Integrity of the Mind

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


At one point, Emerson writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Guardrails

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

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

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

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How can this happen?

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

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.


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

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

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

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

Together, we will work for justice.

Together, we will fight for free speech.

Together, we will protect the earth.

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

Together, we will protect the oppressed.

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

Together, we will fight hatred.

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

Together, we will we support freedom for all religions.

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

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


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

Go in peace. We’ve got work to do.


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


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


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

On Miracles

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

This was a study of retroactive prayer.

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

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


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


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

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

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

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

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

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How can this happen?

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

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we work together for justice?

Will we fight for free speech?

Will we protect the earth?

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

Will we protect the oppressed?

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

Will we join together to fight hatred?

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

Will we support freedom for all religions?

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

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

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


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


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

Apocalypse

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

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

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

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


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


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

Good Fences?

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

It’s a story from the gospel of Luke.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


But how does this work in practice?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Blessed be. Amen.


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


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

Being Right

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

(You know who you are.)

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

So I was fairly and justly warned.

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

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

Yet I refrain from sharing this theory with Bella.

Why?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The first step towards humility is listening.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Go in peace.


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


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

Being a Man

I am a man.

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

Locker rooms in high school.

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

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

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

Lunches and dinners with groups of male colleagues.

Apartments that I’ve shared with other men.

And you know what?

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

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


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

Being human means knowing how not to abuse that power.


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

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. 

Nero’s Expedition up the Nile

Later this week, I will be heading off to Wisconsin for the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, where hundreds of church music directors, instrumentalists, singers, and composers will gather to learn new music, to educate ourselves in best practices, to increase our skills, and to provide choral music for Sunday services at our host church, the First Unitarian Society of Madison. This year it will be especially exciting for me, because one of my pieces was chosen for the choral music reading session.

In keeping with the week’s theme, I thought that I would post something today about music. But it’s not just about music — it’s also about the mementos we leave behind us, about the things we will never know about one another, and about the secret histories of our thoughts.


Several years ago, the a cappella group that I sing with at church performed a round called “Nero’s Expedition up the Nile”. Here are the lyrics:1

Nero’s expedition up the Nile
Failed
Because the water hyacinth
Had clogged the river
Denying Nero’s vessels passage
Through the Sudd of Nubia

And here’s a video of a good interpretation of the song (with instruments), performed by the Dedalus Ensemble.

The director of our group had learned this song orally, so the first few times we rehearsed the song we did not even know its composer or its history. But a little research showed that it was written by an interesting character named Moondog (born Louis Hardin). His Wikipedia entry tells you the basics, but this longer biographical piece fleshes out his life a little more.


Question: Was Moondog…

(a) a sometimes-homeless man who for more than 20 years was a fixture on Sixth Avenue in New York, known for his viking helmet, cloak, and spear;
(b) a frequent guest at the home of Philip Glass, where he sang and recorded songs with Glass, Steve Reich, and Jon Gibson, three of the founders of American minimalism;
(c) the composer of more than 100 idiosyncratic rounds; or
(d) a street musician who, late in life, played in the courts of European royalty?

The correct answer, of course, is (e) all of the above.2


So now my a cappella group knew where the unusual round we were singing came from. But still I wondered: How did this song come to be? How did these unusual lyrics wind up in Moondog’s head? Moondog died in 1999, so unless someone had interviewed him and asked this specific question, there would be no real way of finding out for sure.

But perhaps the source could be traced a little further back.


First, some history. According to Seneca3 and Pliny the Elder4, the emperor Nero did send an expedition to find the source of the Nile and to explore the lands around the river, and Seneca even mentions that the waters become completely unpassable at a certain point, due to the masses of vegetation.

However — and this is important — the vegetation could not have been water hyacinth. The water hyacinth is native to South America, and it was not introduced into Africa until the 19th century.5 It did not become a problem on the White Nile until the 1950s. So Nero’s expedition may have turned back because of vegetation, but not because of water hyacinth. Moondog got his history wrong.

I became perhaps just a little obsessed with finding some article or book that could have led Moondog to think about Nero’s expedition to find the source of the Nile. And now I knew that if such an article existed, it most likely would have been written after the late 1950’s, and it must have somehow been unclear in its description of the natural history of the water hyacinth in Africa.

“Nero’s Expedition” appears as round #12 in Book 1 of Moondog’s 1970 booklet Round the World of Sound: Moondog Madrigals. I obtained a copy of this booklet, hoping that it might include some commentary explaining how it happened that Moondog was pondering the failure of Nero’s expedition. Unfortunately, the only annotation to the piece was a date: it was written on June 23, 1968. But that at least gave me a firm ending date for the publication of my hypothetical article.


It turns out that there are quite a few articles about the Nile written between the late 1950’s and 1968. I’ve read a lot of them. And almost all of them either do not mention water hyacinths at all, or make it quite clear that they had arrived on the Nile only recently.

For example, in 1960 the travel writer and former war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote a bestselling nonfiction book, The White Nile, about the 19th century explorers who traced the Nile to its sources. In the prologue to his book, Moorehead writes:

The Emporer Nero sent two centurions with an expedition into the wastes of Nubia, as the Sudan was then called, but they returned unsuccessful, saying that they had been blocked in the far interior by an impenetrable swamp.

Nearly 400 pages later, in an extended description of the Sudd, Moorehead notes that even when a paddle steamer is pushing through the channels that have been opened up in the maze of papyrus,

[…] the water in the channel itself is not clear, since within the last year or so that most prolific of aquatic plants, the water hyacinth, has taken hold upon the Nile. It reaches out from the banks in long floating filaments with a pretty purple flower, and although it is savaged and cut about by the steamers’ paddles, it never seems to die […]

This is somewhat promising, in that both Nero and the water hyacinth are mentioned in the same book, but the number of pages between the references, and the fact that it is made quite clear that there were no water hyacinths in the Nile during Nero’s time, make it seem unlikely that this is the proximate source of Moondog’s lyrics.


However, Moorehead’s book was based on a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. And one of these articles — “To the beginnings of memory”, from the September 27, 1958 issue — actually seems a likely source.6 On pages 140 and 141, Moorehead writes:

Samual Baker gives a fine idea of what the Sudd was like when he saw it in 1870, the stream being then completely blocked. He says, “The immense number of floating islands which are constantly passing down the stream of the White Nile had no exit; thus they were sucked under the original obstruction by the force of the stream, which passed through some mysterious channel until the subterranean passage became choked with a wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter. The entire river became a marsh, beneath which, by the great pressure of water, the stream oozed through innumerable small channels. In fact, the White Nile had disappeared.” This was the obstacle that for a good two thousand years blocked every attempt to get to the source of the river. Two centurions sent by the emperor Nero were forced to turn back, and between that time and the nineteenth century numberless unsuccessful expeditions set out.

A few short paragraphs later, on page 142, Moorehead writes:

In the Sudd, the Nile cabbages vanish—perhaps they are broken up by the rapids above Juba—but they are replaced by the water hyacinth, which is even more prolific. It is a green, fleshy creeper with a pale-purple flower, and it reaches out, floating, from the bank. Long filaments of the plant constantly break away and sail off down the river. We kept smashing into these green rafts, and although they were torn to pieces by the paddles, they always gathered themselves together again in our wake.

Nowhere in this article does Moorehead mention that the water hyacinths are a new feature in the Nile, and the reader has no reason not to believe that the “wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter” that forced Nero’s centurions to turn back was not formed by the water hyacinth.


So, there we are. An article from 1958, and an enigmatic round from a decade later. Is there really a connection between the two? Moondog was blind; any link between him and Moorehead’s article must include at least one further step, a person who had read the article and talked about it. On the other hand, in 1968 the idea of an imperial expedition into a foreign land being turned back by an abundance of flowers would surely have struck a countercultural chord.

But it is probably unrealistic to hope to find an explicit link between Moorehead’s article and Moondog’s round. Like Nero’s centurions, we can go no farther; the source we are seeking is, as was theirs, a distant rumor in a land not our own. We can only turn our boats towards home, and wonder.


Cover photo: “Kenya — Lake Victoria” by Global Environment Facility, shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Original here. I might have used this photo instead, but I don’t have permission.


    1. As documented in Robert Scotto’s 2007 biography of Moondog, which has recently been revised and updated. Apparently a biopic is also in the works. 
    1. See paragraphs 3 and 4 of Section 8 of Book VI of Quaestiones Naturales, here in Latin or here in English translation. 
    1. See Book VI of Naturalis Historia, paragraph 181 in this Latin version or Chapter 35 of this English translation
    1. Thanks, Belgium. It’s a seriously invasive species
  1. If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you can follow the link and get a copy of the article. It’s an interesting read, and it’s also fun to look at the 58-year-old advertisements. 

Fourth of July

Late this morning, I went hiking from my house up to the top of Black Mountain, the modest peak (1554 feet) in our neighborhood in suburban San Diego. Today is the Fourth of July, so as I walked I thought about America — about revolution, about governing, about principles and living up to them, about Langston Hughes and about Richard Wright.

But as I left the open space on my way back down the mountain and stepped again onto the suburban streets, the very first thing to greet me was an image not from Hughes or Wright, but from Norman Rockwell. Three children — kindergarten and pre-school aged — had set up a lemonade stand. “Littel cup, 75¢; big cup, $1.” Their dad poured a “big cup” amount into my water bottle. Thirsty after ninety minutes on the mountain, I drank deep, of the sweet, and of the sour.

They gave me a lemon from their tree. I took it home; we’ll see what we can make of it.


Cover image: Black Mountain at Night, copyright 2009 by Everett W. Howe.