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.
Nov 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 3, 2019
For about ten years I edited “Workers Power,” a monthly column that appeared in the labor newspaper the “Industrial Worker.” It was a forum for working people to share their experiences organizing a labor union. The people who wrote for it worked all kinds of jobs. Over the years I ran pieces by baristas and bartenders, bicycle messengers and truck drivers, grocery clerks, nurses, teachers, and a host of others. One of the wonderful things about the column was that it put me in touch with a huge range of people.
The prominent historian and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd even asked me, at one point, if he could submit something for the column. He wrote a beautiful piece remembering his friend Vicky Starr, one of the women who had organized Packinghouse Workers union in the Chicago stockyards in the 1940s.
Staughton’s profile of Vicky was a portrait of someone who had lived a courageous life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. He wrote, “whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident” is the courageous person. When we are courageous we name our fears and then we act to address them. We act not with the certainty that we can overcome what we fear. Instead, we act holding onto the possibility that we can overcome. We find such a sentiment referenced in Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem “Life:”
I have seen what I have said
I have hidden nothing of the horror
I have done what I could
I have taken everything from love
given everything to love
Vicky had courage. She knew that the only way that her life and the lives of her co-workers was going to get better was if they acted together. And she knew that doing so carried significant risks. But that did not stop her from acting. When someone Vicky worked with lost a finger making hotdogs, she convinced everyone on the production line to put down their tools and walkout. The company quickly put in safety equipment. Unfortunately, Vicky was identified as a leader and lost her job.
A little while later Vicky was back at the plant. She used the name of a friend to get rehired. Over the next few years, she led short strikes when people died or were injured on the job. Vicky found the women easier to organize than the men. In order to recruit men for the union she discovered she had to go to where they hung out after work. Though it made her uncomfortable, she started visiting the bars they frequented. She learned to shoot pool and bowl.
Eventually, the union was established. Recalling the experience Vicky told Staughton, "You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other.”
The courage that people like Vicky exhibited was a common thread that united many of the columns. Workers sometimes wrote about getting fired and the difficulty they had in making ends meet as a result. Other times they wrote about standing up to a bully of a boss. Often the writers would reflect on how the courage they discovered while organizing on the job helped them to move from “low self-esteem” to exuding “confidence.” They would be courageous, confront their employer, win a modest victory and gain a bit of confidence in their ability to improve their lives. Some of these victories would be extremely modest--winning an extra bathroom break or new oven mitts for the kitchen staff--but each little victory would help them gain courage for their next action.
In their courageous acts, workers often exhibited a lot of creativity. In one the author described how he and his co-workers had forced their employer to pay them back wages that they were owed. They worked at a bar and hadn’t been paid in some weeks. They put up a picket outside and began handing out flyers with the headline “Free Drinks.” The text explained that since the workers were not getting paid the drinks at the bar should be free. Some customers went inside, presented the flyers to the bar owner, and demanded their free drinks. He was not amused. The workers soon got the money they were owed.
Courage often sparks creativity. It frequently comes when, in Martin King’s words, we find ourselves needing “to make a way out of no way.” It appears when, as Vicky said, “people... [are] ready to get together, to protect each other.” In such moments the ordinary rules cease to apply. People begin to imagine new ways of being and new forms of action.
Seventeenth-century English universalists used to call this the experience of “the world turned upside down.” It comes when, in times of crisis, people realize that the regular hierarchies of life--hierarchies such as class, race, and gender--are no longer serving them. And that in order to confront the crises they face they have to try to figure out a new way to live.
Have you ever had such an experience? Where you had to stop what you were doing and reimagine the way you and those around you related to each other? Where you began to find, if only briefly, a new way of being? Where you witnessed the world turned upside down?
Over the last few weeks, some of you will remember, I have been trying to draw your attention to the situation in Rojava. Rojava is the region of Northern Syria where the Kurds and their allies have been working with the United States military to destroy ISIS. The people of Rojava are the ones who were betrayed by the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Rojava is important because the people there have been attempting to turn the world upside down. That region of the world is traditionally a very patriarchal culture. The people of Rojava have come to realize that movements like ISIS are based in patriarchy; and that the only way such movements can ultimately be defeated is by liberating women. They have inverted the social hierarchy and placed women at the top. They believe women’s “freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.” And so, they have created a remarkable system of governance, which they call democratic confederalism, which says that every unit of society has to have both male and female representatives. They have an army led by men and an army led by women. Their town’s have two mayors--one male and one female. And, in order to fully turn the world upside down, the women have veto authority while the men do not. Now, obviously, this does not include all genders. But it is a radical reshaping of society--an incredible instance of collective courage--for a society where the alternative is a brutal system of patriarchal rule where women are treated as objects--even bought and sold as slaves--rather than human beings.
My own experiences of turning the world upside down mostly come from my work in the labor movement. When an employer refuses to address a health and safety concern and workers organize to deal with it anyway they are turning the world upside down. They are inverting the system where their employer gets to make decisions about their working conditions. Instead of management determining, for instance, if they are going to work with insufficient equipment they decide they won’t work until such equipment is provided. Sometimes, they might even provide it themselves--I know of more than one worksite where workers came together, bought equipment they needed, and then presented their boss with a bill.
Turning the world upside is a form of what we might call collective courage. This month we are talking about courage. This week we are talking about collective courage. Next week I will talk with you about individual courage. I start with the collective for two reasons. First, we are in a period of great social crises. This year in worship we are focusing on developing the spiritual and religious resources necessary to confront the grave crises of the hour: the climate crisis; the resurgence of white supremacy; and the global assault on democracy. We can only confront them by joining together. We can only address them by developing collective courage.
Second, if we are part of a community that practices collective courage then we are much more likely we practice it as individuals. The workers whose stories I edited for my column were not acting by themselves. They were part of a labor union. Their membership in such an organization gave them the confidence, gifted them the courage, to act and try to turn the world upside down. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to do so, if they had been on their own.
The congregations that make up the Unitarian Universalist Association have been practicing collective courage and turning the world upside for hundreds of years. Our insistence that congregations should be run by their members was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a profound act of turning the world upside down. The idea that all people had within the “likeness to God,” as William Ellery Channing taught, was a revolutionary one in a society that taught that people were born with original sin. The idea that congregation’s should select their own ministers was radical. It inverted the traditional hierarchy that placed the clergy in control of the church. Equally radical was the idea that ministers did not have a special relationship with the divine. We were understood to be people with special skills and a particular education that could guide the congregation in living its covenant and realizing its vision. Despite these skills, our congregants knew that they had the same relationship with the divine that we did.
At a time when kings still had divine rights, such a conception of a religious community was an act of collective courage. It was tied to our understanding of human nature. In the mid-nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with a character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” People formed the congregations that became Unitarian Universalist as places to help each other cultivate good character. They believed that it was very difficult to develop good character on one’s own. It required participation in a larger collective.
Character, in the sense that our Unitarian forbearers used it, was not an idea unique to them. They were deeply influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. Our character, Aristotle understood, was the sum total of our virtues and vices. Virtues are those habits of ours--those things we do over and over again until they become part of our very being--which are praiseworthy. Vices are, well vices, are the opposite.
We are a society more beset by vice than virtue. Voices of reason are telling us that if we are to survive as a human species we need to find collective courage and turn the world upside. This week the academic journal BioScience published an article signed by more than 11,000 scientists that declared “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” They warn that urgent action is needed if we wish to avoid “significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, [and] potentially makes large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
At almost the same time, the President notified the United Nations that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement is the major international agreement suggesting how the human species might confront the grave emergency we face. And the President has decided that the United States should not be part of it. The impact of the decision of world’s largest economy to not--on a federal level--act and confront humanity’s existential crisis is likely to be significant.
In this era of existential crisis, we need communities that will help us nurture the necessary virtues to respond to what Martin King called “the fierce urgency of now.” The climate scientists are telling us that, in King’s words, “This is no time... to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism... It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” Chief among the virtues, the resources, that we need today, in this time of fierce urgency, is courage.
There are two practices of collective courage that we might nurture in this community and find helpful in our efforts to face the fierce urgency of the moment. Each of them was present in Vicky Star’s life. We can manifest each of them in our own. They are: fellowship and accompaniment.
The courage of fellowship is the courage of association. It means, building a community of people who might not otherwise come together. It is a core virtue of any congregation committed to the task of collective liberation. We find it described in the Christian New Testament as one of Jesus’s central activities.
For Jesus, it meant radical table fellowship. It was one of the most profound ways he challenged the powers and principalities of his day. He brought people together across social classes and across ethnic divisions.
The story is recounted in multiple gospels. Jesus had among his followers many tax-collectors and sinners. And they ate together. This might seem like a fairly innocuous activity. It was not. It was a great act of collective courage. In ancient Palestine, in the Jewish community, tax-collectors and sinners--by whom I suspect the text meant prostitutes--would have been some of the most despised people around.
In those days much of Jewish life was organized around ritual purity. Only the ritually pure could worship at the Temple. Only the ritually pure could find favor with the divine. Tax-collectors and prostitutes were not ritually pure. It was an act of social disruption to bring them together. It was an act of ritual impurity to eat together. It was a way in which Jesus turned the world upside down.
The Christian New Testament claims, Jesus, this great religious teacher, choose to eat amongst them and not amongst those who were already virtuous. I have suggested in the past that the key to understanding the Christian New Testament is found in Luke 17:20-21: “‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God will come. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
The practice of fellowship is one way we bring the kingdom of God among us. In order to organize her meatpacking plant Vicky Star had to bring together, to engage in fellowship with, people who often hated each other. She brought people into the union who never would have talked to each other otherwise--black and white workers, Jewish and Catholic workers, Irish, Polish, Mexican, and Italian workers. It was by doing so that she and her co-workers were able to find the collective courage to address the challenges that they faced.
How might we apply the collective courage of fellowship to our lives and our religious community? After the service you will be having an opportunity to discuss my assessment report of First Church. We will be holding the first in a series of cottage meetings on the future of the congregation. Two of the things I have suggested you might wrestle with in the coming years as a religious community touch directly on the collective courage of fellowship. These are the questions, implied in my report: What is the vision of First Church? And who is First Church for?
That we will be having this conversation as a congregation is a legacy of our religious ancestors decision to, in their churches, turn the world upside down. For, it is ultimately you, the laity, who will develop your vision, your expression of collective courage, for this congregation.
This leads me to the collective courage of accompaniment. Staughton Lynd, and his wife Alice, have developed a theory of it. The Lynds names might be familiar to some of you. They are well known peace activists. Now in their nineties, they spent many years in late sixties and early seventies counseling draft dodgers. This experience led them to develop what they called the theory of “two experts.” They describe it this way: “The draft counselor was presumably an expert on Selective Service law and regulations, and on the practice of local draft boards. But the counselee was an expert on his own life experience, on the predictable responses of parents and significant others, and on how much risk the counselee was prepared to confront.”
The collective courage of accompaniment is one well suited for congregations like ours. Many of you are experts in particular fields--doctors, lawyers, social workers, human resource professionals, the list goes on. The theory of two experts is a way for those of us who have significant expertise in one subject to meet those we work with as equals. And in meeting as equals we practice the collective courage of turning the world upside down.
Staughton was able to write about Vicky because he and Alice had gotten to know her when they applied their theory of two experts to the field of labor history. Rather than presuming that they, Ivy League educated professionals, knew what the lives of working people were like they asked them. They gathered priceless oral histories of people coming together to collectively improve their lives and developed theories of organizing that have recently inspired Uber and Lyft drivers in their own efforts to create labor unions.
Members of First Church have practiced, without I suspect knowing it, aspects of the theory of two experts and accompaniment in your work with Neighbor-to-Neighbor. I have heard you tell me that when you work with partner organizations you follow their lead--offering the expertise and volunteer time that you have while letting them craft the agenda. This is an act of collective courage. For those of us who are used to being charge and making decisions, it means recognizing that people have an expertise that comes from their own experience.
I used my own understanding of the theory of two experts in my efforts to craft the assessment report that we will be discussing over the coming weeks. I met with more than forty of you to listen to your stories about First Church. And then, using my understanding of congregations and religious life, I attempted to use my expertise as a minister and a scholar to offer a portrait of yourselves. As the month proceeds and I listen to your responses to the report I will find out the accuracy of my portrait. And you will, as experts in your experience of First Church, get to decide how you want to cultivate character, craft collective courage, as a religious community in the coming years.
Fellowship and accompaniment can lead to the collective courage of action. That was certainly the case in Vicky Star’s life. By bringing people together and traveling with them on a journey she was able to help them act to improve their lives and to, perhaps only briefly, turn the world upside down.
In these days of existential crises, when the world can seem drear and dismal, collective courage comes to us well recommended. By practicing fellowship and accompaniment we might yet figure out how to make a way out of no way, and ultimately address the grave challenges of the hour. For, it is like the Unitarian Universalist minister Wayne Arnason has said:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.
In that spirit, I invite the congregation to 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 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 29, 2019
Democracy is in crisis. This week brought what will almost certainly be the start of an impeachment inquiry against the sitting President of the United States. The week’s events were prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint that alleged: “that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
I will leave it to Congress to adjudicate whether or not the whistleblower’s complaint justifies the impeachment of the President. And I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on whether or not Congress should impeach the President. Instead, I want us to investigate the nature of this crisis in democracy. It is not a crisis that suddenly developed last week. It has crisis that has been going on for a long time. If you doubt this, let me offer you a single observation: if the House of Representatives ultimately proceeds to draft impeachment articles it will be the third time in forty-five years that they have been drafted against a sitting President. We might well ask what is going on.
One place to start our inquiry is with the opening statements of Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes at the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Macguire. They are a study in contrasts. Schiff, you might know, is the Committee chairman and a Democrat. Nunes, you may remember, is the ranking Republican on the Committee.
Schiff began by outlining the nature of the presidential oath of office. He stated that the President was to faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution. And he claimed that the President cannot defend the Constitution if they do not defend the country. He said, “where there is no country there is no office to execute.” The Constitution is not merely a piece of paper, he observed. Instead, it is, he stated, “the institutions of our democracy... the system of checks and balances... and the rule of law.”
Nunes started his opening statement in a completely different place. He made no reference to the Constitution or the President’s oath of office. Instead, he said, “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the President, and their extraordinary ability to once again enlist the mainstream media in their campaign.” He continued by claiming that the Democrats stood guilty of every crime or misdeed of which the current President has been accused. In 2016 it was not the President but “the Democrats themselves [who] were colluding with the Russians.” Today, he alleged, “there are numerous examples of Democrats” who are doing what they accuse the President of doing, “pressuring Ukrainians to take actions that would help... or hurt... [their] political opponents.”
The two men appear to inhabit different realities. In one, the President is a fundamental threat to democracy. In the other, the Democratic Party is subverting and destroying democracy. My own perspective is somewhat different. The crisis is with democracy itself. The President is one manifestation of the crisis. And the Democratic Party is another.
Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is not the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch, or the United States Congress. It is not the Constitution. It is not the United States of America, the state of Texas, Harris County, or the city of Houston. It is not going to a polling place and voting for a political representative.
Democracy is a fluid set of practices. In essence, it is found whenever a group of people embark together upon the project of self-rule. It is found whenever, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, people engage in the struggle “against bosses, against oligarchies.” Oligarchies are societies in which power rests with a small group of people. The meaning of bosses is probably rather obvious. Rorty uses it to prompt the questions: Can a society actually be democratic if people do not have democracy at work? Can a society be democratic if there is vast economic inequality? Can a society be democratic if it is essentially ruled by a group of self-perpetuating elites? Consider how money is used to buy political influence. The late comedian Robin Williams had a novel suggestion about how campaign donations should be accounted for amongst professional politicians. He said, “The voters should know who you represent, and if you represent special-interest groups, we should be like NASCAR. ...be in the Senate with our suits on, and if you’re backed by something, it’d be like little patches like they wear in NASCAR.”
To stand “Against bosses, against oligarchies,” to invoke Rorty, and to name democracy as a set of practices, is to recognize something vital about it. It is come to understand that democracy is not a merely political system. It is something you have to practice. It is something you have to do. And here is where we run into the core of the crisis in democracy we are facing. We do not practice it. Almost nowhere in American society do we engage in the project of self-rule. It is rarely found in our schools. It is largely absent from our workplaces. It does not exist in many of our neighborhoods or in most of our churches. In truth, much of American society is constructed precisely to prevent self-rule and to preserve the power of elites. There are massive monopolies that perpetuate economic inequality. The needs and safety of local communities are often sacrificed so that the owners of these monopolies might profit. And all the while we continue to talk about American democracy.
The problem goes back to the very beginning of the country. The problem is, as the historian Gordon Wood has claimed, that many of the nation’s founders used “democratic rhetoric... to explain and justify... [an] aristocratic system.” The Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, were designed explicitly to stifle the self-rule of the majority and ensure the continuing power of the wealthy minority. This should not be surprising. The leaders of the American Revolution were largely wealthy landowners. Many of them owed their wealth to the exploitation of enslaved Africans. They did not want a true democracy. They wanted a society modeled after ancient republican Rome. Prior to the advent of Roman emperor, Rome was a society ruled by the Roman Senate. The Senate was an elite institution whose members held their seats for life. They came to hold their offices through a system that explicitly gave extra weight to wealthy voters. Rome was, in essence, an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
In ancient Rome, the Senate’s proponents maintained that it should be an elite institution because they believed that only the elite was fit to govern. Only the Roman elite, these men reasoned, had the leisure in which they could cultivate the knowledge, the skills, and the personal integrity to effectively rule their society. Everyone else, the ordinary people who struggled to pay their rent, who worked for wages, who farmed small plots of land, was too caught up in the struggle for life to acquire the necessary character traits to govern society.
Looking to ancient Rome for inspiration, the majority of the founders of this country came to believe that it was only elites who could successfully cultivate what they called public virtue. Their idea of public virtue was “endearing and benevolent passion,” as one of them put it. This passion came from “charity” and was based on the cultivation of private virtues like benevolence and truthfulness. It also required that one respected the established social hierarchy and knew their place in the social order. Public virtue could not be practiced by someone who was hateful, envious, or greedy. Challenging the social hierarchy, or failing to cultivate the appropriate private virtues, meant that someone would quickly lose, as one of the founders put it, their “sense of a connection to the general system” and with it their “benevolence.” When that happened the “desire and freedom of doing good ceased.”
Put differently, if someone challenged the bosses and the oligarchs, they threatened the social order. Their private virtues were out of alignment. They coveted social positions and economic goods that did not belong to them. And that rendered them ineligible to serve the republic. The founders created the Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, precisely to ensure that the elites would continue to rule. If you doubt this, consider that the average net worth of a Senator is over three million dollars. If you doubt this, consider how routinely the Supreme Court rules in favor of wealthy corporations and against local communities or individuals. If you doubt this, consider the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in which money was equated with free speech. It was a reminder that under our system, in the words of Senator Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
This is the crisis we are facing. The sad reality is that we have conflated the rule of an elite with a democracy. The stark truth is that there are few places in our lives where we practice democracy.
Democracy could be understood as the political application of Jesus’s words in Luke 17:20-21. There he is recorded as having said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!;’ because the Kingdom of God is among you.” Democracy is the constant practice of negotiating self-rule. It is never permanently established. It is always coming into being. It found in a set of practices, not frozen in an institution. It is the attempt amongst a group of people to figure out how to collectively meet their needs, set a vision for their community, and move together into the future. We might say that it is the effort of a group of people to create the kingdom among themselves.
Most people have little direct experience with democracy. In general, people think that if they vote or donate money to a political cause they have done their civic duty. But usually this means continuing to let the entrenched and wealthy, the powers and principalities, run society. It is only be organizing together, by directly attempting to govern ourselves, that we can experience democracy and, possibly, move towards a more democratic society.
One place I have learned about democracy is within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing institutions. It is you, the members, who decide the direction you want the congregation to take. Clergy like me might try to inspire but First Church is ultimately your congregation. This is true whether you are served by an interim minister who will only be with you for a couple of years. And it is true when you are served by a minister like Bob Schaibly who was here for twenty years. Ministers come and go but you, the members, remain.
First Church is governed by its Board of Directors. The Board is nothing like the Senate. Any member of the congregation can be elected to serve on the Board. Terms are limited and people rotate off each year. What is more, the Board’s ultimate authority rests in the congregation. It can set direction but you, the congregation, ultimately set First Church’s agenda when you do things like call settled ministers, pass vision and mission statements, and change your constitution.
I was reminded of the dynamics of congregational self-governance on Wednesday when the Board and I agreed upon our goals for the year. One of the goals that the Board voted on was the chartering of a Transformation Committee. This committee will report to the Board. Its job will be to lead in the congregation in the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy inside of and outside of our walls and building a more diverse and multiracial beloved community. Hopefully, it will prepare the congregation as a whole to hold a vote on whether or not to endorse the proposed eighth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The proposed principle reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
If you adopt it, it will be part of your long work towards becoming a more multiracial congregation. That work began as early as 1954 when you were the first historically white congregation to vote to integrate. That was an act of self-governance that occurred because democracy is a central part of our religious practice as Unitarian Universalists.
Let me share with you a story from another Unitarian Universalist congregation about how our tradition practices democracy. It comes from James Luther Adams, one of the great Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
The transformation of First Chicago has been on my heart this month we have been discussing the three great disruptions, the three great crises, of our hour. As I have mentioned before, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a 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.
In some sense, each of these is connected to the underlying crisis in democracy. That crisis is that this society has been continuously ruled by entrenched elites since its inception. Elites have cloaked their rule in the rhetoric of democracy, claiming as the current President does, to serve the “forgotten men and women of our country” even as they pass legislation that solidifies corporate rule. They use the word freedom to mean freedom for the wealthy to do what they will while the mass of society is left disempowered and marginalized.
Historically, they spoke of freedom while they enslaved Africans. They spoke of democracy while they ensured that people of color could not have the vote and disrupt their manufactured white supremacy. Today, many of them speak of democracy and do nothing to confront the country’s skyrocketing economic inequality. In the last forty-five years inequality--the gap between the richest and poorest in society--has grown more than almost any other time in the country’s history. In our contemporary society there are people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who are so wealthy that they own more than whole segments of the country. This gross inequality almost certainly has something to do with the county’s political instability and the crisis we find ourselves in.
This inequality is not only connected to white supremacy and the crisis in democracy, it is related to the climate emergency. As journalists like Naomi Klein have carefully detailed, the entire industry of climate denial has been funded by energy tycoons such as Charles and David Koch. They owe their fortune to the fossil fuel industry. The have funded the climate denial industry to the tune of millions of dollars in order to stave off regulation that might impinge their ability to make more money.
Democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because our system of government was designed to perpetuate the rule of the elites. The climate is in crisis. It is in crisis because our government continues to serve those elites. It passes legislation and issues policies designed to ensure that wealth from fossil fuels continue to accumulate. It fails to pass legislation that protects the Earth upon which we all depend because, I can only assume, the rich believe that they will never be poor. And that no matter how despoiled the environment they can always buy their way into safety and comfort.
We can overcome these crises only if we commit ourselves to the religion of democracy and engage in the practice of collective self-rule. A our racist friend from earlier observed, this religion of democracy gets ahold of people and changes them. It is not the self-rule of some but the self-rule of all. One of the places that this struggle has long manifested itself is within the labor movement. Our first reading this morning “Sermon on the Common” comes from the great labor organizer and poet Arturo Giovannitti. He wrote it after helping to organize a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that brought together people of all races to struggle for their collective good. It was a strike not led by an elite but by the workers themselves. To coordinate amongst more than twenty thousand people they formed a committee in which there were representatives of all the city’s ethnicities. The vision of self-rule he saw in that struggle inspired him to write:
Ye are the light of the world. There was darkness in all the
ages when the torch of your will did not blaze forth,
and the past and the future are full of radiance that
cometh from your eyes.
I know that in these days, as we face the impending crisis of impeachment, many of us feel like the poet Fatimah Asghar:
I build & build
& someone takes it away.
It is easy to feel that so many of society’s achievements are crumbling beneath us. It is easy to feel that we have lost so much that we have worked for. This may be true. But it is also true that there is another possibility. That we “are the light of the world;” that we can learn to practice true democracy and engage in collective self-rule. That we can learn to practice in our congregations and elsewhere in our lives. And we take this religious practice of democracy, this collective experiment in self-governance, and spill it over into society--becoming a reforming energy that challenges rule by elites.
If you doubt me, I invite you to picture this. Friday before last, at least seventy-five members of this congregation gathered to support the youth-led climate strike. A sea of yellow shirts, siding with love, children, parents, elders. Democracy not in crisis but in action. A community mobilized for democratic renewal to confront the crises of the hour. The religion of democracy made manifest. A religious tradition that understands, in the words of our closing hymn, “that it is time now.” It is time to move to self-rule and finally bringing about a true self-governance that so that we might confront the climate crisis and disrupt white supremacy.
That it may be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.
Nov 6, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, November 5, 2017
This past May I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I spent the first half of my decade as a clergyman as a parish minister and the last five years in the stilled and musty halls of the academy. I started my ministry in Cleveland in September of 2007. Since, I am serving a parish again in the fall of 2017, I thought this autumnal morning would be a good opportunity to reflect upon some of what I have learned in my ten years as a minister. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson gave this advice to aspiring clergy, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought.” Those words were read during my ordination. I have attempted to follow Emerson’s advice and pass my own life through the fire of thought.
As I have, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I have learned as a religious leader can be distilled into two sentences: The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. Neither of these observations is original to me. William Blake, “Man was made for Joy & Woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro the World we safely go / Joy & Woe are woven fine / A Clothing for the soul divine / Under every grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.” To claim we are what we do is to invoke ethical traditions that stretch back to Confucius and Plato.
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. Some of what I say over the next few minutes might be a little difficult to listen to. If you find it all disturbing I welcome a conversation after the service. I hope that you will listen my words in the spirit they are given. They come from a belief that it is only by confronting the hard parts of life that we can grow as individuals and as a religious community.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I felt called to the ministry because of the Unitarian Universalist tradition’s powerful legacy of social justice work. I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought that one way to do that was as a minister. It came as something of a surprise to me when I realized early in my ministerial training that one of a minister’s central functions is to be present to death. I was barely two months into seminary when I was asked to officiate my first memorial service.
Now, there are only two kinds of memorial services: easy ones and hard ones. The easy ones come at the end of a long and honorable life. The deceased’s family and friends gather one last time together to celebrate all that was and all that has left been behind: the love that remains after death.
Then there are the hard ones: the tragic accidents; the incurable diseases that strike down the youthful; the lives that end all too soon. Memorial services like these bring to me the words of the Greek poet Glykon: “Nothing but laughter, nothing / But dust, nothing but nothing, / No reason why it happens.” I find it impossible to offer an honest rationale, a satisfactory explanation, for why horror has happened to one person and another has escaped it. The best I can do is recognize that our human lives are ever shaped by our choices and the choices of others. So much of the pain we suffer has its origins in deep historical systems of racial, economic, and gendered oppression. And yet, such explanations are unsatisfying, for they all suggest that so much of our lives, and the suffering we experience throughout them, is due to little more than blind chance. “No reason why it happens.”
My first memorial service was a hard one. They had been husband and wife. They had died tragically in their early twenties. They were my friends. We had actually all lived together right before I started seminary. And so, it seemed natural that when they died I was asked to organize a service.
My two friends were what we call “spiritual but not religious.” They were not Unitarian Universalists. Instead of a church we decided to hold the service in backyard of the apartment building where they had lived; where we had lived together. Several other of our friends lived in the building. My friends had been alienated from their birth families. The building was the place they most felt at home. It was decided that as part of the service we would scatter their ashes in the apartment’s back garden.
The service began. A late autumn Chicago night, we had candles against the cold. The stars struggled through the murk of city lights. The wind came, damp and icy off the lake. Hearts heavy, we sat in silence. I said some words, read a poem, then another, led a prayer. The stories started. They began somber enough--the attempts to reason through the unreasonable, the ache of loss--but slowly our spirits shifted. Someone shared about the couple’s dogs. They had owned two toy poodles. They loved to groom those dogs. It was almost as if they practiced topiary on them. The animals’ haircuts were often misshapen bouffants. Slightly smashed spheres, triangles, or even squares could be found at the end of their tails or on the tops of their heads. That was not their most endearing feature. It turns out that poodle fur takes vegetable based hair dye wonderfully. And so, on their evening walks the dogs would roam along the lakeshore--a cascading calliope of electric blue, neon green, shocking pink. Thinking about those dogs still makes me giggle.
Lightened by canine stories, grins on our faces but damp still in our eyes, we knew it was time to scatter the ashes. Chicago is not called the Windy City without reason. The person charged with the task either made a miscalculation or simply was not paying enough attention. She tossed a big handful of ashes into some flowers. They flew back on us, getting in our hair and clothes. A moment of shock and then the laughter began. And so, there we were, laughing and crying, not knowing exactly when one emotion started and the other stopped, covered in what someone euphemistically called “dead girl.” Baptism by ash. Have you had a similar experience? Where in the face of the truly awful something of the shear utter unbridled joy of life crashes through?
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. James Baldwin made something of the same point in “The Fire Next Time.” It is probably Baldwin’s most widely read text. Written in the midst of the civil rights movement, it is a meditation on what it means to be black in America, the illusion of white innocence, this country’s deep structures of racial violence, and how we might find a modicum of hope. An enduring theme throughout the book is that despite of whatever horrors exist in the world, beauty endures. At the close, Baldwin recollects his childhood in a poor Harlem family, “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”
One might mistake Baldwin’s query as an elegy for lost innocence. But he had rather something else in mind. The question is not about innocence but resilience. It is caught up in the reality that in a racially just world, the particular beauty of those moments would never have existed for Baldwin. As he struggled to make his way through the world, a black, gay, atheist writer, he saw beauty persisting. There are stories of beauty that can be discovered amongst some of the greatest human horrors.
The words of Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein reflect this. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
There is so much in those two sentences. Beauty, generosity, friendship, some scant hope, and, of course, the backdrop of almost unfathomable horror. To observe that beauty persists amongst horror is not to provide moral justification for the unspeakably awful. It is instead to suggest that we are ever haunted by hope.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s essay, Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” To meet this challenge is to survive in a world is all too often hostile to our humanity.
And so, we come to my second lesson, we are what we do. I do not mean this in any sort of trite vocational sense. I am not saying that your measure, or mine, can be counted as the sum of our professions or the amounts of our salaries. Instead, I am taking an ethical position, aligning myself with a particular ethical tradition, virtue ethics.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. And then, finally, there is the tradition of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has a long resonance within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... The great Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves by nurturing such virtues.
Virtue is like a muscle. It grows with exercise. The brave person is brave. The generous person is generous. The person who is filled with gratitude practices gratitude. We are what we do. These virtues come from the habits that we form. Those habits can be shaped by our religious practices. The main reason to join a Unitarian Universalist community, I have come to believe, is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate virtues in a community that models those virtues. The community also holds us accountable to each other and provides us a space to reflect upon our actions and our habits when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Think about your own involvement in the life of First Parish. Our community encourages us to practice virtues together. When we speak truth to power from the pulpit or stand vigil on the town common we are being honest and brave. When we share our joys and concerns we are providing a space for gratitude. When we make a financial pledge to the congregation we are practicing generosity. And when we fail to do these things we can hold each other accountable. Has your involvement in First Parish made you a braver, more gracious, or more generous person? Unitarian Universalism has nurtured these traits in me. After my decade as a minister, I know I am a braver, more gracious, and more generous person than I would be if I was not a Unitarian Universalist. This community and the broader community of Unitarian Universalism help me to be so by holding me accountable. What about you? We are what we do.
Finding beauty amidst horror is a virtue that can be nurtured by religious practice. Religious practice is something that we do together. It is the ritual life of our community and it is spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, yoga, or journal writing that we encourage each other to maintain. One of the most powerful religious practices in this community is music. Singing together, listening to Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft settles my spirit. It is a regular practice of letting a little beauty into life, even if only for a few minutes on a Sunday morning.
My heart is very heavy these days. It is undoubtedly a pathetic truism that the state of the world is bleak. So bleak that a litany of all of our planetary troubles is unnecessary. They sit almost constantly on many of our hearts and minds. And yet, the practice of beauty that I find in music helps to sustain me, helps remind me that there is hope, that life and the human community will find a way to continue. It is like the verse from our earlier hymn:
Through all tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
If sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We are what we do. We practice beauty in the midst of the horrors and difficulties of life. When we do, we make the world a little more beautiful in its turn.
And so this is my prayer for each of us. No matter the murk and mire, the hard times and brutalities, the bleak winters of despair, the springs or autumns with seemingly little hope, may we cultivate a practice of beauty so that we may all ever ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
Amen and Blessed Be.