Pleasures and Indulgences

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 26 February 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)

[Earlier in the service, the “Story for All Ages” was a reading (with role-playing!) of Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. At the end of the sermon, I make reference to this.]


The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of Oscar Wilde’s most well-known works. A reviewer at the London Daily Chronicle famously described it as “a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” I’m sure the book was denounced from the pulpits of many churches when it was first published in 1890, but today it is viewed as a classic, and I do not bring it up now to denounce it; no, today I bring up The Picture of Dorian Gray for another reason.

Let me remind you of the set-up of the story. Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who is new to the high society of Victorian London. An artist friend paints his portrait, and Dorian makes a wish: He wishes that he could always stay as young and as beautiful as his image in the portrait. Dorian falls under the influence of a hedonistic aristocrat, and he begins a life devoted to pleasure, ignoring the effects of his actions on others and paying attention only to his own desires. After heartlessly jilting and humiliating a lover, Dorian notices that his portait has changed… he sees that now his image in the portrait wears a cruel expression. As he continues to devote his life to pleasure, mindless of those around him, Dorian’s moral failings escalate, to the point of blackmail and murder; and his portrait becomes more and more disfigured with each passing year. But while his portrait ages and decays and reveals his crumbling soul, Dorian Gray’s body remains as young and as beautiful as ever.

The public at the time found Wilde’s book shocking for its suggestions of queerness and its depictions of hedonism. But I bring it up today because of an element of the story that almost passes by with no comment, an assumption that just seems natural.

Namely: Our sins, our excesses, our transgressions, our indulgences — the story assumes that they are all reflected in our bodies. And, conversely: if our bodies fail to live up to a certain standard of youth, of beauty, of physical health, then it must be because we have done something wrong, it must be because we have sinned.

It seems to me that those are the assumptions that deserve to be denounced from the pulpit.


The worship theme here at Throop Church for the month of February is “Indulgence.” This choice of theme was inspired by the fact that Mardi Gras, and all its associated carnival festivities, falls in February this year; in fact, it is this Tuesday.

Mardi gras is French for Fat Tuesday, and in some Christian traditions it is the last chance to indulge oneself before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and penitence that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. The 40 days of Lent hark back to the 40 days that Jesus is said to have spent wandering in the desert after his baptism — 40 days in which he was tempted by Satan, but resisted the temptation.

So already we see that the division between Lent and carnival, the dichotomy between asceticism and indulgence, is connected — by the story of Jesus in the desert — to another dichotomy: the one between spiritual purity on the one hand and temptation and sin on the other, between what our culture deems worthy, and what it deems unworthy.

What I would like to offer you today is a chance to think about these connected dichotomies, because they appear in our daily lives in ways that do not help us; they can create spiritual, emotional, and even physical harm.


Let me tell you a story, about the first time my back went out. It was the summer of 2008, and I was on vacation with my wife Bella and our kids. I see now that there had been plenty of warning signs. The very first day of the trip, after 12 hours of air travel, I kicked a soccer ball around with the children of the friends we were visiting, and I felt a twinge that did not go away. Over the course of the next two weeks, as we drove from town to town and slept in friends’ fold-out beds and in hotels, the twinge turned into a constant soreness that made walking painful. The night before our 12-hour flight home, we stayed in a large airport hotel. Early in the morning I got up to use the bathroom, and when I leaned over the sink to wash my hands my back hurt. A lot. It suddenly seemed like a good idea to get on my hands and knees. I crawled a few feet, until the pain in my back and in my right leg became too great, and I collapsed on the floor in the hallway, unable to move without shooting pain.

It was 5:00 a.m. Our flight was scheduled to leave six hours later.

I called out to Bella for help, and she called the front desk. Soon, a man we had never met before — but who said he was a doctor — showed up at our door with a little black bag. He injected me with anti-inflammatories and painkillers, and gave me a small supply of pain medication and Valium. A half hour later I could move again, and we were able to get to the airport and onto our flight home.

But over the next weeks and months my thoughts returned again and again to those moments that I had spent immobile on the hallway floor. Lying there on the floor, I had been worried about many things. In addition to panicking about whether we would be able to get home that day, I wondered: How badly was I hurt? What if I had damaged something seriously enough that I would not be able to walk for a long time? How would that affect my life?

And underneath all of those worries and fears, there was another — deeper — fear, a fear that I could not put into words, a fear that I did not even really recognize until much later, after I had had time to reflect on the incident.

The fear was that Bella would not love me if I were disabled.

This was not a rational fear. This fear was not based on how I knew Bella to be; it was not based on the realities of our relationship. Even more, this fear contradicted my theology; it contradicted our Unitarian Universalist understanding that worth and dignity are inherent in every individual.

So where did it come from, this fear?

It came from the deep connection that our culture makes between our worth as human beings on the one hand, and the state of our bodies on the other. This is a cultural connection that we need to recognize when we see it; this is a cultural connection that we need to fight against.


But what does all of this have to do with indulgence?

Well, what does indulgence mean? How do people use the word?

For example, what do you think of when you think of an indulgent parent? An indulgent parent is one who does not restrain their child when the child is doing something wrong; an indulgent parent is one who gives the child rewards that are undeserved. This is a first hint that the idea of indulgence is tied up with the idea of things that we deserve, or do not deserve.

In Catholicism, the Church grants an indulgence when it reduces or removes the temporal penalties that someone must pay (in the Church’s theology) for having sinned. If you’ve studied European history you might remember that in the 16th century, one of the criticisms that Martin Luther had of the Catholic Church of the time was that indulgences could be purchased from the Church. That is no longer the case, but indulgences are still a part of Catholic theology; they are usually granted for performing prayerful actions. So this is an example of the word indulgence meaning “avoiding a punishment that one deserves.”

Indulgence can also mean a pleasure that one doesn’t deserve. It is very easy to find examples of this usage just by looking around you. Almost anything physically pleasurable will be described in advertising as indulgent. You can buy “indulgent” bath salts, you can buy “indulgent” make-up, you can buy “indulgent” massages. In Long Beach, there is a day spa called, simply, Indulgence. But to really hit the indulgence jackpot, you have to consider what our culture tells us about food.

Indulgent ice-cream. Breyer’s has a whole line called “Gelato indulgences.”

Indulgent mac and cheese.

Indulgent chocolate.

Indulgent desserts of all kinds.

Now, why would an advertisement say that “This chocolate cake is indulgent” instead of “This chocolate cake is delicious”? I think that these foods are called indulgent because we are encouraged to believe that we do not deserve them, that we are getting away with something if we enjoy them. Our culture overwhelms us with shoulds: We should be devoting our energy to counting calories, we should be watching our cholesterol, we should be eating food based on whether it supposedly contains anti-oxidants and is dense enough in vitamins. All of these shoulds, with no room left for asking, “Do I enjoy this?”

Instead of “Do I enjoy this?” we ask “Do I deserve this?”

And the time and emotional energy that we spend worrying about our self-worth and our body image takes our thoughts away from parts of our lives that could really use more attention: How do I treat my neighbors? How do I fight for my values? How do I create justice? Instead, we ask: Am I a bad person if I have some dessert?


That’s what our society says about indulgence: that all of our bodily pleasures should be guilty ones.

What about the opposite of indulgence? What about asceticism?

The word asceticism comes from a Greek word meaning, essentially, “acting like a monk.” And in many cultures, “acting like a monk” means denying oneself bodily pleasures.

I already mentioned the example of Jesus wandering in the desert for 40 days, resisting temptation. In the Christian scriptures we also have the example of John the Baptist wearing clothes of camel hair, living off of locusts and honey in the wild trans-Jordan area between Jerusalem and Galilee. Later on, we have Christian saints like Simeon Stylites, a fifth-century Syrian who lived for 49 years on a small platform on top of a pillar. Jainism, and some forms of Buddhism, derive from a Śramanic tradition in India that includes a harsh asceticism. And in America, we have the Puritan tradition, from which our own Unitarianism is descended.

So across many cultures there is a tendency for people to associate holiness and piety with doing without. The tension between asceticism and indulgence is connected to the tension between spiritual purity and bodily desires, the tension we see between Lent and Mardi Gras; and as Dorian Gray shows, all of these conflicts are written out on our bodies.


It doesn’t have to be like this.

Today, there is some movement in popular culture towards removing the ideas of morality and sin from our thoughts and discussions about our bodies and about the food we enjoy. Early this January — right when people are traditionally most anxious about the condition of their bodies, and are making resolutions framed in terms of goodness and evil, of sin and redemption — early this January the New York Times profiled an up-and-coming British food writer named Ruby Tandoh, whose new cookbook is subtitled Eat What You Love. It’s a good sign when the Times profiles an author who speaks out against the January diet industry, who speaks out against fat phobia, who speaks out against the corporations whose profits depend on body-policing and on socially-enforced body insecurity.1 Tandoh is part of a broader movement of body acceptance and fat acceptance activism that is getting more powerful year by year. The activist Lesley Kinzel powerfully expresses the goal of these movements. She writes:

Fat acceptance doesn’t simply advocate in favor of fatness. Fat acceptance is also about rejecting a culture that encourages us to rage and lash out at our bodies, even to hate them, for looking a certain way. It’s about setting our own boundaries and knowing ourselves, and making smart decisions about how we live and treat ourselves, and ferociously defending the privacy of those choices. It’s about promoting the idea that anything you do with your body should come from a place of self-care and self-love, not from guilt and judgment and punishment. It’s about demanding that all bodies, no matter their appearance or age or ability, be treated with basic human respect and dignity.


More than a century and a quarter has passed since Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in many ways society has changed dramatically. But our culture, like that of late Victorian England, still connects the condition of our bodies to the condition of our souls. So I wonder, what would happen if we followed Lesley Kinzel’s suggestion? What would happen if we removed the ideas of guilt and judgment and punishment from the idea of “indulgence”? What is indulgence without guilt?

We have a word for that. Indulgence without guilt is called, simply, pleasure.

In the coming weeks, I would invite you to think about how your perception of food and of your body may be overlaid with ideas of morality and sin, of purity and defilement, of self-worth and self-loathing. Can we transcend these dichotomies, and simply think of our bodies — and of other people’s bodies — as our homes for the decades we have on earth? Can we think of our pleasures as simply pleasures, and not indulgent sins that we should feel guilty about?

As for myself… I know now to pay more attention to what my body — and my back — is telling me. With attentiveness, and yoga, and regular exercise, I’ve avoided serious problems for now. But as I progress further into my 50’s, and as I experience the changes to my body as it ages, I know not to view these changes as reflections of my character.

And, on some evenings, I may decide — like the Very Hungry Caterpillar — to have a piece of cake. It may not always be wise choice. I may find — like the Very Hungry Caterpillar — that I will end up with a stomach-ache. Or I may find — like the Very Hungry Caterpillar — that eating cake will change my body in unexpected ways. But whether or not it is wise, and no matter what it does to my body, I know that my choice to have a piece of cake is not a question of sin.


This Tuesday, on Mardi Gras, what if we don’t “indulge”? Instead, what if we simply do something we find pleasurable?

We live in our bodies for as long as we are on this Earth. May we live in them with joy.

Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Christ Tempted in the Wilderness, by John Martin, 1824.


  1. And that’s all in one tweet

Integrity of the Mind

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 8 January 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)


As many of you know, I was raised unchurched. When my wife Bella and I started to attend the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, a little over 10 years ago, it was all a new experience for me.

A few years after we joined, I was at a committee meeting of some kind — of course! — and the leader of the meeting asked us all to consider why it was that we attended services on Sunday. I think that was the first time I had thought to consider exactly what the spiritual point was of coming to church on Sunday.

At the very beginning of my internship here at Throop, I preached a sermon that addressed this very question: Why are we here, in this room, each Sunday? The answer I proposed in that sermon had to do with the idea of community. It’s true that we can gain some spiritual growth and satisfaction on our own — by meditating, for example, or by spending time in nature — but there is something special about being present in a church community that both supports us and challenges us. One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our community helps us stick to the “responsible” part of that.

But there’s another answer to the question of why we come here each week, and in fact it’s the first answer I thought of, way back when at that committee meeting.

At church, the services help me reflect on my own ethical values. By going to services on Sunday, and listening to the music, and singing the hymns, and (of course!) paying very close attention to the sermon1, and talking with people during coffee hour, I can think more deeply about what I believe, and about how I want to live my live. And then I can figure out whether I actually am living out those values. If I’m not living out the values that I profess, my church can help provide me with the resources and support that I will need in order to live my life in line with the values I believe in.

In other words: My church helps me live my life with integrity.


The worship theme for the month of January is “Integrity.” Each week we will explore a different aspect of the idea of integrity. Today it is “Integrity of the Mind”; over the course of the month we will also discuss integrity of the spirit, of the heart, and of the body.


“Integrity of the Mind” can mean a number of things. Perhaps the most straightforward meaning is that we should be honest.

Now, there are different types of honesty. There is honesty in your interactions with others, and there is honesty with yourself.

It can be hard to lie to other people. Just recently I ran across a quote by my favorite author — the 19th-century British novelist Anthony Trollope — that gives one reason why. Trollope writes:

A liar has many points in his favour, — but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.

Consistently lying to others is hard to maintain, it is immoral, it is corrosive to your relationships, and it makes it difficult for you to trust anyone.

Lying to yourself is easier, but just as dangerous. On one level, you know you are lying to yourself, so you don’t have to maintain quite the same façade as you do when you lie to others. However, even though it is easier to lie to yourself than it is to lie to others, the effect is just as corrosive: You end up not being able to trust yourself.


There are deeper meanings, too, about integrity of the mind. In Unitarian Universalism, many of these deeper meanings were well expressed by the Transcendentalists.

Transcendentalism was a movement among liberal religious people, especially Unitarians and those with connections to Unitarianism, in the mid-19th century, most prominently in the Northeast of the United States. Inspired by the Reverend William Ellery Channing’s idea that our conception of God comes from our examination of our own souls, the Transcendentalists were fierce individualists, who thought that our highest calling is to be true to our own souls.

One of the best-known writings about Transcendentalist individualism is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance. He did not mean “self-reliance” in the sense of being able to live on your own in the wild, or to cook your own food, or mend your own clothing; no, he was more interested in a person’s ability to rely on their own judgement, even when it conflicted with popular opinion.

Emerson writes that “Nothing is as sacred as the integrity of your own mind.” Really, his whole essay on self-reliance consists of expanding on this basic principle.

And yet I have intense reservations about Emerson. He seems so confident in the infallibility of his own intuitions, so dismissive of the idea that other people might have access to the truth as well.

Emerson’s famous aphorism, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” comes from this essay on self-reliance. And yet, what does he mean by this? If yesterday, all of your Transcendentalist insistence on the primacy of your own intuition demanded that you say one thing, and if today the same intuition demands just the opposite, Emerson says that you should proclaim just as loudly today that you are correct as you did yesterday. It seems to me, though, that you might want to be a little less certain that your opinions are always correct if you change them day by day.

Perhaps some of my reluctance to adopt Emerson’s philosophy comes from the suspicion of a comfortably-situated white man justifying his own beliefs by saying, “Trust your intuition! Speak your truth! Dare to express your individuality! That’s what I do, it’s worked out great for me…”

Emerson encourages all of his (white, male) readers to say to their loved ones,

I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, — but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. […] I must be myself. […] If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.

And then, the most perfect quote: “Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.”

Emerson is saying, “Eventually, when you peer into the regions of absolute truth, you will find that my way of doing things was right all along.”


I agree that one should be true to oneself, but I have to admit that I find Emerson to be insufferable. I can’t think of a more arrogant attitude than what he expresses. And so I was very pleased when I learned of some writings by his wife, Lydia.

Lydia Emerson, in a moment of inspiration, wrote down something that she mockingly called the “Transcendental Bible.” It is a satirical take on the arrogance and self-righteousness that seemed to come along with some of the Transcendentalist beliefs of her husband. Here is one — long — sentence from it.2

If you scorn happiness (though you value a pleasant talk or walk, a tasteful garment, a comfortable dinner), if you wish not for immortal consciousness (though you bear with impatience the loss of an hour of thought or study), if you care not for the loss of your soul (though you deprecate the loss of your house), if you care not how much you sin (though in pain at the commission of a slight indiscretion), if you ask not a wise Providence over the earth in which you live (although wishing a wise manager of the house in which you live), if you care not that a benign Divinity shapes your ends (though you seek a good tailor to shape your coat), if you scorn to believe your affliction cometh not from the dust (though bowed to the dust by it), then, if there is such a thing as duty, you have done your whole duty to your noble self-sustained, impeccable, infallible Self.

“Your noble self-sustained, impeccable, infallible Self.” That one phrase confirms what I imagine it must have been like to live in the same household as Ralph Waldo Emerson.


So that’s another meaning of “integrity of the mind”: being true to your own beliefs, even when they contradict what is believed by your friends or by society at large. But we see that one of the difficulties is that you need to be true to yourself without being arrogant; you still need to listen to others and acknowledge that sometimes they will be right.


At one point, Emerson writes:

[…] man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he […] lives with nature in the present, above time.

And that brings us to another form of integrity of the mind: Keeping your mind focused on what is happening now, right around you, and not having your mind wander to the past or the future.

Meditation practices from around the world encourage us to develop the habit of focusing on the present. And, interestingly enough, a pair of researchers at Harvard came up with a way to test the idea that people are happier if they live in the present.

The researchers created an iPhone app for volunteers to use. You can read about it at trackyourhappiness.org, where you’ll find a link to the Apple App Store. If you download the app, it will interrupt you at random moments throughout your day and ask you a series of questions. The questions include:

  • “How are you feeling right now?”
  • “What are you doing right now?” and
  • “Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?”

The individual users of the app then get to find out what activities actually help them stay happy. But the researchers get back the data from all of the users, and they have been using that data to test various hypotheses about happiness. And they’ve found some interesting things.

First of all, the researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot. About half the time the app interrupts someone to ask what they are doing, the person says that their mind was wandering.

They also found that no matter what activity a person was doing, they were less happy if they were not focusing their attention on it. It was worst, of course, if their mind was wandering to unpleasant things, but even if their mind was wandering to something nice, they were less happy on average than if they had been thinking about what they were doing.

Now, this shows that unhappiness is correlated with mind-wandering, but you might wonder whether that actually shows that one of these things causes the other. To answer this question, the researchers checked to see whether people’s mood at one point in the day was correlated with their mind wandering later that day, and vice versa. What they found was consistent with the hypothesis that one of these things does cause the other: not focusing on what you are doing will reduce your happiness.

So there’s a benefit to mental integrity in the form of focusing on the present: it will make you happier. And perhaps this happiness can carry you through the times when you do have to take your mind off the present in order to plan for the future.


The mind, the spirit, the heart, the body — in each of us, these are all connected to make a unified whole. This month, may we all find new ways to better understand each of these parts of ourselves, so that we may better live a life of integrity.


Image credit: Water lily with latticework reflections, copyright 2006 by the author. Shot in the Conservatory at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.


  1. Wink ;) 
  2. The whole thing is worth reading, and it’s just a couple of pages; you can find it here

Guardrails

Many years ago, when I was a college student in Pasadena, California, I did not own a car — but my friend Tim had a Dodge Charger 2.2. We referred to it, with perhaps a trace of irony, as the “graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger.” There was one time the two of us were out in the high desert one night, perhaps in Victorville or Adelanto, I don’t remember exactly where or why. Tim had driven us out there, and I was going to drive us back. “You can head back to Pasadena by taking the 138, the 14, and the 210,” said Tim, describing a route that goes counterclockwise around the San Gabriel Mountains. “Or you could take the eastern route, on the 15 and the 210” — clockwise around the San Gabriels. “Or,” he said, “you could take the Angeles Crest Highway. That would be a test of man and machine.” He handed me the keys.

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

Now, even as an 18-year-old boy, I was reasonably responsible. I’m sure I drove faster than I was really comfortable doing, but I probably was not being too unsafe. And yet I remember, as I drove home that dark night on those twisty mountain roads at the wheel of the graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger — I remember looking at the guardrails on the turns and thinking, “I don’t want to test those.”

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.


I have friends who voted for Donald Trump, and who recognize the aspects of his personality that are not suited for the presidency. But they expect that calmer minds in the administration will prevail; they expect that Trump’s worst excesses will not lead us off the road and into the chasm; they expect that the guardrails of our democracy will hold.

But some of these guardrails have been tested before. And they haven’t always held. Within living memory, a presidential executive order led to the incarceration of over 80,000 U.S. citizens and 40,000 non-citizen residents.

In recent memory, the September 11th attacks prompted the U.S. government to torture prisoners, in violation of international law and basic humanity.

My fear is that in the next few years there will be some kind of crisis — maybe an attack by terrorists, maybe something else — that will bring out the worst of America. And I am worried that the guardrails will not hold. What can I do with this fear? If you share it, what can you do with this fear? Is there a way that we can maintain some hope amidst this fear?


While I’ve been pondering these question, I’ve thought of two poems that have stuck with me this year, poems that have been floating near the surface of my thoughts for months.

The first of these is “Between the World and Me,” written in 1935 by the African-American author Richard Wright. The poem is about the poet being surprised, while walking through the woods, to come across a clearing where there had recently been a lynching. As he sees the evidence of what has happened there — the blood-stained clothes, the burned sapling, the lingering smell of gasoline, the bones — as he realizes what he has come across, the scene comes terrifyingly to life: “The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh”— and the poet finds himself reliving the scene, finds himself chased, caught, burned alive by a jeering crowd. It is an incredibly intense poem.1

It starkly captures the fear, and the rage, and the injustice, that is part of the American experience, much as we would like to forget or deny it.


The second poem is “Let America Be America Again”, written three years later, in 1938, by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. This poem begins with one speaker recalling themes from America’s mythological history, telling of a land

[…] where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

But a second speaker inserts himself into the monologue, first making quiet comments that complicate this naïve narrative of America, and then stealing the mic, so to speak, to give a more complicated history.

This history recognizes the fear and injustice that Wright’s poem expresses. It does not hide it, it does not deny it, it does not diminish it. And yet, the poem ends with hope:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

But I think the key to the poem is that the hope for America that it expresses, the hope that we can rise above our past and truly become the land we claim to be, the hope that we can transform ourselves, miraculously — that hope depends on us.

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!


How can this happen?

How can America rise above its past — indeed, how can we rise above our present — and live up to our values? It would take a miracle.

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.


The catch is that it is a miracle that we have to work for. And in the coming years, when we may need to rely upon the guardrails of our democracy, our work will be to strengthen our institutions, and to stand up for the ideals we hold dear. And it is hard to take courageous stands when you feel that you are alone.

So I would like to remind everyone reading this that you are not alone; that we are working together for deeper justice; that the weight falls not on any one individual’s shoulders; that when one of us is tired and needs a moment of rest, the others can take up the task.

I would like us to feel in our bones that we are working together, that we are stronger together.

So I am going to remind you — you, dear reader — that you are not alone. That there are thousands upon thousands of people who will help you.

Together, we will work for justice.

Together, we will fight for free speech.

Together, we will protect the earth.

Together, we will work to help those that are viewed as the least among us.

Together, we will protect the oppressed.

Together, we will build a society where all people can live with dignity.

Together, we will fight hatred.

Together, we will we proclaim that black lives matter as much as white lives.

Together, we will we support freedom for all religions.

Together, we will redeem all the stretch of these great green states.

And together, we will we work until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.


Take hope, amidst fear and despair. Together, we can create a miracle.

Go in peace. We’ve got work to do.


(This post is adapted from the second half of a sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Univeralist Church in Pasadena, California, on December 4, 2016.)


Image credit: Artur Pokusin, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original here.


  1. “Between the World and Me” first appeared in the Partisan Review, and you can see the original here, page 1 and page 2. I’m serious, it’s intense. 

On Miracles

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 4 December 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Our worship theme at Throop Church for the month of December is miracles. This is a difficult topic for a humanist like me to speak on, because, frankly, a lot of prominent public humanists and atheists can be very literal-minded and sometimes self-righteous when talking about such things.

So in this sermon, I would like to do two things.

First, as you might have expected, I’d like to talk about the type of miracle that I do not believe in — not with any intent of changing whatever beliefs you might hold, but rather with a goal of empathy. And second, I would like to describe to you the type of miracle that I do believe in.


To begin with, what is a miracle? A miracle is an occurrence that cannot be explained by reason or by science; but more than that — it has to be a mysterious occurrence that is good. And, it has to be something that is not repeatable; it has to be unusual in some way. Because when a miracle starts to be a regular occurrence, it stops being a miracle, and starts being a law of nature.


Now, I know that some of you already have a bent towards naturalistic explanations of things. When faced with claims that seem counter to our understanding of the physical world, some of you already start from a skeptical perspective. Others of you are more open to the idea of a spiritual realm that does not always follow the laws of natural science; and some of you believe in a God that lives outside of our normal experience of existence.

These are all ways of looking at the world. And my goal today is not to argue about theology and metaphysics; instead, I would like to try to give you an experience, an experience that might give you an idea — if you don’t already have one — of what it feels like to have a more skeptical bent, to be more in tune with naturalistic explanations of things. And to give you this experience, I’d like to describe an experiment carried out a few years ago and written up in the British Medical Journal.


The experiment was designed to test whether prayer can influence medical outcomes. There have been a number of studies of this question, but the one I will describe has some particularly beautiful ideas in its design.

The study involved 3393 patients in a university hospital in Israel who had bloodstream infections between the years 1990 and 1996. Each patient was assigned at random into either a study group or a control group. All patients received appropriate medical care. But the patients in the study group also received a brief prayer; the patients in the control group did not. The experimenters then compared three variables: the mortality rates of the patients, the lengths of their stays in the hospital, and the duration of their fevers.

There was no statistically significant difference in mortality rate between the study group and the control group. However, there was a statistically significant difference in the length of hospital stay between the two groups; the patients that received prayers had shorter stays, and shorter duration of fevers. Let me repeat: There was a statistically significant effect.


Now, at this point, battle lines have already been drawn. The more skeptical among you might be thinking, “let’s see these statistics, because statistics can be misleading.” And the skeptical might be wondering, “why would length of stay be affected, but not mortality rate?” But others of you might be thinking, “yes, well, it’s not unlikely that prayer would help; sure, let’s double-check the statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that prayer makes a difference.” Faced with my description of this study, I expect that most of you have moved to comfortable and familiar intellectual positions.

But the beauty of this particular experiment lies in a detail that I have not yet mentioned. As I said, the patients were all in the hospital between 1990 and 1996. But the experiment was carried out in the year 2000. The random assignment of each patient to the study group or the control group? That was done in the year 2000. The prayers said for the patients in the study group? Those prayers were made in the year 2000.

This was a study of retroactive prayer.

So no matter what you originally thought of this study, I hope that now you are thinking, “Wait. What?!”

The study shows a statistically significant difference in length of hospital stay, and attributes it to prayers said four to ten years after the patients were in the hospital.


Stop for a moment. What are you feeling? Do you feel more skeptical about the study than you did at first? Are your ideas about the flow of time so fundamental that you think there must be something wrong with the analysis? If so, then you are feeling what many humanists feel about other spiritual claims.1


So now you know the type of miracle that I have a hard time believing in. But what about the miracles I can believe in?

Well, miracles live in a larger context — a context of hope in the face of fear and despair. Instead of viewing miracles as contradictions of the laws of science and nature, you can think of miracles as stories that can help keep us going when we are ready to give up. So let me tell you about the miracles I am hoping for. And to help explain a metaphor, let me tell you a story from when I was in college.

As some of you already know, I was an undergraduate at Caltech, the other Pasadena institution founded by Amos G. Throop. When I was an undergraduate, I did not own a car — but my friend Tim2 had a Dodge Charger 2.2. We referred to it, with perhaps a trace of irony, as the “graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger.” There was one time the two of us were out in the high desert one night, perhaps in Victorville or Adelanto, I don’t remember exactly where or why. Tim had driven us out there, and I was going to drive us back. “You can head back to Pasadena by taking the 138, the 14, and the 210,” said Tim, describing a route that goes counterclockwise around the San Gabriel Mountains. “Or you could take the eastern route, on the 15 and the 210” — clockwise around the San Gabriels. “Or,” he said, “you could take the Angeles Crest Highway. That would be a test of man and machine.” He handed me the keys.

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

Now, even as an 18-year-old boy, I was reasonably responsible. I’m sure I drove faster than I was really comfortable doing, but I probably was not being too unsafe. And yet I remember, as I drove home that dark night on those twisty mountain roads at the wheel of the graceful and powerful Dodge Charger — I remember looking at the guardrails on the turns and thinking, “I don’t want to test those.”

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.


I have friends who voted for Donald Trump, and who recognize the aspects of his personality that are not suited for the presidency. But they expect that calmer minds in the administration will prevail; they expect that Trump’s worst excesses will not lead us off the road and into the chasm; they expect that the guardrails of our democracy will hold.

But some of these guardrails have been tested before. And they haven’t always held. Within living memory, a presidential executive order led to the incarceration of over 80,000 U.S. citizens and 40,000 non-citizen residents.

In recent memory, the September 11th attacks prompted the U.S. government to torture prisoners, in violation of international law and basic humanity.

I said earlier that miracles live in a context of fear and hope. My fear is that in the next few years there will be some kind of crisis — maybe an attack by terrorists, maybe something else — that will bring out the worst of America. And I am worried that the guardrails will not hold. What can I do with this fear? If you share it, what can you do with this fear? Is there a way that we can maintain some hope amidst this fear?


While I’ve been pondering these questions, I’ve thought of two poems that have stuck with me this year, poems that have been floating near the surface of my thoughts for months.

The first of these is the poem “Between the World and Me,” written in 1935 by the African-American poet Richard Wright. I will not read this poem to you now; I would not surprise you here on this calm Sunday morning with it. Because the poem itself is about the poet being surprised, while walking through the woods, to come across a clearing where there had recently been a lynching. As he sees the evidence of what has happened there — the blood-stained clothes, the burned sapling, the lingering smell of gasoline, the bones — as he realizes what he has come across, the scene comes terrifyingly to life: “The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh”— and the poet finds himself reliving the scene, finds himself chased, caught, burned alive by a jeering crowd. It is not a poem to surprise people with.3

It starkly captures the fear, and the rage, and the injustice, that is part of the American experience, much as we would like to forget or deny it.


The second poem is “Let America Be America Again,” written three years later, in 1938, by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Rev. Tera used this in worship two weeks ago, and I used it in worship last April.

The poem begins with one speaker recalling themes from America’s mythological history, telling of a land

[…] where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

But a second speaker inserts himself into the monologue, first making quiet comments that complicate this naïve narrative of America, and then stealing the mic, so to speak, to give a more complicated history.

This history recognizes the fear and injustice that Wright’s poem expresses. It does not hide it, it does not deny it, it does not diminish it. And yet, the poem ends with hope:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

But I think the key to the poem is that the hope for America that it expresses, the hope that we can rise above our past and truly become the land we claim to be, the hope that we can transform ourselves, miraculously — that hope depends on us.

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!


How can this happen?

How can America rise above its past — indeed, how can we rise above our present — and live up to our values? It would take a miracle.

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.


The catch is that it is a miracle that we have to work for. And in the coming years, when we may need to rely upon the guardrails of our democracy, our work will be to strengthen our institutions, and to stand up for the ideals we hold dear.

In a few minutes we will be singing “The Fire of Commitment,” which is #1028 in the softcover hymnal. Please take a moment now to open up the hymnal to #1028. The third verse starts:

From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice,
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.

If we want to prepare for a miracle, if we want to help America climb closer to its ideals, we will have to make the courageous choices that lead to deeper justice. And it is hard to make courageous choices when you feel that you are alone.

So I would like to help us all take home the message that we are not alone; that we are working together for deeper justice; that the weight falls not on any one individual’s shoulders; that when one of us is tired and needs a moment of rest, the others can take up the task.

I would like us to feel in our bones that we are working together, that we are stronger together.

So I am going to ask you to respond to me now. If you don’t agree with something I say, feel free to stay silent — but if you do agree with me, please respond by saying “Yes, we will.”

Will we work together for justice?

Will we fight for free speech?

Will we protect the earth?

Will we work to help those that are viewed as the least among us?

Will we protect the oppressed?

Will we fight for a society where all people can live with dignity?

Will we join together to fight hatred?

Will we proclaim that black lives matter as much as white lives?

Will we support freedom for all religions?

Will we redeem all the stretch of these great green states?

Will we work together until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream?

Then please rise in body or spirit, and we will sing “The Fire of Commitment.”


Image credit: Artur Pokusin, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original here.


  1. So what should we make of this study? It looks like part of the problem is that there may have been one single person who had an unusually long stay in the hospital — close to a year — and this one person happened to get assigned to the control group. In other words, the “statistical significance” of the length-of-stay result was due to chance assignment of this single person to the control group instead of to the study group. The study generated a lot of feedback in the British Medical Journal, but unless you are following that link from a location with a license for the journal, you won’t be able to see all of it. (In particular, you will miss the letter to the editor entitled “You cannae break the laws of physics, Captain.”) 
  2. When one refers to a person in a sermon in a way that identifies them, it is good practice to ask that person whether you can use their story. I am so sad that I cannot ask Tim this; he died unexpectedly in December 2010. RIP TPA29970. 
  3. You’ve been warned now that this is an intense poem. It first appeared in the Partisan Review, and you can see the original here, page 1 and page 2

Apocalypse

Some might think that the reaction on the political left to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is unduly apocalyptic. After all, will the world really end?1

But even if the world is not about to end, an apocalyptic view is appropriate, because the original meaning of apocalypse is simply “an uncovering” or “a revelation”; the “end of the world” meaning didn’t come until the late 19th century.

And there’s no doubt that something has been uncovered by this election: Nearly half of U.S. voters are willing to put an arrogant, easily-provoked misogynist bully with racist and xenophobic policies and fascist tendencies into the White House. For some, this is no surprise at all. For others of us, this is a chance to glimpse the extent to which women’s lives, non-white lives, and LGBTQ lives are devalued.

The apocalypse has come; but what was uncovered had been visible to many all along.


Image credit: John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822. Original image here. Reproduced under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported).


  1. Well, actually, if the United States takes the Republican position of ignoring climate change, then perhaps yes. And if Donald Trump’s brash temperament leads us into a nuclear war, then perhaps, once again, yes. 

Good Fences?

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 6 November 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe. I had hoped that this sermon would lose its relevance after the presidential election. Oh well.)


If you have been particularly observant, perhaps you may have noticed — There’s an election coming up soon.

Something I have noticed this election season, as I travel back and forth between here in Pasadena and my home in San Diego, is that the election makes the borders and boundaries between cities and counties more apparent than usual. The yard signs you see in different places are for different Congressional races — and the billboards support and oppose different issues. Up here in Los Angeles County you have to decide on propositions involving homelessness and how the Department of Water and Power should be run; while in San Diego, we have to decide whether to build another stadium for the Chargers, and whether to require that races for some local offices always have runoffs in November. As you travel from one city to another, the color schemes of the campaign signs change ever so slightly — I guess it’s our Southern California version of fall colors.

Los Angeles County, your home, and San Diego County, my home: They are two communities, with different issues before them. But what happens in each county will affect what goes on in the other — because we’re neighbors.

This is reflected not just in election issues, of course. There are all kinds of cultural ways in which Los Angeles and San Diego behave like neighbors do: similar to one another, but different enough to notice. Like our burritos; you’re much more likely to get french fries in your burrito in San Diego than you are here, and yet we can all agree that those things they serve in San Francisco are a different dish entirely.

More seriously (perhaps): as someone familiar with the Unitarian Universalist community in San Diego, I’ve found it interesting to experience life in the UU community in Los Angeles. Different congregations, different people, different ministers, somewhat different cultures, but facing some of the same problems and opportunities. It’s been an important part of my learning as your intern minister.


So I’ve been thinking about the idea of being neighbors, and today I’d like to talk about some of the things that have come up for me around that idea. I’d like to start by reading you Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”1:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”


There are two ideas competing in the poem — on the one hand, the idea that “good fences make good neighbors,” the idea that the boundaries between us help define who we are, and that maintaining clear borders and clear boundaries helps us get along — and on the other hand, the idea that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the idea that creating walls and boundaries destroys our wholeness. As Frost writes,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

So let’s start with that second idea — that we should consider what it would be like to have fewer boundaries — what it would be like to consider more people to be our neighbors.


Now, if you ask someone in seminary to say something about the idea of “neighbors,” and about expanding our idea of who should count as a neighbor, nine times out of ten the seminarian will start talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, from the Christian scriptures. Even the humanist seminarians. And that’s exactly what I will do — because one of the six sources we claim for Unitarian Universalism is, and I quote, “Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves” — and that is exactly what the Good Samaritan story is about.


I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan before, but let me review it, so the details will be fresh in your mind.

It’s a story from the gospel of Luke.

A lawyer — that is, an expert on the Torah — asks Jesus what he has to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, and asks him, what does the Torah say, and how do you interpret it. The lawyer answers that the Torah says that you should, first, love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and all your mind — and second, you should love your neighbor as yourself. This is actually an answer that is historically appropriate; it mirrors Torah commentary from the first century. In the book of Luke, Jesus hears this answer and says: Exactly, that’s just what you should do.

But the lawyer presses on, as lawyers sometimes do. He asks Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus starts his parable, and tells of a man who was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, which is a very long day’s journey on a road that passes through a valley that was know to be a dangerous place. The man was overtaken by robbers, who beat him, robbed him, and left him half-dead by the side of the road. A Jewish priest walks by and sees the injured man, but crosses to the other side of the road in order to pass by. Then a Levite — a functionary at the temple — comes by, and also crosses to the other side of the road in order to pass by. Now, if you were a Jew in the first century listening to this story, you would would know what should come next: If someone is telling a story, and first a priest does something, and then a Levite does something, there is a third person you would always expect to be next. It’s kind of like a rabbi, a priest, and a minister walking into a bar; they always appear together. And for a first-century Jew, after having a priest — representing the center of the temple — and then a Levite, a less-central functionary — the next person should be an Israelite, representing the general population of Jews. But Jesus’s parable goes in a different direction: The next person to come by is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan. There was no love lost between the Israelites and the Samaritans. But in the parable, the Samaritan is moved by pity, and helps the traveler, tending to his wounds and taking him to an inn, where he gives the innkeeper enough money to house the injured traveler for two months.

Jesus asks the lawyer, “which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers “The one who showed him mercy.”

He can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” but he does acknowledge the point of the story.


It makes a lot of sense that this story is in the gospel of Luke, because it is very much in line with the perspective expressed throughout that book. Luke is full of examples where people at the margins of society are held up. For example, since we’re getting close to December, compare the story of Jesus’s birth given in Luke with the one given in Matthew. In the gospel of Matthew, the birth story is told so that an angel comes to Joseph to tell him about Mary’s upcoming pregnancy. But in Luke, the angel comes to Mary, the woman, rather than to Joseph, the man — and this is notable, in a patriarchal society. In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is born, wise men from the East come to give expensive presents to the baby; but in Luke’s version of the story, there are no wise men, and no expensive presents… instead, it is shepherds — itinerant field workers — it is shepherds who are visited by angels and told of the birth.

So the parable of the Good Samaritan fits into the larger perspective of the gospel of Luke. It’s a strong story that encourages us, in Robert Frost’s words, to not love a wall; it encourages us to break down barriers. In Unitarian Universalist terms, it is a story that emphasizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, especially of people we may think of as different from us, or as dangerous.


But how does this work in practice?

Let me tell you a true story of something that happened to me several years ago, something almost straight out of a parable.

I had just parked my car in a small strip mall, and was walking over to a shop, when I heard a commotion in the small alleyway leading from the parking lot to the street. There was a woman in a motionless SUV who was honking her horn. I looked to see what the trouble was, and I saw that there was a man, who looked like he probably lived on the street, who had fallen in the alley and was having trouble getting up. He was blocking the alleyway, and the woman in the car couldn’t pass by. She looked nervous and anxious to be in this situation.

My first instinct was to help the man get up. But I have to admit, I paused. I took a moment to evaluate the situation: Was there danger? What personal boundaries of my own would I be crossing if I went to help him up? Did crossing those boundaries make me uncomfortable? Why? Should I cross them anyway?

It looked like the man might have been having trouble getting up because he was drunk or otherwise impaired, and I wasn’t sure how he might respond to a stranger approaching him while this SUV was looming over him. He was big and fairly stocky, and probably stronger than me. But it was daytime, and there were people not too far away — including the driver of the SUV, although she looked kind of spooked, and I wasn’t sure she would be able to help if anything happened…

After this brief moment of hesitation, I decided that the danger was probably small, and I was prepared to cross my internal boundaries. I approached the man, and talked with him. I helped him up; we walked together to the side of the alley, and I retrieved his bag of possessions, which were still where he dropped them in the middle of the alley. The woman in the car drove off, and the man and I talked for a while. He seemed OK, and did not want any medical care.


What’s the difference between my story and the parable? The parable doesn’t say what the Good Samaritan thought before he helped the man on the side of the road. Do you think the Good Samaritan hesitated? What would you do if you were in the parable? What would you do if you were in an alley with a man who had fallen down, who may have been impaired by drugs or alcohol?


It’s important to have personal boundaries. And it’s important to know when you want to cross them.

This church has a covenant of good relations that all members are expected to follow. You can find it on our web site, and it makes clear some of our expectations of behavior. This covenant helps us understand that while we all have inherent worth and dignity, that doesn’t give us an excuse to behave however we want. There are boundaries between us, borders that define what we can expect in interactions with one another.

But boundaries can be crossed, with permission. We let loved ones do things that we don’t let strangers do. The important thing is to be aware of what our boundaries are, and to know when they are being crossed.

In terms of the poem, we should know where our property line is, even if we choose not to build a wall there — walls come with a cost, and it’s not always a cost that is worth paying.


I think that the spiritual cost of walls is something we, as Southern Californians, are particularly aware of. We live on the border with Mexico. It’s important to have borders, because in democratic societies we need to know who is representing us, in what legislature. We need to know whose laws we live with, whose elections we vote in. But how hard should it be to cross these borders?

We in Southern California can see the costs that come with borders. The economic cost — like the time wasted in the hours-long lines to cross the border. The emotional cost, paid by the families that are separated by it. The spiritual cost: All the political fights about the border, and all of the detention centers we fill because of it.

In this election year, there has been talk of building a wall on the border, larger than what we have already. But we need to keep in mind the price — not just the cost of materials and labor, but the spiritual price.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.


May we be aware of all the prices we pay for all of the borders in our lives; may we recognize the neighbors across our borders; and may we know when it is good to invite them to our homes, and for us to visit theirs.

Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Public domain image by Pixabay user harborlight. Original here.


  1. From The Poetry of Robert Frost by Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1916, 1923, 1928, 1930, 1934, 1939, 1947, 1949, 1967 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1964, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1975 by Leslie Frost Ballantine. Reproduced here in accordance with the Sixth Principle (“Poetry Online”) of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry

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.

Why?

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.