Category Archives: reflection


As part of my training for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, I am interning at Throop Church in Pasadena, California. Each month we choose a theme that informs the worship for that month, and the readings, music, and sermon each Sunday usually connect somehow with the monthly theme.

This month, the worship theme is Feminism. And it was my turn to lead worship last Sunday. But I didn’t deliver a whole sermon; instead, I gave a short introduction, and then turned the pulpit over to two women in the congregation — Ruth Torres and Frances Goff — who each related something about how feminism has affected their lives.1

Why share the pulpit like this? An example from our hymnal gives an explanation.

Margaret Fuller was a remarkable woman.2 She was born in 1810 to two Unitarian parents, and by the time she was 23 she was translating Goethe and publishing essays in Boston newspapers. When she was 25, friends introduced her to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Fuller became part of the Transcendentalist circle in Boston. At 30 she became the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial.

Her writing and editing brought her to the attention of Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, and Greeley invited her to write for his newspaper. Fuller became the first full-time book reviewer in all of American journalism, as well as the first female editor of the Tribune.

In 1846 the Tribune sent Fuller to Europe as a foreign correspondant. She eventually found her way to Italy, where she reported on — and became a supporter of — the revolution that resulted in the formation of the Roman Republic of 1849.

During her time in Italy, Fuller met Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family for his revolutionary politics. Fuller and Ossoli had a child together in 1848. In 1850, Fuller, Ossoli, and their baby boarded a freighter to come back to the United States. The ship struck a sand bar off of Fire Island, New York, only 100 yards from shore, but Fuller, Ossoli, and their son all perished in the wreck. Fuller was only 40 years old.

Margaret Fuller had an incredibly remarkable life, especially for a woman in the first half of the 19th century. Some of her thoughts sound progressive even for our time. And so we come to the reason why I am telling you about her now.

The editors of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition did a wonderful job, collecting and editing music for singing and words for reading that have served Unitarian Universalists for nearly 25 years. But in any work of this size and complexity, one is bound to find editorial decisions one might disagree with… and for me, one of them occurs in reading #575, “A New Manifestation,” which consists of selections from Fuller’s 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, arranged to make a responsive reading:

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

When Man and Woman may regard one another as brother and sister, able both to appreciate and to prophesy to one another.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intelligence to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.

Were this done, we believe a divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

My objection is to this quote: “Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.” That’s what the hymnal says, but what Fuller actually wrote was this:

It may be said that man does not have his fair play either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles. Ay, but he himself has put them there; they have grown out of his own imperfections. [Emphasis added.]

So in effect, what Margaret Fuller actually wrote was that “You might say that men have it tough too, but it’s their own darn fault.” Now, you may or may not agree with her; you may or may not like her analysis; you may or may not think that it was wise for her to have written this — but that’s what she wrote. And the hymnal takes that strong statement and shortens it to “Men have it tough too.” Even though the hymnal was edited by people sympathetic to her beliefs, the editors softened her very pointed statement – they moderated her strong viewpoint to make it easier to hear.

The lesson is this: If you want to know what someone really thinks, it’s best if they speak for themselves.

So that’s why I shared the pulpit last Sunday. I can tell you my thoughts about feminism, and someday perhaps I will; but to begin with, maybe it’s best to listen to someone other than a man.

Whether you are female, or male, or live outside of that binary —

May we work together so that everyone is seen for who they truly are; may we work together to create equality for all; and may we work together so all may live in beloved community —

for that is the work of feminism.

Image credit: Library of Congress. More information here.

  1. And who, gloriously, brought Frida Kahlo and Terry Pratchett into the service. 
  2. The information in this brief biography came from Fuller’s entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, from her Wikipedia page, and from David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists


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 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. 


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. 

Being a Man

I am a man.

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

Locker rooms in high school.

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

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

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

Lunches and dinners with groups of male colleagues.

Apartments that I’ve shared with other men.

And you know what?

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

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

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

Being human means knowing how not to abuse that power.

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

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.