Living Into…

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 3 January 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


The worship theme for the month of January is “embodiment”. This is an interesting theme for Unitarian Universalists, because UUs have the reputation of being overly intellectual, of living in the mind rather than in the body. Here at Throop, as in many UU churches, worship is usually patterned after the same traditional Protestant service that was practiced by 19th-century Unitarians and their Congregationalist predecessors in New England. One author writes that by 1800 “the usual […] order of service included the opening blessing, followed by a psalm or hymn, a Scripture reading, a prayer and an anthem, the sermon, another prayer, another psalm or hymn, and the closing blessing.” As the 19th century progressed, psalms fell out of favor and more hymns were used. This is essentially the same order of service you hold in your hands! The main differences are in content, not in form — what counts as scripture, and what sources inform the sermon. But what you do during the worship service is the same: You sit and listen to prayers, readings, and sermons, you occasionally get up and sing, and you may have a chance to meditate or pray.

But Unitarian Universalist worship services do not have to be structured like this! I know ministers who have led laughing meditations during service, and ministers who have had the congregation blow soap bubbles throughout the sanctuary; at the annual solstice celebration at First UU San Diego, one of the highlights for many people is an extended period of drumming, which inspires many to ecstatic dance — in the pews, in the aisles, in front of the chancel; and many UU congregations have led “soulful sundown” services that center on music and performing arts. Of course, other traditions give more examples of embodied communal worship: the Pentecostals sometimes speak in tongues; the Shakers tremble with ecstacy; the whirling dervishes, well, whirl.

I will not surprise you this morning with an invitation out of the blue to ecstatic dance, although I’m sure Chris1 would be happy to provide the drumming. As an introvert myself, I know that when I do embodied practices — which, for me, is usually Iyengar yoga — I often prefer privacy. Later on in the service, though, I will be inviting you to participate in a short meditation that involves some physical motion.

Why is our worship like this? Why is it that in public worship in many UU churches, people are more comfortable engaging the mind rather than the body? Part of the reason is certainly tradition — but I would suggest that another part of the answer is because the body is very personal; it is the one piece of the physical world that we claim some control over; our bodies are fundamental to our identities. And engaging in embodied worship in public involves ceding some of that control in a way that can raise up deep emotions, for good or for ill.

As evidence of the deep connection we have with our bodies, I’d like to give some examples of how some primal beliefs and emotions — deep physical responses of enjoyment and of disgust, together with ideas of purity — quickly come into play when we speak of our bodies, and of accepting new things.


Let me start with a story.2

I like many different kinds of cheese. And for my work as a mathematician, every year or two I have to go — or rather, I get to go — to conferences in France. Many years ago, on one of these trips, I was introduced to a cheese called époisses. Wikipedia politely describes this cheese as being “pungent”, and it definitely has a strong odor and flavor. But in my opinion it is a little bit of heaven on earth. Some époisses on a piece of crusty bread? There is nothing else like it.

In the United States it is not legal to sell a true époisses, made with unpasteurized milk. Nowadays you can find a pasteurized version just down the street at Whole Foods, but it’s really not the same. So once, when I was coming back from a conference in France, I decided to take some true French époisses home with me, so I could share the experience with my wife and with friends.3

The day before I left my conference in France, I went to the local cheese shop, and bought an époisses. I asked the clerk if he could wrap the cheese in plastic. “O, non non!” he said. “Les bactéries anaérobies!” Dangerous anaerobic bacteria would flourish if the cheese were wrapped tightly in plastic. So instead, I had it wrapped loosely in paper, and I kept it in the hotel refrigerator overnight. When I left early the next morning, I wrapped the époisses thoroughly with several layers of newspaper for insulation, put the whole package in a paper bag, and then in a plastic sack. I did not put the cheese in my luggage, because I wanted to make sure it stayed cool; instead, I kept it with me as carry-on baggage. On the trans-Atlantic flight I asked the flight attendant for some of the dry ice they use to keep drinks cold; I put the dry ice in one of the layers of newspaper around the cheese, and I wrapped the whole package — cheese, newspaper, dry ice, more newspaper, paper bag, plastic bag — I wrapped it all in my coat, and put the whole thing in the overhead bin.

I sat down next to the colleague I was travelling with and settled in for the twelve-hour flight. My colleague sniffed the air, and asked, with wrinkled nose, “What’s that smell?”

For him, I’m afraid it was a very long flight.

The point is that my colleague and I each have strong reactions to the idea of eating this cheese. To him, it’s too stinky to even consider eating. To me, it is an invitation to bliss. And both of our reactions seem to completely side-step rational thought.


These preferences we have for what foods are delicious, what foods are disgusting, what foods are “clean”, and so forth — these preferences are very personal, and can be hard to overcome or to change. They are deep-seated.

Sometimes, our visceral reactions align with our intellectual choices. I know that some meat-eaters seem to think that vegetarians are all secretly craving some bacon or a nice steak, but that’s not been my experience — most of the vegetarians I know are at best indifferent to the taste of meat, and often are actively repelled by the idea of eating it. Their vegetarianism — whether it comes from an intellectual or an ethical choice, or from a cultural or religious tradition — their vegetarianism matches up with their gut reaction.

And, conversely, for many meat-eaters the taste of a well-cooked steak provides a visceral satisfaction that is not matched by other foods and that is hard to describe in words.

It is very helpful when deep-seated gut reactions align with our higher goals. But whether they align or not, I believe it is good practice to be aware of the part of our reactions that come from our gut, and the part that comes from our minds, and how the two are related. Here’s a story to illustrate this.


As I mentioned, for my work I go to Europe every couple of years. But the first time I went to Europe was in the late 1980s, while I was still a student. I traveled for about a month, staying in youth hostels and using a student Eurail pass to get from place to place. I would take the train to a new city every few days, and see the sights, go to the museums, visit the churches and cathedrals… And in some ways, I felt like I was getting an education in Bible stories and Christian history in the same way that a medieval peasant might have — by seeing the mosaics and stained-glass windows in the local churches.

If you haven’t ever taken an opportunity to look at the stained glass windows here at Throop, I encourage you to do so after the service. The windows on the north side illustrate parables from the New Testament, while those on the south side are based on the Sermon on the Mount; the windows behind me show Mary, Jesus, Saint Mark, and the angels Michael and Gabriel. This is an ancient tradition; the mosaics and windows in European churches and cathedrals also show saints and stories from the Bible, sometimes annotated with highly abbreviated names in Latin or Greek. Part of the embodied experience of visiting these sacred spaces is the coolness of the stone buildings, the muted light through the stained glass, and the shining gold of the mosaics. When I first saw these mosaics and windows, 25 years ago, I could sometimes figure out what the scenes represented, but since I hadn’t been raised in a church and had never read the Bible, many of the stories were unfamiliar to me.

When I visited the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, there was one mosaic outside the main doors that really puzzled me. It showed two men opening up a big wicker basket to show the contents to several men wearing turbans; the turbaned men are turned away in disgust, and one is literally holding his nose. What story is this, I wondered.

It turns out it is not from the Bible — rather, it tells something of the history of Saint Mark’s Basilica itself. The story is that the bodily remains of Saint Mark had long remained in Alexandria, where he is said to have died. But in the 9th century, when Alexandria was under Muslim control, two Venetians took Saint Mark’s relics, put them in a basket, covered them with cabbage leaves and pork, and tried to smuggle them out of the city. The idea was to keep the Muslim customs inspectors from investigating the basket too closely. The trick worked, and the Venetians smuggled the relics to Venice, where they remain to this day.

Who knows whether this is true — and it is certainly an example of people of one faith mocking the traditions and beliefs of another. But the point is that sometimes the things that we have immediate gut reactions to — things that we don’t want to consider or think about — those things can become blind spots.


The residents and civic leaders of many cities like to think of their cities as prosperous, as being places where everyone has opportunities for work, and every life is valued. But when homelessness becomes apparent, when people are sleeping in alleys and on park benches because they have nowhere else to go, too often the reaction is not: How is this happening? What economic and social problems are leading to this? Do we have housing that people can actually afford, and homeless shelters that actually provide safe quiet space?4

No, those questions require taking a problem — a contradiction between what we think of our society and what it actually is — and accepting that this problem exists, internalizing it, as a first step towards solving it. I think that that is one reason why it is so much easier for people to say, “Let’s just pass laws to make sleeping in public illegal.” That keeps the problem external: If we just make those people go away out of sight, we won’t have to think about this difficult problem.


There’s a similar dynamic, I think, with the question of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. As I mentioned in services last month, we face a tension between two things — On the one hand, we have the images of America that we believe in: A nation of immigrants; a place that welcomes those who have been oppressed elsewhere; a country that asks for “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free”; a country that announces to the world that we will provide refuge when others will not. All of that on the one hand, and on the other: Fear. Fear that among those we welcome, there will be people who will do us harm; fear that we will invite evil into our homes.

Confronting this tension — thinking carefully about our values, and about our fears, and acknowledging the conflict between them — this is hard work. It means we must take the problem inside ourselves, and confront our own contradictions.

It is so much simpler to try to make the problem go away; to think of it as a problem caused by refugees — instead of being a problem within us, that is made evident by the refugees.


That brings us to another question of embodiment, to another meaning of the word: What principles do we want to embody, to live into — our values, or our fears?


Let me take this back to the idea of spiritual practices involving our bodies. If feeling and acknowledging our own internal conflicts is necessary and yet unsettling, what can we do to make the process easier?

I’d like to close by sharing a movement-based meditation that I was taught by Rev. Kathleen Owens, who says that she learned it from a Buddhist monk in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. I was taught this practice in the context of training for lay ministry; the question was, what do you do if you have been ministering to someone who is facing serious problems; what do you do when you have helped someone deal with their own stress by listening and absorbing some of it yourself? What do you do when you have been upset by what you have heard?

There are a number of physical practices that can help when you need to recenter yourself. One is simply to go outside, and breathe, and touch the ground. Another practice that can help is a meditation that Rev. Owens calls “three palms”. If you are willing, I would like to teach this to you now, so that you might use it later.

Ideally, this is a standing meditation, so if you are willing and able, please stand. If standing is not good for you, don’t worry; you can do this seated as well. As you are willing and able, stand up straight, tall but comfortable. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and keep your knees loose, and unlocked. Press your toes gently into the floor to create a slight arch under the toes. Leave your arms at your side. Now:

  1. Face your palms outward. With an inhalation, slowly raise your arms away from your sides and up to almost together over your head.
  2. As your arms reach the top of the arc, exhale; let your middle finger tips touch one another, then the rest of the fingers, then the bottom edge of your palm, leaving an opening between your palms.
  3. Inhale while lowering your arms and hands to a resting position in front of your mouth and throat. Rest here and exhale.
  4. Inhale as you continue to lower your arms and hands down until they reach a position in front of your heart. Exhale and rest.
  5. Inhale, and with your palms together, turn your fingertips away from your body and towards the floor. Rest your hands in front of your navel, and exhale.
  6. Inhale as you extend your arms and hands down, and separate your arms back to your sides. Exhale and rest.

Repeat this two more times.

After the third time, stand quietly and breathe deeply for a minute. Then release.


May your mind and your body find connection with one another, and may you know peace.


Photo credit: The author. (Warped panorama of the interior of Sainte Chapelle.)


  1. Our percussionist. 
  2. A composite of several different events. 
  3. These are current topics in Los Angeles. You can search the Los Angeles Times for articles about the recently-passed homeless ordinances. Here’s a religious perspective on the issue. 

The Common Room

I don’t write poetry. But earlier today, while searching for an old document on my computer, I found something I wrote three years ago:

“The Common Room”

How does it happen?— this transformation.
Arriving from many directions,
one bearing snacks,
another the workday’s toll of tension;
one anxious for the family dinner,
one thinking still of the parent’s sickbed,
or the child’s;
one joyful from a day well spent, and one
still processing, processing
the pain of another, revealed
in confidence.
How do we do it?
How do we become a whole,
a body,
each listening to the other,
accepting ideas not our own,
building together;
wiser and more compassionate
than any of us alone;
creating and calling
the spirit of life,
living
the spirit of love.
And then leaving, returning
to the home, or the workplace;
to the family, or the empty room;
to the sick parent, or child;
or to walk quietly before sleep,
thinking, thinking of this day.
How do we come together?
How do we make this time sacred?

— November 2012

In 2012, I had just finished a three-year term on the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. I guess I had found something inspiring in all of those meetings in the church’s common room.


Photo by the author.

Room at the Inn

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 13 December 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


Responsive reading

When the song of the angels is stilled,
+++When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
+++When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
+++to find the lost,
+++to heal the broken,
+++to feed the hungry,
+++to release the prisoner,
+++to rebuild the nations,
+++to bring peace among the brothers,
+++to make music in the heart.

— Howard Thurman

Reading

“The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

— Emma Lazarus

Sermon

In the name of heaven I ask you for shelter,
for my beloved wife can go no farther.

This is not an inn! Get on with you!
I can’t open the door; you might be some rascal.

These are the first two verses — translated into English — of a song for Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration of the Christmas story that has been part of Mexican culture for centuries. Each night, a procession travels to a home or a shop that represents the inn at Bethlehem. The people in the procession sing to the people inside the house, asking to be let in; the people inside sing back: “Go away!” This exchange is repeated several times, until finally the inn-keeper realizes that this is Joseph and Mary at the door; he lets them in, and everyone shares food.

The Christmas story is just one of the stories we tell to one another in this season, as the days get shorter and shorter before Solstice. We tell stories to keep spirits up through the darkness, stories to pass the time through the long nights, stories to help draw meaning from the growing shortness of the days, and from the returning of the light.

Every story we hear gives us a chance for reflection. When you reflect on a story, you can think of all of the characters in turn, and ask yourself: What would the story be like told from their point of view? You can ask yourself: If I were to retell this tale, what parts would I emphasize?

This idea of reflection and reframing is one reason why I like the tradition of Las Posadas. Consider the Gospel of Luke, part of the Christian Scriptures. Luke tells the story of Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town; Joseph is returning there because Augustus Caesar required that everyone go back to their home town to pay taxes. While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth; in the Gospel of Luke, the story goes like this:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Then follows the familiar story of the shepherds and the angel — familiar even to many non-Christians, because Linus recites it in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But here’s what I like: Of all of the points of view in this Nativity story — the point of view of Mary, of Joseph, of Jesus; the point of view of the shepherds, and of the sheep; the point of view of the angel who speaks to the shepherds, and of the host of subordinate angels who sing Gloria in excelsis Deo — of all of these points of view, which does the Posada celebration focus on? On that of the inn-keeper. It focusses on that single half-sentence in the Gospel of Luke: “because there was no room for them in the inn.”

What is the story of the Nativity like, told from the point of view of the inn-keeper?


Do not be inhuman; show some charity!
God in heaven will reward you.

Go now, I tell you, and don’t bother us anymore!
Because if you make me angry I will beat you.

Two books of the Gospel — the Books of Mark and of John — say nothing about Jesus’s birth or early life. But the Book of Matthew gives part of the story that Luke does not: the story of the wise men from the East.

The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say anything about the inn or the stable or the manger. It does tell of King Herod, who was visited by wise men of the East. (Incidentally, the Bible doesn’t say that there were three of them; in fact, in Eastern Christianity, it is said that there were twelve.) The wise men come to Jerusalem and tell Herod that they have seen a star signifying the birth of the King of the Jews. Herod asks his priests where this could possibly have happened, and the priests say that it was prophesied to happen in Bethlehem. So Herod sends the wise men off to Bethlehem, and asks them to come back and to tell him exactly where they find this King of the Jews.

But after the wise men find Jesus, and give him the famous gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, they are warned by God in a dream not to tell Herod, because Herod would kill Jesus as a threat to his rule. The wise men avoid Jerusalem and go home without seeing Herod. Joseph, also warned in a dream, takes Mary and Jesus off to Egypt to lay low, and the family does not come back until years later, when Herod is dead.

Herod, when he realizes that the wise men have betrayed him, has every child in Bethlehem under the age of two killed.

So in this version of the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph are not simply travelers in need who want a place to stay and to give birth; no, in the Matthew story they are actually refugees from government oppression.


We are worn out, we have come all the way from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter named Joseph.

Never mind your name, let me sleep!
I’ve already told you we won’t open the door.

The Nativity stories of Matthew and of Luke are stories we tell that are about other people. We also tell stories that are about ourselves — about ourselves personally, or about ourselves as a nation.

I grew up completely unchurched — my parents were humanists, although I don’t think they used that particular word to describe themselves until I was in high school. We did not go to church, and so we had no holy scripture. But I did find inspiration — from nature, from science and mathematics, … and from our nation’s ideals.

I had no holy scripture, but I did have this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Bold and powerful statements — a prophetic vision of what government and society should be like!

Of course, our nation almost immediately failed to meet the ideals it had set for itself in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal” — and yet just a few years later, our Constitution institutionalized the idea that some men were certainly not created equal. It took almost three-quarters of a century and a civil war to remove that odious idea from our Constitution, and we are still working to truly live up to the idea that all people are created equal.

But the beauty of America, and our hope for its future, comes from the fact that we keep trying. We set ideals; we fail to live up to them; but we don’t give up on the ideals; we try — again  and again — to meet them.

Consider the words of Emma Lazarus from our reading, words that are engraved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Emma Lazarus wrote these words in 1883. The previous year — the previous year — Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was twice renewed, and not repealed until 1943. But it’s not like immigrants were suddenly loved in 1943; just one year earlier, President Roosevelt gave the executive order that authorized the relocation and incarceration of over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans, some immigrants, most the children and grandchildren of immigrants. It wasn’t until 1988 that President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act that provided reparations to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during the war. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush said:

No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.

“It will never be repeated.”

In today’s political climate, I wish I could be so certain that nothing similar will happen again.

In a positive sign, last week the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors officially declared that it will honor federal immigration policies and welcome refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries, and it expressed its support of federal efforts to help Syrians fleeing violence and oppression. But one Supervisor voted against this proposal — the Supervisor who represents the Fifth District, which includes this church.

After the service, if you are so moved, please visit the Social Justice table, where you will find a letter that you can sign and send to our Supervisor, expressing dismay over his vote.


Let me ask again: What is the story of the Nativity like, told from the point of view of the inn-keeper?


Today we are faced with millions of people fleeing from war and violence in Syria. And we are also faced with our own fear, fear magnified by the breathless reporting of the news, fear magnified by politicians who underestimate America. Our fear is real, and it is not easy to face. But the time has come for us to decide: Will we live into our fear? Or will we live into our ideals? Will we live into the ideals that we have engraved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty? “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”


Is that you, Joseph? And your wife Mary?
Enter pilgrims! I didn’t recognize you.

The Posada ritual ends with the inn-keeper opening the door, because he realizes that the people asking to be let in are important. Our Universalist heritage teaches us that everyone is important.

The inn-keeper in the Gospel of Luke does not open his door. The inn-keeper in the Posada ritual does. We have to decide which version of the story we will live in.


Let me close by asking some questions posed by the composer Ysaye Barnwell:

Amen.

Benediction

A blessing from Maya Angelou:

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Go in peace.


Image credit: Vittore Carpaccio (1466–1525), The Flight into Egypt, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Via Wikimedia Commons

This Modern World

Every now and again, I am freshly amazed by what a person can access through the internet. I’ve become blasé about some things: finding obscure mathematical papers online, for example.1 But yesterday I was struck by how much easier it has become, even in just the past few years, to find information that used to require physically traveling to distant dusty archives.

For example…


In the fall of 2004 I was traveling in England for work, and I had a day or two in London. I stopped for fun at a shop that sells antiquarian books and prints,2 and I looked through their various collections. In a section devoted to botanical prints, I found a nice old print that did not cost too much and that I thought might look nice in our home. Here it is:

Buchoz

All I knew about it when I purchased it was that it was drawn by Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, that it was from the late 18th century, and that (as one can see from the upper left corner) it was plate number 87 from some collection.

After I got home I tried to find out more about this print. Using the power of the internet in 2004 — mainly, online catalogs from libraries — I figured that it was most likely from a book by Buc’hoz entitled Collection précieuse et enluminée des fleurs les plus belles et les plus curieuses qui se cultivent tant dans les jardins de la Chine que dans ceux de l’Europe, and published in the late 1770s. But the only copies of this book in the United States seemed to be in libraries on the East Coast, not so convenient for me to go to.

Within the following year, though, I happened to be in the Washington DC area for work… so one day I went off to the Library of Congress. I got permission to go to their special collection room, and a clerk fetched the two volumes of Buc’hoz’s Collection précieuse et enluminée des fleurs for my perusal. No cameras were allowed.

I checked: and yes! The print in our study was indeed plate number 87 from volume one of this book. Case closed. And by looking at the list of plate titles at the back of volume two, I found that our print was of “La Sparmann de la Chine”, as described in Buc’hoz’s Collection des Plantes nouvellement découvertes.3


Yesterday we were visited by someone who I thought might have a professional interest in this print by Buc’hoz, so I dug out the notes I had taken at the Library of Congress. And then it occurred to me that in the decade subsequent to my visit to Washington, perhaps someone had scanned some more of these prints.

A quick Google search for the title of Buc’hoz’s book led me to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (whose online collection I am quite familiar with, because they have scans of many 18th- and 19th-century mathematics books and journals). Lo and behold: high-quality scans of Buc’hoz’s book, both volume one and volume two!

Without leaving the living room couch, I could get information that, just ten years ago, had required visiting the Library of Congress. And the passage of time was indeed necessary to make this search easier: the Bibliothèque nationale only digitized these books last year.


I’ll close this post simply by noting: They really knew how to make a title page, back in the day…

Buc'hoz


  1. When I was editing this book I tried to find online versions of the papers cited in the bibliographies of each chapter, so that we could provide links to them in the pdf version of the book. I was particularly proud to have tracked down this online version of a paper from a defunct journal that almost no libraries have copies of; this digital copy was scanned from a physical copy owned by the New York Botanical Society. 
  2. I think it was Henry Sotheran Limited on Sackville Street. 
  3. “Nouvellement découvertes” by whom, one might ask of the French botanists. 

Prayer for Paris and Beyond

Armistice Day, November 11, was a week and a half ago. This holiday originally commemorated the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in World War I and memorialized the soldiers who died in that conflict, but it has evolved over the years; in America, it is now celebrated as Veterans Day, and in the Commonwealth nations as Remembrance Day. This year I happened to be in Canada on the 11th, and I saw the commemorations and the many, many people wearing red poppy stickpins on their lapels.

The following day suicide bombers associated with ISIS killed scores of people in Beirut.

And the day after that came the attacks in Paris, and in Baghdad.

On Sunday, I offered this prayer during services at Throop Church:


Spirit of life, spirit of love —

There are weeks when the news brings so much pain — sometimes even to the point of despair. Our hearts reach out today to the victims of violence, and to all those affected by it.

For many of us, Paris is a familiar place; perhaps we have visited it; perhaps we have read of it, or seen it in movies. It lives vividly in our imaginations, and to see such images of violence in it is shocking. Men, and women, and children — killed senselessly.

Fewer of us, perhaps, are as familiar with Beirut; but the people there also lived through shocking violence committed by evil men just days ago, with more men, and women, and children killed;— and in Baghdad as well, more violence.

All this, in a week in which we acknowledge the sacrifices made by soldiers, and pray that further such sacrifices will not be necessary; a week in which we commemorate one time when peace prevailed and a great war was ended.

These tragedies, on top of more personal sorrows that we may be experiencing, can lead us to despair at the darkness and hate in the world. So it is good to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Let us be still here together.

We call you, spirit of love, spirit of life; we create you from this community of hope, to fill us with light to drive out the darkness; to fill us with love, to drive away hate; to surround us, and sustain us, in peace.


Image credit: Zeynel Cebeci, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. More information here.

Sinful Desserts

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 15 November 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


(A general note on the sermons I post: While I do lightly edit them and add links and footnotes, they are still basically texts that I wrote with the intention of speaking. Therefore I sometimes use punctuation that is more appropriate for spoken language than for written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language, so if something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)

In Providence, Rhode Island, there’s a bakery called simply: Sin. Their web page says that they have “a line of special occasion cakes and desserts that makes the ‘Sin’ of dessert well worth it,” and they encourage you to “go ahead and Sin… Eat wicked and never feel guilty.”

Closer to home, near Venice Beach, there’s Sinners and Saints Desserts. “If you are a sinner,” they say, “you will enjoy our decadent, scrumptious creations.” If you’re a saint, on the other hand, your choices are limited to their gluten-free selections.

The colder parts of the Central Time Zone seem to be home to great depravity. In Saskatoon you can patronize Mortal Sin Foods 1, and in Sioux Falls, be sure to visit Sinful Things Desserts, “home of the ultimate sin.”

Or, if you prefer the comfort of your own home, search for “sin” and “dessert” at cooks.com.

What is going on here? Why is there a very strong thread of American culture that associates pleasure — especially bodily pleasure, and most especially the pleasures of eating — with sin? Why is it that choosing something to eat solely because you like the taste — and not because it’s full of anti-oxidants or B-vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids — why is it that choosing to do something solely because you like it is often seen as the top of a very slippery slope towards selfishness?

Spoiler alert: I won’t be able to tell you the answers to these questions in the next 20 minutes. But I would like to raise up the questions themselves as something to think about, especially as we enter the winter holiday season. Because our worship theme this month 2 is gratitude, and I would like to encourage you to be grateful for, and not guilty about, pleasure.


High school students often think that life is unfair. I was no different, and when I was in high school, one of the particular unfairnesses that bothered me was that… I had a body. It wasn’t so much of a question of it being a body that was failing me in some way — which really, mine was not, unless you count a bad case of acne — no, my complaint was more fundamental than that. I used to stay up late at night, reading, or working on math problems, or studying chess, or — one lucky summer — programming the school’s personal computer 3 that I had been allowed to take home. Basically, I would stay up late doing nerdy things that I liked. And whenever I started to get sleepy, I would regret the fact that I lived in a body. Why do I have to go to sleep?, I would wonder. Why can’t I just live as a disembodied mind — or, as the conventions of science fiction would have it, as a brain in a vat of nourishing fluid?

A few clarifications must be given here…

First of all, a person living as a brain in a vat would still get tired. Sleep is a really a function of the brain, not just of the rest of the body. But what I was really confronting in high school was the distinction between the mind and the body, not so much the brain and the body.

Secondly: Star Trek fan that I was, I should have remembered that many of the science fiction stories about disembodied minds are really about the benefits and pleasures of our bodies, benefits that we are prone to overlook.

But perhaps the main thing to mention is that trying to maintain a distinction between the mind and the body — or, to move from philosophy to religion — to maintain a distinction between the soul and the body… the thing to mention is that trying to assert or maintain this distinction has a long history. The ancient Greeks, for example, contrasted the intellectual and restrained Apollo with the physical and ecstatic Dionysus. Many religions speak of a human soul that exists independenly of our bodies, and that may live on after our bodies die, or be reincarnated into a different body.

And if we become so focussed on our souls as being completely separate from our bodies, it’s easy to wonder, as I did in high school: Wouldn’t we be better off if we didn’t have bodies.


But we all do have bodies. Our consciousness comes from our bodies, so in some sense we are our bodies. We take up space in the physical world. And not just our literal, physical volume; the existence of our bodies uses up resources. We consume things — air, water, food — we eat other living things — to survive. And society has a lot to say about how much space, literal and metaphorical, we should feel entitled to.

I was at a conference in Ottawa last week, so I’ve been on two cross-country flights recently. There’s nothing like being on an airplane to bring about awareness of your body — as you sit in those uncomfortable seats, wishing you had paid extra for that luxurious extra four inches (four inches!) in Economy Plus — as well as awareness of other people’s bodies, as you wonder: Who will wind up in the seat next to me, and battle me for the arm rest?

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in these little battles over who gets what space that we can forget: Who is it that said that the airline seat is the appropriate amount of space for a human body? The airlines set expectations for how much space we should be able to take up. If you happen to exceed those expectations, air travel will make you keenly aware of this… both from the discomfort of trying to fit into those narrow seats, and from the awareness of your fellow passengers’ relief when they see you walk past their row when the plane is boarding.

This is just one reflection of our societal expectations about body size, and how they encourage feelings of shame and guilt. Larger people know from repeated experience: strangers feel free to comment on their bodies, on their perceived health, on their choice of clothing, on their purchases at the grocery store… especially if they are buying food with government assistance. Women, of course, get an especially large helping of this barely-disguised disapproval, because their bodies are often viewed as not being their own; their bodies exist, society says, to be attactive to men, or to be incubators in which to grow babies. “Don’t eat that!”, complete strangers will tell a pregnant woman. “It’s not the best thing for your baby.”

But society is wrong! Our bodies are our own. We are our bodies. Mind and body are not separate things — our minds, our souls, come from the physical existence of our bodies. We, all of us, take up space in the world. And we have a right to do so.


We take up space with our bodies, and we take up space in other ways as well. We all agree that helping others is good; but taking care of ourselves — physically, emotionally, spiritually — these are morally good things too.

My learning service agreement for my internship with Throop Church lists eight areas that I am supposed to focus on. Some of these areas are things you would probably expect — I am supposed to develop skills in worship, for example, and in pastoral care. But perhaps you will be surprised to learn that one of the focus areas is “self-care.” It is easy for people who are attracted to ministry to buy in to the belief that their whole lives should be devoted to nothing but service; that self-sacrifice should be the goal. But this is not only unsustainable — I say that it is also morally wrong.

A couple of months ago, from this pulpit, I talked about the Transcendentalists, and the notion of “self-culture” that they adopted from William Ellery Channing. In that sermon, I pointed out that the Transcendalists seemed to miss the importance of community. But they were not wrong in stressing the importance of cultivating one’s own soul; what is the point of being alive and being human, if not to spend at least some time expanding one’s horizons.

There’s an older story, too, that I think makes this same point. It’s a story that appears in the Christian scriptures, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John — the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus.


The story is this: 4 One night, in the week before his crucifixion, Jesus was staying with friends in Bethany. While Jesus and others are having their dinner, Mary of Bethany comes to Jesus with a container of a very valuable perfume, and she anoints his head and his feet with it, using up almost the entire container. The disciples see this, and say “Hey, Mary, what are you doing? Why are you wasting this perfume on Jesus, when you could sell it for a lot of money and give that money to the poor?” Jesus tells them to leave Mary alone, because she has just done something kind. And then he says, “The poor will always be with you, and you can help them any time you want. But I’m not always going to be with you.”


This is a very interesting passage from the Gospels, and there is a lot of commentary on it. Reading the some of the commentary, you sense the discomfort that the story creates. There’s a sense of anxiety; some commentators say “Now, don’t go and use this as an excuse not to help the poor.” They seem to be worried that this story will give people permission to be entirely self-centered.

Now, who am I to be giving Biblical exegesis? But I am going to go ahead and do so anyway. And, I am going to trust that all of you here already have social consciences; that you do think about caring for the poor, about righting wrongs, about justice, about healing the planet.

But what does Jesus say about these issues? “The poor will always be with us.” The problems and injustices of the world are huge, larger than any one of us — which is why we have to work together to solve them. But any single one of us? If any single one of us devoted all of our energy to helping humanity, we would do some good — but alone we would never be enough; there is always be more to do. Each one of us could throw our entire selves up against these problems — and be completely annihilated.

And what would be the point of our human existence if this were all that we did?

It is important to devote time and energy and money trying to help our fellow humans and to help improve the world; but we each need to have some time left to be our own individual selves. Again: What is the point of your existence as a human if you don’t spend some time expanding your soul… experiencing your body? Experiencing wonder at existence?


People seem to find it very easy to discount this lesson. Let me give one example of where I think this happens.

There is a philosophical and social movement nowadays called “effective altruism;” two of its main proponents are Peter Singer and William MacAskill, philosophers at Princeton and at Oxford, respectively. I think there are many problems 5 with this movement, but I will try to summarize it without getting too sidetracked by my criticisms.

The effective altruists try to measure the impact of any action by a single number; they measure goodness in “quality-adjusted life-years,” or QALYs. For example, one year of life for a healty person is valued at 1 QALY; one year of life of a person with AIDS who is not receiving AIDS medication is worth 0.5 QALYs; if that person were to take AIDS medication, the value of one year of their life would increase, to 0.9 QALYs. A year of life for a blind person, they say, is worth 0.4 QALYs.

Now, the effective altruists want to use these numbers to evaluate the benefit of good actions — for example, of giving AIDS drugs to patients who need them, or of preventing blindness. But perhaps you already see one problem with their system: Your blind friend may not view their life as being worth only 40% of the life of a sighted person. But I promised not to get distracted by criticism, so let’s continue.

Once they have figured out the worth of every action in terms of QALYs, the effective altruists then try to figure out the most benefit, as measured in QALYs, that you can get from various life choices. They come up with some interesting and counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, if you happen to have the skills that would make you employable on Wall Street, the effective altruists say that the best and most moral thing you can do with your life is to work on Wall Street, and donate most of your income to a charity that, for example, provides mosquito netting to the poor in malaria-infested parts of the world.

Don’t volunteer at a food bank or a homeless shelter, they say — that time could be spent more profitably working at a high-paying job, and sending the proceeds to the mosquito-net charity. The children you will save from malaria outweigh the homeless and the hungry in your own town.

I think that there are many problems with this philosophy. For example, it works entirely within an existing political and economic structure, without questioning whether that structure is good. It is like taking the size of an airline seat as an absolute fact of nature, instead of as a choice that was made because it is convenient to a large corporation.

But here is the problem I would like to focus on today: This utilitarian philosophy does not take into account the worth of the individual. It views each person simply as a machine whose moral value is measured in how much money they can make to donate to charity. It does not value the preferences of the individual; it does not value the spiritual satisfaction of the individual; it does not value the social connections, and the moral growth of the individual.

Perhaps I take this too personally — because as a Ph.D. mathematician, I am employable as a Wall Street financial analyst. According to the effective altruists, people are dying of malaria because I am standing here today, instead of working at a hedge fund.

That may be true. But I would rather be here today than at that hedge fund. Because my soul grows here. And that is worth something.


Perhaps you will be glad to know that my desire to live as a brain in a vat did not last long. As I have grown older, I have learned to appreciate the connection between my mind and my body, and to enjoy the pleasures that I can still get from my body. These pleasures and abilities will not always be there; being able-bodied is a temporary condition.


I would like to close this sermon with some homework. It is optional; and it will not be graded.

If you are willing, take the time this holiday season just to notice when pleasures — and, in particular, foods — are decribed in terms of good and evil, sinfulness and saintliness.

Now, you personally may need to think of dessert in the context of a medical condition, or dietary restrictions; and in any case, it is good to think of dessert in terms of how it will make your body feel not just immediately, but also in the next hour, and the next day. But for extra credit, see whether you can avoid thinking of dessert — or of any food — in terms of sin, and guilt.

Because you deserve more than sin and guilt. Take up your space in the world, and know that you have value.


Photo credit: Peggy Greb. The image is in the public domain, and was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. More information here.


  1. Oops, they have closed
  2. At Throop Church. 
  3. A Processor Technology Sol 20
  4. Versions are given in Matthew 26:6–11,
    in Mark 14:3–7, and in John 12:1–8
  5. These articles mention some of them. 

We Do Not Say Good-bye

At this time of year, Unitarian Universalist churches often have worship services that reference All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and/or Día de los Muertos, and that acknowledge and celebrate the influence that the dead can have on the lives of the living. These services might include, for example, the naming of people who have passed away in the preceding year, and the placing of pictures and mementos on an ofrenda or other altar. In this post, I would like to publicize a sonnet by a little-known American poet that can fit in wonderfully with such services. Four years ago I set the poem to music (which anyone can download and print for free), but even if you don’t like the music, the poem itself could be beautiful in a worship service.

Also, I will say something about the history of the sonnet and its author, and how it happens that I found the poem in a book on a shelf in our living room.


The poem is “We Do Not Say Good-bye”: 1

We do not say good-bye. Somehow the soul

Keeps all that has been loved with it always.

The bodies break, friends go, the seasons roll;

But of each cherished thing the spirit stays.

They are like summer shining on the air —

These forms, this breathing earth, these radiant friends.

From their remembered splendor I shall wear

Some light about me till my moment ends.

I cannot carve your lovely shape in stone,

Staying awhile its excellence from decay,

Nor fix your beauty into paint. Alone

A look upon my face will sometimes say

How beautiful are the things which I have known

That came from earth, that turn again to clay.

— Lawrence Lee, from Tomorrow Good-bye (Gaylordsville: The Slide Mountain Press, 1933)

Here is a recording of my SATB a cappella arrangement of the poem, and here is the score, which is free to download and print. 2


The Lawrence Lee who wrote this poem was a Southerner, born in Alabama in 1903. There is a brief biography of him on the Kent State Library page that lists the collection of his papers held by the library. His book Tomorrow Good-bye is hard to come by; its WorldCat library entry lists copies in only 23 libraries. The catalog entry also notes that only 200 copies were printed.

So how did two of those 200 copies wind up on a shelf in our living room?


What the Kent State biography doesn’t mention is that Lawrence Lee was friends with my wife Bella’s grandparents; Bella’s grandfather Lambert Davis worked for the Virgina Quarterly Review in the 1930’s, so he and Lee ran in the same literary circles — and in fact Lee was best man at the marriage of Lambert and Bella’s grandmother Isabella. One of the two copies of Tomorrow Good-bye on our shelf is inscribed to Lambert and Isabella, and includes a hand-written poem 3 that mentions that Isabella is “large with your first leaping child” — a child who would grow up to become Bella’s mother.

Thirteen years ago, I pulled one of these copies off our shelf of old, unusual, or inherited books, and leafed through it for the first time. It contains only five poems, all sonnets, and We Do Not Say Good-bye is the fifth. It stood out to me, though — because at that time, thirteen years ago, close friends of ours were facing a great loss, and the poem spoke to that loss.


Lawrence Lee died in 1978. Bella’s grandparents lived longer, but by the time I found Tomorrow Good-bye on our shelf, they had passed away as well. And yet this book, written by a man now dead, and given to friends now dead, had found its way to our living room, and spoke meaningfully to us of loss and memory. All Souls’ Day and Día de los Muertos celebrate exactly this connection we have to those that have come before us, and Lawrence Lee’s own words, shining on the air, remind us of the beauty of those we knew who have turned again to clay.


  1. There are later versions of the poem in which the first line is changed to “Man does not say good-bye.” This is how the poem appears, for instance, in H.L. Mencken’s literary magazine The American Mercury (vol. 30, p. 337, 1933), and in Lee’s collection Monticello and Other Poems (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1937), which is easier to find than Tomorrow Good-bye. I much prefer the original formulation. 
  2. Lawrence Lee copyrighted Tomorrow Good-bye in 1933, but (according to a copyright search I paid the U.S. Copyright Office to do) he did not renew the copyright after the initial 28 year period, so in 1961 the book came into the public domain. 
  3. “In Residence, Fifteenth Street,” which later appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and in Monticello and Other Poems

Universalist Influences

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 18 October 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


(A general note on the sermons I post: While I do lightly edit them and add links and footnotes, they are still basically texts that I wrote with the intention of speaking. Therefore I sometimes use punctuation that is more appropriate for spoken language than for written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language, so if something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)


As you may know, at Throop Church we have monthly worship themes. Sometimes these themes are overridden by the requirements of particular services — like the Blessing of the Animals service last week — but in general, there is supposed to be a common theme among the services each month. For the month of October, the theme is “Letting Go.” Now, the title of my sermon today is “Universalist Influences,” and you may well wonder what that will have to do with “Letting Go.” But really, this sermon will be about evolution. Not the evolution of species, but the evolution of ideas, the evolution of theologies — and this evolution involves a continual process of letting go of some old beliefs, and embracing some new ones.

What happens to our history when we let go of old ideas? What do we think of our forebears, when we have moved on from some of their ideas? I’ve spoken several times now from this pulpit, and each time I have brought my perspective as a humanist. As I have said, I am an atheist — by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” And yet I specifically chose the first hymn we sang this morning — the hymn that begins “Unto thy temple, Lord, we come with thankful hearts to worship thee.”

What kind of evolution can happen that would lead an atheist to ask you to sing those words?


Universalism, of course, is part of the very foundation of our congregation in Pasadena. In 1885, the Universalist minister Caroline Soule held services in Pasadena. In the following year, the Universalist minister Florence Kollock, who was vacationing in California, also preached in Pasadena. Under the guidance of Kollock and our namesake Amos G. Throop, this church was founded as the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena. As far as the State of California is concerned, that is still our name — the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena — although we are “doing business as” Throop Memorial Church and Throop Unitarian Universalist Church.

So what does “Universalist” mean? Those of you who already know this, forgive me — but let me review some history and theology.

When America was founded, the religious elite were mostly Calvinists. One of the basic ideas of Calvinism is that there are two types of people; the “elect,” who will go to heaven, and everyone else, who will not. But the interesting thing is that the determination of whether or not you are one of the elect? Calvinists believed that that decision was made at the beginning of time; it has nothing at all to do with how you behave here on Earth.

For many people nowadays, this theology is surprising. Whether or not you go to Heaven has nothing at all to do with how you behave on Earth? What would motivate a Calvinist to behave well?

Of course, one response — which, as a humanist, I prefer — is that people’s morals are not determined by what they hope or fear for their afterlife. But there’s a psychological motivation that came into play as well. If you were a Calvinist, you really, really hoped that you were one of the elect, one of the people who will go to heaven. You would be looking for signs that somehow indicated this. You might think: How would one of the elect behave? You might think: If I were one of the elect, I would probably behave well; I would probably tithe to my church, and help the poor, and contribute to my community, and do well by my family. And since you really, really hoped you were one of the elect, you would do the things that you thought would confirm this hypothesis.

Now, who were the Universalists? One strand of Universalism was grounded in Calvinism. These Universalists also believed in the idea of the “elect” — they also believed that there are two types of people, those who would go to Heaven, and those who would not — except that they believed that everyone was in the first group. These Universalists could not believe that a loving God would make some of His children suffer for all eternity in Hell.

The name “Universalist” comes from this belief: the belief in universal salvation — the belief that everyone will go to Heaven.

Everyone will go to Heaven… eventually. Universalists in the 18th and 19th centuries had various beliefs about purgatory. Some believed that people would have to suffer some amount of time to “pay for” their sins on Earth before they would be allowed into Heaven. Some Universalists — called “Restorationists” — believed that people would continue to suffer until they were reconciled with God, but that as soon as they were reconciled, they would go to Heaven. And some Universalists, sometimes called the “ultra”-Universalists, denied the whole idea of “paying for one’s sins” in the afterlife; they denied some of the basic tenets of Calvinism.

Oh, by the way: All of this was viewed as heresy by the mainstream churches in America. Even many Unitarians, who felt some sympathy for the Universalists, wanted to keep their distance, for fear of giving their theological adversaries yet another heresy to accuse them of.

For example, in his autobiography, 1 Adin Ballou, a Restorationist (and a younger cousin of the ultra-Universalist Hosea Ballou), wrote about his own installation in 1832 as minister of First Church and Congregation in Mendon, Massachusetts, about 30 miles outside Boston. Among the ministers participating in Ballou’s installation were four Restorationists and four Unitarians. Ballou wrote:

In those days it required no little moral courage for Rev. Mr. Whitman and his Unitarian brethren to unite with the Restorationists in a public religious service like that of my installation.

Writing nearly sixty years after the event, Ballou recognized the courage shown by the Unitarian ministers who attended, but also mocked the prejudices of some of their brethren. Speaking of Unitarians in general, he wrote:

The Unitarians were largely a well educated class of people, and nursed the pride of having a highly educated ministry. But the Restorationists, tried by their standard, were “unlearned and ignorant” — only a trifle better schooled, perhaps, than the humble Nazarene himself and his original twelve apostles, without a [Doctor of Divinity degree] among them, and little better than barbarians when compared with the graduates of Harvard College, and other polished literati. This was quite as objectionable to many of the “grave and reverend seigniors” of the denomination as our peculiar theology.

Some of these stereotypes about Unitarians and Universalists are still with us today!

In the early 20th century, the meaning of Universalism widened — for some, it referred to the idea that there is some kind of universal religion; that religions that are different in their particulars are somehow trying to explain or understand or live with the same ultimate truth — the idea that we would now express with the image of different people feeling the elephant in the dark room, or with the expression “one light, many windows.” This widened view of Universalism is why, for example, Swami Vivekananda — a Hindu religious leader who had been a sensation at the World Parliament of Religion in 1893 — was welcomed in 1900 as a speaker at both Throop Church 2 and at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. 3


But how is all of this theology relevant to us today? What are some of its influences?

Let me quote Benjamin Rush, one of the founders of the United States — a member of the Continental Congress, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and a Universalist. He wrote: 4

A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind — it abolishes the punishment of death for any crime — and converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.

Rush’s writing 200 years ago sounds a lot like what Marilynne Robinson said just last month, in the quote I gave as today’s reading: 5

I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. […] It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.

The Unitarian Universalist blogger Doug Muder, in a sermon on “Universalism, Politics, and Evil” delivered earlier this year at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois, expands on this idea:

The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don’t believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” This is not an easy thing to do, but I think it is an important thing to try, even though we are bound to fail. It calls us to remember that even people who we dislike, people who do things that are undeniably evil, are human. It doesn’t mean that we should excuse people for misdeeds — people should be held responsible for their actions — but we need a vision of humanity that includes our failings, and that recognizes that these failings occur in every one of us, to some extent.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” We are tempted so often to not do this; we are tempted by all of the discourse around us to view so many people as less than human. People who are not like us; people who speak a different language; people whose culture is not our own; people in other political parties; people who disagree with us on moral issues.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” For me, there is a certain political figure who stands out as a particular challenge here. Someone who I think has done great harm, who has damaged institutions I hold dear, who has helped make incredibly bad decisions. [I won’t say who this is, because it doesn’t matter — I’m sure we all have someone we can think of who plays this role for us.] I try to imagine the full humanity of this person, and frankly it is difficult. But I need to keep this in mind, even as I work against policies that this person and others have put in place.


Here is a question: Do Unitarian Universalists believe in equality? You can conduct an experiment during coffee hour, and ask this of the friend sitting next to you. I have not done the experiment myself yet, but here’s a prediction. If you ask a Unitarian Universalist whether they believe in equality, there’s a 95 percent chance that one of two things will happen: Either they will say “yes,” or you will find yourself in a 20-minute discussion of “what does equality mean, anyway?”… and then they will say “yes.”

If we believe in equality, where can we find it in the list of seven UU principles?

The second principle speaks of equity, but equity and equality are not the same thing.

It is my belief that equality appears in the first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Where did the first principle come from? The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Originally, the UUA had a list of six principles. One of them begins:

The members of the UUA unite to affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality.

Here’s one thing among many to notice: The word supreme. I haven’t yet read the records of the time that explain how this principle evolved into what is now our first principle, but I can imagine many reasons for wanting to remove the word “supreme;” for example, it represents a very human-centered view of the universe.

But I think there was an unintended consequence of removing the word “supreme”. The idea is that if I have supreme worth, and you have supreme worth, then we both have equal worth. This is the equality that Benjamin Rush speaks of as a consequence of Universalism; this is the equality that Thomas Jefferson expresses, imperfectly, as “all men are created equal”; this is the equality that I struggle with when I think of certain people; this is the equality that I must struggle with, the equality that is at the foundation of my religious belief.

Removing the word “supreme” has made this concept of equality much less explicit, but I think that it is still there in our first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s not that we all have worth and dignity but some of us get more of it than others; it’s that, as the Universalists would have it, we are all equal in the eyes of God.


Why did this service start with hymn #35? Not because of the first verse; but because of the second:

The common home of rich and poor,
Of bond and free, and great and small;
Large as thy love forevermore,
And warm and bright and good to all.

All humans are created equal.

May we have a Unitarian Universalism that is large enough to recognize and celebrate what we have in common with the Unitarian author 6 of that hymn; a Unitarian Universalism that allows us to open our service singing of a God that some of us have let go of, and close it in celebration of the Universalist love that still influences us.

Please rise, as you are willing and able, as we sing our closing hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love.”


  1. Completed by his son, based on notes he left at his death in 1890. 
  2. On the evening of January 28, speaking on “The Way to the Realization of a Universal Religion.” 
  3. He spoke seven times at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, in February, March, and April. 
  4. Quoted in David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). 
  5. Which is from a fascinating conversation held between Robinson and President Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa, on 14 September 2015. For the reading, I gave a slightly longer excerpt. 
  6. The hymn “Unto Thy Temple, Lord, We Come” was written by Robert Collyer, who was a Unitarian, not a Universalist. He was known as “the Blacksmith Preacher” because earlier in his life he had been a blacksmith in England. He put an anvil in a place of honor in Unity Unitarian Church in Chicago (which he founded) because, it is said, he wanted to hammer out the truth as he had once hammered out horse shoes. He wrote “Unto Thy Temple” for the dedication of the building that housed Unity Church after the original church was destroyed by the great Chicago fire. Note that Unity Unitarian Church is now Second Unitarian Church of Chicago; the similarly-named Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park comes from the Universalist tradition. 

Shifting Gears

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 27 September 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


(A general note on the sermons I post: I wrote them with the intention of speaking them, and therefore the punctuation is more appropriate for spoken language than written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language. If something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)


Five years ago I was president of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; I had already served a year as vice-president, and the following year I would be past-president. I was happy with my family life and with my job doing mathematical research; and I was discovering that I was better at lay leadership than I had expected to be. And yet something was off; I was not feeling satisfied. I wanted to be able to contribute more to the life of the church — serving on the board did not seem like enough — and in any case eternal committee membership did not seem like it would be personally satisfying. I struggled with this feeling of dissatisfaction for some time, but it continued to grow, and it became more and more upsetting to me. Finally, I asked for a meeting with our associate minister, the Reverend Kathleen Owens, and with our intern minister, Sue Magidson. I made the appoinment with Sue as well as Kathleen because I knew her and trusted her, and because she had a Ph.D. in math education; I thought she would understand where I was coming from.

Kathleen and Sue listened to me for some time, as I explained as best I could my unfocussed dissatisfaction, and my desire to do something more for the church.  After I had gone on for some time, Reverend Kathleen stopped me, and asked:

“Everett, are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”


Last month when I led worship here at Throop, I mentioned that an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is usually a personal introduction of some kind, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology…

Last month I was not quite yet your intern minister, but this month I am your intern minister — and I will be for two years, until the end of May 2017 — learning from Reverend Tera, learning from all the staff members, and most importantly, learning from you, the members and friends of Throop. We will have many chances to get to know one another, but to give you a head start, today I will tell something about how I got to be here.  And any story of how I got to be here has to pass through Reverend Kathleen’s office five years ago, with me sitting there, and Kathleen asking whether I was saying that I had a call to ministry.

Ministry?  Let me tell you how far-fetched that sounded in the larger context of my life.

I grew up in Sacramento, the youngest of seven children.  My father worked for the State Department of Education; my mother was a homemaker, and later a writer of young-adult fiction.  My siblings and I were raised completely unchurched; the only times I can remember even being inside a church when I was growing up was for piano recitals.  My family did celebrate Christmas and Easter, but in a very secular way — kind of the same way that we celebrated New Years and Halloween — as holidays where there are certain traditional things you do. For us, at Christmas and Easter those traditional things involved Christmas trees, presents, stockings filled with chocolate and an orange, Easter baskets — also full of chocolate — and big family get-togethers with grandparents and aunts and uncles.  Religion was really not a part of it.

Growing up, I knew that some of my friends went to church or to synagogue; my best friend in high school was Catholic, and our next door neighbors — a state senator and his family, who, coincidentally, represented a district in West LA not that far from here  — were Jewish. But because we never went to church, a lot of what I absorbed about religion while I was growing up came from… televangelists: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart… We would see them while flipping channels and sometimes watch a little; my mother was particularly fascinated by them, and in her first book she included a scene of a tent-show revivalist raising false hope for the seriously ill while raising cash for himself.

My parents were humanists, though they did not start using that word until perhaps the time I was in high school.  As a child and youth I was interested in science and math; and from reading and thinking about things, by the time I was in high school I knew that I was an atheist, and philosophically skeptical.

Perhaps I should have tried to find a humanist group to meet with in person, but that thought did not occur to me, and I’m not even sure that there were many such groups around.  Instead, I read some humanist magazines: My parents subscribed to Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, and I personally subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine I had read about in one of Martin Gardner’s columns in Scientific American, which was dedicated to scientifically investigating claims of the paranormal. But after a while I began to be disturbed by the tone of some of the articles in these magazines. In some articles there was — well, for lack of a better word, an “arrogant dismissal” of the religious. Not “I disagree with you about this, and here’s why I think I am right”, but rather “I disagree with you about this, and — how could you be so stupid?”

It was my first experience of finding myself agreeing with someone on some intellectual point, but not wanting to be associated with them. (I did not stop to think that there could be theists who felt the same way about Pat Robertson.)

So for many years I felt that I would have to live philosophically on my own. I tried to be kind, and to do good, and if anyone asked, I would tell them that I was an atheist — and I would secretly hope that they would be surprised. “You’re an atheist? But you’re so considerate!”

Fast forward: through college, graduate school, a job teaching at the University of Michigan, getting married to Bella (who you will get a chance to meet today), moving to San Diego, having kids… Fast forward to 2005. Around this time, Bella began to be interested in finding a church community, somewhere where we could go to meet other people; to talk about important aspects of life; to have a supportive community.  I didn’t think there could be a church that I could participate in as a humanist.  So Bella visited a few congregations without me — liberal Episcopalian, United Church of Christ — but then one evening we remembered those rumors we had heard about the Unitarian Universalists. We looked online and we found the seven principles that you can find near the front of the hardcover hymnal…  Let me remind you:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Bella and I read these… and looked at one another… and asked, “What’s the catch?”  We… we agreed with these principles! And, looking further, we saw that humanism and science are mentioned among the sources of Unitarian Universalism! So that is how we wound up, the following Sunday, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; and that’s how, five years later, I found myself sitting in Reverend Kathleen’s office.


“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

A call.  What is a call?

For Christians, a call means a call from God.  God lets you know somehow that you are meant to do something in the grand scheme of things.

What does the idea of a “call” even mean to a humanist?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer writes about calling in a humanist-friendly way in his book Let Your Life Speak. He writes about finding those things that are compelling to the deepest part of you, your soul, if you’re willing to use that language… and he writes about the difficulty of hearing what that deepest part of you has to say.  He illustrates this with a nice image:

The soul [he writes] is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek. (pp. 7–8)

By quiet, open, honest reflection, says Palmer, we can sometimes access the deeper truths about ourselves.  And, he says, being ourselves is the point.   He relates a Hasidic tale about this idea:

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (p. 11)

As Palmer expresses it, you are fulfilling a call if you are doing something that expresses who you really are.

As it happens, I knew what it meant to have a calling, because I already had one: a calling to do mathematics. I know that that sounds strange to many people; it’s kind of like someone saying that they have a calling to undergo oral surgery. But it’s true.  When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a mathematician. Which is a little odd, because I had no idea at that age what a mathematician really does. You see, the arithmetic you do in elementary school is analogous to learning how to spell; the math you do in high school is kind of like learning grammar.  Most people stop there and never even get to the mathematical equivalent of reading a story.  But I found as I got older that my talent for the spelling and grammar of mathematics came along with a talent for reading and writing mathematics.  I could read the wonderful, eternally true stories of math — and I could write my own; it’s a way of touching the infinite.

This calling took me to Caltech, where I got my bachelor’s degree in math; to Berkeley, where I got a Ph.D.; to the University of Michigan, where I taught for three years; and to my current job at a think tank in San Diego.  I was set; I had a calling; I had a job doing what I was called to do.

And yet there I was in Reverend Kathleen’s office.


“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

I have to warn you about one of the dangers of speaking with your minister.  When they ask you a question?  You might feel a responsibility to answer honestly.

It had never occurred to me to think of what I had been feeling as a call. But I recognized immediately that that would explain a lot. And I knew what the only honest answer was.

I said “yes” — even though I didn’t quite know what that meant.


I should make it clear that I did not then drop everything, quit my job, and enroll full-time in seminary. As I said, I am very skeptical, even of my own gut feelings. It took three years of discussions with Bella, of self-reflection; three years of deeper involvement in lay ministry at my home congregation, and test runs taking one class at each of the two UU seminaries — it took a very long time before I decided, with Bella’s support, to enroll in seminary… and then it was as a part-time distance-learning student. Even with this internship at Throop, I am still working 60% time at my math job.

What will the end of all this be?  Parish ministry?  Chaplaincy? Part-time? Full-time? How will ministry fit in with mathematics?  I don’t know yet. Those are some of the things that I will be working out, here, with you.

Thank you for letting me be part of your religious life.

Blessed be.  Amen.

Belated Introduction

Hello, and welcome to The Humanist Seminarian blog.  My name is Everett Howe, and as I am writing this I am just starting my second year as a part-time low-residency student at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley.  I am also just starting a two-year part-time ministerial internship at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, under the supervision of Rev. Tera Little.

All this is in addition to my role as a husband and a father of two children, one just starting college and one a junior in high school.  And in addition to my career as a research mathematician.

A research mathematician?

Yes. I’m still trying to work out what a calling to ministry might mean to me — but I know for sure what a calling to mathematics means.  I’ve known since I was about 8 that I wanted to do math, and I’ve devoted a lot of energy and the majority of my life to answering that call. I’ve taught at universities, I’ve worked at a think tank for 20 years, and I’ve published a few dozen research articles in math journals.

So what’s all this about ministry?  Well, I guess if you stick around here, you’ll find out… as will I.

I should mention that there is already a well-known Unitarian Universalist blogger with a Ph.D. in math — his is in algebraic geometry, mine in arithmetic geometry.  So I have a lot to live up to.