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
Failed
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.

Omagh_imminent

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

Grounding Our Selves, Freeing Our Minds

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 10 April 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Here’s an experiment: For a moment, try to think of yourself, and what you are doing, in the most basic terms — try to forget the social meanings of things. You are a mammal. You are breathing, and warm. You are sitting in a large space, with a ceiling high above1. There is colored light coming through the windows. You are sitting with several dozen other mammals of the same species, all facing the same direction. Moments ago2 you were making sounds, and the other mammals were making similar sounds. Now you are sitting, and breathing, while another mammal is at the front of the room, making unusual noises all by himself.

Now, gently, start to wonder. Why? How is it that some kind of social system has put me in this place? Why does this building exist? Why is there colored light coming through the windows?

I will do this exercise sometimes, just to remember how strange some of the things we do are. Yesterday I sat nearly motionless in a small metal box for two hours, among many other small metal boxes, moving at high speed. Somehow it made sense at the time.

I find that it helps me see some of the systems that affect my life, systems that can otherwise be invisible. Systems that we are not aware of can cause trouble.


Perhaps you heard about the April Fools “joke” that Google played on people who use Gmail through a web browser… Google added a button right next to the regular “Send” button in the composition window; the new button was also labeled “Send”, but it had in addition a little graphic of a falling microphone. This new button was for a special “Mic Drop” option. If you clicked on this button, your message would go out, along with an animated GIF of one of the characters from the Minions movies dropping a microphone. The feature would also block all further replies to the email conversation, so you just wouldn’t see anything else anyone said in that thread of messages. This is the email equivalent of dropping the microphone and leaving the room.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, one thing that went wrong was that the new “Send and drop the mic” button appeared in exactly the place where you would normally find the “Send and Archive” button. So some fraction of Gmail users who thought they were clicking on the usual “Send and Archive” button instead found that they had send an animated mic drop GIF to their friends; to their clients; to their bosses… and then they would not see any responses to that email. There was no way to undo this.

It may not have been a large fraction of users who had this problem… but when more than a billion people use your service, even a small fraction translates into a lot of unhappy people.

Who do we blame for the mistakenly sent emails? The buttons were clearly marked; but I don’t think any of us would find the users at fault. The main problem was in the system that they were using.


I use this story as a gentle introduction to today’s topic. Our worship theme last month was evil; this month’s theme is liberation. I would like to talk about the difficulty of liberating ourselves from systemic evil.


Last month, Rev. Tera and I both quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote:

Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world.

This is a pretty good definition of evil, but it seems to be most appropriate for evil on the individual level, evil done by a single person or a small group. But what about systemic evil? People can set up social systems whose end results are are evil, and the evil can lie more in the system than in the people who are part of the system.


Systemic evil can seem abstract, until we see it on a personal level. I would like to tell you a bit of my family history that helped me personalize a well-known systemic evil from American history.


We all have many ancestors, and we are part of each of their stories. And likewise, all of their histories are a part of us. What’s more, each of their histories can take us in a different direction.

My mother’s mother was born in a small village in Sicily. My mother’s father was the son of French immigrants. My father’s father’s family has branches that have been in California since before statehood. But my father’s mother came from Texas. The bit of family history3 I would like to tell you about concerns one set of this grandmother’s great-grandparents. I will warn you beforehand that three people are killed in this story.

William Baker and his wife Matilda Baker were born in England in the early 1800’s. He worked as a joiner, someone who does woodwork in the construction industry. In 1834 the Bakers immigrated to the United States with their newborn son. They spent about 6 years in New York, and then moved to Texas. Their family grew; their sixth child, my grandmother’s grandmother, was born in 1848.

Let me remind you of some of the historical context of Texas in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Texas became a state in 1846, and slavery was legal there. In 1851 about 60,00 people were enslaved in Texas. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress in late 1850. It mandated that people who had escaped from slavery to free states would have to be sent back to their former owners. This was very controversial in the Northern states, and many Northerners did not want to comply with the law. For instance, when Thomas Sims, a black man who had escaped slavery in Georgia, was arrested in Boston in early 1851, U.S. Marines had to escort him from the courthouse to the ship that would take him back to Georgia, because otherwise abolitionists in Boston would have helped him escape. So all this is the backdrop to the following events, which were reported in the Texas State Gazette, a weekly newspaper published in Austin.

On the morning of July 11, 1851, a black man rode up to the house that my ancestors, the Bakers, lived in.4 He wanted directions to a neighbor’s house. The Bakers asked him to wait until after they finished breakfast. While he was waiting, Colonel E.S.C. Robertson of the Texas Militia happened to stop by. Colonel Robertson questioned the black man and decided that he was fleeing enslavement, so Colonel Robertson and William Baker tied up the man, and Colonel Robertson rode off to alert the authorities. But the man somehow escaped his bonds, and found a kitchen knife; when William Baker tried to tie him up again, the man fatally wounded him with the knife. Matilda Baker rushed up to the fighting men, and was stabbed and instantly killed. The man escaped.

A reward was offered for his capture5, and on July 26th he was caught near the city of Austin.6 The newspaper reported that “[h]e was tried on the same day by a jury of twelve slaveholders, and his guilt being apparent and unquestionable, he was executed in the presence of a large concourse of spectators.”

The Bakers, my ancestors, were dead, leaving as orphans six children between the ages of three and seventeen. The black man was dead, killed by a lynch mob, and God only knows what family and loved ones he left behind. Colonel Robertson lived for another 28 years, and was one of the delegates who signed Texas’s proclamation of secession from the Union in 1861.


This tragedy does not make sense without the context of slavery. Slavery was the systemic evil that wound the mainspring of the whole sequence of events. It is fitting and proper to mourn the deaths of the Bakers, because their lives had value, as all of our lives do.7 It is fitting and proper to mourn the death of the man whose name the newspaper did not see fit to tell us, because his life had value. But to get beyond the particulars of this tragedy — to address the systemic evil of slavery — to fight the systemic evil of slavery — one would have to start by insisting that black lives matter, because that is the fact that the system denies.


Today, because we live in miraculous times, you can find every issue of the Texas State Gazette online, and you can read through their scanned pages, almost as if you were there 165 years ago.

Reading these pages, you see how much violence was necessary to maintain the institution of slavery. The week after my ancestors were killed, there was another tragedy.8 An overseer at a plantation was beating an enslaved woman with a whip. A black man, seeing this, could not take it any longer. Was she his sister? His daughter? His wife? Was it just that he could no longer bear to see a man flogging anyone? The newspaper doesn’t say. It just reports that the man rose up and stabbed the overseer in the heart. “After a fair and impartial trial by jury,” says the newspaper, the black man was hung, for having defended a woman against a savage beating.

Violence, and more violence, and those in power could not get beyond the thinking that created it. The newspaper dismisses any other possibility, and mocks the abolitionists in the North. In the weeks during which they reported on the case involving my ancestors, the Texas State Gazette wrote about Thomas Sims, the man who escaped slavery in Georgia and who was arrested in Boston. The paper says:9

To recover the famous slave, Sims, […] his owner […] paid $2000; the city of Boston and the authorities of the General Government, about $10,000 each, in putting down the mob [of abolitionists] and enforcing the law;— making the whole sum paid for the recovery of one fugitive, twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars. The negro was probably worth $800.


All of this was long ago, of course. What does it mean for us today?

Well, one thing is that even in the telling of these stories, I could feel the long reach of the social structure of slavery. How should I refer to the man who killed my ancestors? As a “slave”? That is the terminology that made sense at the time, but I will not use it. He was a man, a man who had been enslaved.

And what was his name? The newspapers did not give it, because in their estimation he did not deserve one. You know who they did name? His owner, and his former owner.

Systemic evil from long ago still influences how we think of events. It is hard to escape.


And the systemic evil of slavery did not just disappear. It morphed into new and subtler forms. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow10, traces the links from slavery to segregation and the Jim Crow system in the South, to red-lining and restrictive housing covenants, to the War on Drugs. Ta-Nehisi Coates personalizes this in his book Between the World and Me11. He writes of his friend Prince Jones, a fellow graduate of Howard University.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, Prince Jones was one of those friends of young adulthood who seem to represent the limitless possibilities of youth. He was talented, popular, well-liked. And one day, a year or two after college, Prince Jones was shot by a police officer.

The officer was undercover, and dressed like a drug dealer. The officer was supposed to be tracking a man who was eight inches shorter and 40 pounds heavier than Prince Jones. The officer, from Prince George County, Maryland, followed Prince Jones as he drove his Jeep out of Maryland, through Washington D.C., and into Virginia. He confronted Prince Jones as he neared his fiancée’s house, where she and their baby daughter were waiting for him. He confronted Prince Jones with his gun drawn, with no badge, dressed as a drug dealer. The officer — the only witness to survive these events — says that Prince Jones tried to run him down. The officer shot and killed Prince Jones yards from his fiancée’s home.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his own anger as the details of the killing came out, as the officer faced no serious repercussions, as the Prince George County police department and the local politicians circled the wagons.

Coates writes12:

The officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians […] seemed unconcerned. How could this be?

In exploring this question, Coates argues that it is a systemic evil that set up this situation in which a black policeman killed a black man. The racism is not in the people; it lies in the system that puts people in these situations. The system may not explicitly deny that black lives matter, like slavery did — but the effect is the same.


How do we deal with systemic evil? It is hard to break out of the systems of thought that affect us — it is hard even to recognize them. But systemic evil threatens lives, and to save our lives we need to free our minds.

Think back to the exercise at the beginning of this sermon. Throughout the week, consider repeating the experiment: Think of what you are doing in the most basic terms, and then slowly try to understand the social forces and systems that explain why you are where you are. Try to see how systems we take for granted may be harming ourselves; harming others; harming the planet. Try to see how changing them might make life better for us all. And then go out and work for that change.

May it be so. Blessed be.


Image credit: Detail of Page 1 of the Texas State Gazette (H. P. Brewster and J. W. Hampton, eds.), Vol. 2, No. 47, Ed. 1, Saturday, July 12, 1851. Digitized by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Texas, and hosted by the University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.


  1. Those of you not reading this during a church service should make appropriate adjustments. 
  2. When the congregation was singing a hymn. 
  3. Which my sister Pat tracked down about a decade ago. 
  4. See this page of the 12 July 1851 edition of Texas State Gazette. The article is in the first column, about halfway down. 
  5. See this page of the 19 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, second column, first item. 
  6. See this page of the 2 August 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, first column, fifth item from the bottom. 
  7. Our Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person affirms this. 
  8. See this page of the 19 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, third column, a few paragraphs down. 
  9. See this page of the 26 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, second column, top. 
  10. The New Jim Crow is available from Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookseller. 
  11. Between the World and Me is available from Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookseller. The title of the book is taken from a powerful and disturbing poem by Richard Wright, which you should go and read. 
  12. Page 83. 

The Stranger on the Road

(The second of two homilies delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on Easter Sunday, 27 March 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe. The first homily, delivered by Rev. Tera Little, is here.)


On the Sunday after the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’s disciples were walking to the village of Emmaus. They had heard the report from Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, who had gone to the tomb to wash and prepare Jesus’s body; they had heard the two Marys say that that the tomb had been opened, the stone rolled away; that the body of Jesus was not there; but that angels were there, angels who told them that Jesus yet lived.

On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples talked of all of these things. And on the road to Emmaus, they met a man — a man who was Jesus, but in a form that they did not recognize. When the three reached Emmaus, they shared a meal together — and as the stranger blessed the bread, and broke it, and shared it with the disciples, the veil fell from their eyes, and they saw that it was Jesus… and then he vanished from their sight.


The story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the most sacred story of the Christian tradition. For some Christians, Jesus’s suffering and death is the only thing that saves humanity from eternal punishment. Our Unitarian and Universalist spiritual ancestors had a different understanding of the story of the Resurrection; they believed in a loving God, a God who did not send Jesus to earth in order to exact some required amount of suffering; no, they believed in a God who sent Jesus to earth as a teacher, as a prophet, as someone who could bring to humanity a gospel of love and understanding. In this interpretation, Jesus’s resurrection is a sign of the importance and of the truth of his teachings.


But what about those of us who are not Christian? What can this story mean for those of us who feel more of an affinity to humanism, or earth-centered spirituality, or Buddhism, or Judaism, or any of the myriad beliefs held by Unitarian Universalists today? What can we learn from Easter?


At this time of year, one thing you hear frequently in humanist and Pagan circles is that the Christians co-opted pre-existing Pagan celebrations of spring to make the various Easter traditions. Springtime celebrations of fertility and renewal of life, with eggs and rabbits, were popular in Europe, and as Christianity spread, it embraced these traditions, but overlaid them with a new theology.

But while Easter has adopted aspects of these celebrations of spring, it is more than just a celebration of spring. It deals with an entirely different conception of time.


Earth-centered spirituality — and many other religions as well — focusses on the cyclical nature of time. Every year we have a summer solstice and a winter solstice; every year, a spring equinox and an autumn equinox. The stories we tell at these times of year emphasize the cycles: The Holly King and the Oak King battle for supremacy, each in power for half of the year. When we are in the darkness of winter, we know that we have been here before; we know that in every preceding year, spring has come; and we tell stories and enact rituals to help continue the pattern.

And there are other cycles as well. In Hinduism, there are four periods of time called the yugas that repeat in a cycle believed by some to be 24,000 years, and by others to be more than 4,000,000 years.

When you know you are in a cycle, you can take comfort in that fact. But it can be very disturbing when things are bad and you can’t see the cycle you are in.


Both of my children have lived their whole lives in San Diego. Our older child, Cee1, is now in their first year of college at a school in Pennsylvania. One reason Cee chose to go to a school back East was to experience winter; but Cee’s first winter has been very hard on them. It’s dark. It’s cold. And Cee is not used to this. Of course they know that spring will come… but they have no bone-deep experience of this to reassure them. It does not feel like a cycle.

Sometimes bad things happen, and we cannot see they are just one stage in a cycle. Sometimes bad things happen, and as far as we can tell, they are not part of a cycle. How do we cope, spiritually, when we are faced with unprecedented tragedy or evil?

This is something we can learn from Easter. Easter is different from a celebration of spring. When we celebrate spring, we are in the middle of spring; we are living through spring again, as we have done the year before, and the year before that. When we celebrate Easter, Christ is not being resurrected again; we are commemorating the one time, two thousand years ago, when that singular event happened. Christianity is not about cycles. The Christian view of time is linear. And in Western society, we have adopted this view so deeply that most people have a hard time imagining any other view of time.

So how do we deal with a crisis that is a singular event?

Well, Jesus’s disciples were faced with disaster. The religious authorities were against them; the government authorities were against them; their spiritual leader had been tortured and killed; and one of their own had betrayed him.

For each of us, there will be a time like this in our lives, a time when we feel that everything has gone wrong. When our plans have failed, and when evil has prevailed. A time when we have no hope. When we have looked inside ourselves for the strength to go on, and we have not found that strength. A time when we do not see the Wheel of Fortune turning to raise us up again; a time when we see nothing ahead but failure and death.

In times like these, Easter teaches us the spiritual practice of patience. Of maintaining hope, even when there is no hope. Of trusting that sometimes our job is simply to wait. It teaches that events may come to pass that we could never have predicted; and that victory can come in forms we might not recognize at first.


So this is my Easter wish for us all: When we are in despair; when there is evil in the world and we cannot see how to fight it; when our plans have failed, and we feel alone; when we have fled Jerusalem, and are on the road to Emmaus — may we look into the eyes of the stranger sharing our meal, and recognize there the face of our savior.

Amen.


Image credit: Jan Wildens, Landscape with Christ and his Disciples on the Road to Emmaus (detail), ca. 1640. See here for more information.


  1. Who gave permission for me to tell this story about them.