All posts by Everett Howe

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. 
    1. See paragraphs 3 and 4 of Section 8 of Book VI of Quaestiones Naturales, here in Latin or here in English translation. 
    1. See Book VI of Naturalis Historia, paragraph 181 in this Latin version or Chapter 35 of this English translation
    1. Thanks, Belgium. It’s a seriously invasive species
  1. 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. 

Getting the Words Right

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 13 March 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Our worship theme for the month of March is evil. Last week, Reverend Tera began our exploration of this topic by recalling the relative innocence of American society in the 1990’s, and how much of that innocence was lost after the school shooting at Columbine, the painfully drawn-out Presidential election of 2000 and its troublesome resolution by the Supreme Court, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001… And she pointed out how Unitarian Universalists sometimes find it difficult to deal theologically with the concept of evil.

Today, I will focus on what I feel is sometimes a weakness of Unitarian Universalists, a weakness that can keep us from seeing evil, or from confronting it when we do see it: A love of words, and a belief that if we can just get the words right, goodness will follow.


But first, let me try to be clear about what I mean today when I speak of evil. Of course, theologians and philosophers have been discussing evil since forever. For philosophers who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, good and loving God, the problem is to explain how evil exists in the world. In this context, the evil that exists in the world is often taken to include natural phenomena like plagues, and catastrophic earthquakes and floods.

But I don’t think it makes sense to include natural disasters as examples of evil. Last week, Tera 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.

Niebuhr refers to self-interest, and it seems to me that self-interest implies consciousness. I think that evil is something that people create. In interpersonal interactions, evil usually comes from one person putting too much value on their own desires and ignoring the humanity of others — it happens when people set aside or deny the inherent worth and dignity of every person. On the other hand, in interactions between humans and nature, evil can come from not recognizing the unique and precious circumstances that are necessary to create a living system in the world. So those two things are what I will mean today when I speak of evil.


As I mentioned, last week Tera spoke of the optimism of America in the 1990’s. There have been other times of optimism in America. Let me talk about one such time; let me speak for a moment about Universalism as it was a hundred years ago.

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the meaning of ‘Universalism’ was undergoing a change. Originally, Universalists were Christians who denied the idea of eternal punishment; Universalists believed that Heaven was universal — open to everyone — although many of them believed that people would undergo some kind of temporary purgatory before being admitted there.

But gradually, Universalism came to mean something wider. Universalists were interested in finding the commonalities of all religion; they were interested in universal truths, so to speak. That is one reason why in 1900 Swami Vivekananda, a religious leader who tied Hindu thought to various Western ideas, was invited to speak here at First Universalist Parish, Pasadena.

Now, Clarence Skinner was a Universalist who was active in the first half of the twentieth century. He is widely regarded by historians to have been the most influential Universalist of his time. A little over a hundred years ago, he published a book called The Social Implications of Universalism.1

In the first chapter, he wrote:

Universalism meets the demands of the new age, because it is the product of those forces which created the new age. It does not send its roots down into a mediæval civilization, interpreting past history. […] Its theology expresses the modern conception of the nature of God and man. Its motive power arises out of the new humanism. […] It is the philosophy and the power which under one name or another the multitudes are laying hold upon to swing this old earth nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the religion of the people, for the people, by the people. It is the faith of the new world life, sweeping upward toward spiritual expression.

Now, that‘s optimism!

Skinner thought that Universalism would further science, and defeat tyranny. It would support equality under the law. It would create a new social order based on the theological idea that all people are essentially spiritual beings. Skinner wrote:

[This theology] would transform prison systems and shops. It would work its revolution in mine and mill. It would seize upon wars, despotisms, slaveries, and abolish them. It would beget itself in flesh and blood. It would be the most actual, astonishing and manifest fact in the world.

Skinner’s book is a remarkable document, and a quick read. I’ll link to it when I post this sermon on my blog.2 But once you have read it, and heard Skinner’s inspiring vision of a Universalism that will heal the world, you have to think:

He wrote the book in 1915.

1915.

Even as he was writing that Universalism “throbs with hope” and “believes in the world and in its potential goodness,” — even as he wrote those words, World War I had started in Europe. Nineteenth century battle strategies were meeting twentieth century technology, and the result was enormous suffering: trench warfare, the widespread use of machine guns, the introduction of mustard gas… all of this was starting at the very time Skinner was writing that “Never before have we had such basis for our hope that […] there shall be no more misery or sin.” In the 30 years immediately following the publication of Skinner’s book there were two world wars, bracketed by the genocide of the Armenians in the very year the book was published and the genocide of the Jews in the 1940’s.

Of course, hindsight is easy. All I really want to point out, here, is that while we are in the midst of events, it is easy to miss the evil around us; especially if it does not fit into our world view. Like Skinner, I too believe in “the world and its potential goodness” — and I think it is important to believe in this — but in order to address evil, we need to have both optimism, and realism — knowledge of what is really going on.


Let me tell you another story from about the same period of history, a story with a happy ending. It’s March, and March is Women’s History Month. Last year, when I visited Canada for a conference, I learned about an amazing historical event concerning women. Since schools in the United States usually don’t say too much about Canadian history, I’m going to trust that few of you have heard the story of the “Famous Five” — also known as the “Célèbres cinq”.

Some background:

The Canadian political system was set forth in the British North America Act of 1867, now known as the Constitution Act of 1867. Canada has a bicameral Parliament, consisting of the House of Commons and the Senate. People are elected to the House of Commons, but people are appointed to the Senate. Initially Senate appointments were for life, but now Senators must retire at age 75.

Senate appointments are made by the Governor General of Canada, but traditionally the Prime Minister suggests names to the Governor General. The British North America Act of 1867 says:

The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen’s Name, by Instrument under the Great Seal of Canada, summon qualified Persons to the Senate […].

Take note of that phrase “qualified persons”.

In 1916, Emily Murphy, a women’s rights activist in the Province of Alberta, was made the first female magistrate in the entire British Empire. On her first day on the job, a defense lawyer challenged her qualifications to be a magistrate. He said that women could not legally be magistrates. He based his objection on a forty-year-old common law ruling that had never been officially overturned: it said that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.” In other words, women are subject to all of the restrictions of the law, but get none of the benefits. Being a magistrate is a privilege, argued this lawyer, so Murphy, being a woman, could not legally be a magistrate.

The Supreme Court of the Province of Alberta disagreed with this argument and upheld Murphy’s appointment as a magistrate, but for Canada as a whole the question of whether women were persons was still undecided. Over the next few years, more and more citizens and organizations demanded that women’s names be put forward as appointees to the Senate, but it was not clear whether women could be legally appointed. Finally, in 1927, Murphy and four other women3 — all of them provincial legislators and activists — petitioned the government to have the Supreme Court of Canada settle the question. The government asked the court: “Does the word Persons in […] the British North America Act […] include female persons?”


Perhaps now would be a good time to recall the words of Frederick Douglass from today’s responsive reading: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”


In April 1928, the Supreme Court answered: Are women persons? No. No, the court said, women do not count as persons for the purposes of the British North America Act. The Court based this decision partly on the use of male pronouns elsewhere in the Act, and partly on the idea that the men who wrote the Act almost certainly did not intend the word ‘person’ to imply that women could be Senators.

But at that time, the Supreme Court was not the absolute final authority on such matters in Canada; there was still the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England. The five women appealed the supreme court’s decision, and in October 1929, the Privy Council reversed it.

The Council’s decision stated that:

[t]he exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours, but it must be remembered that the necessity of the times often forced on man customs which in later years were not necessary. […] Customs are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared.

This case — known as the “Persons Case” — had a tremendous influence on Canadian Constitutional law. It had the immediate effect of allowing women into the Senate. But it also established the so-called “living tree” doctrine, which says the constitution is a living document that must be interpreted in light of current circumstances.4


I love this story — both because it has a good ending, and because it demonstrates something important about words and about evil.

Unitarian Universalists have the reputation of caring a lot about words. We argue about how things should be phrased, and we seem to think that if we could just get the words right, then justice will follow.

The Persons Case show just how wrong this idea can be. The British North America Act of 1876 had perfectly fine words: Any “qualified person” could be appointed to the Senate. But even though the words were as clear as could be, justice was still not served, until a new principle of constitutional law was established.


Sometimes, like Clarence Skinner, we are blind to the evil around us.

Sometimes, we can be fooled into thinking that words alone are enough to prevent evil.

How can we maintain our awareness of evil? How can we be sure to take action against it, and not just speak against it?


A few minutes ago I described two types of evil: interpersonal evil, which comes from a person or a group denying the inherent worth and dignity of others; and evil against nature, which comes from a failure to acknowledge the complexity, uniqueness, and precariousness of natural systems.

At Throop Church, we have a significant focus on ecological issues; we have our Learning Garden, and we have the Thirty Days for the Earth celebration and commitment that starts next Sunday. Among other things, we will be working to get Pasadena to ban styrofoam.

What about social evils? We do have some people and groups working for economic justice — for getting a decent minimum wage in Pasadena, for example. But what other social issues? What about systemic racism? What about the social problems that might be hard for some of us to see, given our position in society? How do we awaken ourselves to these issues? And how do we “stay woke”?

I invite you to think about what social evils we might try harder to address. Talk with me, and with Reverend Tera; let us know what is on your mind.


Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.
5

With our faith and our community behind us, we can learn to see the evil around us; we can speak out against it; and we can take action to prevent it.

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson of the Famous Five statue by Canadian artist Barbara Paterson, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Cropped. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Original here


  1. Here is a scanned reproduction of the book, and here is the text converted to HTML. 
  2. See the preceding footnote. Perhaps I should note that there are also some troubling aspects to Skinner’s book — for example, his casual embrace of eugenics. 
  3. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie L. McClung, Louise C. McKinney, and Irene Parlby. 
  4. The Famous Five are certainly feminist heroes, but their legacy in other areas is mixed. See their group Wikipedia entry as well as their individual pages to learn more. 
  5. This is from Bobby McFerrin’s adaptation of the 23rd Psalm, whose lyrics were our reading before the sermon. 

Sometimes the Answer Is ‘No’

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 28 February 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Reading

“Lost”1

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

—David Wagoner

Sermon

Here at Throop Church, our worship theme for the month of February has been vocation, the idea of being called to do something. Earlier this month, Reverend Tera spoke about how the over-arching themes of our lives can help us understand our vocation. And again just last week, she preached about the spiritual aspects of our chosen work.

Since we have now reached the end of the month, I decided that my subject today would be how we might think about those things that we feel called to do, but that we cannot do, or that we choose not to do, or that we must postpone.

The title of this sermon came from a discussion last month with an esteemed colleague, an ordained UU minister, who spoke about her path to ministry. There were several times in her life when there had been opportunities for her to leave her former career and enter ministry, or to further her progress in seminary, and she had not always been able to take advantage of them. “Because sometimes the answer is no,” she said. It seemed like a great title for a sermon on vocation.


What does ‘vocation’ mean? Most people today use the word simply to mean “your job.” But the oldest meanings of the word are in line with its Latin root, the verb vocare, to call. Originally, your vocation was that thing in life that God had called upon you to do. You might be employed to do many things, but you are called, perhaps, only to one.

For a humanist like me, this definition leaves something to be desired. The Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer speaks instead about those things that are compelling to the deepest part of you; the things that provide you with soul-filling satisfaction. That is the meaning of ‘vocation’ that I will have in mind today.

So how do you tell whether something is your vocation?

In the book of Exodus from the Hebrew scriptures, God speaks to Moses by appearing as a miraculous fire that burns within a bush but that does not consume the bush. God says to Moses, “Go to the King of Egypt, and bring my people the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.”

Now, that‘s pretty clearly a call. But for most of us, our callings are not presented to us quite so directly. So my first story today will be about Parker Palmer’s experience in discerning his call.


In his book Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes of how he had trained as an academic. He earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from U.C. Berkeley, and spent a few years as a community organizer and as a university professor. But then he burned out, and took a position at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia. He stayed there for more than a decade.

At one point during his stay at Pendle Hill, he received an offer to become the president of a local college. It seemed like this could be just the right position for him — and he thought it might be his calling.

But to be sure, he arranged what the Quakers call a “clearness committee.” This is a process designed to help a person explore more deeply what they feel about a life situation or a problem. It works like this:

You choose five or six friends or colleagues who you trust completely; people who you will be comfortable speaking to very frankly about your feelings. Your friends must agree to keep all the discussions you have with them about your question completely confidential. You find a quiet space, and for three hours, your friends — quietly, and without looking directly at you — will ask you open and honest questions about the situation you are considering. Not problem-solving questions, not detail-oriented questions, not those things that aren’t really questions at all but instead are thinly-disguised bits of advice. No, none of those. The questions they ask should be questions that invite you to think differently about your situation, to change your perspective, to be honest with yourself. Questions like:

If this problem were a landscape, what would it look like?”

Or, “Where in your body do you feel this question?”

Or, “What images come to mind when you think of this problem?”

The questions are important — but more so is the space between them. You and your friends must be comfortable in silence, because it may take you a while to think of how you want to answer — or whether you want to pass. While you think, your friends remain silent.

Your friends will listen to your answers — but more importantly, you can listen to your answers. When you actually let yourself speak your thoughts out loud, instead of leaving them to murmur quietly in the back of your head, it is easier to recognize them for what they are.


Parker Palmer writes that his clearness committee asked him many questions to help him reflect on whether or not to take this job as a college president. It wasn’t until halfway through that he got a question that allowed him to change his perspective. It was this:

What would you like most about being president?”

A completely innocuous question, you might think. But Palmer found himself hesitating to answer it directly. After a pause, he listed many things that he would not like about the job… but his questioner noticed this, and asked again: “What would you like most about being president?”

When he had to be honest with himself, when he had to think deeply about what he wanted, he came up with an answer that he would have been too embarrassed to speak out loud if he hadn’t trusted his friends completely. He replied,

“Well, I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the [news]paper with the word president underneath it.”


Here, today, we can laugh at that answer. It’s a pretty ridiculous reason for wanting to make a major life change. But Palmer’s clearness committee did not laugh. They remained quiet, so that Palmer himself could hear the words that had come from his own mouth.

Finally, the original questioner asked a followup: “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?” That did break the silence with laughter, but it also helped Palmer see and acknowledge his own situation.


Parker Palmer’s experience gives an example of one reason to say ‘no.’ Upon reflection, we may find that what we thought was a calling — what we thought was something that answered a deep need of our own soul — we may find that this thing was in fact nothing of the sort. Perhaps what we thought was a calling was instead motivated by our pride, or our ego — parts of ourself that might not be the best guides in life. Or perhaps what we thought was answering our own deep needs was instead answering the expectations of other people.

It’s not practical to form a clearness committee for every life choice we face. But we can develop a habit of reflection. When I have been troubled, I’ve found it very helpful to find a quiet time in which to reflect; a time when I could ask myself open questions, and really listen to the answers; a time in which I force myself to notice when I am uncomfortable with a question, and to investigate the sources of that discomfort.

Taking this quiet time for reflection reminds me of today’s reading. “The forest breathes. Listen. […] The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”


There are other reasons one might say ‘no’ to a calling. Tien Chiu is a talented weaver and textile artist, whose handwoven wedding dress is part of the permanent collection of the American Textile History Museum. She is also a writer who has blogged about her craft and her creative process, and whose first book is coming out later this year. She is also a chocolatier — every fall she creates about 100 pounds of masterful chocolate bon-bons — the best I have ever tasted — that she gives to friends and family who donate to a chosen charity. And, like me, she has a degree in mathematics from Caltech, which is one reason why I know her. With her permission, I will tell you part of her story.

Clearly Tien is talented in many areas. But these many talents led to expectations from friends and family that were hard to set aside. “How could you not do X?”, they would ask. “You have such potential in it!” She writes:

Every human has potential in many disciplines, and only time to pursue a few. If I spend eight hours a day practicing writing, I may become a great poet, but I will never be a great mathematician. If I spend eight hours a day practicing writing and the other eight thinking about number theory, I may manage both but I will never have time to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, develop intimate relationships, or engage in social activism. So I expect to go to my grave a huge well of unused potential. If I lived 1000 years, I’d still never live up to my potential. I’m no different than any other person in that regard […].

How do Tien Chiu’s words relate to vocation? Implicit in the idea of a calling is the idea that there is one best thing for each person to do. But what if there are several things that answer deep needs in your soul? If you devote yourself to one of them, you may have to put the others on the back burner.

Tien writes:

[Y]ou have to accept that you will never fulfill all of your potential, and that you won’t ever achieve all the things you could achieve. It’s a disappointing, but also freeing, realization: then you can live your life the way you want.

You might need to say ‘no’ to one calling, in order to say ‘yes’ to another.


On the other hand, sometimes the answer to a call may be neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’, but rather: ‘not yet.’ Following a call usually means giving up something else; and sometimes that ‘something else’ can’t be given up so easily. Maybe that ‘something else’ is the job that pays for our food and housing; maybe that ‘something else’ is being present for our children or our loved ones; maybe that ‘something else’ is the social support network we have built up in our community, a network we cannot afford to leave behind in order to move across the country. In these cases, we have to hold on to the idea that someday our needs and responsibilities might change — and that someday, as our meditation hymn has it, someday this rose will open.


So there are many reasons why we may have to answer ‘no’ to a call. But we can still draw value and meaning even from a refusal, or a postponement. The very act of thoughtfully considering a call can help us rebalance priorities and see the world in a new way.

Let me tell you two related stories about my life to illustrate this.

When I was in graduate school looking for math problems that I could work on for my thesis, I would read through journals and make photocopies of articles that looked like they might be a source of interesting topics. Even after I graduated, I continued to gather up articles that looked like they might one day be useful. But a few years ago, our file cabinets at home were getting overcrowded… and two whole file drawers were taken up with math articles that I had saved because I thought they might someday be useful.

I decided that it was time to get rid of them. If I hadn’t looked at them in 20 years, I was not likely to need them — and nowadays, you can find almost any math article online.

But even knowing all this, it was very hard to put those articles into the recycling bin. I had grasped on to them; they felt like a part of me, part of my identity as a mathematician, because I was holding on to them so tightly; and letting go was very hard. But when I did, I felt a great spaciousness — not only did we have so. much. room. in our file cabinets again, but there was also a new spaciousness in my mind and in my heart, room for new ideas.

In a number of religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism — there is the concept of non-attachment. In these traditions it is seen as good to not desire things, or people, or ideas. Desire leads to suffering.

There’s an often-told story about this, that seems to have originated as an anecdote told by the psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein about a visit he had with Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher from Thailand. Epstein writes:

Before saying a word [in answer to someone’s question], [Ajahn Chah] motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, “Of course.” But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.

It is tempting to think too literally about this story, to view it as a warning only against attachment to physical objects and possessions. But letting go of objects is infinitely easier than letting go of ideas, letting go of images of ourselves.

Around the same time I had recycled my file drawers of math papers, I had also entered seminary. I had chosen to go to Starr King School for the Ministry because I thought it was very likely that I would not be able to graduate without having been transformed in some way — I felt that the school would help me rethink my basic idea of myself, and help me live less in my head and more in my heart.

One morning, while thinking about this, I suddenly realized: If I’m going to school specifically to be transformed, well, then, I might change my mind about some things — maybe even about some things I strongly believe in. Those of you who have heard some of my other sermons2 know how strongly I identify as a humanist, and an atheist. I thought, “I’m going to a seminary. It’s possible my theology might change. It’s possible that I might end up believing in something called God.”

In all honesty, I thought that it was pretty unlikely that I would end up becoming a theist. But I also thought that I should be prepared for the possibility.

The difficulty of letting go of 20 years of math papers was nothing compared to the difficulty of letting go of 40 years of self-image. But releasing my grip on this self-image did not make it fall away. After nearly two years of seminary, I’m still a humanist — only now I’m more confident that it’s because that’s who I am. Being willing to let go of some self-conceptions made it easier to tell who I really am.

Do you remember, in Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol, how the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley? Marley’s ghost is fettered by a long heavy chain made of cash-boxes and ledger books and iron purses. Marley warns Scrooge: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

The ideas and self-images that we cling to are like the links in Marley’s chain. We forge them of our own free will, and they weigh us down.

Maybe answering a call is not the most important thing. Maybe it is more important to live our lives ready to answer a call — to live life with our arms open, embracing the world and all its possibilities, without grasping tightly to any of them.

Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.

Amen.


Image credit: Luis Del Río Camacho, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original here.


  1. From David Wagoner, Collected Poems 1956–1976 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976) and Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). I believe the inclusion of the poem here falls under Rule 6 (“Poetry online”) of the Poetry Foundation’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry
  2. This one being an example where I discuss my own humanism. 

Holism, Reductionism, and Combos® Baked Snacks

Many, many years ago — when I was 23 — I saw a very compelling episode of the public television show Nova called “How to Create a Junk Food.” This was a documentary from Britain’s Channel 4 that was given a new voice-over by the producers of Nova, as well as a silly intro and outro featuring Julia Child. The show chronicled the development of a new snack food.

This past year I’ve watched this documentary twice, once in San Diego through the miracle of inter-library loan and once in the Media Resources Center in UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library. The program tells a remarkable story of technology gone wrong. In the 1980’s, the British company PA Designs Ltd. hoped to fill a snack food market niche. Their market research showed that consumers wanted an easy-to-eat snack that was healthy, natural, and had no chemical preservatives. They wanted something that was nutritious, tasty, and crispy.

The food technologists at PA Designs started with this mandate, and through a careful, step-by-step evolutionary process — addressing various problems of manufacturing requirements, consumer preferences, and cost restrictions — they developed a brand new snack, one that eventually came to America as this:

Combos

What are those, you ask? Why, those are Combos® baked snacks.

Healthy? Natural? Nutritious? No chemical preservatives? What the heck happened?


Initially, the food scientists thought that they could make a crispy cone baked from croissant dough, and fill it with moist savory fillings. Peter Sampson, of PA Designs, immediately noted a potential problem when he and his crew of food technologists were sampling fillings — beef, and cheese, and chicken-and-prawns — that had been prepared in their test kitchens. He said,

At this stage, […] all of this looks so edible and so nice — but then, it looks familiar. The skill here, I think, is going to be in maintaining as much of that presentation as we can when it becomes a sludge that we extrude into that [outer shell].

As it happens, even the initial prototype versions of the snack made in the test kitchens did not go over well with consumers — the British housewives who sampled the snacks agreed that they were too messy, and were not suitable for eating without knife and fork.

To address this problem, the food technologists decided to move away from the baked croissant cone to an extruded product, perhaps made with a newly-developed cooker-extruder. And, because the flavors of the fillings did not stand up to the high temperatures needed for pasteurization, they decided to enhance the fillings with natural and artificial flavors — or, as they say in Britain, “nature equivalent” flavors.

Slowly, step by step, driven by the problems they faced, the food technologists moved ever further away from the “healthy, natural, nutritious” food that they had intended to produce, and created a Frankenstein’s monster.


What went wrong? It is the curse of the scientist, of the person with a reductionist world-view: taking care of the minutiae, without keeping an eye on the holistic big picture. What seems tragic to me here is that the ideas that the food technologists used are ones that I use myself all the time while cooking, ideas that I think are in fact necessary in order to cook well and to be comfortable in the kitchen.

You taste the sauce, and note that it is not sharp enough, so you think of acidic ingredients that you can add: lemon juice? vinegar? You want to make some hash with your kale, but you have no potatoes, so you think of substitute starches — leftover rice, or pasta… or maybe you quickly toast some bread and cut it into small cubes. Solving problems like an engineer is part what you do when you adapt recipes on the fly.

But with too many substitutions, too many improvisations, you might create a dish that is not recognizably connected to what you walked into the kitchen thinking of. It’s OK to think of the whole as being the sum of its parts; but little changes to each of the parts can add up to a big change for the whole.


The marketers at PA Designs came up with several names and packaging options for the extruded product the food engineers eventually produced. The high-end option was “Mousse en Croûte.” An option meant to appeal to British tradition was “Mrs. Palfrey’s Cracked Wheat Savouries.” The name they eventually settled on was “Crack-a-Snack.”

I don’t know whether Crack-a-Snacks were ever actually produced in England. But the concept of an extruded tube filled with a savory filling found its way to the United States in the form of Combos®; this television ad introduces them to an innocent nation, while suggesting that the cheesy filling is inserted by hand. Nowadays, when I see the packages of Combos® on display in the gas station mini mart, I always think to myself: Hmm, mousse en croûte.


(Here is some extra bonus material about the Nova documentary. First, a review in New Scientist of the Channel 4 documentary; second, a review from the Los Angeles Times of the Nova episode; and finally, perhaps only available until the lawyers from WGBH in Boston notice that it exists… the final 35 minutes of the Nova episode, ripped from a Betamax tape recorded in 1988 from a KQED San Francisco broadcast.)


Image of Combos® snacks taken by the author. Featured image: Detail from Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature, engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831. More information here.

Bowie, Joyce, Chaucer

David Bowie died yesterday.

He was never really part of my musical universe. I was aware of him, and heard his music on the radio, but he was not one of my go-to musicians.

And yet his death has got me thinking. I’ve been moved by the tributes given to him by friends who did not fit in when they were young, friends who found strength and support from a musician who defied gender expectations.

Two references from literature have been running through my mind all day, one concerning the very personal influence a person can have, and one the very public.

The first is from James Joyce’s The Dead. Over the course of an evening at a party — the night of Epiphany — Gabriel Conroy discovers that his wife Gretta was courted in her youth by a young man named Michael Furey, who died at 17. And yet through all of the intervening years, Michael Furey has remained with her; the memory of him returns to Gretta when someone at the party sings a song that he used to sing. The fact that someone long dead could remain so important to his wife disturbs Gabriel, and the story ends with the famous, beautiful passage:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The second reference that has been with me all day is from Chaucer’s The House of Fame. Here the theme is the arbitrariness of fame, how some are remembered and others not. The narrator of Chaucer’s story is taken, in a dream, to see the House of Fame. He finds that it is a palace built upon a hill of ice. As a modern prose translation expresses it:

‘By Saint Thomas of Kent!’ I thought, ‘this is a poor foundation on which to build such a high structure; it should bring little glory to its architect, so save me God!’

Then I saw that half the rock was engraved with the names of people whose lives had been prosperous and their fame widely spread. But the names were difficult to read and one or two letters of each had melted away completely. I began to conjecture whether they might have been melted by heat rather than by the wind. For on the other side of the hill, which faced northwards, were written the names of many famous people from ancient times, yet they were as fresh as the day they had been written, and looked as though they had been engraved in that very hour. But I knew well what the cause was; they were protected by the shade of the palace that stood high above me and were engraved on so cold a place that heat might not deface them.

Some live on because they have touched us personally. Some live on because their names are protected by the shadow of the House of Fame. And some are forgotten.

Rest in peace, David Bowie. May you live on in the lives you have touched.


Image credit: Warwick Goble, from The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Macmillan, 1912).