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.