did not work. I particularly like the images she made of the creative ways people found to sleep at work--under desks, in giant steel tubes, behind piles of wooden crates...
It took a lot of courage for Libuse to make such defiant photographs. Finding this courage was necessary for her to be herself--to become an artist when her society told her explicitly that she could not be one. It also helped her to develop a sense that courage and beauty are found in everyday life. In conversation with me, she explained a bit of her philosophy, “Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
It takes courage to recognize the specialness of ordinary life. We probably will not become famous religious teachers like Thomas Merton. And we probably will not become internationally known artists like Libuse. But we can find the courage to be ourselves. After all, this is what both Libuse and Merton recommend to us. It is also what the virtue of courage offers us. When we cultivate it we find within ourselves the ability to shape our character. We are born not good or bad but with the ability to choose and in order to do so we must be courageous.
I had initially thought to end our sermon there, but the events of the week require further observations about the courage of being. I speak, of course, of the week’s impeachment hearings. They have demonstrated extraordinary instances of the courage to be by civil servants. The women and men who have testified in front of the nation have offered case studies in how we can shape our own characters. They each have decided upon a profession and then performed its actions, cultivated its habits, and, ultimately, found them embodying its virtues.
It is clear that one of the virtues of their profession is courage. In the face of intimidation by the most powerful man on Earth, the President of the United States, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine, testified on national television. In a telephone call, the President of the United States had said to the President of the Ukraine that he was displeased with Yovanovitch and that she would “go through some things,” words that for me recall mafia movies. Yet there she was, in front of the world, offering information that may well lead to the impeachment of the President.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, to “be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” And in her testimony, Yovanovitch demonstrated that whomever the President might be she can be relied upon to perform her professional duties. It was a demonstration of how she had cultivated the virtue of courage. It was a demonstration of the courage of being--of embracing the role, the profession, she had chosen for herself.
Her testimony reminded me of words by the civil rights organizer, Ella Baker. Baker said, “I am here and so are you. And we matter. We can change things.” Baker’s words are an invocation of the courage of being. They remind us that we are here and that what we do matters. It takes courage to accept this, courage to admit, as Bob Schaibly taught, that we make the meaning we find in life. Yovanovitch was reminding the world that civil servants play a significant role in government. However much the President of the United States might slight her and her State Department colleagues, they remain actively involved in shaping the destiny of the federal government. And their professional virtues, of which courage is but one, are a significant reason as to why.
Not all of us are civil servants, just as not all of us are artists or great religious teachers. And yet, there is something about the courage to be that it is found in the lives of each person I have talked with you about this morning that recommends itself to each of us. It takes courage to recognize that we have within us the potential to be something and then courage to search for that something. It is the ordinary courage of life, not something extraordinary, and it is something we can find within us.
That is what Libuse tries to communicate with her photography. Her work is not of important religious leaders like Thomas Merton or successful government officials like Marie Yovanovitch. It is of regular working people like the woman from Bohemia dressed in her furs outside the T-Club, finding a space to courageously be the woman she knew she was despite having to live as a postman. It is of regular working people discovering the courage to be their human selves amid a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime--to goof off at work, to sleep on the job.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Such courage might mean admitting that you are uncertain of who you are supposed to be and living with that ambiguity. That is certainly something of what Bob Schaibly suggested in his sermons. Before we find the courage to be we must first discover the courage to recognize that it is we who make the meaning of our lives. In some times and places this is much easier to recognize that in others. Living in New York, the child of relative wealth and privilege, it was no doubt easier for Thomas Merton to accept that he could become who he wanted to be than it was for Libuse in 1970s Prague. Finding the courage to be a queer dissident artist under the Soviets and refusing to let the officials of a totalitarian regime be the people who made meaning from her life was extraordinarily difficult. It meant creating in secrecy, without recognition, for decades. And yet, she found the courage to be.
Can you find the courage to be and become? Have you found it? Can you accept that we make meaning in our lives? It is a significant responsibility. And it means accepting that our ordinary lives--yours and mine--can contain the meaning we give them. We might be hemmed in on many sides. We might not come from lives of privilege or have the advantages of a fine education or struggle with poverty. But we can find the courage to be and discover within ourselves the resources to make meaning in our lives. And to accept that such meaning will change over time. It is like Bob Schaibly said, “at different times the meaning of your life may have been to do God’s will, or to do justice, or to love mercy, or to enjoy the fruits of creation, to complete your education, to raise your children, to get these kids through college, and so forth.” Your meaning is your own if you can cultivate the courage to make it.
This belies the universe having cosmic meaning. And it takes courage to face that, as the poet Cristina Peri Rossi wrote:
“Se necesita mucho valor
para tanta muerte inútil.”
“One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death.”
Death, like life, is only given the meaning we provide it. It takes courage to face that and to give our lives, and ultimately, our deaths meaning. And so, let me give the last words to Bob Schaibly who gave his life, and his death, meaning in part by serving this congregation, Unitarian Universalism, and our human world:
You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.
May we each, as members of this religious community and as members of the great family of all souls, cultivate within us the courage to find what we need within Bob Schaibly’s words.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Oct 10, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 6, 2019
I am a Yankee. Living in Houston has made this aspect of my identity abundantly clear. I move through the world in distinctively non-Texan ways. I do not wear cowboy boots. I cannot two-step. I do not own a car. I root for neither the Houston Texans nor the Dallas Cowboys--though we have been here long enough that Asa is a fan of the Astros and the Rockets. And probably most disconcerting for many of the Texans I have met; I do not eat meat. Barbecue is not part of my regular routine.
Part of my recognition of my own Yankee nature has come from what I might describe as my general sense of disorientation as I wander through the Houston landscape. I grew up in Michigan. I studied in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio. I am used to different trees, different flowers, and different rivers. But most importantly, I am used to different mushrooms.
You might not know that one of my great passions is foraging for mushrooms. Stick me in a Northeastern forest for a few hours sometime between the beginning of May and the end of October and I am liable to walk out with several pounds of edible mushrooms. Morels--black, yellow, and grey--, chanterelles--flaming red or colored like egg yolk--, oysters, dryad’s saddles, gem studded and giant puffballs, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, reishi, I know them all.
In Texas, I find myself uncertain in my identification of local mushroom species. There are mushrooms here that look deceptively similar to some that I eat confidently up North. They grow throughout the Museum District and in Herman Park. They have red caps and yellow stalks. They are plump, firm to the touch, solid all the way through and have pores rather than gills on the underside. They look and smell exactly like bicolor boletes--a highly prized delicacy quite similar in taste to porcinis.
Imagine my delight when, shortly after I moved here, I found dozens of these mushrooms growing around our building. Of course, I picked a number and brought them back to my office, with the intention of cooking them up that evening.
Unfortunately, the mushrooms were not bicolor boletes. Now, this not a tale of mushroom poisoning. There’s a saying among foragers: “There are old mushroom hunters. And there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” I practice an abundance of caution when it comes to mushrooms. And so, when I got back to my office I started fiddling with the mushrooms. They began to stain blue. That is a bad sign. Bicolor boletes do not stain blue. I could not positively identify them. One guidebook indicated that they might be lurid boletes. Those are edible but only grow in Europe. Another suggested that they might be boletus speciosus. Those are not found in the South. In a third they appeared to be a variety of devil’s boletes. But those smell unpleasant and these had a pleasant odor.
In the end, I decided that since I couldn’t completely figure out what they were I better not eat them. It was a disheartening experience. It made me feel disconnected, or even alienated, from the land. Normally, my knowledge of mushrooms helps me to feel connected to it.
The experience is one that I have been ruminating on over the last few weeks as we have been exploring the theme of disruption and three of the great crises of the hour. You might recall, that in worship this year we are exploring how we might develop some of the religious resources and spiritual practices to help us in the work of confronting the climate crisis, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the assault on democracy.
The roots of all three of these crises lie in disconnection or alienation. Many people in this country are alienated from the Earth and alienated from each other. The climate crisis has been created because many of us no longer understand that we are people of the Earth. As the planet goes, so goes the human species. The poet Joy Harjo offers us wise counsel when she enjoins us to:
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
I had a taste of that alienation when I found myself unable to properly identify one of the local mushrooms. One of the principal reasons I love mushroom foraging is it helps me to feel connected to, and a part of, the earth whose skin I am.
Sometimes my experiences in the North are a bit like this: I walk the woods and ramble the riverbanks looking for signs of mushrooms. It is midsummer. There has been rain. Not yesterday, the day before. It is supposed to be chanterelle season. Slow growing, densely fleshed, chanterelles have symbiotic relationships with oak trees. They entwine themselves with the roots and share nutrients creating a network of enmeshed fungi and living wood that can stretch for acres.
My eyes are scouring the leaf litter for signs of wrinkled yellow or red caps. Nothing. I walk for another hour, drifting towards that stand of ancient oak or trying my luck nearer the edge of a shallow stream. Nothing. And then, at the edge of my vision, I see a hint of yellow. I investigate. I look down and there’s a mushroom. I look up and suddenly I see hundreds of beautiful fruiting bodies. They range from tiny buttons to unfolding fractal caps the size of my fist. It is as if I have been invited to be a part of the network of mycelium and root mass that runs through the forest. In moments like that I feel part of the Earth, creation, the unnamable all of existence which we might choose to call God or name the sacred and the divine.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
In the liberal theological tradition, of which Unitarian Universalism is one of the boldest expressions, God is understood to be the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described this experience as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” This feeling of connection is at the root of what it means to be religious. The feeling of connection comes first. The words we use to describe it come later. The feeling is universal. It comes from being embodied creatures, traversing a world on which we are dependent. The words we use to describe this feeling are bound by the particularities of culture and tradition.
Contemporary Schleiermacher scholar and Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes the dynamic this way: “The first word that comes to mind to refer to this feeling of absolute dependence--for Christians... is God... For Buddhists, the first word might be Sunyata; for Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.”
The feeling is universal. The words are particular. And our society’s alienation from this unnamable mystery is at the root of the climate crisis. We use words to describe the universal. Words can separate us from each other and our experience of connection. Human and Earth... We can describe ourselves as something other than creatures of the planet. We can pretend it is possible to escape the consequences of our habits of burning fossil fuels, filling the ocean with plastic, and despoiling lands. We use words and begin to imagine this experience of connection to be an experience of disconnection, disembodiment.
We use words and we get caught up in doctrinal differences. Theist versus humanist. Unitarian Christian versus pagan. Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist... We use words and create cleavages between religious communities. The techno musician “Mad” Mike Banks once described the dynamic this way: “categories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation.”
In what remains the sermon, I want to suggest a few strategies you might use to cultivate your sense of connection, move beyond words, and overcome alienation. Think of these as spiritual practices that might aid you in fostering a sense of connection during these times of dislocation and crisis.
I offer them with insights from the German Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber was one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent scholars of mysticism. He came to understand that humans develop our senses of identity in relation to the other. “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You,” are some his most famous words.
It is only through a connection with someone or something else that we come to know ourselves. Buber called this experience I-Thou. I-Thou is an experience of pure being. I-Thou occurs when we cease to treat something or someone as an ends to a means. We view them not for their utility or use. Instead, we feel enveloped in the other, dependent, joined with, linked to them. Buber wrote, “He is no longer He or She [or They], limited by other Hes and Shes [and Theys], a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities.” In some moments, we experience other beings as “seamless” and discover that “everything else lives in [their] light.” Buber’s language is difficult, poetic, dense, and hard to decipher. This is because language fails such experiences. They are experiences and not ideas. Experiences and not words. Yet, sometimes, we can find hints of such experiences in scriptures and sermon, poetry and luminous prose. One is evoked in denise levertov’s masterful poem “The Cat as Cat:”
flex and reflex of claws
gently pricking through sweater to skin
gently sustains their own tune,
not mine. I-Thou, cat, I-Thou.
“I-Thou, cat, I-Thou,” the words only conjure. But yet, I ask you, have you ever had such moments of connection with another being? A pet? A family member? A lover? A friend? A complete stranger? For me they open up when my cat lies on my lap and sings his cat song, when I get enthusiastic hugs from my children, when I sit beneath the foggy city stars and grasp for words to fill a conversation with a friend, when I dance and lose myself in the breaker’s circle or connect soul-to-soul with a tango partner, and when I lie at the salt water’s edge and hear the backwash drag across sand.
Such moments of connection provide, in Buber’s understanding, linkage to God, the grand mystery of the universe. Now, I recognize that God is a word that makes many Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Many of us like to label ourselves atheists, agnostics, and humanists and reject God. It is all words and words divide and fail to describe the indescribable, the unnamable, that I experience, and I suspect you do as well, when I feel connected to something greater than myself.
Sometimes, in my work as a minister, I will have people come to me expressing hesitation about joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They do not believe in God, they will tell me, and therefore, they think, they cannot be part of a liberal religious community. I draw upon advice from the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church and ask them, “Tell me about this God you do not believe in. Chances are, I do not believe in that God either.”
We Unitarian Universalists often get too caught up in what theologians call the via negativa. We love to talk about what God is not and express disbelief. God is not an old white man with a beard in the sky. God is not a vengeful deity angrily coming to smite those who have strayed from rigid doctrine. God is not a being that hates anyone who fails to fit into the all too tidy box of heteronormativity. God is none of these things.
What I am suggesting this morning is that one of the religious practices that we can go back, root ourselves in, in times of crisis is to pursue the via postiva. Here Forrest Church offered us advice, “God is not God's name,” he told us. “God is our name for the mystery that looms within and looms beyond the limits of our being. Life force, spirit, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable.” God is present when we feel connected to, and not separated from, the blue green ball of a planet and the great family of all souls of which we are each but a part.
Martin Buber suggested that there were three ways we might encounter this experience of pure being, which he was unafraid to call God. We can find it, first, through nature. Second, through other beings--people and animals. And third, through art.
I offered my experience as a mushroom hunter as an example of finding the sense of connection in nature. Such episodes are important. They remind us that we are dependent upon, not separate from, this planet which is in ecological crisis. You might find them walking through the woods, strolling along a bayou, or rooting in the soil while you work your garden. Maybe you might even find it simply by gazing at a tree, as Buber himself once did. Reflecting on what he felt while communing with a tree he wrote, “Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars.”
We can also find the experience of connection with other beings, human and animal. And here I could offer many examples--some rooted in wordless intimacies and others in ecstatic conversations. Holding a newborn baby, grasping the hand of a dying loved one, singing in community, sharing a well-crafted meal, silently coordinating together as we work to refurbish a house, the litany could continue endlessly, could continue as long as we could find new permutations of relation. Buber, denise levertov, and I all apparently find the experience in our cats. Buber wrote, “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat” in the midst of an eloquent passage on his theology of relation.
And finally, there is what Buber called “spiritual beings.” Here he meant not angels or demons but rather art and knowledge. These are things created by human beings that draw other human beings into the realm of I-Thou. To truly gain knowledge, and to understand another’s knowledge, we need be present entirely to what we are attempting to learn. We have to connect to it and let its patterns unfold before us. As an undergraduate I earned a degree in physics. I remember a sense of awe and wonder that would come as I puzzled through line after line of confusing equations. Suddenly, sometimes, the solution would appear--five, six, seven lines in--an expression that represented the classical mechanics of pulleys or the way light bent as it traversed through a series of lenses. It was like a flash that illuminated our relation to the ground of being--which there I might have called the laws of science.
I have long since forsaken my scientific studies. These days I am much more likely to experience connection through art. Have you ever had the experience of being completed subsumed by a piece of art? Where the work opened up a depth of emotion for you that blotted out everything around you? Some afternoon following service I invite you to go down the block and visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Pick a piece, preferably in a quiet side gallery where you are not likely to be interrupted. I might suggest František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale.” It is found on the second floor of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, in the European painting section.
Commit to spending three minutes looking at the piece. One minute from far away, one minute a bit closer, and the final minute as close you can get. Three minutes can be a long time to look at a piece of art and in that time in might start to open itself up to you. Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” appears to be a self-portrait. The artist reclines upon a wicker chair, one hand resting upon a book, the other grasping a cigarette. He gazes straight out at you. He is awash in a sea of yellow. Only his flesh, hair, cigarette, and chair are other than yellow. The background is textured golden, the oil of the paint forming thin clots that give the painting depth. Kupka’s robe is a brighter yellow, the fabric folding, reflecting, capturing light. Even his book and pillow are yellow. Each minute I move closer to the painting, I find myself more absorbed by its details. Soon there is only the painting and I, I and the painting, a moment of pure being, pure connection, the experience of being part of something larger than myself.
Mushrooms, a tree, cat and human, knowledge and art, Buber claimed “All actual life is encounter.” As we seek the religious tools to help us deal with the great disruptions of the hour, I suggest that we open ourselves up to these experiences of encounter. They can help us understand that we are neither separate from each other nor separate from the Earth. We are not alienated from our planet or the family of all souls. We are all intricately bound together and by opening ourselves to the I-Thou, the experience of mystery, we find strength and reorientation for the struggles ahead.
We can find that sense of connection within the walls of this sanctuary as well. I suspect that it is one reason why so many of us gather together, Sunday after Sunday. Here when we lift our voices together in song, sit together in the wooden pews, or join together in meditation we can encounter the feeling of connection to a community, the feeling of connection to something greater than ourselves, the great mystery of life.
And in the last months, I have found that I can have the experience of connection even in the city of Houston. As I have walked through the streets of Montrose I have seen it there--purslane--a plant I know how to pick, eat and prepare. Small, succulent weed, thick juicy leaves, red creeping stalk, medicinal, edible, a gentle reminder to me that even when I feel alienated, disconnected, from the sweet Earth there is always the possibility of reconnection, of rerooting, of opening myself to the beauty and mystery of the all that surrounds us.
So that such moments of connection, such gentle overcomings of alienation, might be available to all of us, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Sep 9, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 8, 2019
Some years ago, I found myself in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I was there with a group of Unitarian Universalists--clergy and lay folk--who had been arrested while protesting Arizona’s newest anti-human immigration law. Most of us were from out of town. We had come to Phoenix to participate in the protests against Arizona’s vile legal code at the invitation of the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who now serves as the President of our Association. She had been urged to ask Unitarian Universalists from across the country to travel to her state, and participate in protests, by a coalition of local immigrant and indigenous activists who had come together in opposition to Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation.
Broadly speaking, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to demand to see the immigration or citizenship documents of anyone they stopped. The consequences of the law went like this: Imagine that you are an undocumented immigrant. You have a broken taillight on your car. The police pull you over for this minor traffic infraction. They force you to reveal your immigration status by demanding to see your papers. And you quickly find yourself on the path to deportation.
The law also criminalized people who provided shelter to, hired, or offered transport to undocumented immigrants. Imagine this: Your neighbor is an undocumented immigrant. They ask you for a ride to the grocery store. You drive a little too fast and get stopped for speeding. Your neighbor is forced to reveal their immigration status to the police. They find themselves headed for deportation. You find yourself headed to jail for transporting an undocumented immigrant.
The law was, in essence, the precursor to the draconian, anti-human, immigration policies of the current President. It also served as inspiration for similar anti-human legislation here in Texas. This summer the current President attempted to take the law nationwide. He has praised its chief Arizona enforcer, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for offering “admirable service to our nation.”
The protest organizers asked those of us who had citizenship status, and were willing and able to take a risk, to commit civil disobedience and get arrested. On the day the law went into effect, we attempted to shutdown both Maricopa County Jail and downtown Phoenix. We did this by blocking the major city intersections and the entrances to the jail.
I was part of a group that committed to occupy one of the intersections. We were about a dozen strong. We linked arms. We walked into the middle of the street. And we sat down, and we sang songs until the police came and dragged us out of the intense summer heat and off to jail.
I was photographed, fingerprinted, charged, and briefly placed in a general holding cell with a mixture of protestors and folks who been jailed on other charges. There was one young man, maybe twenty, who was wearing his soccer uniform--baby blue shorts and a baby blue short-sleeve shirt with white stripes. He had been stopped that morning driving back from practice. He was undocumented. He had come to the United States as a young child. His minor traffic infraction was likely to be translated into deportation to a country he barely knew. He despaired. There were others who were in a similar situation. I did not get much of their stories. Those of us who were in the jail for protesting were soon removed from the general population. We were placed in a cell together.
It was then that I met Arpaio. He came to gloat. Accompanied by a solid half-dozen stout Sheriff’s deputies, he entered the cell we were being held in and asked us questions like, “How do you like my jail? Would like to stay for awhile?” To be honest, he reminded me of one the cartoon villains I used to watch on television when I was a kid. They had names like Snidely Whiplash, sported absurd moustaches and ridiculous cowboy hats (Arpaio was wearing a large black one), and had penchant for tying people to railroads and chortling at their victim’s fate. Of course, in the cartoons the villain was always foiled. Not so with Arpaio. He was given a presidential pardon after he was convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to deport immigrants.
Things got tense in the cell. A couple of the younger protestors tried to argue with him. His minions bristled. I was afraid there was going to be physical violence. A few of us managed to defuse the situation, largely by praying. Arpaio got bored and left. And we were stuck in our cell.
Jail is fine place for theology. Paul of Tarsus wrote at least two of his letters while in prison. Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay on civil disobedience after spending the night in jail for failing to pay a war tax. Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks are some of the most important works of twentieth century political theory. Martin King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And, of course, Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black” following her prison stay.
It might not surprise you that we choose to honor the tradition of jailhouse theology. We began by reflecting on our encounter with Arpaio and his henchmen. We thought about the nature of jail and what it exactly it was that we were protesting. Soon, I found myself talking with one of the local leaders of the protests, a Nahuatl-Xicano organizer by the name of Tupac Enrique Acosta.
Tupac and I found that we agreed that white supremacy was at the root of Arizona’s immigration law. We speculated that it provided the motivation for Arpaio’s behavior. White supremacy is a belief. The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily summarized it this way, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
Race is not a natural category. It has little biological reality. Skin color has about as much to do with someone’s overall genetic makeup as their eye color or hair color. There is no such thing as the white race. Whiteness is an idea that been created over time to justify the power that some people exercise over other people. It is a belief that is used to justify the violence that people who believe themselves to be white enact upon people with brown and black bodies as they despoil land to create white wealth.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has described this process clearly. He writes that whiteness is “a modern invention.” Before people “were white” they “were something else... Catholic, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish... the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; [and] the destruction of families.”
In that jail cell, Tupac and I talked about the political moment we were in and the process by which whiteness was created. He explained the purpose of Arizona’s anti-human immigration legislation succinctly. Its “purpose,” he told me, “was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” If we were going ever defeat the legislation in Arizona and prevent families from being ripped apart and end the violence men like Arpaio inflicted upon society then we had to disrupt and deconstruct these beliefs. We had to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. We had move past the idea that there was such a thing as the white race. We had to prove lie to the thought that America belonged to white people.
Now, you probably know that I carry around a fair amount of history, theology, and philosophy in my head. The same is true for Tupac. Together we traced out the history of whiteness. We talked about its origin points and the moments when the belief that there are such things as separate races came into existence. We talked about how it was that some people came to believe that they were white, and that whiteness was superior to blackness, brownness, redness, yellowness, or any other skin color. We talked about how colonizers came to believe that they were better than indigenous people. And we talked about all these ideas were lies. And that the truth was that there is only one human race. And that we are all indigenous to Mother Earth.
It was a very long conversation. We began it there, in jail, and continued it for many months afterwards, once we had been released. It was filled with lots of technical details, fancy terms from philosophy and theology, narratives of historical events, and discussions of the relationship between the human imagination and human reality. It would take me hundreds of pages, dozens of hours, to fully recount or accurately reconstruct. So, let me just share with you the four major points.
The human imagination is the most powerful force in human life and human culture. We imagine our reality into being. Race, religion, economics, politics, begin as stories that we imagine. We use these stories to organize our communities and our lives. We use them to create things that had not existed before. This is true on a mundane and a profound level. On the mundane level, let us pretend that you are hungry. You decide that you want a sandwich. You get some bread--I prefer crusty sourdough. You get a tomato--there are still a few in season if you know where to look. You get a bit of arugula--I guess this actually my sandwich. Anyway, I get some argula and a bit of eggplant I fried the other night. I put it all together and viola, I have a delicious sandwich. I imagined something and then I brought it into being.
The same is true of all of the great institutions and categories that exist in the world. That jail cell that were we in began as someone’s idea. Some architect imagined and designed it before construction workers built it. Before that some people imagined that there should be such a thing as jails. They imagined things like laws and then imagined a category of people they called criminals who did not live in accordance to those laws. And then they imagined police who would enforce laws and place criminals in jail.
One of the primary expressions of imagination is religion. Religion might be partially be understood as those stories we tell each other about: what it means to be born; the purpose of our time on Earth; and the reality that we must die. There are lots of religious stories in the world, lots of ways that communities attempt to narrate the meaning of this rich mess we call life. One of the most powerful of these is Trinitarian Christianity.
Trinitarian Christianity is organized around the story of sin and salvation. At the heart of the Trinitarian Christian imagination is the idea that we are born sinners and that unless we overcome our sin our destiny is an eternity of torment in Hell. The path to overcoming sin, in this story, is by achieving salvation through Jesus Christ. It is only by having knowledge of Jesus, and the salvation he offers, the story goes, that you can escape eternal suffering—sometimes imagined as the pricks of sharp pitchforks wielded by grotesque demons. It is the historical mission of Trinitarian Christianity to save human beings from such a fate in the afterlife.
More than a thousand years ago, in Europe, this imagined story of Trinitarian Christianity brought into being the idea of the racial other. This happened through a series of events we now call the Crusades. The Crusades were launched to conquer Jerusalem. Trinitarian Christianity had within it ample resources that suggested it was supposed to be a religion of peace. In the Christian New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It was a long-accepted practice that Trinitarian Christians were not to launch aggressive wars.
In order to overcome this theological tendency, theologians created a legal and theological framework to justify the attempted conquest of Jerusalem. They did this by first imagining that since all people did not know about salvation through Jesus were doomed for eternity in Hell they had a moral obligation to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. In their imagination, this moral obligation came with global legal jurisdiction. Only Trinitarian Christian governments, they reasoned, could have legal standing in their political order. All other lands, like Jerusalem which was then ruled by Muslims, effectively did not have governments and were essentially empty until and free the claiming until such time as they were ruled by Trinitarian Christians.
An immediate consequence of this idea was the categorization of Jews and Muslims as “other.” Trinitarian Christians no longer viewed adherents of other religions as humans in the same way that they viewed themselves. They were to be converted and saved. And if they failed to convert they were to be removed from society less they corrupted it, rendered it less Trinitarian Christian, less pure, and endangered it. The first victims of the Crusades were not Muslims in Jerusalem. They were Jews in Europe. The Crusades launched with a massive pogrom directed against Europe’s Jewish population. This attempt to cleanse the continent of Jews resulted in the deaths of about a third of the European Jewish population.
The idea that non-Trinitarian Christian lands were empty and that they were free were taking was codified into something called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the idea that empty lands, lands without Trinitarian Christians, belong to the Trinitarian Christians who “discover” them.
You have heard, of course, that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. What that means is that when he arrived the lands that he found were empty of Trinitarian Christians. Without a government that he recognized, the land, by the logic of the narrative that we have been tracing, became Spanish land because Trinitarian Christians from Spain were the first to encounter it.
This process of “discovery” was accompanied by a process of declaring the people who the Trinitarian Christians encountered was a racial “other.” The indigenous peoples of the Americas were imagined to be something other than European and, therefore, something less than fully human. They were not Trinitarian Christians so they were not human in the same way that the Trinitarian Christians viewed Jews and Muslims as less than human. At the same time, Europeans were imagining that people from Africa were not entirely human. The lands that were being “discovered” in the Americas required human labor to exploit them. The indigenous populations were vulnerable to European diseases, refused to cooperate, ran away, committed suicide or took up arms, when the Europeans tried to force them to work the lands. Europeans decided it was easier to create the Transatlantic slave trade than attempt subjugate the local population. They justified all of this by arguing that by taking the lands from the indigenous and enslaving Africans they were able to convert them to Trinitarian Christianity, save their immortal souls, and free them from an eternity of torment. In return for losing their lands or their freedom the indigenous and Africans gained, the Trinitarians told themselves, eternal salvation.
At the core of the creation of race lie religious ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery. And less you think that this is all ancient history let me tell you something that I learned from Tupac. The Doctrine of Discovery forms the basis of United States property law. As recently as 2005 the United States Supreme Court used it to affirm that the United States government, which is a linear descendent of a European power, has the right to control the lands that make up the United States. It is why when you sell or buy a house you own it outright--at least once you are done paying off the bank. The land was empty, free to be discovered, when it was first purchased and, therefore, you can buy and sell all of it. In Europe, in contrast, much of the land is still owned by the feudal order. When you buy or sell a house you are often just buying a long-term lease. The land itself is still understood to belong to some European noble.
Imagination created religious ideas that then were used to justify the theft of the land and birthed the belief of race and racial other. Imagination leads to ways of being. When we talk about disrupting white supremacy, we are talking about imagining new ideas that will lead to new ways of being. Some of these ideas are actually very old ideas. As Tupac told me repeatedly during our conversation, we are all indigenous to Mother Earth. Disrupting white supremacy requires us to develop narratives that remind us we are all part of the same human family. And that we are all dependent upon the Earth, the land, for our continued existence.
Disrupting white supremacy is not about people who are believed to be white like me choosing to be in solidarity with black and brown people out of some noblesse oblige. It is about understanding that we are in a period of profound crisis and that the white supremacist narratives found in the Doctrine of Discovery--the myth that the land can belong to anyone, the myth that we are racially different--must be disrupted if we are to survive that crisis.
This year in worship, we are going to be acknowledging that we, as human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crisis lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. At the center of worship this year we are going to place the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
This is deep work. It is scary work. It challenges us to question who we are, how we do things, why we do them, and what we think is possible. But the hour is urgent. As I will be talking with you about next week, the climate emergency is dire. We need to imagine and then create new ways of being or we may well cease to be.
One of the spiritual resources that we will be using in our efforts to create new ways of being is song. As I move towards the close, I want to invite the choir to the refrain from our earlier hymn. We will be using it as a sort of anthem this year, Mark.
We will be taking this hymn as something of an anthem over the year. I invite you to think about a few of its words:
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
It is time now. We are at a decisive moment in human history. What we do now will resonate through the centuries. And we have the human power, the power of imagination, to make choices to thrive and to lead in love. It is our human power that has created the world that we live in and it is our human power that can change it.
This is why I choose our readings for today. They both are suggestive of other ways of being, ways of being that we must move beyond. The wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful text that I love, suggests that the world is permanently as it is. Humans do not change it. Only the divine can change it. While there are many magnificent teachings in the Hebrew Bible, this is one that we need to now reconsider. The world is fluid, not static. The things we do and the stories we tell, matter. We have to accept our responsibility and recognize that our actions impact those who will follow us.
Revelation is a text that suggests that only the divine can bring about justice. It tells the story of a cosmic war between good and evil which ultimately ends with the divine creating the most wonderful of all societies. It is divine action that brings justice or injustice, and not human choices. This, again, is a narrative we must reject.
Instead, as we pursue our new ways of being, we need to recognize that “It is time now.” And what time to be alive. You may know that I am not a particularly hopeful person, but I want us to close on a note of hope. For there may just be a chance, against the odds, that we can disrupt white supremacy, survive the crises that we face, and learn to lead in love. The impossible has happened before. And so, as a reminder of that, I will invite us to sing, shortly, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that helped inspire the end of the slave trade. A hymn written by a former slave trader who realized that there was only one race, the human race, as he transported Africans along the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery, and came to understand that he, like you and me, could find a new way of being.
Let us pray, that now, such realizations may come for all of us. Let us pray, that we will find Amazing Grace, and create new ways of being. And let us pray that we can do that work together.
I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 14, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
This morning’s sermon is a bit unusual. It does not have a single message or a unifying theme. Instead, it consists of my responses to questions from members of the congregation. Thirteen different people submitted questions and in the next twenty minutes or so I will attempt to respond to all of them.
I understand that you do not have a tradition of this kind of service. Among Unitarian Universalists, it is not uncommon. As far as I can tell, Question Box sermons emerged sometime during the 1950s as part of the humanist movement. They were part of our faith’s general movement away from being a primarily biblically based religion--a pattern that began with the New England Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth-century. Question Box sermons were, and are, an expression of our theology of preaching. Good preaching is a really dialogue. The preacher listens to the community, observes wider world, connects with the holy that surrounds us, and the infinity of which we are all a part, and reflects back, lifts up, offers some of it the congregation. If preaching does not reflect the concerns of the gathered body then it will fall flat and fail in its task of opening the heart, quickening the mind, moving the hand to action, and expanding our communion with the most high.
With the Question Box sermon the act of listening is more explicit. The preacher responds directly to the concerns of the community. Since ministry is always a shared exercise, I have invited Board President Carolyn Leap up here to be my questioner. I thought it would be good in the service to directly model the shared leadership between ordained and lay leaders that is essential to the vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And so, with that, I would like to invite Carolyn to ask your first question.
1. If we can’t readily be a sanctuary church ourselves, could we support another congregation that does undertake that role?
Shall I answer with a simple yes? Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in the Woodlands recently decided to become a sanctuary church. We could support their efforts. Alternatively, we could reach out to some of the other congregations in the Museum District and see if they would be interested in collaborating with us and to work to collectively provide sanctuary. That is what the First Parish in Cambridge did. Together with three other Harvard Square churches they provided sanctuary in concert. Only one of the four churches felt that they had the facilities to offer a family sanctuary. So, the other three congregations provided them with financial support and volunteers and showed up en mass to rally in support of the family whenever there was any question of a threat from ICE.
If the broader concern is about the plight of migrants, there are lots of other things we could do. We could work to make ICE unwelcome in Houston. We could organize a regular vigil at a local ICE detention center. We could figure out how to support children whose parents have been deported. They need to religious communities to advocate for them.
We can take a trip to the border and work with migrants there. The congregation has organized to do just that. A group of lay leaders are planning a trip to Laredo next week to volunteer at a local refugee center. They are leaving on August 15th and returning August 19th. I believe they still have room for volunteers if anyone is interested in joining in them. I am sure it will be a powerful act of witness and a meaningful expression of solidarity in response to one of the great crises of the hour.
2. Xenophobia is Universal. In the U.S. it is black/white; in Romania, Hungarian/Romanian; in France, rich/poor (black); anti-Semitism (Jew). Xenophobia has deep human roots!
I am unsure whether this is a question or a statement. It seems to me that it is an assertion about human nature. It reminds me of the old religious orthodox claim that human beings are innately depraved. While, xenophobia can be found in many cultures, I am not willing to believe that it is something innate in human nature. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of movements and teachers who sought to transcend it. And we know that sometimes these movements and teachers were successful in moving beyond xenophobia.
Jesus preached “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, we might quibble about the theology, but the message is clear: we are all part of the same human family and we all share the same fate. We are born. We die. We have some time in between. That time is better spent bringing more love into the world rather propagating hate.
More recently than the first century, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive research into how teaching children racism might be understood as a form of child abuse. She tells us that people who believe they are white are taught they are superior and racialized by society, by their families, and, unfortunately, by their religious communities.
And so, I think that this is one of the principle purposes of our religious tradition and the other great dissenting traditions. It is push us to move beyond xenophobia and hatred towards love and compassion. It is challenge us to remember the teachings of the great and the ordinary people who allowed love to be the animating principle in their lives. Religious leaders like Jesus or Martin King or Dorothy Day or Rumi or the Buddha... Ordinary people like the gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust; civil rights workers who bravely committed to nonviolence in the face of the physical, spiritual, and political brutality of white supremacy; the powerful drag queens of New York who fifty years ago inspired Pride; the, well, the list is so long that if I were to try to do it any justice to it we would be here all day.
3. Climate change is worse than we can imagine. Now! I cannot see a practical way forward!
Just this year the United Nations, drawing upon the overwhelming consensus of scientists, told us that we have eleven years to avert catastrophic climate change. General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces warned, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.” The future is unwritten. We might be able to avert this damage--and stave off the possibility of social collapse and even extinction that comes with it--if we act now. Will we as a human species do so? I do not know.
What I do know is this. If we are to confront climate change, we will have confront the very meaning of the word practical. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein wrote a book about climate change titled “This Changes Everything.” Her basic premise was that the climate crisis was so severe that the only way out of it was to move beyond the fossil fuel based capitalism that has formed the basis of the global economy for the last two hundred years. This will mean challenging, and dismantling corporate power, living our lives differently, planning our cities differently, moving towards a different kind of society. Can we, as a human species, be impractical and demand the impossible? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the 1940s people in this country and elsewhere were able to radically sacrifice and defeat the existential crisis of fascism and Nazism. Perhaps we will be able to find the moral strength for such a mobilization again.
4. What led you to the ministry?
Answering this question would take all of the time we have remaining and more. Like a lot of ministers, I have my own story of my call to the ministry. Recounting it, however, takes about ten minutes. So, the succinct answer: I love Unitarian Universalism and think it has the power to change lives, change communities, and change the world. I became a minister because I decided I wanted to live a life of service and help actualize that change. I love people and love the privilege of accompanying members of the congregations I have served through the journeys of their lives. There are few other callings that allow someone to be with people in their most intimate moments--celebrating the birth of a child, the union of love, or death--and at the same time require reflection, study, and a commitment to social action.
Thank you for letting me serve as your minister. It a great blessing to have such an opportunity.
5. Is it possible to choose your beliefs? My friends and family feel like I actively abandoned our faith, but I feel like it was something that happened TO me. I miss being a part of that community, but I don’t think I could ever get myself to literally, earnestly believe in what I used to.
A friend of mine once advised me, “Unitarian Universalists do not believe what we want to. We believe what we have to.” Honest belief is not chosen. It is something we come to through our experiences. For it is religious experience, the connection to or the absence of, the divine that forms the basis of belief. The experience comes first, our interpretation of it, our beliefs, comes second. Try as we might, we do not really get to choose our experiences and so we do not get to choose our beliefs either.
I sense a great deal of pain behind this question. And that is understandable. Many of us connect with religious communities through our families and friends. And so, leaving a religious community can feel like leaving them.
Now, I do not know the fullness of our questioner’s story. So, let me just say this. We are glad that you are here with us and we want this congregation to be a place of healing and joy for you. In this community you are loved, and you are welcome. You and your presence are a blessing beyond belief.
6. The U.U. merger? What was behind it (got anything interesting or unusual to share?) and most of all, what are any theological ramifications. (If they are a perfect fit, why didn’t they merge sooner?)
I have no juicy pieces of gossip to share. Probing the theological ramifications would require a book. The short story, in 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America realized that they shared a great deal of theological ground and that they would be stronger together than they would be on their own. The somewhat longer story, there had been people who were both Unitarian and Universalist in their theological orientation in both institutions for more than a hundred and fifty years. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth-century the great abolitionist minister Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist churches. Going even further back, unitarianism--which uplifts the humanity of Jesus--and universalism--which proclaims God’s infinite love for all--were of the two theological beliefs that were deemed most threatening to the Roman Empire. They were explicitly outlawed in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the leadership of Christian churches aligned itself with the leadership of the Roman empire.
7. U.U. churches – are there any deaf members or deaf pastors? How often are hymns updated? Is there a group for single adults 40’s+?
So, three questions in one! Yes, there are deaf members in some congregations. My home congregation in Michigan actually pays a sign language interpreter to be present for each sermon. And yes, I know of at least two ministers who are partially deaf and who have had successful careers. That said, I do not know of any ministers who have devoted themselves entirely to the deaf community and who preach using sign language. That does not mean such people do not exist. There are well over a thousand Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States. I only know a small fraction of them.
We introduce new hymns from time-to-time in our worship services. If you would like to suggest one, I am sure that either Mark or I would be happy to receive your input. Personally, I am always looking for new hymns. Singing the Living Tradition, our grey hymnal, dates from 1994. Singing the Journey, the teal one, dates from 2005. And Las Voces del Camino, the Spanish language the purple one, dates from 2009. This year we will be singing at least one hymn a month from it. I understand that the process of compiling a new hymnal is soon to start.
We do not currently have a singles group for people in their forties. If you are interested in forming one please speak with Alma, our Membership Coordinator, and she will advise you on what to do to get it underway.
8. Why are you so political rather than spiritual? (from the pulpit) Why is your focus on racism and anti-oppression so important to focus on? What gives your life meaning? What are good ways to deal with prejudice in ourselves and others?
Four meaty questions! Let me start with the first, why am I so political rather than spiritual? We are at a crucial moment in human history. The next decade may well determine whether humanity has a future. Meanwhile, we face the threats of renewed white supremacy, both inside and outside of the government, and an all out assault on democracy. Such a time as this requires that I preach from the prophetic tradition. The Hebrew prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like went around the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel pronouncing doom and offering hope. They proclaimed that if people did not change their ways the wrath of God would be upon them. And they said that if they changed their ways God would have mercy for them. And, whatever happened, there was always the possibility of repentance and hope. They also said that ultimately justice will prevail upon Earth as it has in heaven.
I do not think that we need fear the wrath of God. But it is pretty clear that if we do not change our ways then our society and even humanity may well be doomed. Certainly, the federal government’s anti-human immigration policies, the constant threat mass shootings that we all face, and climate change all require us to change our ways.
I focus on racism and anti-oppression because I think that the principle change that needs to take place is rooting out white supremacy. I understand white supremacy as racial capitalism in which the exploitation of the black and brown bodies is coupled with the extraction of the resources of the Earth to produce wealth for men who believe themselves to be white. We have to overcome it if we are going to have a collective future.
What I am trying, and probably failing, to communicate, is that my decision to be political from the pulpit is not in opposition to spirituality. It is a specific kind of spirituality. And it is rooted in the things that give my life meaning.
And here I would like to invoke my parents, Howard and Kathy. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, they told me that they objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets. Doing so has given my life a great sense of meaning.
I am not going to get into the question of how to confront prejudice in ourselves and others in any depth. Other than to note, that I suggest a hatred of fascism, not fascists. We are called upon to try and love the Hell out of the world. We need to love those we struggle against and proceed with the hope, however fragile, that the spark of love that resides in each human breast might somehow flame up and overcome whatever hate exists in human hearts.
9. How dogmatic are the 7 principles? What should you do if one of them interferes with justice?
The seven principles are not a creed. You do not have to believe in them to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are a covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and not between individual Unitarian Universalists. We have freedom of belief and if you do not believe in one of the principles you are still welcome and loved in this community. We could have a longer conversation about what beliefs you cannot hold and be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation--one could not be a neo-Nazi and a Unitarian Universalist, for example--but that is a different subject.
In order to answer the second question I would need a case, an example, of when one of the principles came into conflict with justice. But my short answer, if there is a conflict between one of the principles and justice, choose justice.
10. How do you reconcile the Christian sentiment of sin with religion/spirituality? For example, is there sin in U.U. or does it encompass following your own ethical code?
Unitarian Universalists could benefit with a more robust understanding of sin. We rightly reject the idea of original sin, that when we are born there is inherently something wrong with us. We think that each human life begins as an original blessing, a joy, a beauty, to celebrated. It’s like the words of our hymn, “We Are...” written by the Unitarian Universalist Ysaye Barnwell:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe who we are....
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and
we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
Original sin is not the only kind of sin. The theologian Paul Tillich defined sin simply as estrangement or alienation. We sin when we find ourselves estranged each other and from the world that surrounds us. We sin when we give into white supremacy and racism. We sin when undermine democracy. We sin when we propagate climate change. And yet, we can overcome this sin. We can seek reconciliation. We can work for racial justice, build democratic institutions, and seek to live sustainable lives in harmony with the Earth. These are all collective projects and collective liberation, overcoming our various forms of estrangement, is the great task before us.
Sin is also a relevant concept in our personal lives. How many of us are estranged from loved ones? We can work to repair broken relationships, and to overcome sin. We can call the child or the parent with whom we have become estranged. We can reach out to the friend who have hurt or with whom we have grown apart. We can do something about estrangement. We can do something about sin.
11. What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in today’s world? What aspects of Universalism are important for us now?
When I was in my final year at Harvard, the philosopher and theologian Cornel West told me, “Unitarian Universalism is one of the last best hopes for institutionalized religion.” Unitarian Universalism’s purpose today is to demonstrate that religion can be, and is, relevant for the world we live in. And that means both nurturing loving and joyous communities that tend to the human spirit and provide places for free inquiry and organizing ourselves to confront the great crises of the hour. Future generations will ask of us, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” The purpose of Unitarian Universalism today is really to inspire each of us to answer that question in a beautiful, joyous, affirmative!
As for Universalism, the most important aspect of Universalism today is proclaiming the belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not easy. It is difficult. Challenging. Transformative. And here I want to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“...active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”
12. How can we effectively promote social justice?
Social change happens through the creation of new ways of being in the world and the creation of new institutions. Unitarian Universalist congregations can both be sites for pursuing those new ways of being and nurture new forms of institutional life. Our understanding that salvation is primarily a social, a collective, enterprise rather than an individual one makes us well equipped for such work. It is no accident that the ACLU and NAACP both have roots in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Or that Rowe vs. Wade was partially organized out of one.
When we gather, we are free to imagine a different world, a better world. And we are free to experiment amongst ourselves in bringing that world to fruition. We can be a space that welcomes and loves all in a world full of hate. We can seek to live lives of sustainability. We can practice democracy. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that living in such a way is possible, desirable, enjoyable, and worthwhile. We can save ourselves.
13. In the face of the drift toward totalitarianism how do UU stand to protect democratic values?
I suspect that the person who asked this question heard my Minns lectures on the same subject. My answer took about twenty-six thousand words and I have already been far too verbose. So, instead of answering the question I will just say this: much of our work together in the coming year will focus on trying to collectively figure out how, as a religious community, to develop the spiritual resources to confront the intertwined crisis of the hour. These are the resurgence of white supremacy, the assault on democracy, and the climate crisis. All of these crises are rooted in some form of sin, of estrangement from each other and from our beloved blue green planet. They are at their core religious and spiritual crises. And it is the task of before Unitarian Universalism and all of the good-hearted people of the world to confront these religious and spiritual crises and, in the spirit of Martin King, undergoing a great moral revolution where we move from a thing oriented to a planet and person-oriented society.
Those being all of the questions, I invite the congregation to close with a prayer:
Oh, spirit of love and justice,
known by many names,
the human spark that leaps from each to each,
let us nurture in each other,
a spirit of inquiry,
a desire to seek the truth,
knowing that whatever answers we find
will always be partial,
and that human knowledge
will always be imperfect.
Remind us too,
that the future is unwritten,
and that our human hearts,
and human hands,
have been blessed with the ability
to play a role,
however small and humble,
in the shaping of the chapter
Be with us,
be with this community,
so that we will each have the strength
to answer the question,
“History knocked on your door,
did you answer?”
with an enthusiastic yes.
That it may be so,
let the congregation say Amen.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Jun 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, June 2, 2019
Today is a very special Sunday. It is the Sunday of the annual meeting--a time when you will be making decisions about the future direction of this congregation. You will be electing leaders and voting on amendments to First Church’s Constitution. The importance of the annual meeting makes it the only time all year that First Church gathers together as one worshiping community. Usually, First Church is one church in two locations. Today, we are one church in one location. This Sunday we have members from the Thoreau present in the pews, both of First Church’s ministers on the same campus, and Thoreau’s staff musician Teru as our pianist.
Since I have you all together, and since you are making decisions about the future of First Church, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk with you about the future of the church. Not this church, specifically, but the future of Unitarian Universalism. I take this subject because as your interim minister, one of my tasks is to help you evaluate yourselves.
Since at least the sixteenth century, it has been an aspiration of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to be a religion that is relevant to contemporary life. Instead of believing that religious truth has been permanently codified in ancient scripture or perfectly expressed in the life of a single individual, we claim, “revelation is not sealed.” The universe is constantly unfolding its marvels. The starscapes overhead, fragmenting atoms, luminescent corals, the causes of cancer... human knowledge, and with it technology, is ever increasing. In such a situation, the claim that the sum of religious knowledge remains static for all time seems absurd. The challenge for Unitarian Universalist congregations is to build “a modern church for a modern age.”
“A modern church for a modern age,” these words come from Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian minister who was active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I have spoken with you about Brown before. For many of the years that he served the Harlem Unitarian Church, he was the only member of the African diaspora who ministered a Unitarian congregation. Today, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist religious professionals who are people of color--our slow shift to being a multiracial movement being but one way in which Unitarian Universalism is changing.
Brown was part of a larger movement within the Unitarianism of his day called the community church movement. It was organized by the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in Manhattan and the Universalist minister Clarence Skinner in Boston to build religious communities capable of confronting the crises of the early twentieth century. Inside the walls of their congregations, they sought to create “the new church which shall be the institutional embodiment of our new religion of democracy.” Both men preached the need to substitute “for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.” This experience of social salvation was available on Sunday morning when “peoples of every nationality and race, of every color, creed and class” became “alike in worship and in work.” In such moments the church instantiated the “‘Kingdom of God’--the commonwealth of” all before it was present in the secular world.
This was more than empty metaphor. Under Holmes’s leadership, the Community Church of New York was one of the earliest Unitarian congregations to meaningful racially integrate. As early as 1910, the congregation was multiracial. And its members, including Holmes himself, played important roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were active in creating these institutions because the crisis of their day were about racial justice and civil liberties. They understood that a democratic society rests on the freedoms of speech, belief, and assembly. These were not secular ideas for them. They were religious inspired realities based on the that proposition in order for religion to be meaningful it had to offer clarity, inspire compassion, and prompt action on the crisis of the hour. Inward piety, the deep of religious feeling of connection between each and all, was understood as best expressed as, in Holmes’s words, “a passion for righteousness.”
What are the crises of our hour? We must seek clarity about them. As a human species and as a country, we are in the midst of series of severe and interlinked catastrophes. There is the climate emergency. Scientists now tell us that we have, at most, twelve years to reduce carbon emissions by half and keep global heating to a non-catastrophic level. If our human habits do not change we risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the possibility of driving as many as a million species to extinction.
As a country, we are in the midst of crisis in democracy. We have a President whose party has consistently and persistently undermined liberal democratic norms. The President refuses to cooperate with Congress when the House requests his financial records or subpoenas members of the executive branch. The President celebrates autocrats and dictators while maligning liberal political regimes. Meanwhile, the President’s party plots to gerrymander legislative districts by fixing the census and suppressing the vote. Meanwhile, even those members of his party who claim to have the conscience of a conservative vote in favor of his agenda, and for his judicial nominees, over and over again.
Across the globe, and in the United States, white supremacist violence, white supremacist populism, and anti-democratic or illiberal regimes are on the rise. White men—and it always seems to be white men--have walked into mosques and synagogues and killed people as they gathered for worship. Antisemitism is increasing and, in this country, the police continue to kill and jail people of color at far higher rates than they do white folks.
In this country, the rise in white supremacist violence is mirrored by an overall increase in gun violence and mass shootings. Specters of carnage like Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are regular occurrences. Instead of moving towards action, politicians have reduced their responses to repetitive public ritual: thoughts and prayers are offered, a debate on the causes of the tragedy is truncated, and nothing happens.
The situation is reminiscent of the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats penned these words almost exactly one hundred years ago. He wrote them during the same period of crisis in which the community church movement was created. The First World War had just ended--taking with it the lives of millions. Europe lay in ruins. And Yeat’s own Ireland was in the Irish War for Independence--a war that would result in the loss of thousands of lives and would gain the Republic of Ireland political independence.
Yeats cast his poem in religious terms. The image of the falcon who cannot hear the falconer is suggestive of a humanity that has grown deaf to God. The falcon turns ever wider, moving ever further from the divine. And yet, even as humans move away from divinity Yeats finds himself believing: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is just when all hope is lost, Yeats hints, that profound change comes.
Yeats’s poem is helpful to our sermon because it suggests, as I believe, that the root of all of these intertwined crisis might be understood as a religious crisis. Religion comes from the Latin word religar which means “to bind.” In its earliest English form, it was understood as what binds a community to God and what binds us together. It precisely this sense of collective ties--whether to the greater natural reality or to the larger human community--that is fraying today.
Human society has become global. Our species evolved living in small bands of, at most, a few hundred. It difficult for many of us to find our places in an interconnected world of billions. Our ancestors often had clear roles in the world. You were born into a social position with specific obligations and you stayed there for all of your life. Your parents were farmers, so you became a farmer. Your family owned a blacksmith’s shop, so you worked in a blacksmith’s shop. Today, such social determination is far less common. Instead of telling children what they must be when they grow-up we hand them texts like Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and suggest that what they make of themselves is their own doing.
This change in human life can easily lead to loss of sense of meaning. If you do not find the right role, the right job, the right partner, or the right community, it can easily feel like you are missing something in your life. People go looking for that missing something. One explanation of the rise of right-wing populism is that such movements offer the people who join them a sense of meaning. They can place themselves into the larger narrative of race, political order, or apocalyptic religion and discover that their life has meaning beyond their own individual struggles.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition can also provide a sense of connection and of meaning. In an essay on the future of Unitarian Universalism, retired minister Marilyn Sewell writes, “The void at the heart of American culture is a spiritual one.” For many of us, we have become unbound, unfettered, disconnected. People come to this church so often seeking connection in moments of crisis. These crises are personal as well as social. First time visitors often tell me that they have come to us because of some tragedy in their own lives--the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, divorce, illness... Attendance often peaks in moments of social crisis: there are more people here on those Sundays when the great crises of the hour are unavoidable--when there is another mass shooting or political diaster--than when the news of the world is less dramatic.
I hope you will indulge me for a moment while I offer a bit of testimony about how this dynamic has played out in my own life. I ended up a Unitarian Universalist minister for much the same reason that people seek out our congregations and join our communities. It is true that I was raised Unitarian Universalist. My journey to the ministry was not all that meandering. But like a lot people raised Unitarian Universalist I almost walked away from our tradition.
When I was in middle school I began to drift away from the church. Some of my friends from elementary school stopped participating in religious education. And I started to feel disconnected from the community. At the same time, I was being ruthlessly bullied at school. School did not seem like a safe space and Unitarian Universalism seemed irrelevant to my life--though I doubt at the age of twelve or thirteen I would have articulated myself in just that fashion. I did not feel like I had a community to which I belonged. Sunday mornings I generally fought with my parents about coming to church.
One Sunday after church I told one of my older friends that I was planning to stop coming to Sunday School. My parents felt that I had reached an age where I could start to make my own decisions about my religious life. And if the church did not feel like it meant something to me then I did not need to participate in it anymore. I was just starting my freshman year of high school. My friend told me to hold off on quitting. She invited me to a weekend long event put on by an organization called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU.
YRUU was a youth organization that believed in youth empowerment. Its principal activity was to organize what we, in the North, called conferences and what here, in the South, are called rallies. At these events, the youth led and developed the majority of the program. We created worship services. We organized small groups for fellowship and discussion where we shared about the difficulties and possibilities in our lives. We invited outside speakers to offer workshops on art and social action.
My first conference was a liberating experience. Suburban Michigan in the early nineties was not a socially progressive place. Yet the Friday evening I walked into my first conference, I saw a community devoted to making a space for people to be themselves. You could attend a conference and be openly queer, or be, as I was then, a science fiction geek, and no one would reject you. I made friends with young men who wore dresses all weekend and young women who wore combat boots and shaved their heads. I made friends with people who refused to reside in any gender category whatsoever. I got to discuss the fantasy novels I loved with others who loved them. I was encouraged to ask critical questions about religion: What is God? How is the each connected to the all? How might I deal with the pain in my young life? I experienced worship, for the first time, as communion. Singing together some hundred strong the youth at the conference felt united. I felt a sense of belonging and connection. I felt like a certain void in my life, a void I could not articulate, had been filled. And working to fill that void, collectively, with others, is one thing that led me to become a minister.
What about you? Have you ever had such an experience? If you are new here, is such an experience what you are seeking? If you have been here for years, is it why you continue to come? To build a modern church for a modern age is to create such possibilities for connection and meaning making. It is recognize, as Marilyn Sewell argues, that people “are coming to a church because their souls need feeding” and then work, together, to feed those souls by offering meaningful opportunities for connection.
We must do more than just feed souls. We must confront the crises of the hour. Texas poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico captures a bit of the current crisis in her poem “Buen Esqueleto.”
Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.
Life is short & I show them how to talk
to police without opening the door, how
to leave the social security number blank
on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.
This world tells them I hate you every day
Building a modern church for a modern age does not just mean creating a religious community for people of relative affluence and comfort such as myself. It means proclaiming that no one should be hated by the world. It means creating a community that is capable of including everyone who suffers from the weight of the world. It means working to dismantle--even if the task seems hopeless--the great structures of oppression in the world. In her same essay, Sewell asks, “Travel ahead twenty, or say fifty years into the future. What will our children and grandchildren say of us? Will they say, where was the church when the world came crashing down? How will history picture us…?”
And here, perhaps paradoxically, I return to my experience in YRUU. Why? As I mentioned, YRUU was organized around the premise of youth empowerment. It was largely youth run. We elected the people who organized the conferences. And those people had to then decide how to, democratically, create the events. This might seem like a small statement but it actually pushed us to gain a large number of skills. At the age of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, we had to run meetings, design budgets, speak in public, and lead songs. This gave me and my cohort a set of skills necessary for democratic life. They were skills that, for the most part, we were not gaining in other parts of our lives.
Unitarian Universalist congregations, like YRUU, are self-governing entities. It is you, the members, who decide on the direction you want to take your congregation. It is you, the members, who decide how best to confront the crises of the hour. And in this act of self-governance, you gain the skills necessary for democratic life. These skills are often not developed within our working lives. But you can gain them here. Participating in a congregational meeting, you have the opportunity to experience direct democracy--each member gets a vote on important matters before the church. Joining the stewardship team, you can learn about fundraising. Joining the welcome team, you can develop important interpersonal skills. Joining the Board, you can learn how to guide a mid-sized non-profit with a budget of close to a million dollars.
These may seem like little skills. Across time they can have a big impact. I have spent more than twenty-five years intimately involved in struggles for social justice. And almost everywhere I have gone--be it to a union meeting, a center for GLBT youth, a session on the climate emergency, or an antiracist collective--I have met Unitarian Universalists actively, and skillfully, participating and leading movements. So often, they seem to be using skills they gained in congregational life to do so.
A modern church for a modern age, for me, it means creating a community where people can find connections and gain the skills necessary for democratic life. It means living out the religion of democracy, welcoming people of all races, classes, cultures, languages, and genders, into our religious community. What might it mean for you? I have offered a sketch of my own picture. But as your interim, I want to close with a question: What is your vision for this congregation? What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Where would you like First Church to be in ten years? In twenty years? In fifty years? What will your children or grandchildren say? How will they answer the question: Where was the church when the world came crashing down?
In the hopes that you will answer them wisely, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.
Dec 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 2, 2018
It is good to be back with you. I hope you all had good Thanksgivings--not too much food or drink. I was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and then here for the holiday. My parents came to visit. We had Thanksgiving with some of their friends who live in Meyerland. Then we visited other friends in Dallas. I managed to keep myself to a single slice of pecan pie, which is probably why I can still fit into my suit this morning. It was hard. Pecan pie is my favorite.
Actually, I like pecan pie so much that I think of it as a kind of ordinary miracle. Ordinary miracles are the wondrous things that fill our human lives. Birth, death, the cycle of life, there is something about it all that transcends human comprehension.
Even as something as simple as pie can transcends human comprehension. There is an enormous amount of stuff that goes into making the most ordinary pastry. There are the pecans--products of earth, wind, soil, sun, water, and difficult human labor. So much must happen for us to even have these sweetmeats. And then there’s the flour, the butter, that strange English treacle called Lyle’s Golden Syrup... And of course, the necessity of having someone who actually knows how to bake a pie.
This is a skill with enough nuance that its mastery is the subject of much debate. I do not know about your family but in mine there are different schools of thought on how to prepare a good pie crust. Everyone agrees on what a good pie crust is--it is light, flaky, slightly salty, and holds together under fork. Few folks agree exactly how to make it. Some claim that a good pie crust requires lard. Many object to the use of lard on the basis that it is not vegetarian friendly. Others advocate for substituting some of the water with vodka. I fall into the camp that freezes the butter before using it in the crust--it creates a tender bite.
The ideal pecan pie somehow transcends these debates. It is a miracle that combines chemistry, human ingenuity, and evolution. Sometimes when I eat pie, I actually manage to remember this and recall that our lives are filled with mystery and wonder. The real question is not, What is the best way to make a pie crust? The real question is, We will open ourselves to the mystery and wonder that surround us? I detect something of this line of questioning in Marge Piercy’s Hanukkah poem, “Season of Skinny Candles:”
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
The holiday season is a time to remember the ordinary miracles that fill our lives. The candles that poke holes into the season’s lessened light are reminders of the spark that rests within each of us. They are reminders that our universe is mysterious and wonderful. It is good to pause every now and again and just take it all in.
It can be hard at this time of year to do so. I do not know about you, but I find the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years to be an exceptionally busy time. In addition to all of the family holiday preparations, there is all of the stuff that happens in congregational life. There are events like last night’s fantastic church auction, after which I am afraid I need to apologize to my neighbors for playing the kazoo a little too enthusiastically with my son. There are seasonal parties. And there are special worship services. This year we are holding a solstice service on the 21st at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of the 23rd, and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve starting at 7:00 p.m.
These services offer us the opportunity to pause. The Christmas Eve services I lead follow a fairly traditional format of lessons and carols. However, they vary in one substantive respect. I do not just draw from the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead, I use readings from the non-canonical gospels--ancient texts that tell stories about Jesus which did not make it into the Christian New Testament.
I do this as a reminder that within the context of the broader Christian tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a heretical movement. Our views are closer to those of the people who were kicked out of the ancient Christian church than they are to the Roman emperors and theologians who created the doctrines central to contemporary Christianity.
Take Arius and Origen of Alexandria, two early Christians whose theologies are held to be heretical by much of the Christian orthodoxy. Arius preached that Jesus was a human being who had obtained moral perfection. Once Jesus did so he was adopted as a child of God. Origen taught that at some point in the future there would be “the perfect restoration of the entire creation.” That is a version of universal salvation, the idea that in the end all souls will be united with God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism gets its name from these two ancient heresies: Unitarianism, the belief that Jesus was a human being rather than a god; and Universalism, the story that the love of God is all powerful and that God condemns no one to Hell. The past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association William Sinkford summarizes these positions this way: “one God, no one left behind.”
This view is one of the reasons why contemporary Unitarian Universalists often are comfortable drawing wisdom from the world’s religious traditions. We understand religion to a universal human impulse. There are ordinary miracles to be found through engaging different rituals, stories, songs, places, and teachers.
This attitude has been with Unitarianism since its very inception. In sixteenth-century Europe, Unitarianism emerged as what is called a hybrid faith. Almost five hundred years ago, in places like Poland and Transylvania, Unitarianism developed at the intersection of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Its practitioners recognized that adherents to all three religions were children of the same God. In her study of early European Unitarianism, Susan Ritchie observes, “Convinced that Christians, Muslims, and Jews were a part of the same religious family, Unitarians resisted theologies of God that could not be freely shared across these traditions.” They recognized that the miracle of existence which we humans share cannot be captured by the teachings of a single tradition. As our own Unitarian Universalist Association puts it, our living tradition draws from “from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual lives.”
All of this goes some of the way towards explaining why at this busy time of year we honor the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the turning of the year that is the winter solstice. It also helps explain how someone like me can identify with Unitarian Universalism and Judaism. As I think I have told you before, I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother was raised Moravian. My father was raised Jewish. This meant that growing up we celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays: Christmas and Hanukkah; Passover and Easter. And in my house, we still do.
Tonight, is the first night of Hanukkah. Today and next Sunday we are honoring both the Christmas season and Hanukkah as part of the service. We have some Hebrew songs, some Hanukkah poems, and next week we will light a special menorah called a hanukkiah. Carol recounted the basic outline of Hanukkah story earlier for the big idea. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over a Greek king who decided to put an end to local religions. He forbid the practice of Judaism under pain of death. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were conducted in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was defiled. When the Maccabees were eventually victorious they set out to rededicate it. They searched the Temple for oil with which to light the Temple’s lamps. The Talmud relates, “they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest... And there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit the lamps from it for eight days.”
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of a single day’s oil lasting for eight nights. It is a tiny moment of divine agency--the only miracle the extension of the light across eight days. Why eight? Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “Since the whole universe was created in seven days, eight is a symbol of eternity and infinity.” The eight days of light are reminder that our world is filled with the ordinary miracle of existence.
The idea that the world is infused with the miracle of existence or the spirit of the divine is present in all of creation is found in many Jewish teachings. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is said to have explained the story of Hanukkah to his disciples this way, “Listen, and I shall tell you the meaning of the miracle of the light, at Hanukkah. The light which was hidden since the days of creation was then revealed. And every year, when the lights are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh. And it is the light of the Messiah.”
Let us dwell on the second to last sentence of Rabbi Pinchas’s interpretation, “every year, when the light are lit for Hanukkah, the hidden light is revealed afresh.” This is the message of the season, miracles are ever present in our lives. The hidden light of creation, the miracle of our existence, is waiting for us to rekindle it at all times. We need to only to open ourselves to it--to find the ordinary miracle in the pie or the light of the candlelight.
I learned something of this myself when years ago I studied with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Paul Mendes-Flohr. When he taught he refused to ever fully close the door of his classroom. He said that it was possible that the Messiah, the great teacher who would bring about human redemption might come at any moment. He did not want to miss the announcement by shutting the door. A miracle, the light of creation, might shine forth right now.
This was the central teaching of Rabbi Pinchas. He lived in the Ukraine during the eighteenth-century. He was a companion of the great Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov. The words Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew mean the Master of the Good Name. He taught, “the world is full of enormous lights and mysteries” and that we can find them if we are open ourselves to them. It was alleged that he knew the secret name of God. And he was held to be a great miracle worker.
One story has it that once he prayed on Shabbat in a field full of sheep. The sheep we so moved by his prayers that they, “assumed the original position... [they] had held when... [they] had stood at the throne of God.” Other stories relate that he was regularly visited by the Seven Shepherds of Israel: ancient biblical figures whose numbers include Abraham and Moses. Still others tell of how he could travel great distances quickly and appear mysteriously to provide counsel to the perplexed. But most of the stories involve him finding the miraculous in the everyday, of discovering after gathering for an evening service that, “The night had suddenly grown light; in greater radiance than ever before, the moon curved on a flawless sky.”
Unlike Rabbi Pinchas, the Baal Shem Tov does not appear to have left any teachings about Hanukkah. Perhaps this is because it is a relatively minor Jewish holiday. It fits a general pattern of resistance to persecution commemorated by many Jewish holidays and summarized by some Rabbis as, “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.” The special food of Hanukkah being latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil to commemorate the miracle of eight days of light.
The holiday itself does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Its story is recounted in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, texts which were preserved by Christians. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and Passover are all more important. Yet, starting in the nineteenth-century, it became central to Jewish life as the Christmas season became increasingly commercial. Many Jewish families wanted to match the excitement of the Christian holiday with its bright lights, trees, carols, presents, and feasts.
Some Jewish parents even wanted their kids to experience something of the thrill of Santa Claus. They surprised their kids with fairly extravagant gifts. In my father’s family this took a something of absurd twist. When my father and his siblings were little my Grandmother Lorraine decided that the joy of latkes, dreidels, gelt, and gifts was not quite enough. So, she invented the Hanukkah Birdie.
The Hanukkah Birdie was a bird who brought Jewish children gifts throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. My grandmother rarely did things halfway. She actually commissioned an artist to paint a Hanukkah Birdie mural on a cloth that could be hung in my grandparent’s house. It featured a bird carrying presents in its beak. Every year at Hanukkah time my grandmother would take out the mural and her kids would know that the holiday had arrived. My father remembers, “It gave us something tangible, like our Christian friends had.”
It would be easy to make the story of my Grandmother and the Hanukkah Birdie a story about assimilation, especially since only about half of her grandchildren fall under the category of observant Jews. I would like to draw a somewhat different lesson. The human desire for miracles is something that transcends time and culture. We never know where we might find them. One of our central religious tasks is to open our selves to the miracles. It is to kindle the light of creation, as Rabbi Pinchas would have Jews do, or find the miraculous in nature, as the Baal Shem Tov taught.
You might hear in all of this some kind of theistic position, some kind of argument for the existence of God. That is not the message of this sermon or the point of the candles of hope that we kindle during the holiday season. Instead, I am suggesting we approach to the world like the great mystics. Louise Gluck takes such an approach in her poem “Celestial Music.” You will recall it is a dialogue between a theist and an atheist. There is no resolution to the theological positions in the poem. Instead, Gluck writes:
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only cloud, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height
Celestial music, white business in the trees, either one a miracle, either available to us, like the lights of the season, like nature itself, each day of our lives. Pecan pie, the flames of the hanukiah, pearls of light on Christmas trees, the great teachings of mystical Judaism, the wisdom of our own Unitarian Universalism, may all of these things remind us of a simple fact: the world is filled with ordinary miracles. We can encounter them each of the days of our lives.
And now, let the congregation say Amen.
May 15, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, April 29, 2018
Today is bring a friend Sunday. I would like to begin my sermon by extending a special welcome to the guests who are visiting today. I know that visiting a strange religious community--even at the invitation of a friend--can be intimidating. It is hard to know exactly what to expect. I imagine that can be especially true when visiting a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Unitarian Universalism is not a large religious movement. It might seem similar to Protestant Christianity but it is very much its own thing.
Our tradition has deep roots in New England. Here in Ashby, the First Parish Church is thus named precisely because it was the first parish in the town, founded at the same time as the community itself. It was not exactly Unitarian Universalist at the time. Unitarian Universalism as it exists today came about from the merger of two historic Protestant denominations. First Parish was a member of one of them. This congregation historically was Unitarian. The Unitarians believed in the universality of the human family, the power of reason to progressively perfect character, and the humanity of Jesus. The Universalists took a somewhat humbler approach. Instead of lauding human potential, they rejected the Christian idea that God damned sinners to eternal torment. They asserted that a loving God would not damn any of her creations to Hell. One Unitarian minister joked about the two denominations, “The Unitarians believed that they were too good to damn. The Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them.”
Today, drawing on both of these traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, non-creedal, post-Christian religious movement. We are covenantal because in our congregations we make agreements about what we expect from each other as members of a community. This congregation reads its covenant every Sunday. We recited it a little bit earlier. It runs:
We gather to build community, because we know that people need to give and receive love.
We gather to worship, because we hunger for the sacred.
We gather to dedicate ourselves to service, because service is
the active expression of our beliefs and talents.
We gather to celebrate the power and wonder of Mystery.
This covenant suggests that if you are a member here you are expected to work to build community, to take part in worship, to serve the congregation and the wider world, and to celebrate the mystery that lies at the heart of existence.
That last point touches on the non-creedal aspect of our tradition. Our covenant does not require you to hold a particular theological position to participate in a Unitarian Universalist community. You can describe the Mystery as God. Or, if you are an atheist, name it as the marvels of the laws of physics. Alternatively, you can approach it through Buddhist practice or neo-paganism. If you are of Jewish heritage, as I am, you might observe holidays like Passover or Hanukkah. It less important what spiritual path you pursue than it is that you choose to pursue one.
The final words I used to describe Unitarian Universalism were post-Christian. They acknowledge that while Unitarian Universalism came out of Christianity it is no longer explicitly Christian. You can be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. You can also not be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. Nonetheless, Unitarian Universalism retains many of the forms of practice of Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity. We gather for worship on Sunday mornings. We sing hymns. We preach and listen to sermons. We ask for an offering to sustain the life and work of the congregation. We pray.
So, if today is your first time here and you are wondering what the heck this is all about, I hope that my explanation of Unitarian Universalism has been helpful. Please feel free to come talk with me after the service if you have any questions or just to introduce yourself.
The title of today’s sermon is “A Place to Grow Our Souls.” The title is inspired by the life and writing of the late Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee was a Detroiter. She died a couple of years ago at just past the age of one hundred. She was a remarkable woman whose life and activism spanned much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first-century. Born in the middle of World War I, she was one of the first women of color to earn a PhD in philosophy. She was by turns a socialist, a labor activist, a leader in the Northern civil rights movement, and a supporter of the Black Power movement. At the end of her life she was also someone who believed that if the human species is to survive we all, each of us, need to undergo a great moral awakening and transformation. It is that last of aspect Grace Lee’s life that I want to dwell on this morning, the idea that, in her words, “Each of us needs undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation.” This work of transformation is not work that we can achieve individually. It is a collective project, one that is best pursued as part of a community. A Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one is a pretty good place to engage in the difficult work of transformation.
Most days when I turn on the radio, open a magazine, or make the mistake of glancing at my social media feed, it seems like we as a human species and as a country are in the midst of a series of great crises. The climate is warming. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. There is a dramatic epidemic of gun violence. There is a dramatic epidemic of opioid abuse. Economic inequality is rising. Democratic institutions and norms are declining. White supremacy is resurgent. Sexual violence is rampant. I feel exhausted just reciting this list. And it is incomplete. What about you? Do you find the news of the world overwhelming? At this moment in human history it is easy to feel hopeless, alone, powerless, and isolated in despair. And, indeed, in our increasingly atomized society more people feel alone today than ever before. Family ties have frayed. Friendships are harder to make as many of us retreat from public activities. As Grace Lee wrote, “These are the times that try our souls.”
Grace Lee was, as I mentioned earlier, a Detroiter. Now, I am from Michigan and I have a particular affinity for Detroit. Have you been there? It is like nothing in New England. Over the last seventy years it has steadily lost population as a combination of white flight and deindustrialization have hollowed out large segments of the city. In 1950 there were close to two million people living in Detroit. Today there are less than seven hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the city’s economic base has collapsed. One out of every three residents lives in poverty. There are whole neighborhoods that have essentially been abandoned. You can see blocks upon blocks of collapsing red brick apartment buildings and burned out single family homes. You can even find deserted factory complexes. I suspect words might not capture the scale of the devastation.
Maybe it would help to describe one site, the Packard Plant. An automobile factory built in the early twentieth century, it is a mass of concrete, steel, and brick. The windows are all broken out. In the winter, snow drifts and ice invade the buildings. In the summer, the sun comes inside. Vegetation is everywhere. There are trees, and not small ones, growing on the roof. In the month of May the former parking lots are filled with the weed flowers of spring. Roots from dandelions, myrtle, milkweed, and garlic mustard, all break down old asphalt. The buildings themselves are cavernous. Walking through them can feel like walking through ancient caves--some of the concrete has even degenerated in stalactites. It can also feel like traveling through the remains of an ancient civilization, a sensation made all the more palpable after the Packard was plundered for its copper and anything else of value that could be pried loose. This whole site is almost twice the size of the Harvard yard. If we brought it to Ashby it would enclose the Common and stretch down to about the elementary school in one direction and Glenwood Cemetery in another.
Some years ago, someone on the radio show The American Life described the city this way, “Whatever civilization is, Detroit is what comes after.” I tell you all this because I want you to understand a little about the place that Grace Lee spent most of her life and to give you a feel for the crises which surrounded her. The neighborhood Grace Lee lived in is not far from the Packard Plant. And near her house are several buildings that had been partially burned out and left to rot. There are also some vacant lots that have turned to what can only be described as urban prairie--large spaces were native plants and wildlife are returning.
Thinking of Detroit and Grace Lee, I am reminded of the work of the Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker. She encourages us to imagine that we live after the apocalypse. The great catastrophe has already happened. The world has, in some way, already ended. She reminds us: “We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and meaningless war mark our bodies.” And she asks, “How do we live in this world? What is our religious task?”
Like Parker, Grace Lee was someone who recognized that we live after the apocalypse. She once wrote, “there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land.” Our task is to grow our souls knowing that there will never be a perfect world, that human struggle might be endless, that whatever victories we achieve will only lay the ground for further struggle. The philosophical and spiritual awakening that we need is one that recognizes that whatever successes we have in our efforts to build a better world will only be partial victories.
And yet, this is not cause for despair. It is reason to continue because every ending brings with it the possibility of another beginning. Grace Lee moved to Detroit in the early 1950s as part of an effort to radicalize autoworkers. Automation, global competition, and outsourcing decimated Detroit’s industrial workforce and cityscape, Grace Lee realized that the work ahead was different than she had imagined. Urban decline created the space for new forms of community to blossom.
And so, in the midst of desolation she began to dream of what might come after the collapse of a city, in the spaces abandoned by capitalism. She became a pioneer in the urban gardening movement claiming, “Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living--ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.” She saw the city as a place where people might begin to pursue a new way of living and she helped to organize hundreds, or maybe thousands, of urban gardens throughout the city. Taking inspiration from a network of black farmers, she told people, “we cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” And the urban gardens that she helped to start in many cases became places of renewal, where community began to come back, and flowers and vegetables grew on what had once been crumbling concrete.
When I lived in Cleveland some members of the congregation and I looked to Grace Lee and her work in Detroit as an inspiration. We started a community garden on the church’s grounds and experienced a small revitalization in the local neighborhood. We got to know people who we would have never met otherwise. My favorite may have been Esther, a Filipino woman then in her sixties who had immigrated to the United States only a few years prior. She had been a peasant farmer her in native country. And she brought her farming traditions to our urban garden--constructing out of the sticks and cast-off bits of metal she found an elaborate lattice on which to grow a multilayered cornucopia of beans, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and herbs. Somehow out of her two eight by four plots in the garden she was able to grow almost enough food to live on for the year.
Esther and her vegetables, our community garden in Cleveland, the work of Grace Lee, point to the lesson that I am trying to offer. Every space contains the possibility of revitalization. The times may be difficult but if we think creatively, open ourselves to possibility, we can grow our souls. A desolate urban landscape does not have to be a symbol of collapse. It contains new ways of organizing ourselves or new possibilities for growing communities.
We can find similar possibilities wherever we live. And one of the best ways to find those possibilities is to be part of a liberal religious congregation like this one. The non-creedal and covenantal nature of our tradition means that we can flexibly open ourselves to collaboration and service with others. It also means that we understand that the work of growing our souls or undergoing a philosophical and spiritual transformation is not merely an activity for quiet contemplation. It might begin with the ability to see new possibilities in existing spaces, but it is best expressed through action. And that action is something that we do collectively. We need not be a large group to take collective action. Even a small congregation like First Parish Ashby can make a difference and help us to grow our souls. The Earth Day clean-up and the local organizing that the congregation did for March for Our Lives are great examples of this.
Grace Lee knew this. She was not a Unitarian Universalist. And yet, she could be described as a fellow traveler. She had a close relationship with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit. The funeral of her husband was held there and for many years she used it as an organizing site. She even mentioned it in her final book. That congregation, it is worth telling you, is not a large one. It has declined significantly in membership as the city has declined. And yet, it continues to make a difference, to be a place where people can grow their souls by creatively serving the community.
The times may be challenging. We may find ourselves often on the edge of despair. And yet, these are the times to grow our souls. And this is a good place to do it, by working together to imagine how our world and this town can be different. We can undergo a spiritual and philosophical transformation if we are willing to see the possibilities that open themselves after catastrophes, to seek, together, the hope that can follow despair.
May it be so, blessed be, and Amen.
Apr 11, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, April 8, 2018
I am grateful for the invitation to fill your pulpit this morning as we pause to reflect upon and honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Your minister, the Rev. Abbey Tennis, is a dear friend of mine. She is someone who I knew before she entered seminary. And so, it is a special privilege to be able preach from the pulpit she regularly graces. It is also a particular privilege to be in Philadelphia. My parents are from the civil rights generation. They met here while my mother was a teacher at Kenderton School in North Philly. And I grew up with stories about their involvement in civil rights efforts here, their participation in the teacher's union, and their connections to your city's vibrant arts community. So, in some sense, even though I have never lived in Philadelphia, this city's movements for justice have deeply shaped who I am and my commitments to antiracism and the labor movement.
This week many good-hearted people have paused to honor Dr. King. The President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, took three days out of her busy schedule to travel down to Memphis, Tennessee so that she could be present with the religious leaders, civil rights veterans, union organizers, and ordinary dreamers of peace and justice who gathered together to remember Dr. King on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. In order to be in Memphis, the Rev. Frederick-Gray turned down an invitation to travel to Washington, DC to participate in the remembrances organized by the National Council of Churches. I think her choice could be interpreted as a statement about the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Our fate as Unitarian Universalists is tied to those who dare to imagine that a world filled with peace and justice is possible. Dr. King taught that if we were not going to perish together as fools we need to dream of and then create a world where the psychic toxins of white supremacy have been purged from this nation and the globe, a world where we have set aside our gross materialism to live in sustainable harmony with our muddy blue ball of a planet, and a world where revolutionary love, rather than stultifying violence, is used to mediate our conflicts and solve our problems. Our collective fate as religious liberals is far more bound up with the fates of the visionaries who dream of such a world than it is with the fates of the mainline denominations or the moderate mainstream of American culture. This why Dr. King considered us friends and once referred to our tradition as "so near and dear" to him. It is why he often visited Arlington Street Church when he was a student in Boston. And it is why he took time on two occasions to directly speak to us as Unitarian Universalists and share with us what he hoped from our movement. He hoped "the church... [would remain] awake during a great revolution."
Now all of that should enough of what a Baptist minister friend of mine calls "throat clearing." I would, however, be remiss if I failed to extend a final note of gratitude to your guest music director, Nate, to Benjamin, who prepared the order of service, and, of course, to Anne. Working with each of them has been a reminder that while I may prepare my sermon alone worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
The title of today's sermon is "The Most Notorious Liar in America." Have you heard these words before? They are a phrase the director of the FBI used to describe Dr. King in 1964. I have chosen this phrase as the title of my sermon for two reasons. First, they are a reminder that Martin King was not always lauded during his lifetime. In his later years, as he turned from working to end segregation to critiquing the giant triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, he became increasing unpopular. In 1966 more than two thirds of Americans disapproved of him. That same year, 85 percent of white people said that the civil rights movement hurt African Americans more than it helped them. After he died some 31 percent of whites thought that King brought his assassination on himself. In the last fifty years the earthly powers and principalities have gone from calling him "the most notorious liar in America" to whitewashing him. In the imaginations of many he has become not that the man who told us "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin... the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society" but the man who dreamed only "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." As the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently observed, "America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages." In his transformation from marcher to martyr Martin King underwent the transmutation from maladjusted prophet to co-opted saint of the status quo.
Second, I choose the FBI director's words because Martin King was not the most notorious liar in America. He was this country's greatest truth teller. He told the truth about racism. It diminishes us all. As he said, "all life is interrelated, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you out to be until I am what I ought to be." He told the truth about militarism. He knew, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government." He told the truth about poverty. He reminded us that we lived among "economic conditions... [that] take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few..." He told the truth about the hypocrisy of white moderates and liberals who say that they are for justice but loathe marchers and celebrate martyrs. He said, "I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. There is nothing more terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities than the truth. Their power is rooted in lies. It is watered by falsehoods. It is grounded in fabrications.
We live in era of fake news. We live at a time when the President of the United States could be described as the liar-in-chief. In his first six months in office he told six times as many lies as the previous President told in eight years. The current President lies about migrants. He lies about people of color. He lies about poverty. He lies about women. He lies about climate change. He staffs his administration with liars who lie for him and tell us that violence will bring peace, that trade wars will bring prosperity, that isolation is better than interconnection...
The words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah were made for our time:
Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees
and who write unjust judgments which they have prescribed
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to take away the right from the poor of My people,
that widows may be their prey,
and that they may rob the fatherless!"
We can imagine that Isaiah was named the most notorious liar in Judah. The world's powers and principalities have feared the truth for as long as the prophets have spoken it. Perhaps that is why we are reminded in the Gospel of John, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." During his brief thirty-nine years Dr. King gave us the truth that could shatter the lies of those who keep the human family divided, of those who profit from what he named as the triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism, of those who peddle fake news and climate change denial, of those who exploit women and push transphobia and homophobia. That truth is, "We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools." The language may be gender limited but the core insight he offered shines through all the same, "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. Today, fifty years after Martin King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the truth does not just threaten to disrupt the worldly powers and principalities. The truth remains challenging for many good-hearted people to hear. The truth threatens the comfort of those of who Dr. King called "the white moderate."
Some years I was reminded of just how difficult truth can be for the white moderate. I was invited to preach the Sunday sermon at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in suburban Boston. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. I took for my text Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." On that Sunday we read the passage where Dr. King takes moderates to task for being conflict adverse for, as he put it, preferring a "negative peace... [with] the absence of tension to a positive peace... [with] the presence of justice."
Now, I admit I was angry. But as the bumper sticker tell us, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention." I was upset about living in a society where Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and Stephon Clark have all died violent deaths. I was mad about living in a country where, in 2017, 1,193 people were killed by the police. That is five times the number of people who lynched at the height of lynching. I was irate about a country where the median wealth of a white family is seven times that of a black family and five times that of a Latinx family; where the unemployment and poverty rates of most people of color are two to three times those of whites; and where African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.
It was near the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. I might have been injudicious with my words. I praised the brave prophetic protestors. I called the police killing of an unarmed man like Stephon Clark a murder. And I celebrated a group of activists who, to support Black Lives Matter, had done what Dr. King had frequently done. They had committed civil disobedience to draw attention to the systematic racism that festers at the heart of American society. They had occupied a major highway for several hours and blocked traffic from flowing into Boston.
Would you like to know what happened after the service? I was not greeted with the normal courtesies extended to the guest preacher. Instead, someone told me how upset they were that I describe the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police as murders. They wanted to know how I could have the knowledge that juries lacked when they acquit police officers after they kill people. That is a perspective that assumes that justice in America is race blind. And yet, we know, that it is anything but race blind.
Another group cornered me to share how much they disapproved of the protestors blocking the highway. They had been inconvenienced on their commutes. They failed to see how that civil disobedience was effective to the cause of racial justice. And they thought that as a minister I should criticize such activists rather than praise them. The next day I received an email from my ministerial colleague who had invited me to preach at the congregation, disinviting me from preaching there in the future.
I share this story not to turn myself into some sort of hero. Perhaps you agree with my colleague and their congregants. If so, that is fine. Disagreement is sometimes necessary for dialogue. But know this, I offer the story as an example of the ways we Unitarian Universalists can find the truth about racism in this country upsetting. It can be hard to recognize the truth that fifty years after the murder of Dr. King this country remains as racially unequal as ever. It can be even harder to realize that many of us have benefitted and participated from the systems perpetuate such racial disparity. And it can terrifying to recognize that changing such systems requires all of us to be maladjusted to the status quo and, for some of us, to risk losing our comforts.
The most notorious liar in America... Dr. King understood that the truth could be terrifying, upsetting, and dangerous. And yet, he gave his life to speak that truth. He shared that truth with us Unitarian Universalists on two occasions. The second time was in 1966, a text from which we have already read. The first time was in 1964 when he delivered a eulogy for the Rev. James Reeb. Reeb was a white Unitarian Universalist minister beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama because he marched for civil rights.
In eulogizing Reeb, Martin King urged us not ask the question: "Who killed James Reeb?" Instead, he encouraged us to ask, "What killed James Reeb." And he observed, "When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows."
Dr. King gave a true answer to his rhetorical question. And it was an answer that all of us might find challenging. He said, and I apologize for the dated racial language:
"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every… [black person] who tacitly accepts the evil systems of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice."
Martin King wanted us to know that James Reeb was, in some sense, killed by all of us. The same might be said of Dr. King himself. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger but there is a larger truth. That larger truth is terrifying. Dr. King he died because this country hates marchers but loves martyrs. Dr. King died because this country was built upon the systematic exploitation of people with black and brown bodies. Dr. King died because he threatened the standing racial order. Dr. King died because someone who spoke the truth to the worldly powers and principalities could be labelled the most notorious liar in America.
In the last two years several prominent leaders of Black Lives Matter have died. Muhiyidin Moye was shot in New Orleans. His murderers remain at large. Erica Garner suffered a fatal heart attack. It was brought on by the stress of trying to achieve justice for her father Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York City police. Shall we not say that these modern prophets were killed by the same system that killed Dr. King? As Erica Garner said before she died, "People are dying. This is real."
Facing the truth that the same system that killed Dr. King remains with us today is difficult. I choose as one of our hymns "We Shall Overcome" to try to point us to a different truth, that we shall eventually transform this system, defeat the evil triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, and live together in peace. But today, I have to admit, that fifty years after Martin King's death I am not so certain. What about you? Do you believe deep in your heart that we shall overcome? Or is the hope found in the song actually a lie? What do you think?
The most notorious liar in America... Is the actual lie that there will be victory over the systems that oppress us all? Perhaps, militarism, racism, and poverty will endure forever. Was it not Jesus who said, "The poor you will always have with you." Maybe that is the truth.
But if it is, surely it must lie alongside another truth, a truth that I have not yet mentioned, the truth that was at the core of Dr. King's life, the truth that made him so dangerous to the earthly powers and principalities. That truth is that the most powerful force in the world, the most powerful force for justice, is and has always been love. Dr. King told us this love "is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all… an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When one rises to love on this level, [they love]… a person who does evil while hating the deed."
Speaking the truth is terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities. Living the truth of love is even more threatening to them. I was reminded of this just recently when I received a letter from my friend Keith "Malik" Washington. Malik is a prison abolitionist. He believes that the prison system in the United States is a new form of slavery. And he wants to abolish it, just as we abolished chattel slavery.
Malik is one of the bravest people I know. He was one of the organizers of 2016 prison strikes that spread across the country. As many as 60,000 prisoners refused to work in protest to their subhuman conditions. It was one of the largest prison strikes in the history of this country. In retaliation for his role in organizing the strike Malik has been placed in the hole, which is to say in solitary confinement, in a jail in Texas. He has sent me letters describing the awful state of his cell, the brutality of the guards, and the, sometimes fatal, plight of his fellow prisoners.
In his most recent letter Malik was reflecting on the legacy of Martin King. He wrote about "the prevalent psyche in Amerikan society." It is that "Prisoners are bad not deserving of attention or love. Prisoners who are subhumans who deserve what they get!" He asked, "So how do we combat this Colin? We combat it with love! We humanize prisoners as much as we can in the public eye!" And then he made what seemed a remarkable statement, "I get angry and frustrated at times--but I have discovered that love is the best weapon I can have in my arsenal." This from a man who regularly suffers what I can only describe as torture. No wonder love is so threatening to the earthly powers and principalities.
You know, in the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday of Easter. And Malik's letter has had me thinking a bit about a truth that relates to Dr. King. That truth is that the love of Dr. King lives on. It is something that we must resurrect in ourselves this morning. If we are to ever overcome, if we are not turn Martin King into the most notorious liar in America, we need to resurrect the love that he taught in our hearts, just as Malik has done.
And Malik's love speaks to yet another truth, the final truth I want to share with you this morning. While Martin King was this country's most articulate purveyor of truth and love, he was not the only one. We risk turning him from a marcher to a martyr if we hold him as the sole example of someone who lived a life dedicated to acting with love and speaking truth. He was part of a movement, a movement that included numerous other brave prophets who struggled for justice. When we honor Dr. King we sometimes elide them. And so, I want to close, not with Dr. King's words but the words of three women who were the backbone of the civil rights generation. Without them there would have been no movement. Without the movement there would have been no Martin King.
Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Coretta Scott King:
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.
Will you pray with me?
Oh, spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others find unnamable,
be with us this morning,
and every morning,
as we strive towards the truth,
as we learn to love,
so that someday,
in Martin King's words:
"we can sing 'We Shall Overcome'
because somehow we know the arc of moral universe
is long but it bends towards justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right:
'No lie can live forever.'
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right:
'Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.'"
Let us have faith
that we shall overcome
not because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
was the most notorious liar in America
but because he was this country's greatest truth teller
and his truth
and his love can live in all of us.
Let the congregation say "Amen."
Jan 6, 2018
I have been invited to give the 2019 Spring Minns Lectures. The Minns lectures are an annual lecture series in Boston that date to 1942. They are designed to be “an innovative force in Unitarian Universalist thought.” In recent years, lecturers have included: the author of Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, Mark Morrison-Reed; the President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Rosemary Bray McNatt; best-selling author Kate Braestrup; and past Presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens and William Sinkford. James Luther Adams and George Huntston Williams, professors at Harvard Divinity School and the towering figures in Unitarian, and later Unitarian Universalist, theology in the mid-twentieth-century. The 2018 Autumn lecturer will be Samira Mehta, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College.
My lectures are tentatively titled “American Populism and Unitarian Universalism.” Here is their two paragraph summary:
This three-part lecture series is organized around the question: How should Unitarian Universalists respond to populism? In recent years, populist movements have been on the rise in the United States and throughout the globe. Apocalyptic in outlook, dividing the world into a righteous people and a corrupt elite, and often organized around solidarities of nation and race, there is much about populism that makes most Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Yet in its left-wing forms populism can also be a socially regenerative force, pushing institutions to be more accountable to the many rather than the few. What can Unitarian Universalists learn from populism? How does populism relate to liberalism and progressivism—political traditions with which many Unitarian Universalists are more comfortable? Is populism a force that can be used to build a broad religious left? Or does it contain flaws that doom populist movements to create greater social division?
This lecture series aims to provide Unitarian Universalists with some of the analytical and historical tools necessary to foster more effective social engagement. It will begin by examining the social and theological roots of populism before turning to two case studies. The first will explore the tensions between Francis Greenwood Peabody and late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century populists. The second will focus on the relationship between the Pan-African populist leader Marcus Garvey and the black liberal religionists and humanists affiliated with Egbert Ethelred Brown’s Harlem Unitarian Church. The series will conclude with reflections on how Unitarian Universalists are being called to act during a time when white right-wing populism is a dominant force in American politics.
Jun 21, 2017
I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal:
This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.
After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?
The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.
Jan 25, 2017
My preaching date at Bell St. Chapel in Providence, RI has been changed. I am now leading worship there on Feb. 26. Here's the service blurb:
The Great Family of All Souls
William Ellery Channing’s claim “I am a living member of the great family of all souls” is central to our Unitarian Universalist theology. In this service, we’ll wrestle with what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist today and how Channing’s words are both a call for us to be our most authentic selves and be compassionate to those around us.
Jun 1, 2016
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, May 30, 2016
A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Starr King School for the Ministry on the challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. Starr King is, as you know, one of the two explicitly Unitarian Universalist seminaries in the United States. Located in Berkley, California, it is a center for training both future ministers and social justice activists. Over the last few decades it has been at the forefront of theological education by serving as a multi-religious training ground. In addition to training Unitarian Universalists, it has a commitment to training liberal Islamic religious leaders.
Since, I am a both a historian and a theologian I opened my talk at Starr King with nod to the past as a way of setting us on the path to the future. I gave them the same reading we just had, Mark Belletini’s “Reading for the Day.” Belletini is a Starr King graduate and he has been a transformative figure for liberal religion. He was the first openly gay man called to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. He is grounded in a multi-religious practice. Raised a Catholic, he has been profoundly influenced by Jewish liturgy and Islamic poetry. He channels the sacred through the fine arts and the human art of connection. He is devoted to teaching and cultivating the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It is a tradition which, in the words of Marilyn Sewell, teaches “that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth.”
Mark retired this past year. In many ways, his forty year ministry has been a testament to why Unitarian Universalism was able to grow steadily over the last several decades. For the majority of the later half of the twentieth-century we have been at the forefront of proclaiming that our religious communities are open to everyone. For a long time we were one of the few places where people who not heterosexual could bring their whole selves to worship. At a time of rising interest in religions other than Christianity, we have since the middle of the nineteenth century affirmed that there are multiple paths to the divine.
Today, Unitarian Universalism is at a turning point. While we grew in numbers steadily between 1980 and 2012 for the last few years our membership growth has either been stagnant or slightly declining. What I am going to do this morning is lay out three interrelated challenges that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. I am going to interweave these challenges with autobiographical illustrations and some cursory reflections on how we might meet those challenges.
Before I continue let me say that each of these challenges takes place within the framework of what we could call the great challenge. The great challenge is the question of whether or not we as a society and a human species will be able to manage the ecological catastrophe that we have created. This catastrophe emerges from our economic system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism, the wealth of the world has been built off a dual exploitation. The raw resources of the planet--magnificent forests of pin straight pine and whale large redwoods, pitch coal, or tarry oil--are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the basis of mostly white wealth. To confront the great challenge of our rising ecological catastrophe we will have to confront the system that has created it. This means, as Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker would have it, that we have to learn to live after the apocalypse. There are great catastrophes behind us and there may be great ones ahead of us. We need to learn with the present resources at hand, as Parker says, we need to engage in “salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life.” All this, however, is something of another sermon. So, rather than focusing on the great challenge this morning, let us instead focus on some particular challenges that face our faith.
As an introduction to each challenge, a verse from Mark’s poem: “You are alive, here and now. / Love boldly and always tell the truth.”
I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, soul... In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling old buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:
Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”
Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape offer two important lessons. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?
We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, on Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary, just past the mid-point of spring. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole... where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time… no longer constrained by fears that us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”
We live in a period of ever increasing modes of religiosity. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. These two observations present the first challenge that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. Traditional religious institutions have to re-imagine themselves to remain culturally relevant. We all know this. For those who care about congregational life, the statistics are grim. Sunday morning worship attendance is shrinking. Churches are closing. Seminaries are closing.
In the coming years, Unitarian Universalists will increasingly have to figure out how to offer guidance, inspiration, and prophetic vision to a society where there is no reigning religious norm. We will have ground our efforts to understand and transcend the great challenge in a desire to teach and explore both emerging forms of religious expression and long established ones.
“Your heart beats now, / not tomorrow or yesterday. / Love the gift of your life and do no harm.”
I left the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland to return to academia in the autumn of 2012. Since then I have been doing pulpit supply throughout New England. New England is the historical heartland of American Unitarian Universalism and my itinerant wanderings throughout the region have made me feel, at times, like an old-fashioned circuit rider. In the last years, I have led worship at the some of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations and some of the smallest. Some of the smallest congregations in our tradition are quite small. This is a recent phenomenon for many of them.
Last year, I was invited to preach at a historic Universalist congregation in the center of a small Massachusetts city. Two centuries ago, the congregation had been served by Hosea Ballou, one the founders of American Universalism. During Ballou’s ministry, the congregation had numbered as many as a couple of thousand. The sanctuary was huge--walls with white paint, wooden pews with glistening varnish, a balcony that wrapped around the edges of the room and sat at least three hundred, a gigantic old fashioned New England pulpit that was way up there--just beautiful. It could easily accommodate fifteen hundred hardy souls. Anyone want to guess how many people were there on my Sunday morning? Anyone? Less than ten. That number includes me, my son, and my parents who were visiting from out of town.
The presence of only ten people in that cavernous sanctuary did not make the gathered congregation’s needs any less real. The struggles and aspirations of the community are present no matter how large or small the group. No matter how big or small the congregation we have bring ourselves fully to whatever religious community we enter. This instant we have together is all we have. We must make the most of it and remember that the beloved the community, that sense of the spark of the divine within each, can erupt at any moment.
No matter the size of the congregation, it can serve as an important voice for justice in its community. I was reminded of this recently when I led worship at another tiny little New England congregation in an old mill town. They asked me ahead of time what I planned to preach on. I told them the lasting impact of global white supremacy. It is a topic on which I preach frequently. It was notable enough in that town that the congregation made the local newspaper. Two full paragraphs. Page three. When Sunday morning came round the sanctuary was the fullest it had been in a long while. Afterwards, several people came up and told me that it was the first time they had heard white supremacy denounced from a historically white pulpit.
There is a truth that I am grasping for here. Even if some of our liberal religious institutions are declining they can still make an impact. In this country, movements for social transformation have always had a religious component. Re-imaging liberal religion for the twenty-first century means recognizing that it needs to continue serve the people well, no matter how few or how many. Whatever the size of a congregation we must remember that it can be a space for collective liberation. In some sense this just means remembering the truth of that well-worn quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
“Life is struggle and loss, and also / tenderness and joy. / Live all of your life, not just part of it.”
I come from a long line of troublemakers, political malcontents, social agitators and religious dissidents. My grandparents, on my Mom’s side, have a connection to the Amana colonies, a Christian socialist community in Iowa. Many people on my father’s side are or were secular Jewish socialists. I was raised on stories of family members who fled this country or that to avoid fighting in another bloody capitalist war.
It is should not be a surprise that I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to the project of collective liberation. This has taken me to a number places that most people who have my privileged class background do not normally end up. Over the years, I have helped organize an independent union of bike couriers and a wildcat strike that involved over twenty thousand workers. I have gone to jail for civil disobedience and spent about seven years working with indigenous communities, including the Zapatistas, in Mexico.
It is one of the lessons that I learned from the Zapatistas that I want to lift up to you this morning. The Zapatistas, you might remember, originated as a guerilla movement in Southern Mexico. It January 1994 they seized control of about one third of the state of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. A movement of indigenous Mayan peasants, among them I found remarkable resonances with the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. Consider these words from Commandante Ester, a Zapatista leader, describing her community’s decision making process. She said, that her community tried to make decisions “without losing what makes each individual different, [in doing so] unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement.” That sounds a fair bit like the approach to community life found in our congregations.
Indeed, one of most remarkable things that I witnessed in Chiapas was the processes of community decision making. I visited a village where there was a discussion on whether or not to renounce Catholicism in favor of non-Christian indigenous religion. For several days, from morning until late into the evening, all of the community members stood around a basketball court and debated the theological merits of Catholicism and of their Mayan religion. Which did they believe was the true? Which would guide their community best in the project of collective liberation?
On other occasions, I had conversations with Zapatista educators about their educational model. They told me that its goal was to enable people to become more fully human. That sounds an awful lot like Sophia Lyon Fahs writing that the goal of religious education is “to become one’s true self.”
We have to recognize that our theological tradition has a power that extends far beyond the white and professionally classed enclaves that have been liberal religions historic strongholds. The challenge, remember I promised I was going to get to a challenge, is that for liberal religion to grow in the twenty-first century those of us who are white have to recognize our theological solidarity with a host of communities of color that articulate theologies similar to our own. This means cracking open Unitarian Universalist culture in its stuck places. This means confronting the culture of whiteness that prevents many amongst us from seeing kinds of Unitarian and universalist theologies outside of our congregations. It means expanding our conception of our religious tradition and, in doing so, meeting the challenges we collectively face in the twenty-first century.
Rising modes of religious expression; shrinking institutions; and opening ourselves to Unitarianism and Universalism outside of our historic congregations. These challenges, within the broader context of the great challenge, are some we face. Let us collectively continue upon the path of re-imagining liberal religion and liberal theology for the twenty-first century. In doing so, let us have the faith that our efforts will serve all of humanity.
And remember that every single human word is
finally and divinely cradled in the strong and secure
arms of Silence.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 22, 2014
My friend Rev. Ian White Maher stirred up a bit of conversation when I published his guest post "A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy." In addition to substantive conversation on Facebook, Rev. Tom Schade over at The Lively Tradition and Rev. Cynthia Kane at Captain Reverend Mother posted responses. I am still formulating my own thoughts on the comments Ian and I have received from Kane, Schade and others and plan to write something in response to their responses in the next week or two. In the meantime, I hope people will continue to reflect on Ian's important piece and the conversation it has started. If anyone knows of other bloggers who have written in response to it please contact me so I can post links to their pieces.
Nov 19, 2014
Tomorrow I am going to participate in a panel at Collegium on the Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship. Here are the remarks, based largely upon the survey I conducted, I prepared for the conference:
My first impulse when asked to participate on this panel was to survey the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship. I am familiar with most of the scholars in our movement. Instead of providing an overview of their work I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my ministerial colleagues who they read. I conducted an on-line survey. Seventy-four people, including a dozen who identified as lay people and another eight who primarily identified as academics, responded. I won’t claim that the survey is scientific but I do think that it tell us something interesting things about the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship.
The question “Who are the five most influential Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious thinkers today?” generated a clear consensus. More than half my respondents included Rebecca Parker’s name on the list. Five other scholars were named by at least twenty percent of respondents: Mark Morrison-Reed, Tom Schade, Paul Rasor, Thandeka and Dan McKanan. Three others were offered up by at least ten percent of respondents: Cornel West, Forrest Church, and Sharon Welch.
There are two things that I think are interesting about this list. It is not made of exclusively of academics and there is a disconnect between how influential a scholar is within the academy and how influential they are within our movement. To the first point, Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church are not traditional academics, they are, or were, scholar ministers. Tom Schade is a blogger. Among the academics named only three are, or were, engaged full time in theological education. No one currently on the Starr King faculty makes the list and only one of Meadville’s full-time faculty is there.
Second, I compared my list against google scholar’s citation tracker to see whom amongst is read by the wider academy. Hands down the three most cited Unitarian Universalist scholars were, in order of citation count: Sharon Welch, Anthony Pinn and Rebecca Parker. Interestingly, two of the scholar ministers received about the same number of citations as established academics: Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church. Less surprisingly, the blogger on the list had not been cited by any scholar.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that the site of scholarship within our tradition will continue to be situated both inside and outside of the academy. As Dan mentioned, there are thirty five either recent graduate PhD or doctoral students. Many of us, I suspect, will not pursue jobs within the academy. Those who opt for a non-academic career will not necessarily leave their scholarly work or their ability to influence either Unitarian Universalism or the academy behind. Indeed, they may be uniquely positioned, as Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church were, to have some impact on their academic fields while at the same time nurturing future generations of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders.
Another is that the people we scholars perceive as influential are not necessarily the same people that those in our movement conceive of as influential. For the past decade there have been a variety of blogs that have had transient but significant on the discourse within our liberal religious community. Tom Schade’s The Lively Tradition is the latest iteration of these. In previous years Chris Walton’s Philocrites or Victoria Weinstein’s Peacebang were similarly influential. This suggests a possible project for those of us who are interested in bridging the space between the academy and our wider Unitarian Universalist community: a collective blog.
I am almost out of time. My two other questions were: “What magazines, academic journals, and blogs most impact your work?” and “What is the most important issue for Unitarian Universalist scholars to address?” The responses to both were all over the place. Only three publications--the Christian Century, New Yorker, and the UU World--were named by more than ten percent of respondents. There was no clear consensus as to what issue we should be addressing, though several people did write some variant of “Theology, Theology, Theology.” Mark Morrison-Reed was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail in response and given that I value his opinion as I value few others I thought I would let him have the last word here: “exploring the multicultural history of [Unitarian Universalism] ...is important...
Why is this important? If the UUA is to become more diverse is must figure out what is getting in the way. And it must hold up the history that exist[s] but is yet untold. The various Identity groups need to understand that they have been around and have made a difference. That narrative must be told a a corrective to our misunderstanding of who were really are and might become.”
Nov 10, 2014
Next week I am going to be part of a panel presentation at the UU Collegium on the “The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship.” To aid in preparations for my portion of the panel I am trying to collect some unscientific survey data. There are only four questions and I would appreciate it if readers of my blog could fill it out and distribute it. I will publish the results on the survey next week. The url is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/98ZLCLK