Category Archives: sermons

What We’re Looking For

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 28 May 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)

(This was my final sermon as the intern minister of Throop Church, and, as such, it focused on specifics of the church and on my own life more than is usual.)

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you […]
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Our worship theme this month has been seeking, and when I started to think of what I would say in a sermon on this theme, one of the first things that came to mind was the song I just quoted, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. This was the second track on their album The Joshua Tree, which was released thirty years ago, in March 1987.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

What am I looking for?

Thinking back on my own life at the time this album was released reminds me that “What am I looking for?” is just one of several questions we can ask of ourselves.

“What was I looking for?”

“What was I really looking for?”

“What did I get?”

And, “How did that change me? What did I start looking for next?”

For me, in March 1987 I was reaching the end of my first year of graduate school in mathematics. What I was looking for was education and training; I was hoping for a career as a professor at a research university. But what was I really looking for? What were the deeper longings underlying that particular career goal?

Well, I wanted to be able to spend time thinking clearly about complicated questions. I wanted to share the beauty of mathematics with other people. I wanted to help students learn — to connect with them.

These were the deeper longings that have been part of my life for many years.

What did I get?

After I graduated in 1993, I worked at the University of Michigan for a few years, teaching and doing research. When that three-year position was over, I moved on to my current job, doing mathematical research at a think tank in San Diego.

Of course, between then and now a few things came along that I didn’t know I was looking for. Bella and I met in 1989 and were married in 1994. Our children Cee and Robert were born in 1997 and 1999, and there’s no way I could have predicted the beautiful individuality they each have grown into.

What about you?

Think back on some formative time of your life. What were you looking for? When you look back, can you figure out what your deeper needs were? What you were really looking for?

This is a valuable exercise. I’d ask you to take some time this week to really consider some moments in your past, and, with the benefit of hindsight, see if you can figure out the things that were motivating you.

After you have experience looking this way at times in your past life, you can try moving on to the more difficult practice: Figuring out what your deepest desires are today.

In ministerial circles, the practice of figuring out what you really want — figuring out what life path to take, what important choices to make — that practice is called discernment.

You can take it to extremes: A few years ago, when I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to enter seminary, I made a point of exercising my discernment muscles every morning when deciding what to have for breakfast. While I was making the coffee — because of course breakfast includes coffee, don’t be ridiculous, there’s nothing to discern there! — while I was making the coffee I would consider: “Do I want something on the sweet side, with fruit and granola? Or something on the savory side, with sautéed potatoes and greens? What do I really want?” It sounds silly, but getting practice deciding between those two choices helped me get better at making harder decisions. I learned how to tell when I wanted to eat potatoes and greens because it would taste good, and when I wanted to eat them because I felt a responsibility to clear out some leftovers.

A few years ago, some seminarians at Harvard made a funny video about what a seminarian’s life is like. One clip shows a student standing in the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store, saying to his friend offscreen:

I’ll be there in a minute — I’m just discerning whether to go with ultra-soft or ultra-strong.

But even though it may feel a little awkward or silly at first, I recommend this practice: Start by thinking of what you are looking for, and then try to figure out what you are really looking for.

What was I looking for when I arrived at Throop two years ago? On a superficial level, I was looking for a way to satisfy a requirement to be a fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister — every UU minister has to go through an internship of some kind.

On a deeper level, I wanted to find out what parish ministry was like. Was it something that would be satisfying? Was it something I could do reasonably well? Was it something that would encourage and support other people? Would it be a way that I could be useful?

And what did I find?

I found a community that has been willing to support me, that has been willing to trust me — a congregation that welcomed me as a minister, and church staff that welcomed me as a colleague. I found — here, with you — a community willing to share with me your joys, your struggles, your hopes, your frustrations, your victories.

For me, being here at Throop has been a transformative experience.

What about for you? What about for the people who come to visit Throop? What are people looking for when they come here?

Some people come looking for friendship and community.

Some people come looking for God.

Some people come looking for strength, or peace, or respite from a world of pain and injustice.

Some people come looking connection to things that are deeper than everyday life.

Some people come looking for knowledge, or wisdom.

Some people come looking for music.

What do people find when they get here? What do you find?

This is an interesting and critical time for Throop.

Many of the things you have been looking for, you have found!

You’ve called Rev. Tera as your settled minister… the first time that you’ve called a minister in more than 20 years.

You’ve committed to being a teaching congregation, training intern ministers who will go out and serve the wider UU community — and you’ve survived your first intern!

You have a regular children’s religious education program, so that parents with children can come to services and know that their kids will gain something from their time here.

You are taking care of critical aspects of this wonderful historic building. A committee is actively working on how to raise money to maintain these beautiful stained glass windows. The project to remodel the bathrooms is under way. Other basic maintanence is being taken care of.

Throop is known throughout the wider Pasadena community as being a hub for permaculture and for environmentalism… and the active “Thirty Days for the Earth” program is spreading that reputation even further.

You’ve had more and more members join, inspired by the energy here.

So, what next? You’ve found so many of the things you were looking for.

But what are you really looking for? What will you look for next?

I think it’s time for some discernment.

And my one parting piece of advice is this: I would suggest that you and your board of trustees create a mission statement for Throop Church. Not a long list of everything you would like and hope to be, but something short, focused, memorable, something that captures the essence of what you dream of becoming.

Then, when someone suggests a project that Throop could get involved with, you can stop and ask: Does this fit into our mission? Is this something we really want to do?

A few years ago Apple produced a short video about the philosophy behind their design process, which included a memorable phrase: “A thousand no’s for every yes.”

You want to say yes to the world. You want to say yes to the projects that will really further your goals. And you will need strength and self-knowledge to know when you have to say no. A mission statement will help you find that self-knowledge.

As I have been preparing to leave Throop, many of you have asked about my plans for the future. You should understand that I am a part-time student, so my future is coming very slowly. I still have about two years’ worth of classes before I finish seminary. And I still have to do a five-month part-time internship as a chaplain in a hospital, which I hope to do in the fall of 2018. But assuming everything goes smoothly, I will be an ordained and fellowshipped minister within the next three years.

I will be glad to keep you all informed of my progress in this. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association say that for the next twelve months I should not have any intentional contact with you all. This will give you a chance to get to know your new intern minister as their own person; and it will give me the chance to experience one of the painful but necessary aspects of ministry: Saying good-bye.

I am so lucky to have been able to spend time here with you. I will carry this experience with me for the rest of my life. And after our year of separation, I hope to come back to visit, and to see how this church has thrived.

Bless you all. Thank you. And good-bye.

Image credit: Southern Sierras, Late Afternoon, copyright 2008 by Everett Howe.

Everything Is Holy Now

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 2 April 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)

Earlier in the service, we heard live performances of Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now and Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest. Here are YouTube videos of those songs:

Holy Now, performed by Peter Mayer:

May I Suggest, performed by Red Molly:

Endless trouble.

Endless trouble is what certain words can cause, especially in religious communities. The most famous example for modern-day Unitarian Universalists is the word God, but there are other contenders too, like prayer, and the holy.

Coincidentally, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of April is “The Holy.” Let’s see how much trouble we can get into!

Part of the problem with all of these words is that they mean different things to different people. For example, some people might think of God as a God with whom one can have a personal relationship, a God who answers prayers, a God who forgives sins. Others might think of God more abstractly; they might think, for example, that God is the “absolute infinite.” Some might think of gods in the plural, with a lower-case g. And some might prefer Paul Tillich’s idea of God as the “ground of being.”

So it’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a conversation about God; people are literally using the same word to talk about different things.

There are similar problems with the word holy, and one of the reasons why I like Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now, which we heard earlier, is that it is about how his understanding of the word holy has changed over the course of his life.

One definition is that something is holy if it comes from God, or is approved by God, or has some divine quality. Of course, that leads us right back to the problem of agreeing on what God is! But there’s a second definition that I personally find much easier to handle:

Something is holy if we respond to it with veneration and reverence.

With this understanding of the word, it’s easy to tell if someone believes something to be holy: Do they treat it with respect, and with reverence?

And the beauty of thinking about holiness in this way is that more and more of your life can be holy; things become holy if you treat them with reverence. And this is Mayer’s song. When he was a boy, holiness was something that came from God, that came from the church: holy water to dip his fingers in, a morsel of consecrated bread, a sip of consecrated wine. But now, he sings, everything is holy: a child’s face, the new morning, a red-winged bird. He says that he walks through the world with a reverent air because everything is holy now, but I wonder… has he reversed cause and effect? Maybe everything is holy now, because he walks through the world with a reverent air.

This conception of holiness suggests a spiritual practice. Throughout the day, remind yourself to pause; to perceive where you are, and what is around you; and treat it with reverence.

For instance, right now — let’s pause.

See the light coming through our windows.

Listen. Sense the vast space of air above you. Can you hear how it affects sounds?

Feel the presence of all that is around you, the life in this room.

Remain present here and now, but at the same time, feel a sense of all the paths that have led people here today… how all of our lives have converged here, now… threads of consciousness, brought together at this moment, and this place…

Feel how this moment is holy.

This sense of holiness, these holy moments are what Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest is about.

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night

All of the things that you have seen, all of the things that you have heard, all of the things that you have felt, all of the things that you have thought — they make up your own secret treasure chest of holy experiences, known only to you because you are the only one to have experienced them. By pausing and observing, by being present, you can add more to that treasure chest.

A few years ago, as part of a project for a world religions class, I attended Saturday services at the Zen Center of San Diego. I arrived at the Center much earlier than I had planned, because the Saturday morning traffic was much better than I had allowed for. The Zen Center is a large house in a residential neighborhood, and when I arrived, I walked around to the main entrance in the back yard. There was only one person there at that hour, and he was busy sweeping the back patio and the adjoining paths. I offered to help, and he handed me a broom.

As you may know, sweeping is an established form of Zen practice. So I thought to myself, “Huh! Here I am, at the Zen Center, with a broom. I guess I had better be mindful.” And so I was. As I swept, I paid attention to the walkway, to the leaves on the walkway, to the plants that brushed past me, to the trail of ants that I avoided sweeping up, to the whsshh! whsssh! of the broom as it brushed against the brick path. My mind did wander from time to time, but I returned my focus to my task and to all that was around me on that cool morning, all that was around me on the brick path through the garden.

And you know what? The time that I spent sweeping the walkway turned out to be the part of my visit that I remember best. I can still envision the walkway, the broom, the leaves, the grass. Because of the attention I paid, an ordinary task became part of the secret world of private scenes that Susan Werner sings of in her song.

It is not just Buddhism that encourages us to focus on the present. Other faiths have traditions of meditation as well, and researchers on human behavior have tried to make connections between paying attention and being happy.

In the sermon I delivered here in January, I mentioned how researchers at Harvard developed what must be the most annoying iPhone app ever. Their app interrupts you at random moments throughout your day and asks you a series of questions. The questions include:

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

The researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot — nearly half the time, in fact. They also found that people are less happy if they are not focussing on what they are doing. Even if you are doing something unpleasant, and your mind is wandering to something nice — even then, you’ll be less happy, on average, than if you were paying attention to what you are doing.

So, does a wandering mind cause unhappiness? Or maybe it’s that when you are unhappy, your mind is more likely to wander. The researchers considered this question, and by comparing each person’s responses throughout the course of the day, they found strong statistical evidence that in fact it is the wandering mind that creates the unhappiness, and not the other way around.

If you pay attention to what you are doing, you will likely be more happy, and you may find more holiness around you than you expect.

The two songs we heard today — Peter Mayer’s Holy Now and Susan Werner’s May I Suggest — both bring out this idea of a holiness that is everywhere we look. It turns out there’s a connection between that conception of holiness and the ideas about God that were expressed by one of our Unitarian ancestors, William Ellery Channing.

In 1828, Channing delivered a sermon in which he discussed his conception of God. Channing argued that we humans discover the nature of God by looking within, by observing our own souls. Channing wrote that “the idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity.”

Channing knew that people might object to this; he knew that people might argue that we get our ideas of God not just from our own souls, but also from seeing God’s influence throughout everything we see and experience. Channing wrote:

The universe, I know, is full of God. […] [T]he effects and signs of [God’s] power, wisdom, and goodness, are apparent through the whole creation. But apparent to what? Not to the outward eye, […] but to a kindred mind, which interprets the universe by itself. […] We see God around us, because he dwells within us. It is by a kindred wisdom, that we discern his wisdom in his works.

So Channing acknowledges that there is evidence of God throughout all of creation, in the same way that Peter Mayer says that everything is holy; but Channing also says that we only comprehend this holiness because of God’s image within ourselves. This private comprehension of holiness connects with Susan Werner’s “secret world” addressed to us; just as we make things holy by treating them with reverence, Channing says that we only see the evidence of God around us because of the presence of the Divine within us.

When we are facing pain or oppression, or when we confront evil in the world, the belief that “everything is holy,” or that “everything can be made holy,” can seem hopelessly naïve. How can we reconcile this theology with the existence of pain, and oppression, and evil? Let’s think about this by looking at a situation where holiness seemed very far away.

In the late spring or early summer of 1945, just as World War II was ending in Europe, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s European Service broadcast some interviews with German soldiers who had been captured by the Allied forces.1 One of these German prisoners of war talked about his Christian faith and his unhappiness with what the National Socialists had done. He ends by telling a story which has since been repeated, and retold, and embellished over the years. The story, as he told it, is this:

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription:

I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
I believe in God — even when He is silent.
I believe in love — even when it is not apparent.

How do these words, and the story told about them… how do they fit into the idea of holiness everywhere?

For some theists, the answer might be that underneath everything, God is still present. God may be silent, and human evil may have temporarily obscured the Divine, but God is still there. The words in the shelter are words of faith that God is never entirely gone, and that the Divine will reappear eventually.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

There are other ways of finding holiness in these words and the story behind them. In 1946, a Lithuanian-born Jew named Zvi Kolitz published a short story in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires.2 The story uses the “I believe in the sun” quotation as its epigraph; but it complicates and transforms the image. Kolitz’s story is in the form of an imaginary note, hidden in a bottle and found in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Kolitz’s imagined note is written by a Jew who fought fiercely with his comrades against the Nazis who were destroying the ghetto. Kolitz’s narrator tells of his friends and his family dying; he tells of the Germans he has killed; he tells of how he himself will soon be killed. And he does tell of his belief in God; but, more, he tells of his argument with God, of his complaint to a God who would permit such destruction.

In Kolitz’s story, belief in God is not the point. For Kolitz’s narrator, the holy lies in his identity as a Jew, in the traditions and history of his faith. “I love God,” he says, “but I love God’s Torah more.” So here we find another version of the holy: Being true to one’s self, being true to one’s community, being true to a tradition.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

As a humanist, I see another way of finding the holy in these stories. The German POW tells of words inscribed in a shelter. Zvi Kolitz’s narrator leaves his testament of faith in a bottle, for others to find. Both of these stories have this common thread: a message left for the future.

For a humanist faced with bleakness and oppression and the likelihood of death, the answer might be that while there is no holiness right now, I can have faith that one day I will see it again; and if I do not survive, then one day someone else will come who will see hope, and who will create holiness — and who will recognize that I had been here; someone in the future will empathize with the present me, will honor my struggle, and will create holiness in that way.

In this view, the holy lies in reaching out, in finding common humanity. This is the holiness that we all can feel, even when we are suffering, when a friend is there to be with us.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

Whether you are a humanist, or a theist, or both, or neither…

Whether you believe the holy comes from God, or from reverent attention…

Whether you meditate, or pray, or find peace some other way…

I invite you to notice the holy around you — the holy amidst us all. Alone, or with others — The reverence with which you treat the world will enrich your life and may give hope where there had been none before.

Today, tomorrow, this week, this month… Remind yourself to pause.

Be present; find the holiness around you; and consider, that this moment, and this moment, can be the best part of your life.

Blessed be. Amen.

Cover image:
Public domain image from, uploaded by user Patrick Neufelder. Original here.

  1. A partial transcript of the broadcast was published in the Quaker magazine The Friend in London. You can read about this here
  2. You can read more about the history of Kolitz’s story here

Pleasures and Indulgences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where did it come from, this fear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indulgent mac and cheese.

Indulgent chocolate.

Indulgent desserts of all kinds.

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

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

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

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

What about the opposite of indulgence? What about asceticism?

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

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

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

It doesn’t have to be like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed be. Amen.

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

  1. And that’s all in one tweet

Integrity of the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At one point, Emerson writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a study of retroactive prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

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

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can this happen?

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

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we work together for justice?

Will we fight for free speech?

Will we protect the earth?

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

Will we protect the oppressed?

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

Will we join together to fight hatred?

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

Will we support freedom for all religions?

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

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

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

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

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

Good Fences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a story from the gospel of Luke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how does this work in practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed be. Amen.

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

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

Being Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You know who you are.)

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

So I was fairly and justly warned.

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

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

Yet I refrain from sharing this theory with Bella.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first step towards humility is listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go in peace.

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

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

Swaying the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.