Unfiltered

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

for that is the work of feminism.


Image credit: Library of Congress. More information here.


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

The Heavy Bear

My sermon last Sunday at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church was about pleasure, indulgence, guilt, and body acceptance, among other things. (You can read it here.)

When I was writing the sermon, I had a particular poem in the back of my mind: Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.” I had initially thought that we would use that poem for the reading during the service, but instead we had a “story for all ages”: a dramatic enactment of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

I do like Schwartz’s poem, though, and I think it sheds additional light on the themes of the sermon — and perhaps the sermon reflects some light back on the poem. So here it is, reproduced with permission from the copyright owner:


The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

“the withness of the body”

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
— The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

— Delmore Schwartz


“The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” by Delmore Schwartz, from Selected Poems, copyright ©1959 by Delmore Schwartz. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Image credit: Scott Webb, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original 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 trackyourhappiness.org, where you’ll find a link to the Apple App Store. If you download the app, it will interrupt you at random moments throughout your day and ask you a series of questions. The questions include:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Guardrails

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

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

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

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How can this happen?

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

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.


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

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

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

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

Together, we will work for justice.

Together, we will fight for free speech.

Together, we will protect the earth.

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

Together, we will protect the oppressed.

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

Together, we will fight hatred.

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

Together, we will we support freedom for all religions.

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

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


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

Go in peace. We’ve got work to do.


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


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


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

On Miracles

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

This was a study of retroactive prayer.

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

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


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


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

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

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

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

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

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How can this happen?

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

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we work together for justice?

Will we fight for free speech?

Will we protect the earth?

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

Will we protect the oppressed?

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

Will we join together to fight hatred?

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

Will we support freedom for all religions?

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

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

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


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


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

Apocalypse

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

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

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

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


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


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