Being Right

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 16 October 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

The title of my sermon today is “Being Right,” and it is a sermon about… humility.

Indeed, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of October is humility, but this may not have been so apparent yet. Two weeks ago the theme was pre-empted by our annual blessing of the animals, and last week Rev. Tera focussed on atonement, because of Yom Kippur. But today I will look at humility, and, as I have done with other topics, I will try to see how it can be interpreted from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

Now, there are different types of humility. There is intellectual humility, where we acknowledge that we do not know everything, that there may be things we cannot know, and — the most difficult, I think — where we acknowledge that some of the things that we think are true may not be true when looked at from another perspective.

And there is what we might call physical humility, represented for example in one of the stained glass windows to your left, in which Jesus is shown washing the feet of Simon Peter before the Last Supper. This is the humility shown by people who care for the bodies of others: nurses and medical aides who tend to the needs of the sick, parents who care for babies, children who help their aging parents.

And there is spiritual humility, which is related to what Rev. Tera spoke of last week — atonement, asking people forgiveness for wrongs we have done them.

My goal today is to find a common thread that connects these different types of humility, and, along the way, to point out some ways that the concept of humility has been misused, and to think of ways that we might reclaim the word.

I have to admit that when I first started to think about what to say about humility, my mind went straight to the idea of intellectual humility — and that is why I chose the ironic title “Being Right” for the sermon. I jumped immediately to the idea of acknowledging that we do not know everything; that we might be mistaken about some things; and that even if we are right about something according to our own interpretation, others may see things differently.

Perhaps this is because of my profession as a mathematician. In mathematics, we deal in statements that can be proven to be true, beyond even a shadow of a doubt. Nothing in real life is like that, even the most well-established scientific truths. This is one reason why — anecdotally, at least — lawyers do not want to have mathematicians in the jury.

Let me give you an example of a situation in which I had to learn some intellectual humility. It’s a story — a long-standing story — from the 25 years that my wife Bella and I have lived together, and I tell it with her permission.

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who take dishes out of the dish drainer once they are dry, and those who don’t.

(You know who you are.)

Before Bella and I started dating, we exchanged many letters. We had met in the summer of 1989, just before Bella returned to central China to finish two years of teaching English there, so for a year we corresponded in the old-fashioned way, with letters written on that thin, translucent air-mail paper that seems so quaint now in the days of transcontinental instant messaging. In one of those letters, Bella mentioned that she did not like taking dishes out of the dish drainer. After she returned to the United States, she lived in Irvine and I lived in Berkeley, and when we could, one of us would visit with the other for a week or two. I remember distinctly that on my first visit to see her in Irvine, she reminded me again that she didn’t like removing dishes from the drainer.

So I was fairly and justly warned.

Now, this means that over the course of the past 25 years, I have spent a fair amount of time removing dishes from the drainer — or, even worse, drying all the dishes with a towel, because someone stacked wet dishes in the drainer on top of dry ones that hadn’t been put away!

You will be relieved to know that I put this time to good use. Over the course of 25 years of putting dishes away I developed an entire moral and ethical theory of the dish drainer. I can prove, philosophically and beyond doubt, that putting wet dishes on top of dry dishes is unethical, immoral, and a threat to the very fabric of civilized society.

Yet I refrain from sharing this theory with Bella.


Because there are many things that need doing in our household, many more things than the two of us have time to do. It’s true that Bella sometimes puts wet dishes on top of dry ones, but that’s because her attention is focussed on other things… she might use those extra minutes to hang out the laundry to dry, or put the recycling in the bin. The fact is, her housekeeping priorities and mine are different. That’s actually a good thing, because we each do complementary things.

Plus, if I complained too much about the dish drainer, then Bella might justifiably complain about the little stacks of books and papers that I seem to leave in various places about the house, without thinking. I imagine she has an entire moral and ethical theory about that.

So there’s one example of how two different people can have different conceptions about what is right. Perhaps it was a little lighthearted. Here’s a more serious story on the same theme.

Ayn Rand was a 20th-century American writer and philosopher, the creator of the philosophy known as “objectivism” and the iconoclastic leader of the objectivist movement for more than two decades. She is perhaps best known for her book Atlas Shrugged, a thousand-page brick of a novel that tells of a fictional future in which America’s leading industrialists and inventors, tired of being dragged down by freeloaders, take their marbles and leave. The mysterious John Galt, their leader, has created a hidden community in the mountains of Colorado where they can live out their dream society. The rest of the world, lacking their bold capitalistic leadership, falls into chaos. Riots, starvation, and the deaths of millions ensue — it all goes to show how the world just couldn’t continue unless we allow wealthy industrialists unfettered freedom from such hindrances as taxes and environmental regulations and a unionized workforce.

I have to confess, I have not read Atlas Shrugged, because life is short. However, I’ve done something nearly as good and much more fun: I’ve followed the blog of a writer who did read Atlas Shrugged, and who, each week, blogged about the portion that he read. From March 22, 2013 until July 8, 2016 — 179 posts — Adam Lee summarized plot developments and provided critical commentary about the politics of the book. I’ll give a link to his blog when I post this sermon online.

Adam Lee has an interesting comment to make about this hidden utopian community of individualists. In the book, each member of this community has to pledge to be guided only by their own self-interest. And yet, somehow these strong-minded, non-altruistic individualists never argue amongst themselves. Every time two of them may come into conflict, one of the two recognizes the superior skill and ability of the other and politely gives way — you know, just how it happens in real life.

The reason there is no conflict is because every single person in this community thinks just like Ayn Rand. She was not able to conceive that different people, with different assumptions and honorable motivations, might possibly disagree with the self-evident truth of her positions. And so she imagines an entire village of strong-minded individualists all thinking in exactly the same way. This same problem — the failure to recognize that there will be differences of opinion even among people trying to reach the same goals — this same problem was the downfall of many actual utopian communities in the real world.

And a final story about intellectual humility, from a collection of Zen Buddhist koans published in 1919:1 The story goes that a university professor came to visit Nan-in, a 19th-century Japanese Zen master, in order to learn about Zen.

Nan-in served his visitor tea. He poured until the cup was full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the tea overflow from the cup, overflow from the saucer, spill on the table, and spill on the floor. “Stop!” he said. “It is too full! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The Zen master tells the professor that he needs more intellectual humility. It is always very satisfying to tell someone else that they need more humility.

The point behind all of these stories is that intellectual humility asks that we value other people’s ideas and perspectives, that we make room for them, even when we are sure that we are right. This is a reflection of the Unitarian Universalist First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Let’s turn to physical humility — this is where someone does something usually considered “lowly,” like unpleasant cleaning chores, or tending to someone else’s body. In the Christian scriptures, the classic example is from John chapter 13, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. This tradition continues today during Easter Week: On Maundy Thursday, religious leaders wash the feet of people considered lowly — this year, the Pope washed and kissed the feet of a dozen people at a refugee center.

This is a once-a-year event for the Pope, but a daily event for many other people. In the hospital, the doctor swoops in and makes a diagnosis. The surgeon operates. But afterwards, the nurses and nursing assistants care for the patient’s body. They wipe the brow, tend the wound, check the catheter, change the bedpan. They recognize and acknowledge the fragile body that each of us lives in, and they care for us by caring for our bodies.

Those of us who have cared for infants know this same humility. Those of us who have cared for the elderly know too.

Physical humility lies in seeing the personhood of others; in seeing that their bodies are sacred, in all their humanity; in seeing that their needs are as important as our own. Again, the First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Traditionally, though, this recognition of others is sometimes perverted. From “the needs of others are as important as my own,” we move to “the needs of others are more important than my own,” to “my own needs are worthless.” I reject this form of humility; we can recognize the worth of others without denying our own.

Is it a coincidence that nursing, and child care, and the education of young children — is it a coincidence that these are all traditionally viewed as jobs for women? Is it a coincidence that women are expected to be drawn to careers that are seen as physically humble? Is it a coincidence that the perversion of humility that asks us to deny our own needs plays out in feminine spaces?

The third type of humility is spiritual humility: atonement, and the asking of forgiveness. This can be very difficult. I know, because I have hurt people in my life, and I have asked for forgiveness.

And the first drafts of my requests for forgiveness always start: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But what I really meant was…”

And then the second draft is “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But when I was arguing with you all I was trying to do was…”

And the third draft is: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But I really thought that what I was doing was right, because…”

It takes so many drafts to finally find the courage just to say: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. I should have known better, and I will try harder in the future.”

Spiritual humility is the practice of asking for forgiveness for a mistake without justifying why you made it.

These three types of humility — intellectual, physical, spiritual — all do have one thing in common.

In order to live them out, we have to acknowledge the Unitarian Universalist first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we have to listen.

We have to listen, to understand how we may be wrong in our ideas. We have to listen, to learn what physical help someone else needs. We have to listen, to hear how we may have hurt someone, so that we can apologize for doing so.

The first step towards humility is listening.

The word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means the ground, or the earth. Over the millenia the word humility has developed a meaning of being low; a humble person is sometimes viewed as someone who the powerful might trample in the dust, or grind beneath their feet.

But there is another view of the ground, of the earth, of the soil; a view supported by the earth-centered traditions that are among the sources of Unitarian Universalism, a view that we here at Throop see every day in our garden: the earth as a source of life, the earth as a source of strength.

Humility does not mean denying one’s own self, sacrificing oneself on the altar of everyone else’s needs.

Humility means seeing oneself as part of the web of all existence, not at the center, but part of the whole. It means seeing oneself not as being first, but neither as being last.

And most importantly: Drawing its strength from the earth, humility is not weakness — it is the strength to see yourself as being equal to others, and others as equal to you; the strength to balance your needs with those of your friend, or with those of a stranger; the strength to know that your viewpoint is one among many; the strength to know when it is your turn to give help, and when it is your turn to receive it; the strength to know when you have wronged someone, and the strength to ask for forgiveness.

Humility comes from strength; and the person who cannot be humble is the weakest of all.

Let us take strength from the earth, and see one another.

Let us take strength from the earth, and see ourselves.

Let us take strength from the earth, and use that power to support one another, with grace and with humility.

Go in peace.

Image credit: Kitchenscape, by Flickr user FraserElliot. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

  1. I’ve modified the wording from the version I found online. 

Being a Man

I am a man.

I get to go into spaces set aside for men. And I have been in many places and situations that have, intentionally or not, been male-only.

Locker rooms in high school.

The community-college English class I took in 1982, with a male professor and half-a-dozen male students, talking about Jack London and Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham.

College bull sessions at an institution that was around 85% male.

Locker rooms at that college, and at many gyms, universities, and Y’s since then.

Lunches and dinners with groups of male colleagues.

Apartments that I’ve shared with other men.

And you know what?

In not one of these places would it have been appropriate to brag and laugh about sexual battery.

It is not appropriate to brag and laugh about sexual battery anywhere, any more than it is appropriate to commit sexual battery.

In our society, being a man — even more so, a wealthy white man — gives a person more power than they would otherwise have.

Being human means knowing how not to abuse that power.

Cover image: Lone Person at Ellis Island, copyright 2010 by Everett W. Howe

Swaying the Future

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 25 September 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

[Earlier in the service we had sung both Once to Every Soul and Nation and Building Bridges.]

Once to every soul and nation
   Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
   For the good or evil side…

We sang those words together just a few minutes ago. I don’t know how familiar most of you are with that hymn, but for some of you that may have been the first time you sang it, or the first time you’ve heard it.

The first time I sang that hymn was probably about 10 years ago. At that point I had not been a Unitarian Universalist for very long, but I remember thinking “That hymn is not like most of our hymns.” Our hymnal is full of songs about peace,1 and about reaching out — like Building Bridges, the meditation hymn we just sang. We’ve got hymns about recognizing how other nations are just as beautiful as ours, and have citizens just as patriotic as us.2 We’ve got hymns saying how we are stronger together.3 We’ve got songs of struggle and abiding hope, like We Shall Overcome, which speaks of the peace and freedom we shall one day have, after injustice has been defeated. And even our protest songs highlight our gentleness: Hymn #170 is We Are a Gentle, Angry People.

Once to Every Soul and Nation is not like that. Once to Every Soul and Nation says,

There is good, and there is evil. You have to decide, now, which side you are on. And by the way [says the hymn], most people have chosen evil; the people in power have chosen evil; and choosing good may lead to your death.

Those are stong words, and strong thoughts. Where did they come from? How does the hymn fit into Unitarian Universalist history? And how can this good-versus-evil worldview coexist with a Unitarian Universalist commitment to peace and understanding?

The easiest of those questions is “Where did these words come from?” It turns out that they came originally from an anti-slavery poem.

The 1840s were a contentious time in the United States. For years there had been political arguments about whether and how to annex the Republic of Texas. In 1845, on March 1, Congress passed a joint resolution saying that if Texas acted to meet certain conditions, it could be admitted into the Union as a state. The Republic of Texas took those actions, and on December 29, 1845, President James K. Polk signed legislation that formally admitted Texas into the United States. The resulting border dispute with Mexico was one of the causes of the U.S.–Mexico war of 1846–1848.

In the United States, the central conflict about whether to admit Texas to the Union was all about slavery. Texas would be admitted as a state in which slavery was legal, so its admission to the union gave more power to the pro-slavery faction in Congress.

In December 1845, in the midst of all of this controversy and just prior to the formal admission of Texas to the Union, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem that appeared in the Boston Courier.4 Lowell was a young man, the son of a Unitarian minister, and he had become active in abolitionist circles. His poem was titled “Verses Suggested by the Present Crisis,” but afterwards it became known simply as “The Present Crisis.”

The poem is somewhat long: 18 verses of 5 lines each. It begins by saying that when a deed is done for freedom, its effects are felt throughout the world, by everyone; and that likewise, when evil triumphs, that also is felt around the world, because all of humanity is connected in spirit. Then Lowell writes the words that open our hymn: “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide.” Lowell says that there comes a time to choose between good and evil, and he asks his countrymen whether they have decided. He writes that when you look back over history, it is easy to see what the momentous issues and choices were, and that it is much harder to distinguish important moments as they are happening. But if you listen to your soul, he says, you will find that the question of slavery is one of those momentous issues, and that conscience calls us to abolish it. In the final few stanzas, he writes that instead of spending our time glorifying the freedom-fighters of the past, we should instead carry their spirit forward, and fight for freedom ourselves.

Lowell wrote his poem using mid-nineteenth century poetic language — of course! — and it takes a little effort for a modern reader to untangle the grammar and the allusions. But the ideas he expresses are completely relevant for today.

For example, consider the idea that it’s much easier to tell after the fact what was important, and who was right. And consider, to be specific, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years, the Gallup organization has done several surveys in which they ask Americans for their opinion of Dr. King. I think you will not be surprised to find that in August 2011, 94% of Americans had a favorable view of Dr. King. In fact, 69% of Americans had a highly favorable view of him, versus only 1% with a highly unfavorable view.

So looking back, nearly a half-century after his death, we see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a prophet; a prophet who asked America to live up to its ideals; a prophet who stood for good when it was hard to do so.

But what about back then? In August 1966, Gallop asked the same question. And you might expect me now to tell you that Dr. King was a divisive figure in 1966. But you know, he wasn’t divisive. Because Americans mostly agreed; with a nearly two-to-one ratio, Americans had an unfavorable view of him. And nearly half the country — 44% — had a highly unfavorable view of him.

It’s much easier to tell in hindsight who had the moral high ground.5

Lowell’s poem was reprinted in other progressive newpapers in the weeks after its first appearance,6 but over the next few decades the complete poem was reprinted only now and then. However, one particular stanza got quoted a lot: the one that begins “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…”. And in 1880, three Unitarian ministers took three stanzas of Lowell’s poem — including that one — edited them down to four lines each instead of five, and published them in a hymnal7 mostly used in the Western Unitarian Conference.

Here are the three verses of the original version of their hymn:

Once to every man and nation
   Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood,
   For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
   Offers each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
   ’Twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with Truth is noble
   When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit
   And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
   While the coward stands aside
Till the multitude make virtue
   Of the faith they had denied.

Though the cause of Evil prosper,
   Yet ’tis Truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
   And upon the throne be Wrong,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
   And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the Shadow,
   Keeping watch above his own!

“Yet that scaffold sways the future.” That is an incredibly powerful line. “Stand up for what is right,” says the hymn. “You may have to die for your beliefs, but your death will influence the future — a God of Justice will see to that!”8

So. That’s one way of looking at the world.

But our meditation hymn gives another way. What does it say?

Building bridges between our divisions,
I reach out to you, will you reach out to me?
With all of our voices and all of our visions,
Friends, we could make such sweet harmony.

This song came from the early years of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, an anti-war protest in England that lasted from 1982 until 2000, originally motivated by the arrival of cruise missiles at an air force base there. The words suggest a different way of effecting change — of working with people you disagree with.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches to changing the world — the good-versus-evil, no-compromise approach, and the building bridges approach?

The good-versus-evil approach of Once to Every Soul and Nation provides a very clear sense of purpose: You know what you stand for, and you know that you will not compromise. This clarity can get people to take action, to get off their couches and into the streets.

But it has weaknesses too. For one thing, movements based on this good-and-evil worldview can degenerate into exercises in purity. People can be excluded from leadership if they show any sympathy for positions held by the other side. The good-and-evil worldview tends not to admit doubt, and it can lead to a form of self-delusion: Because we are extreme and unpopular, we must be right. In the end, both sides of the argument can end up holding the most extreme versions of their positions, and moderates are forced out.

And if your side accepts no compromises, and the other side accepts no compromises, and you both have moved towards exteme positions… Then what?9 You’ll either have a stalemate, or you will have to fight. And it’s easy to think that, OK, we’ll fight, and maybe our side will win, but then the question will be decided and then everything will be set right. But it’s easy to underestimate the cost of the fight, and to overestimate the extent of the eventual victory. Here’s an enlightening example of someone who changed her mind about the good-versus-evil approach.

In 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote a hymn in support of the Union forces in the civil war. I bet most of you are familiar with it. It begins,

Mine eyes have seen the glory
   Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
   Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
   Of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

You may not be as familiar with the other verses. In fact, the final verse contains an image that is so powerful and so disturbing that most modern versions of the song either skip this verse or change the words.10 It goes:

In the beauty of the lilies
   Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
   That transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy,
   Let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

“As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” In 1861 that was not just a figure of speech! It makes me think: Going to church in the nineteenth century must have been intense.

But just nine years later, Julia Ward Howe wrote something completely opposed to her hymn. In her Mother’s Day Proclamation of September 1870, she wrote:

Arise, all women who have hearts[…]! Say firmly: […] Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. […] From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!

What happened in the nine years between “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” and “Disarm!”? What made her change her mind? Well, for one thing over a million people were killed in the civil war, more Americans than have been killed in all our other wars combined. That’s not to say that slavery wasn’t worth fighting over; it’s just to say that wars often end up being worse than we imagine — a lesson we apparently have still not learned.

So those are some strengths and weaknesses of the good-versus-evil approach. What about the Building Bridges approach? What about an approach that works within an existing system, and uses compromise?

One of the strengths is that progress can come slowly but regularly. The possibility of reconciliation between the two sides is left open. People on both sides of a question can learn to trust one another through small actions; they can find common ground, and then work outward to solve larger problems.

But there are weaknesses too. For one thing, compromise only works if both sides are willing to do it. And a commitment to working within the system can lead to complacency; it’s the apocryphal “frog in a pot of warm water” problem. Just as the frog does not notice the temperature rising, you may become so entrenched in the system that you can’t see how broken it has become.

I think we’ve answered the second question I asked at the beginning — how this hymn fits into Unitarian Universalist history. What about the third question? How does the good-versus-evil worldview of Once to Every Soul and Nation fit in with Unitarian Universalist values?

Clearly, based on our hymns, we are uncomfortable with the fit. And I have no good answer to give you, other than these thoughts:

▸ The prophetic good-versus-evil approach works best in combination with working within the system, and finding compromises. Civil rights legislation was passed because of the public pressure of the civil rights marches and protests. But while the marchers were marching, people were preparing the legislation that was needed to push the nation forward.

▸ I think that our Unitarian Universalist values demand that when we take a prophetic good-versus-evil approach, we need to at least be aware of the risks and downsides of that approach.

Here is my request of you: Throughout the week, reflect — In what situations do you try to work within the system to fix things bit by bit, and in what situations do you say the system is broken and work to replace it? Do you tend to do one more than the other? What does that say about you?

A few months ago I asked a version of this question of my congressional representative. “How do you decide when to work across the aisle and compromise, and when to hold fast to a principle?” What would your member of congress say? What would you want them to say?

There is still so much systemic oppression in the world, in our own society.11 At some point, I hope that you will think of Lowell’s words:
Once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. And I hope that you will let that question stir you to action — thoughtfully, responsibly, powerfully — as a Unitarian Universalist.

Image credit: Our Banner in the Sky, by Frederic Edwin Church. More information here.

  1. Like #160, Far Too Long by Fear Divided
  2. Like #159, This Is My Song
  3. Like #157, Step by Step the Longest March
  4. I have not been able to access a copy of the newspaper to verify this. However, the reprint of the poem in the memoirs of the Boston Courier‘s editor indicates it was published there on Thursday, December 11, 1845, and this is consistent with other sources (see below). 
  5. I admit, this may be a tautology. Who we are, and what we view as right, depends to some extent on who won moral victories in the past. 
  6. For instance, on Friday, December 19, 1845, one week after it was printed in the Boston Courier, it appeared on the back page of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. A few weeks later, on Saturday, January 10, 1846, it appeared in The Harbinger, the publication of the Transcendentalist utopian community Brook Farm, which at that point was a Fourierist “phalanx”. 
  7. Unity Hymns and Chorals for the Congregation and the Home, edited by William Channing Gannett, James Vila Blake, and Frederick Lucian Hosmer. See hymn #68, “The Choice”. 
  8. If the hymn is not strong enough for you as the Unitarians wrote it, you might consider the verse (also taken from Lowell’s poem) that the Anglicans added to the hymn around the turn of the century: By the light of burning martyrs Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. 
  9. Here is a beautiful, but meaningless, historical accident that illustrates the idea that our opponents can take good-versus-evil no-compromise positions just as we can. We sing Once to Every Soul and Nation to a wonderful Welsh tune called ‘Ebenezer’ (or ‘Ton Y Botel’), but that tune was first associated to the hymn in 1916, as far as I can tell. Before 1916, the words were sung to other tunes. In 1913, in an updated version of the hymnal in which Once to Every Soul and Nation first appeared, two other tunes were suggested for the hymn. One of them is the melody for Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles. So the anti-slavery words were sung to a tune that many Americans associate with Nazi aggression. 
  10. Here are the original words, from the February 1862 Atlantic Monthly
  11. One form that is on the minds of many people: In the week preceding the delivery of this sermon, Keith Scott was killed in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. In the week after, Alfred Olango was killed in El Cajon, California, minutes from my home, and Reginald Thomas, Jr. in Pasadena, minutes from our church. 

Nero’s Expedition up the Nile

Later this week, I will be heading off to Wisconsin for the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, where hundreds of church music directors, instrumentalists, singers, and composers will gather to learn new music, to educate ourselves in best practices, to increase our skills, and to provide choral music for Sunday services at our host church, the First Unitarian Society of Madison. This year it will be especially exciting for me, because one of my pieces was chosen for the choral music reading session.

In keeping with the week’s theme, I thought that I would post something today about music. But it’s not just about music — it’s also about the mementos we leave behind us, about the things we will never know about one another, and about the secret histories of our thoughts.

Several years ago, the a cappella group that I sing with at church performed a round called “Nero’s Expedition up the Nile”. Here are the lyrics:1

Nero’s expedition up the Nile
Because the water hyacinth
Had clogged the river
Denying Nero’s vessels passage
Through the Sudd of Nubia

And here’s a video of a good interpretation of the song (with instruments), performed by the Dedalus Ensemble.

The director of our group had learned this song orally, so the first few times we rehearsed the song we did not even know its composer or its history. But a little research showed that it was written by an interesting character named Moondog (born Louis Hardin). His Wikipedia entry tells you the basics, but this longer biographical piece fleshes out his life a little more.

Question: Was Moondog…

(a) a sometimes-homeless man who for more than 20 years was a fixture on Sixth Avenue in New York, known for his viking helmet, cloak, and spear;
(b) a frequent guest at the home of Philip Glass, where he sang and recorded songs with Glass, Steve Reich, and Jon Gibson, three of the founders of American minimalism;
(c) the composer of more than 100 idiosyncratic rounds; or
(d) a street musician who, late in life, played in the courts of European royalty?

The correct answer, of course, is (e) all of the above.2

So now my a cappella group knew where the unusual round we were singing came from. But still I wondered: How did this song come to be? How did these unusual lyrics wind up in Moondog’s head? Moondog died in 1999, so unless someone had interviewed him and asked this specific question, there would be no real way of finding out for sure.

But perhaps the source could be traced a little further back.

First, some history. According to Seneca3 and Pliny the Elder4, the emperor Nero did send an expedition to find the source of the Nile and to explore the lands around the river, and Seneca even mentions that the waters become completely unpassable at a certain point, due to the masses of vegetation.

However — and this is important — the vegetation could not have been water hyacinth. The water hyacinth is native to South America, and it was not introduced into Africa until the 19th century.5 It did not become a problem on the White Nile until the 1950s. So Nero’s expedition may have turned back because of vegetation, but not because of water hyacinth. Moondog got his history wrong.

I became perhaps just a little obsessed with finding some article or book that could have led Moondog to think about Nero’s expedition to find the source of the Nile. And now I knew that if such an article existed, it most likely would have been written after the late 1950’s, and it must have somehow been unclear in its description of the natural history of the water hyacinth in Africa.

“Nero’s Expedition” appears as round #12 in Book 1 of Moondog’s 1970 booklet Round the World of Sound: Moondog Madrigals. I obtained a copy of this booklet, hoping that it might include some commentary explaining how it happened that Moondog was pondering the failure of Nero’s expedition. Unfortunately, the only annotation to the piece was a date: it was written on June 23, 1968. But that at least gave me a firm ending date for the publication of my hypothetical article.

It turns out that there are quite a few articles about the Nile written between the late 1950’s and 1968. I’ve read a lot of them. And almost all of them either do not mention water hyacinths at all, or make it quite clear that they had arrived on the Nile only recently.

For example, in 1960 the travel writer and former war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote a bestselling nonfiction book, The White Nile, about the 19th century explorers who traced the Nile to its sources. In the prologue to his book, Moorehead writes:

The Emporer Nero sent two centurions with an expedition into the wastes of Nubia, as the Sudan was then called, but they returned unsuccessful, saying that they had been blocked in the far interior by an impenetrable swamp.

Nearly 400 pages later, in an extended description of the Sudd, Moorehead notes that even when a paddle steamer is pushing through the channels that have been opened up in the maze of papyrus,

[…] the water in the channel itself is not clear, since within the last year or so that most prolific of aquatic plants, the water hyacinth, has taken hold upon the Nile. It reaches out from the banks in long floating filaments with a pretty purple flower, and although it is savaged and cut about by the steamers’ paddles, it never seems to die […]

This is somewhat promising, in that both Nero and the water hyacinth are mentioned in the same book, but the number of pages between the references, and the fact that it is made quite clear that there were no water hyacinths in the Nile during Nero’s time, make it seem unlikely that this is the proximate source of Moondog’s lyrics.

However, Moorehead’s book was based on a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. And one of these articles — “To the beginnings of memory”, from the September 27, 1958 issue — actually seems a likely source.6 On pages 140 and 141, Moorehead writes:

Samual Baker gives a fine idea of what the Sudd was like when he saw it in 1870, the stream being then completely blocked. He says, “The immense number of floating islands which are constantly passing down the stream of the White Nile had no exit; thus they were sucked under the original obstruction by the force of the stream, which passed through some mysterious channel until the subterranean passage became choked with a wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter. The entire river became a marsh, beneath which, by the great pressure of water, the stream oozed through innumerable small channels. In fact, the White Nile had disappeared.” This was the obstacle that for a good two thousand years blocked every attempt to get to the source of the river. Two centurions sent by the emperor Nero were forced to turn back, and between that time and the nineteenth century numberless unsuccessful expeditions set out.

A few short paragraphs later, on page 142, Moorehead writes:

In the Sudd, the Nile cabbages vanish—perhaps they are broken up by the rapids above Juba—but they are replaced by the water hyacinth, which is even more prolific. It is a green, fleshy creeper with a pale-purple flower, and it reaches out, floating, from the bank. Long filaments of the plant constantly break away and sail off down the river. We kept smashing into these green rafts, and although they were torn to pieces by the paddles, they always gathered themselves together again in our wake.

Nowhere in this article does Moorehead mention that the water hyacinths are a new feature in the Nile, and the reader has no reason not to believe that the “wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter” that forced Nero’s centurions to turn back was not formed by the water hyacinth.

So, there we are. An article from 1958, and an enigmatic round from a decade later. Is there really a connection between the two? Moondog was blind; any link between him and Moorehead’s article must include at least one further step, a person who had read the article and talked about it. On the other hand, in 1968 the idea of an imperial expedition into a foreign land being turned back by an abundance of flowers would surely have struck a countercultural chord.

But it is probably unrealistic to hope to find an explicit link between Moorehead’s article and Moondog’s round. Like Nero’s centurions, we can go no farther; the source we are seeking is, as was theirs, a distant rumor in a land not our own. We can only turn our boats towards home, and wonder.

Cover photo: “Kenya — Lake Victoria” by Global Environment Facility, shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Original here. I might have used this photo instead, but I don’t have permission.

  1. As documented in Robert Scotto’s 2007 biography of Moondog, which has recently been revised and updated. Apparently a biopic is also in the works. 
  2. See paragraphs 3 and 4 of Section 8 of Book VI of Quaestiones Naturales, here in Latin or here in English translation. 
  3. See Book VI of Naturalis Historia, paragraph 181 in this Latin version or Chapter 35 of this English translation
  4. Thanks, Belgium. It’s a seriously invasive species
  5. If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you can follow the link and get a copy of the article. It’s an interesting read, and it’s also fun to look at the 58-year-old advertisements. 

Fourth of July

Late this morning, I went hiking from my house up to the top of Black Mountain, the modest peak (1554 feet) in our neighborhood in suburban San Diego. Today is the Fourth of July, so as I walked I thought about America — about revolution, about governing, about principles and living up to them, about Langston Hughes and about Richard Wright.

But as I left the open space on my way back down the mountain and stepped again onto the suburban streets, the very first thing to greet me was an image not from Hughes or Wright, but from Norman Rockwell. Three children — kindergarten and pre-school aged — had set up a lemonade stand. “Littel cup, 75¢; big cup, $1.” Their dad poured a “big cup” amount into my water bottle. Thirsty after ninety minutes on the mountain, I drank deep, of the sweet, and of the sour.

They gave me a lemon from their tree. I took it home; we’ll see what we can make of it.

Cover image: Black Mountain at Night, copyright 2009 by Everett W. Howe.

Orlando and Omagh

Very early this morning, Omar Mateen, armed with an AR-15-style assult rifle and a handgun, went into a popular LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando Florida and killed more than fifty people. As we go through the all-too-familiar motions of mourning the dead and comforting the injured and donating blood, and as we ready ourselves for yet another round of political arguments about how this can keep on happening and what can we do about it, I find myself thinking of an event nearly twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1998 I spent about three months living in the south of England, in Gloucestershire. I had been in the rental cottage for a week or two when, on Saturday August 15, the news came over the radio and television about a car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland. It was horrible — the explosion, in one of the town’s shopping areas, killed 31 people and injured more than 200 others. It had been executed by the “Real IRA”, a splinter group from the IRA, in protest of the Good Friday agreement that was the beginning of the resolution of the Troubles.

The political reaction to the bombing — in Ireland, in England, and internationally — was a swift and universal denunciation. Catholics had been killed; Protestants had been killed; Irish children hosting Spanish exchange students had been killed; and there was a haunting image, a photograph taken by a person killed in the bombing, of a man with a child on his shoulders standing next to the explosive-filled car that moments later was to take so many lives.


The Omagh bombing seemed to be a tipping point. The feeling of all involved was no more! The peace process — which had already gone far, despite the very real difficulties of the negotiations — was strengthened by the revulsion at the violence in Omagh, and the “Real IRA” lost whatever political standing it had.

When will America have its Omagh?

Some thought that Sandy Hook would do the trick. Some thought Fort Hood. Some thought Clackamas, or Virginia Tech, or Aurora. So far, nothing has made enough of the American people say no more!

Will it be Orlando? Or will we have to wait for yet another horrendous shooting before we can get any kind of sensible gun control? We need to start the difficult negotiations now, so that we will have something to build on when our consciences are finally shocked enough to spur us, as a nation, to action. While we wait, people are dying daily in events not newsworthy enough to be noticed.

But I have to believe that finally something will break the political stalemate. I have to believe that someday, we will have our Omagh.

[Edited to add:]

(One difference between Orlando and Omagh: In Omagh, the slaughter was indiscriminate, as I mentioned above. In Orlando, the killer attacked in an LGBTQ gathering place on “Upscale Latin Saturday”, thus targeting the LGBTQ community and the Hispanic community. These groups are both currently being attacked in American political discourse — as they have been for decades.)

Image copied from Wikipedia, which obtained it from Wesley Johnston’s web site.

Finding Grace

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 22 May 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

The worship theme here at Throop Church for the month of May is grace. At the beginning of the month we heard Lynn Sexton speak of grace as “ease, help, kindness, and thoughtfulness,” and as a treasure we must learn to accept, and to bestow. Two weeks ago, Reverend Tera asked us to reflect on how well we are able to receive gifts with gratitude and grace; and last week she spoke of grace-filled leadership, grounded in relationship, covenant, and accountability. Just a moment ago we saw a live demonstration of one form of grace!1

Today I also will speak of grace — but I would like to use this exploration of grace as an example of an evolution of ideas. Unitarian Universalism today is a faith tradition that includes people with many different beliefs. We say that our faith draws on a number of sources: direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder; words and deeds of prophetic people throughout history; wisdom from the world’s religions; Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves; humanist teachings that counsel us to trust also in reason and science; and Earth-centered traditions that celebrate the circle of life and the rhythms of nature.

The religious meaning of grace is centered in a very Christian tradition. But I, as a humanist, have found meaning in the concept.

Is this a paradox? Well, this congregation was founded in 1886 by Universalists — Christians who believed in a loving God who finds worth in every person. They built this sanctuary in 1923, and thought it fitting to place images of Jesus and Mary and John the Evangelist and two archangels above the chancel. And yet now, today, here we are gathered — people with many beliefs; with a humanist at the pulpit; in front of these images that represent one strand of our spiritual history.

This is a paradox. And it is who we are.

So what is the Christian conception of grace? For most Christians, grace is God’s gift to humanity of love, mercy, and salvation; it’s a magnanimous gift, given to us despite our flaws.

Catholics believe that God’s grace was granted to people through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and that people are free to accept or decline this gift of grace. The Calvinist conception of grace is different: it is a gift one cannot refuse. At the beginning of time, God granted grace to a select group — the elect — and no matter what they do while they are on this Earth, the elect will go to heaven. And, likewise, no matter what the non-elect do — no matter whether they devote their lives to good works, no matter how fervent their faith — they will not go to heaven.

Other versions of Protestantism have other variations of this belief. But the one common thread throughout them all is that grace is a gift that humans do not deserve. Whether because of original sin or because of humanity’s total depravity, we do not deserve God’s gift of salvation.

So that’s the definition we’re starting from:

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

How might that definition be adapted to be more meaningful to more of us?

Before we continue to explore this, I’d like to say something about an interesting twist to the “we are undeserving” aspect of grace, relating to the history of Universalism in America.

Most of the early American Universalists were Calvinists; they did believe that God had divided people up into the elect and the non-elect. But the Universalists differed from most Calvinists, because they believed that nobody belonged to the group of non-elect people… they believed that everyone is elect.

And for some Universalists, this idea came from their own sense of feeling undeserving of grace. This was the case, for example, for George de Benneville, a Universalist of French descent who came to America in 1741, after facing religious persecution in Europe. When he was young, de Benneville had a vision of himself burning in hell, because of what he perceived to be his sins, sins he described as “too many and too great to be forgiven.” But later on in life he had another vision, of Christ praying for his soul, and he became convinced that he was saved by grace. He wrote:

[…] having myself been the chief of sinners, and God […] had granted me mercy and the pardon of all my sins, and plucked me as a brand out of Hell, I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power.

In other words: “I was a really rotten guy, and if God has saved me, he must have saved everyone!”

The Universalists took the idea that “we are not worthy”, and viewed it as “we are all equally worthy”, and then deduced that “if some of us are saved, we all are.”

So. Back to grace. Our first definition is that

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

Now, my personal humanistic theology doesn’t include the ideas of God, or of salvation in this sense. So the first step in my personal evolution of the idea of grace changes this definition to be

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve.

While we sit and ponder whether that might be a good definition, let me ask another question:

Do people ever get what they deserve?

It’s a very compelling idea to believe that they do. And most societies are structured so that people who break the rules will get a comeuppance. But sometimes people do seem to get away with things, and that can be very frustrating.

Our desire for justice can fit into our religious beliefs. For example, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, there is the idea of karma. The specific beliefs about karma vary among these faiths, but the general idea is that consequences flow from actions. It’s not that some god is sitting in judgement of your actions and dealing out rewards and punishments; it’s that the actions themselves lead to positive or negative outcomes. So, for example, if you constantly lie to other people, you may lose your ability to trust others, or even to trust yourself. I have heard this expressed as “you are not punished for your sins, you are punished by them.”2

Of course, sometimes the outcomes of your actions do not become apparent in your present lifetime; and, likewise, sometimes outcomes in your present lifetime are due to actions from previous lives, according to this philosophy.

This is in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, where an all-seeing God judges, and inflicts consequences, either in this life, or — in Christianity — in an afterlife.

These ideas fit in well with our innate desire for justice. But there is a darker side to thinking that people get what they deserve. When you hear of something bad happening to someone — a car accident, or an illness — do you ever find yourself thinking of reasons why the same thing won’t happen to you? “Oh, they must have been texting while driving.” Or, “I would never walk in a neighborhood like that at night.” Or, “Of course he got cancer; have you seen what he eats?”

I can feel this urge in myself. It’s an urge of denial. It’s not wanting to face the fact that sometimes completely random events beyond our control can completely upset our lives. It’s too frightening to consider the drunk driver crossing over the median and heading right towards us; too frightening to consider the randomness of illness. This is one reason why people think that it is safer to drive than to fly, even though by many measures it is not; with driving, there is an illusion that you have complete control; you’re holding onto the steering wheel, aren’t you?

So I distrust the idea of people “getting what they deserve” in some cosmic sense. And it’s for that reason that in my own mind, I modify the definition of grace. Instead of

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve,

how about

Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.

Now that brings in the concept of contingency — the idea that things could be otherwise than they are.

Jane Kenyon wrote a poem called Otherwise3:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.

That feels like a definition that resonates with me.

Grace is a life-changing gift that could have been otherwise.

I think of good things in my life — of loved ones, of friends — and even though I work to make those relationships strong, there are so many random elements, so many ways that things could have been otherwise, despite all my efforts. If you’re willing, think for a moment of your own life, of a friend, of a partner, of a job you love, of a community that supports you. And think of how your life need not have included that friend, that partner, that job, that community, if things had been different. Grace.

Just over a year ago, Reverend Tera messaged me on Facebook, and asked me — out of the blue — what my plans for a ministerial internship were. I hadn’t even started thinking of internships; I had expected that I would have to wait at least a year, and maybe two, before figuring out how to fit one into my life. But Tera said that Throop was ready for a part-time two-year intern.

I talked with my wife, and we weighed the pros and cons. It was not a slam-dunk decision. We had to figure whether a crazy commute from San Diego would be sustainable. I had to arrange things with my employer. Even after my employer agreed to let me work at 60% time for two years, we had to deal with the indisputable mathematical fact that 60% time at my job and 50% time at an internship adds up to more time than there is. There are so many reasons why this internship might not have come about.

But it did come about. And now, in my life, I have this congregation, and all the people in it. Grace.

This is the last sermon I preach before taking the summer off. I will be here on Thursday for my usual weekday in the office, and I will be here next Sunday assisting with the service, but that’s it until September. I will miss you all, but during the summer I will rest, and do math, and take courses at seminary, and perform a wedding, and I will come back in the fall ready for a second, and even better, year with you.

I’d like to close with a story. The musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson tells of a time she was visiting her brother, an anthropologist, in a Tzotzil village in Mexico. She lived with the women of the village, and helped as best she could with their daily work. She says that the name they gave her — “Loscha” — means, roughly, “the ugly one with the jewels.”

Anderson says4:

Now ugly, OK, I was awfully tall by local standards. But what did they mean by the jewels? I didn’t find out what this meant until one night, when I was taking my contact lenses out, and — since I’d lost the case — I was carefully placing them on the sleeping shelf [in the yurt where everyone slept]; suddenly I noticed that everyone was staring at me and I realized that none of the Tzotzil had ever seen glasses, much less contacts, and that these were the jewels, the transparent, perfectly round, jewels that I carefully hid on the shelf at night and then put for safekeeping into my eyes every morning.

So I may have been ugly but so what? I had the Jewels.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

May we all see with fresh eyes the grace that is in our lives, the jewels we may take for granted, that in some other universe we might not have.

Image credit: Detail of Botticelli’s Primavera, ca. 1482. Via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. In the form of dancers from the Lineage Dance Company, with whom we were sharing that day’s collection plate. 
  2. See the Fake Buddha Quote web site for a discussion of the provenance of this phrasing. Spoiler: It was not said by Buddha. 
  3. From Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. All rights reserved. Reproduced here by permission of Graywolf Press. For further permissions information, contact Permissions Department, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Ave., Ste. 203, St Paul, MN 55114. This poem also appears in Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, and was one of the poems selected for the Library of Congress’s Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools
  4. Transcribed by the author from “The Ugly One with the Jewels”, from The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories