Failure is Our Only Option (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

March 11, 2018

In the 1960s, the Unilever corporation, in their quest to make and sell laundry detergent, encountered a problem. Now, remember, this is more than fifty years ago, so the ubiquitous form of laundry detergent in our homes was…powder, that came to us in rectangular cardboard boxes.  Remember?

Unilever’s system involved pumping, at high pressure, from a gigantic outdoor tank, liquid detergent into an indoor space, through a hose, out a nozzle, where the fine mist of liquid detergent would make contact with air, dry, and fall to the floor where it was then scooped cardboard packaging.

However, the nozzle kept clogging.  They had invested in a brilliant, knowledgeable engineer to design the correct nozzle but that did not work.  The situation was too complex for the approach of analyze problem, design solution, experience success.

So they turned old school: trial and error.

Embracing failure as the teacher it is, they made ten copies of the nozzle, adjusting each one just a bit, each differently, then tried it out.  They then took the one that was most successful, and copied it, creating another ten nozzles, varying that one ten different ways, just slightly.  Over and over again, trial and error, refining the nozzle’s design.

After 45 generations and 449 ‘failures’, they had a nozzle that was outstanding.

I hope, whatever it is that you are trying to figure out in your life right now, that it does not take 449 trials for you to reach outstanding.  However, given that you are still breathing, you will, no doubt, encounter moments of trial and error, of actual failure, sometimes more than you think you can in that moment bear, and you will have to choose how to respond. We will have to choose how to respond.  I will have to choose how to respond.

Will we “keep trying, just not the same thing,” as our reading by the poet Mark Nepo advised?

Will we increase the burden with the weight of my own tendency to be hard on ourselves?

Will we feel the initial cruelness of failure, yet be open to the possibility of its deeper kindness, to the wise and larger call of growth, the one that calls us to humility and what the late John O’Donohue called “the painstaking work of acceptance”?

I think this is a good question for each of us individually and most definitely an important question for us as a congregation in the 21st century.


The Berry Street Lecture is the longest, consecutively-running public lecture in the United States, and it’s ours – it is Unitarian Universalist.  In 2015, Reverend Sean Dennison, who currently serves our UU congregation in Ashland, Oregon, gave a talk with the title “Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option.”  But he was being clever, playing with words.  He was suggesting that failure is not an option because it is inherent in the process, it is unavoidable.  We cannot help but fail. Sean noted that, “If our mission is big enough, we will fail….It is inevitable.”

Oh, I am not a big fan of this particular growth opportunity.  The lesson of befriending failure.  The lesson of appreciating, or even just accepting, imperfection.  They say that best sermons that a minister preaches are the ones that we ourselves need to hear.  I don’t know if this one will be among my best, but I know I need to hear this.  Over and over again. I need to hear and practice that failure is my friend.  Is our friend.  Is okay.

And, at least when it comes to the larger challenges we are facing in our shared congregational life, is just might be what we should be aiming for.


I’m guessing that you have heard Unitarian Universalism described as a non-creedal religion – we do not have a dogma, or set of beliefs, that we must affirm.  I’m hoping that perhaps as a counter point to that description, you have heard that Unitarian Universalism is covenantal – that the promises we make to each other, the expectations of how we treat each other, the relational shape we take as a gathered people – these are what bind us, all the way back to our Puritan ancestors.

To live into this reality of covenant, many Unitarian Universalist congregations develop covenants to help, what my friend and colleague, Reverend Jordinn Nelson Long, make “explicit those things we each hold to be obvious.”  There are board covenants, and covenants of right relations.  Some congregations ask all their committees to develop a covenant. Youth groups have covenants and our children in religious education practice making them as well.

In this congregation, we have a Covenant of Right Relations, developed about eight years ago. The Committee on Shared Ministries developed a covenant this past fall.  They are super proud of it and would love to share with anyone who is interested. Even the staff of this congregation has a covenant, finished just last month.

As the staff were in the process of developing our covenant, the outside facilitator noticed that there was a thread running through our process: an impulse towards perfectionism and creating compassionate ways to respond to the inevitable falling short.  Responding to this, the covenant reads as follows:

Give each other permission to take creative risks, knowing that not all of our ideas will work out, recognizing that perfectionism is a barrier to growth, viewing our inevitable mistakes as opportunities for growth and a deepening of relationship, and that apologies and forgiveness are tools to enhance this process. (**borrowed from another UU congregation because this language is so awesome!)

A more concise way to say that: embrace failure.  Take as our ethos the quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Which sounds awesome and clever and poetic and all that, but there’s just one teensy-weensy thing: for some of us type-A personalities, but more importantly, for society in general, we don’t embrace failure.  We fear it. Sean Dennison said it this way, “The system has taught us that our value comes from our proximity to perfection.”

While this may be my sh*t, it is not only my sh*t. I know that I am not alone. (Can I get an amen?)

The problem with this, as Sean Dennison also said, is that

… as long as we fear failure—as long as we use up vast amounts of energy trying to be perfect, absolutely and adamantly competent, we are not going to have the energy to be or become the relevant, responsive, passionate, and growing movement of Unitarian Universalists we yearn to be. As long as we are frozen in our tracks by the fear that we might fail or more accurately, that others might find out we fail, we are stuck thinking small, making only the safest of plans that we already know will succeed. But I am here to tell you: You might as well go ahead and plan to fail, because you’re going to do it anyway. You already are.


I want to share with you the closing words by the British author, Neil Gaiman, from his speech to a group of graduates called, “Make Good Art.”

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

Make good art. We could translate this into make good church.  And he says make good art and make the art only you can make.  This translates into “make good church that only we Unitarian Universalist can do,” so in our case it might be “make good Society” or “make good congregational life” neither of which have the same oomph as “make good church.”

This is what the 21st century America is calling us to do: figure out how to make good art with the ethical, spiritual, and community tools in our possession, here in the midst of a rapidly changing cultural landscape full of division, isolation, institutionalized exclusion, enormous shifts in cultural power and demographics, and at the same time, is becoming less and less interested in congregational life.

Do I think the need for people to gather and to belong and to find purpose will go away?  No, because I don’t think the deep need to do these things will go away.  In fact, I think these unmet existential longings – to gather, to belong, to find purpose – will only grow as materialism, climate constriction, and authoritarianism grows in our midst.  But they are always being met by new means, and this requires of us to follow that Samuel Beckett’s advice, “ever [try]. Ever [fail]. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Two weeks from today, just after the service, and with light lunch provided so that your hungry stomachs will not distract you, our Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, will be facilitating a Town Hall open to all.  This meeting was sparked by a series of workshops, the first one called, provocatively, “The Death of Sunday School,” and then re-titled for fear of scaring folks off to “The Future of Faith Formation,” and then the rest of the workshops called, “The Sequel to Sunday School.”  Jillian is going to share with you all – since this is your congregation and its life and future, are in your hands and our hands as a shared ministry – information about the changing cultural landscape and how that is impacting religious education.

It turns out that the solutions that worked in the past, don’t apply in the same ways or, in many cases, at all.  Just over twenty years ago, there were just over 80 kids enrolled in the RE program with 2/3 – ¾ of them attending regularly.  This year we have 23 registered and we have somewhere between 1/3 and ½ attending on any given Sunday. Our nozzle is clogged.

Spoiler alert: no one knows what the solutions to this challenges facing religious education are or are going to be. We – each UU congregation and the whole of Unitarian Universalism (and really, the whole of mainline Protestantism, many Catholic congregations, and most of the Jewish congregations) – can’t just hire an engineer to develop the perfect nozzle. We are going to have to get friendly with risking and failing, with trial and error, with experi-learning, with embracing failure as the cruel and kind teacher it is.  We get to practice viewing our inevitable mistakes as opportunities for growth and a deepening of our relationships with each other.  We get to live into the understanding that apologies and forgiveness are tools to enhance our shared communal life.

It’s exciting and frightening and daunting and stimulating.  And it calls on all of us to be a part of it, because while Jillian will be presenting on religious education, the dynamics and influences she will name impact nearly every aspect of congregational life.  I hope you will join me in attending this important event.


Whenever I am given a big piece of news, particularly if there is a strong emotional component to it –something that might overwhelm me, or cause me to worry, or be afraid — I go to poetry.  With poetry, I am more likely to feel held and I am more likely to feel not so much alone.  So I offer you this poem from Wendell Berry, titled, [ten – the Roman numeral “X”], from his collection called, “Leavings:”

I go by a field where once

I cultivated a few poor crops.

It is now covered with young trees,

for the forest that belongs here

has come back and reclaimed its own.

And I think of all the effort

I have wasted and all the time,

and of how much joy I took

in that failed work and how much

it taught me. For in so failing

I learned something of my place,

something of myself, and now

I welcome back the trees.

For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.  Ah, this will be my spiritual practice, this will be my mantra, repeated mostly for my own ears, my own heart to hear so that I might trust it: For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.

I need this spiritual practice because if our congregants are going to be relevant, while we cannot do it on our own, ministers must lead the way.  Doing so not without fear, but in spite of the fear of failure.  Perhaps like what Humpty Dumpty experienced as he climbed that very tall wall, before he found himself flying.

For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.

You have to keep on trying, just not the same thing.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Amen. Blessed be.




Berry, Wendell.  “Leavings.”

Davies, Sam Thomas.  “What 449 ‘Failures’ Can Teach Us About Success,

Dennison, Sean.  “Mission Impossible: Failure is Not an Option,” Berry Street Lecture, 2015.

Gaiman, Neil.  Make Good Art.

Nepo, Mark. “Joining the Circus,” The Way Under the Way,” 2016

O’Donohue, John. “A Blessing for Failure,” Blessing the Space Between Us.

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Torda 450: Our Roots in Unexpected Ground (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

February 4, 2018

It is essential to read between the lines. I had already learned this, but when I was in seminary, I had the chance to learn it again.  For instance, in Christian scripture, when Paul writes that women should be silent, he is doing so because women are Not. Being. Silent.  If we were, there would have been no need for Paul to tell the Corinthians to hush us up.

Reading between the lines gives us a richer understanding of the true texture of our own history. For instance, in her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander mentions that during the era of so-called “Southern Redemption,” authorities outlawed the game of chess…between Black and white people.

What does this tell us? That instead of a natural, god-given racial divide, African Americans and whites were socializing, were friendly: were playing chess together –– else there be no need to make a law against it.  The powers that be longed for a wide and hostile division, constructed it through criminalizing such contact, then penalized only the Black folk.

And why is this relevant for Unitarian Universalists?

Reading between the lines allows us to see that our roots are in unexpected ground.  Reading between the lines, particularly thanks to the Unitarian Universalist minister and historian, Susan Ritchie, has allowed us to trace back some of our Unitarian history – the founding happenings in what was Hungary then, what is now the Transylvanian region of Romania — to a relationship with the Ottoman Empire and with 16th century Islam.

Yes, you heard me right: Islam.  Is your mind blown? Good.

We know this, not because it had been stated forthrightly. In fact, there is evidence of erasure.  We know this because it can be read between the lines in anti-Islamic and anti-Unitarian tracts of the time.  These treatises suggested, with nefarious intent, that the newly emerging Unitarian church was an agent of Mohammed, this being a quick way to sabotage its leaders as illegitimate.

I wonder, friends, do you hear the echoes of modern day Islamophobia there? I do.

I want us to spend most of our morning in the 16th century but I also want to make sure that all of us in the room are working with the same basic information about our modern history before we go several centuries back.

Unitarian Universalism comes out of the merger, in 1961, of two separate Christian denominations: the Unitarians and the Universalists.  While both were considered heretical in their own way, they were still fully within the Christian fold; thus, our primary history is rooted firmly in Christianity.

Today, however, Unitarian Universalism no longer understands itself to be a Christian denomination (even as we honor and love individual UU Christians and practices among us). We do understand ourselves to be a religion of our own, and are recognized as such.  While we value interfaith engagement and have amongst us many interfaith families, we, ourselves, are not an “interfaith religion,” though you sometimes hear people say that.

We are Unitarian Universalism: that plain and simple, that complex.


Back in the time of what was the Protestant Reformation – and remember, just this past October, 2017, we marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther hammering his 95 theses that sparked that revolution — our Unitarian and Universalist traditions were unsatisfied with these reforms, pressed for further adaptation beyond what would become mainstream Protestantism, and found ourselves more closely aligned with radical reformers of the time.

This year – 2018 — marks the 450th anniversary of one of our most cherished founding documents: the 1568 Edict of Torda. You heard it as our reading today. I’m going to read it again, in all its old language glory, noting that it uses the word, “diet” which means “assembly” and, of course, male pronouns where we moderns would choose otherwise:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.

Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

That’s Francis David with the light of god inspiring him at the Diet where the Edict of Torda was declared

In this, I wonder if you can hear the echo of our own freedom of the pulpit and the pew – your minister gets to preach what she deems necessary and lay folk – you pew-sitters, you — are free to believe what you deem right and necessary.

This is good stuff.  Particularly when you consider the wider political context: all around Europe there was a lot of killing for believing something other than what whatever leader where you lived believed or decreed should be believed.  Catholics being killed for not being Protestant; Protestants being killed for not being Catholic.  And outside of this part of Hungary, if you were Unitarian, you got killed for being neither.

And by good stuff, I do not perfect stuff.  For instance, the tolerance extended only just so far: to the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Unitarians.  Well, hey, it was the first time that we made the “marquee of religious tolerance.”  We made it onto the marquee because of those four, in that small corner of the world, we were largest in number.

We made it on the “religious tolerance marquee” because the Edict of Torda was put forward by our one and our only Unitarian king, John Sigismund; was written by our Unitarian martyr, his court preacher, Francis Dávid; as well as by the king’s doctor, also a Unitarian, Giorgio Biandratta; and influenced by the king’s humanist mother, Queen Isabella.

King John Sigismund

(Also this good stuff wasn’t perfect stuff for another reason: it didn’t last. Because after that one and only Unitarian King died and the next one came, Francis Dávid, the one who wrote the Edict, was imprisoned for “innovation in religion,” one of the very things the Edict was protecting against. He died in a dungeon prison.)


Here’s the thing that blew my mind when I first heard about it.  Here’s the thing about our roots being in unexpected ground.  We also made it onto the “religious tolerance marquee” (and I swear that is the last time I will say that phrase) because the Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire, years earlier, came to the rescue of Queen Isabella, and her then-infant son, already-named-king, Sigismund, who were under attack by the Hapsburgs.

If this benevolent Muslim emperor had not created what Ritchie called “one of the safest places in Europe for the development of progressive Protestantism,” we Unitarians would not be on…well, no one would have seen our name in the lights of this new religious freedom. Without the protection of the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire, we would not have the lineage we have today and we would not be celebrating 450 years of an awesome declaration of religious freedom.

Blew my mind. Is it blowing yours, too?

It turns out, even though the Edict of Torda is often referenced as the first of its kind, that isn’t quite true.  It’s been believed to be true until not all that long ago, mostly because of enacted impulse to erase all evidence of a liberal Islam that was part of that corner of the world, a liberal Islam that supported religious tolerance, and, in fact, provided the groundwork for the Edict of Torda we celebrate today.

It turns out that even before there was a Francis Dávid or a Unitarian King John Sigismund or even a Sultan Suleyman, there was a Pasha of Buda.  Not Buddha, like Buddhism.  But Buda, like the city of Budapest.

This Pasha – a Muslim official – twenty years before our beloved edict, in 1548, when asked by Catholic authorities in Tolna to kill a pastor for his unapologetic reformed ideas, refused the request.  He refused and took it one step further, issuing an edict of toleration which stated, in part, that

“preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody, whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger.”

Do you hear the echo? The one about listening to and receiving, hearing the word of god? Do you hear the freedom of the pulpit and the pew?  Ritchie tells us that there is no paper trail that links the Pasha’s edict and the one written by our Francis Dávid. However, she makes a compelling argument that if Dávid did not know the Pasha personally, he had to have been well aware of the Pasha, given his role as a church administrator who abided by the Pasha’s governance.

In general, Ritchie believes that rather than a cause-effect relationship between Islam and Unitarianism, she paints “a portrait of two cultures more greatly enmeshed in patterns of creative engagement, mutual attraction, and circular patterns of influence than we have imagined before” (p.15).  In fact, she asks – and this is particularly provocative given modern depictions in mainstream media in America and Europe –

“Could it be that toleration, that most precious inheritance of the European Enlightenment, was instead a shared liberal Christian/Muslim undertaking?” (p.15)


Why all this history in today’s sermon? Because history is not just the story of yesterday, but often is the story of today and quite possibly tomorrow.

Have you ever noticed – in news reports and political speeches? in movies and novels? perhaps in your own mind? — the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, forced to wear clothing against her will, living at the beck and call of Muslim men who restrict her and disrespect her? What if I were to tell you that there is evidence that our modern-day stereotypes are rooted in anti-Islamic propaganda contemporary to the time of the Edict of Torda? Are rooted in attempts to undermine the multi-faith, religiously tolerant societies that our religious ancestors were trying to cultivate?

There were accounts, the purpose of which was to “enflame ethnic hatred against Turks.” (Ritchie) Some were constructed with liberal Protestants in mind, particularly those living under oppressive conditions in the Hapsburg lands proximate to Hungary who might, given how hard their lives were under Catholic rule, be tempted to see the Ottomans in a friendly light.

If the line between the Pasha of Buda’s edict and the Unitarian Edict of Torda was not direct, this connection nearly is.  It turns out that there is a genre of contemporary European literature that characterized Muslim women as gender oppressed and that this caricature – this stereotype – was constructed intentionally to offend liberal Christians who might have otherwise appreciated Islam or found within it beneficial aspects.

Now granted, patriarchy is everywhere, so I’m not saying that there’s not a culture of misogyny in Muslim-majority countries.  I’m just saying, it’s not only there.  We do a fair amount of scapegoating of Islam for a practice that exists in every religion, every nation, every culture.

My favorite modern response to this particular dynamic of scapegoating Islam for sexism is a political cartoon by Malcolm Evans.

A Western woman, wearing a bikini, high heels, and sunglasses, walks past a Muslim woman wearing a burka — all we can see is her eyes.  The thought bubble in the Western woman is one we are familiar with, and perhaps even know in our own hearts, “Everything covered BUT her eyes! Cruel male-dominated culture!”  The thought bubble in the Muslim woman goes like this: “NOTHING covered but her eyes: what a cruel male-dominated culture!”

I raise all this for your consideration for two reasons.  Reason one: to lift up that some of the seeds for current-day Islamophobia, including the kind that finds its way into liberal and progressive hearts, were sown at the time our ancient people were trying to build within hearts and minds and society a way for religious tolerance; that these seeds were sown to subvert our religious ancestors and the world they dreamed about.

Those nefarious anti-Islamic and anti-Unitarian seed sowers, they were not wholly successful. Hallelujah!

But they were not unsuccessful, either.  Which leads us to reason two: this was not just their work back then.  It is our work now.

With the rise in Islamophobic actions and crimes; with our very government targeting Muslim communities with travel bans and restrictions on immigration, this is very much our work to do now.  Ours as Unitarian Universalists and ours as residents living in Central Jersey, where one of our greatest natural resources is the ethnic and religious diversity that the 21st century has gifted us in our neighbors, our co-workers, tradespeople we encounter every day, elected officials who serve our communities, friendships that expand our worlds.

Let us honor our roots in this unexpected ground.

Let us defy the stereotypes handed to us, sometimes handmade for our own sensibilities, and seek larger possibilities of a shared world.

Let us amplify the presence of liberal Islam in the past and in the present, including among devoted Unitarian Universalists who understand themselves as sharing identities in both spiritual worlds.

Let us be more than a little bit subversive, building friendships and partnerships across divides that others attempt to coarsen – across differences of religion, of nationality.

Francis Dávid, our early Unitarian ancestor, famously said, “God is One.”  To end this sermon, let us raise up our voices singing the hymn, “We Would Be One,” bringing melody from deep within our hearts, voicing these words: “We would be one in living for each other to show to all a new community.”

Amen. And may it be so.

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Four Essential Things

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

January 7, 2018

READING: God Gave Me a Word by Amy Petrie Shaw

A grandmother — who was not only the end of all arguments in his large extended family, but often the start of them as well.  This is how Bryan Stevenson often begins his talks: with the story of his grandmother and her propensity to hug so hard… and so long… and then – because she wasn’t finished – would ask, hours later: do you still feel my hug?

Perhaps this is where he learned in such an embodied way about the importance of “getting proximate.”

If you listen to this founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama; author of the compelling book, Just Mercy, which I know some of you have read; this death row lawyer who represented dozens of prisoners, many of whom had been wrongly imprisoned, some of whom he was able to exonerate; this leader who has created a new “museum of conscience” called The National Memorial for Peace and Justice that will commemorate, lest we erase, the history of lynching in this country, that we might be liberated by its ghosts; if you listen to this man, you will hear that there are many reasons he believes the first thing we ALL must do is get more proximate.

That is the first of the four essential things that Bryan Stevenson, that lawyer, the man who gave the annual Ware Lecture at our annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists last June in New Orleans names.  These four essential things are meant to bring about justice. They are four essential things to lend our weight, and the hefty weight of the Word of Love, in order to bend the moral arc of the universe towards what, my friends?

Towards justice.

Perhaps feeling the insistent hug of this grandmother, herself the child of parents who had once been enslaved, Bryan Stevenson tells us to do four things:

Number One: Get proximate. Get closer to the people and places of suffering,  to those things and people we each care most deeply about.  Do not do your caring from a distance.  Get out of the armchair.  Do not do your expressing of outrage from a distance.  Get away from the screens.  Do not join in lamentation or give relief remotely. Do it up close. Closer than is convenient. Closer than feels familiar, at least at first. Closer than is polite (though choose consent, my friends: always choose consent.)

Why?  Well, the words on your order of service give a fine reason:

“When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Mercy – giving it, receiving it – is only possible through close proximity.  You may be able to forgive and forget from a distance, but you cannot grant or accept mercy unless you are right in the mess of things.

Number Two: to bring about justice, we must change the narrative.  For Stevenson, with his history of working with death row inmates, of working with Black and Brown people whose actions have been disproportionately criminalized, it means believing — in head and heart — that no one – none of us — is wholly defined by the worst thing they have done.

This is also the same person using his MacArthur Genius grant to establish not only that National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to our nation’s history of lynching, ostensibly scheduled to open on April 26 this year. What does it mean that a man who says “we are not defined by the worst thing we have done” is the founder of our nation’s first comprehensive memorial to lynching?  With this, he is trying to change the narrative to make sure that by remembering such history we will, instead, be liberated by it, instead of living in this viscous morass in which we are doomed to repeat the sins of the past, in which we are repeating the sins of the past.  I invite you to seek out – you can google it, or I will put a link to it in next Wednesday’s weekly eblast – the three-minute video clip that shows the artist’s representation of this memorial.  It’s stunning.  I have not yet had reason to want to go to Montgomery, but this new memorial, and its sibling new institution, The Legacy Museum, also opening around the same time, are giving me cause to change my mind.

We here in East Brunswick have special reason to be paying attention to the creation of new memorials. In fact, this Tuesday at 7pm – and you all are invited – we are having our next meeting to talk about what to do with this history of the Van Wickle Slave Ring and how we might build a memorial to its victims.  And on Saturday evening, February 17 – mark your calendars now – we are hosting a community presentation with a local historian, someone from Rutgers who specializes in public history, and community members who want to change the narrative and build a memorial.  I hope you will consider coming.

When Stevenson speaks about changing the narrative, he talks about living into the reality that there is always the possibility for change, for progress, for redemption.  Closely aligned with our Universalist theology of a God called Love – can you still feel that hug from Bryan’s grandmother?  do you still feel the weight of the Word around your neck?  – a theology that asserts it is profound arrogance to suggest that any human act of sin could be greater than god’s loving capacity to forgive – ours, perhaps, but not god’s.

Number Three: Stay hopeful. Given the era in which we find ourselves, given the rising authoritarianism in the land, given the increase in hate crimes, given the skewed and lewd nature of our politics — Friends, we are living in a time when hope is utterly essential and downright difficult to find, much less sustain.  Stay hopeful?

I don’t know about you, but for me, this is the hardest of the four.  And so I compel myself to listen to these words from Stevenson, who straight out says that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

So, when I am struggling to stay hopeful, or get to hopeful so that I can attempt to stay there, I think of the wisdom that comes to us from the twelve-step movement: fake it til you make it.  Sometimes by acting hopeful, you find that you can come to feel the hope.

Of course, that is not enough, so I couple it with the practice of humility.  Near the beginning of the first world war, Virginia Woolf wrote these words:

‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’

She is using dark here not as terrible, but as unknowable.  We humans confuse these things on all the time.

Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for you: I confuse these things on the daily.  Not intending it as such, it is a form of arrogance, all the doom and gloom saying about the future that I can engage in – it’s as if my dismal certainty is preferable than not knowing.  Preferable?  I think it takes the cultivation of emotional intelligence, possibly through spiritual practice, to walk away from this particular form of arrogance.  I’m trying.  Every day, I promise you, I’m trying.  And in my more spacious, ironic moments, I turn to these words from the author Rebecca Solnit:

“Again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.”

So, stay hopeful, friends.

Number Four: Do uncomfortable things. Be willing to be uncomfortable.  Really?  Yes.

That heavy word of Love that god gave us – gave me, gave you, gives all of us if we are willing, even if only metaphorically – that’s not convenient by any stretch, not always comfortable, not if we are doing it right.

Uncomfortable might be a whole slew of things:

  • Be the only one of your kind someplace – the only straight person in a gay bar; the only white person in a room that is full of people of color – and doing so with humility, curiosity, and respect.
  • Be in a space where Spanish – or Hindi or Urdu — is the primary language and it’s not yours.
  • If you are a man and in a room where decisions are being made, it’s staying silent, or ceding your turn to a woman or a gender non-conforming person.
  • It’s using the pronoun “they” in its singular form, moving into the reality that the pronouns “he” and “she” are no longer sufficient for the beautiful human cacophony of diversity we experience.

Maybe doing uncomfortable things involves inviting uncomfortable feelings. Confusion or grief; some forms of shame or – and I say this as one white person to a room with many white people in it – our own white fragility – all these forms of discomfort can be a teacher.  Some social theorists call it an interrupter, a positive thing because it is interrupting archaic habits and allowing new ones – new neurological thought patterns – to emerge. So number four asks us to welcome discomfort: it can be a gift.


This is by no means a linear list.  These are not four distinct injunctions that you take separately, one at a time, in order, and then, voilá, you are somehow complete and done and get to rest on your laurels. I have come to believe that while each is its own, they are also very much interdependent and circle around to each other.

When I have gotten more proximate with, as Bryan Stevenson says, “a place or a people rich with suffering,” my unbidden fantasies of being noble are quickly replaced by the experience of discomfort, sometimes deeply so –  uncomfortable with difference; uncomfortable because the rules for social interaction are upended; uncomfortable because I observe judgment or some other unbidden shadow rise up within me.

Or uncomfortable “sleeping” on a couch in an overheated room in a nearly empty building, my body on alert and so my sleep disrupted, yet being of greater service.

It is when I get proximate, even with that inconvenience or discomfort, that I also am more likely to experience that which makes me hopeful: I feel that I am being of use.  Even if I am clumsy, having mustered the courage to attempt it, cultivates confidence and this, too, usually feeds hope.

When I am able to sustain a hopeful orientation to the world, the doom narrative that too often dwells inside me changes, and thus changes the narrative I spread in the wider world.

All this helps me carry around that heavy Word of Love, the one hanging from my neck, held in my mouth, burned into my heart as I get proximate with the poor and broken hearted, the queer boi or angry girl, closer to the man (and woman) with no papers.

Or with all of the screwed up and pushed over and too tired and the I can’t take no more’s.

And perhaps even – and here take a deep breath — the politician spewing hatred or the minister in the costume of a saint – though, my friends, that is infinitely harder.

Most definitely when I start moving to and with the saints and sinners and scramblers inbetween – that’s when it’s more likely that I can stay hopeful, when I am with the scramblers inbetween, when I am with my people, when I am with you, dear ones, when I am with you.

Amen. Blessed be.

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Safety, Wholeness, Yearning (sermon)

November 19, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ


A refrain that has been in my mind, over and over.

Safety.  And wholeness.  And a deep yearning for it.

I have finally noticed it this past week, but really it has been insisting itself into most of my sermons these past few months, perhaps the whole year or more.

 Safety.  And wholeness.  And a deep yearning for it.

I felt it as I planned for today’s service and helped give input into last night’s fellowship fest: a yearning for the children and youth of this congregation to be folded safely within our embrace.  A yearning for their utter and absolute safety, a yearning I know that each and every one of you share and one we try – oh, do we try – to craft and conjure and cajole with our insistent breath, despite what the world has been handing us.

Safety.  And wholeness.  And a deep yearning for it.

It was at the heart of the powerful #metoo prayer ritual of a few weeks ago, which I hope sustains you as the stories continue to surface, the possibility of both hurt and healing, for empowerment and disillusionment.  Remember: We will add our brave together, add it all up, so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

Safety.  And wholeness.  And a deep yearning for it.

It is where, in lighting this rainbow chalice, we honor Transgender Awareness week here in New Jersey, knowing that tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance. TDOR a day to mourn those who have met violent ends and renamed by some within the trans community as Transgender Day of Resilience, as a way to remember not just victim status, but strength and beautiful survival.

This is why we are doing the small, and yet so big, thing at our Congregational Meeting to make wide the welcome and be explicit in our inclusivity by the choice of signage we use for our bathrooms.  We want folks who are trans, folks who are gender non-conforming, to know this place as a safe, as a people who sees them as whole.

Safety.  And wholeness.  And a deep yearning for it.

It has to do with the heartrending cause behind in this week’s message about being more careful when we answer the door here during the week, how each of us no matter where we live or work, wonders and fears in new ways, living with the reminder that security is never guaranteed, and still we go on living and loving.

This is why we support refugee settlement, knowing that everyone has the human right to be free of war, violence, torture and the traumatic legacy of these horrible things.  This is why we should continually find ways to support those congregations who offer sanctuary and who already are doing so, shielding fellow humans from persecution by this nation’s government, trying to protect families and keeping them whole.  This is why we gather food throughout the year, and today for the upcoming holiday, for families who experience not enough.

Safety.  And wholeness.  And a deep yearning for it.

I feel so deeply blessed to be your minister, to be with you as you seek safety and wholeness for yourself, as you seek safety and wholeness for your family, as you seek safety and wholeness in this wide aching world.

And I feel so deeply blessed to be your minister as I seek these things: in my own life, for my family, for and with you, and in this wide aching beautiful chaotic resplendent voluptuous tumultuous world.

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The Mindset List: Congregational Life, Faith Formation, and the Future (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

November 12, 2017


Let me begin with gratitude to my colleague, the Reverend Peter Boulatta, as I borrow from his sermonic playbook.

How many of you remember phone booths?

How many of you have used a phone booth?

How many of you have used a phone booth in the past week?

Does that mean that you have not made a call outside your home in the past week? Unlikely. What is more likely, is that the phone you use to make calls in public is the same one you use to make calls in private. It is, more than likely, a little computer that fits in your pocket or purse.  It is, more than likely, a device that even if you watched the original Star Trek, we could not imagine would be so deeply integrated into our daily lives here on this planet in your life time.

Things are changing. While this is the very essence of life, there is empirical data to suggest that change is happening at a faster rate, posing innumerable challenges.  This means, among all the other changing things, that congregational life is changing.  What was once a reliable reality for one generation is no longer even a point of reference.  And I mean this literally: there used to be a phone booth in this very building!  And it’s long gone.

There are many contributing factors for this, and there are many implications.  Today, I am hoping to touch on the rather narrow topic of what this means for Unitarian Universalist congregational life in the 21st century.

Nick, will you help us set the stage?

Nick is going to play parts of four songs.  When you hear a song that you recognize as coming from your generation, however you understand that, please rise in body or arms up so that others can see you.  If this experiment works as I hope, you will only rise for one song.  Nick, can you play the first one?

Okay, Nick: our second song.

Once more: our third selection.

And lastly, our final piece.

Thank you for taking part in our little musical experiment.

Just so we are fully informed, the first song, made popular in the year 1939, was “In the Mood” made famous by Glenn Miller.  The second song was “I want to hold your hand” by The Beatles and came out in 1964.  The third song’s title is “(I’ve had) The Time of my Life”, made famous in the film Dirty Dancing, and came out in 1987.  And lastly, “Home,” was the final song, made popular by Phillip Phillips, who came to be widely known by the American public because he was “discovered” through American Idol, a television talent hunt show.

Nick and I chose these songs to represent four primary generations that have emerged in American culture and that generational theorists have recognized, though there is some wrangling around the edges about exact start and ending years for each of these generations.  Most of what I am going to refer to in this sermon comes to us from Strauss and Howe, interpreted for me by my colleague, Reverend Kimberly Debus.   Should you want to know more about this, in the lobby there are hard copies of a handout that Reverend Debus put together if you are interested in this topic.

In the Mood – is for what has come to be called “the Silent generation:” folks born 1925-1942 and who are currently ages 75-92.  Who is here from the Silent generation?

The next generation – Boomers, a much more widely used term than the one for the generation before them — was born, according to these particular theorists, between 1943 and 1960.  Not all theorists, professional or lay, agree; but I’ll stick with the years and ages based on Howe and Strauss, just to provide a coherent reference point. The current age of Boomers is 57 -74.   The song we chose to represent this generation was I Want to Hold Your Hand. Who is here from the Boomer generation?

The song from the movie, Dirty Dancing – Time of My Life – was chosen to represent Generation X, folks born between 1960 – 1982 (though some place it later, like 1984-5).  This is my generation.  Anyone else out there who identifies as GenX?

The fourth song, Home, is for the Millennial generation (originally called GenY because it’s the generation after GenX — but that name didn’t take hold).  These are folks born from 1983-2004.  They range from those just entering high school to those who are in their mid-thirties and already raising children of their own, which may well be a single generation but covers several developmental stages.  Do we have any Millennials in the room?

There is another generation, the one that comes after the Millennials.  These are folks born after 2005.  There are names that theorists have suggested for this Generation Z (comes after Y?), but none of caught hold yet – Homeland Generation, iGeneration, Digital Natives, etc..  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with Pew Research has been using the term, “post-Millennial” to describe this youngest demographic cohort.

Our reading today, the Mindset List, gave us a window into the reality of a subgroup within the Millennials – folks born in 1998ish, so the younger half of the Millennial generation.  There are some interesting facts there, but I raise them here because they are more than facts: they influence how one experiences reality, as well as cause confusion for those of us who have not experienced some of those realities.  They influence how that generation sees the past, what ideas they carry with them, and what images they conjure for the future.  This is, of course, true for all of us: what happens in our lifetimes influences the new paradigms we can imagine, based on what we carry and what we have let go and the ones we are still carrying around with us.

How can we not notice, given last Sunday’s mass shooting at a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the observation by the Mindset List that

[quote] This year’s list observes that entering college students will generally not find “Columbine” to be an infamous and iconic name, yet for an older generation it was the first and most evil of all high school massacres. Is it true that they have little knowledge of “Columbine,” and if so, what are the implications? That school shootings have become so frequent that we have become dangerously numb to their enormous consequences? [unquote]

What does it mean to one’s sense of what is normal, if mass shootings have been the norm your whole life?  And for those of us for whom this has not been true, who cling desperately to the attitude that such a reality should never be the norm, what does it mean for the future we are trying to shift and shape?

Things are always changing, right now they are changing fast and they are changing in ways that make relatively ineffective reliance on any toolkit of past solutions to problems or responses to needs.   Take, for example, our response to the faith formation, otherwise called religious education, of our children – one of the primary focuses of this congregation’s mission statement.

Last month, the chair of the Religious Education Committee, Lynn Mayfryer, and the Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, and I attended a day-long conference in New York City, along with other UU ministers, religious education leaders, and lay folk interested in the future of faith formation.  The presenter, Kimberly Sweeney, had published a paper provocatively titled, “The Death of Sunday School.”

Provocative, yes, and also apt, given trends that have been emerging for decades or have already taken hold.  And while that provocative phrase may have its reality, so, too, does this one, paraphrasing a French idiom:

Church is dead!

Long live the Church! 

Sunday School is dead!

Long live the next version of faith formation! 

You are invited to learn more about this when Jillian holds a town meeting in March – in addition to that one-day workshop, she is attending over the next few months a series of webinars to explore these trends, to brainstorms responses, and to imagine religious education for children transforming from a phone booth into … into… well, I don’t think anyone knows quite yet.


There are shifting trends in UU congregations across the continent; we see it here, in this congregation.  It’s not just about religious education for children and youth.  These shifts impact nearly every aspect of congregational life.  For instance, in surveys on church healthy and growth, one measurement looks at attendance.  What was once considered “regular attendance” — three out of our weeks per month – is now, once per month (at least for many non-ethnic churches and congregations).  Fewer people are going to church (or synagogue, any congregational setting, really) as American society becomes more secular.

This particular aspect of the changing landscape makes it challenging to have enough kids in RE on any given Sunday to facilitate an engaging class.  It impacts other aspects of congregational life, like how how lay leaders make congregational life hum. Not all that long ago, it was understood that to be both inclusive and effective, committees and boards should be big.  But this only works if there are people to fill those seats.

When we look at national demographics, there are between 2/3 or 3/4 (depending on whom you read) the number of GenerationX that there were Baby Boomers.  There just aren’t the numbers of humans there once were to take on leadership roles.

While the number of Millennials is equal or slightly surpasses the number of Boomers, what we are finding is that Millennials are willing – more than willing – to do work, they are less interested in serving on committees and attending meetings – they are more interested in project-based work – or so say the social scientists out there who are looking at these things.


That colleague of mine who had the brilliant idea of referencing phone booths is also where I first heard this quote from Henry Ford, who apparently said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”  Henry Ford chosen not to think technically (how can I fix what we have now to make it better?), but adaptively (what can meet our needs but does not yet exist?).  Which is just another way of saying, “This phone booth thing is great, but its usefulness is finite.  What’s next?  What’s next after that?”

Which is to say, we cannot invent the next response to our children’s faith formation needs – and frankly, our adult needs as well – based solely on what has worked before.  We need to change our mindset.  We need to expand our mindset. We need to become more aware of our mindset and then use this awareness to feed curiosity so that we can notice generational assumptions that likely do not apply in the same ways as they used to, or at all.

On the first Tuesday of each month, you are invited to take part in a book and dinner group that is exploring how to sustain the vibrancy of congregational life in the midst of all this change.  We had our first meeting this past week.  We read a chapter each month – so not too much homework – and we connect with each other in person and reflect together.  On a side note, if I were to guess, getting together to eat will always be something we do in congregational life, at least I hope so.

In the introduction to the book we are reading, the author, Mike Durrall, writes this somewhat daunting, somewhat painful, and exciting sentence: “The hopeful tomorrow will require discarding a sizeable number of practices that have outlived their usefulness.”

When I hear that, it sounds like we are going to have to stop carrying all sorts of metaphorical phone booths, just like we decided, however many years ago it was, to discard an actual phone booth in this building.  If you notice, where the phone booth used to be, we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with the space.  These things take time.

But we will figure it out; metaphorically or literally, we will. For this is a place and you are a people determined in your vibrancy, resolute in your scrappy approach to the world, and unwavering in your efforts to help and heal the world, and each other.

Not to mention, that when we all are In the Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we have our closing circle and say to each other I Want To Hold Your Hand Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we’ve just spent the morning together Having the Time of Our Lives Mood [Nick play a line or two] , we’ll be sure to make this place Home Mood [Nick play a line or two] for us now and for those generations into the future.

Amen.  Blessed be.








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I Believe. Help My Unbelief. (sermon in three parts))

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

November 5, 2017


Part I: faith&doubt

Sister Simone Campbell, Ware Lecture, 2014, image from UUWorld

Sister Simone Campbell, the 2014 Ware Lecturer at our own General Assembly, known as one of the Nuns on the Bus, spoke in that lecture about how essential doubt is to faith, for without doubt, faith becomes something altogether else: it becomes certitude.  You can see one of her quotes written on your order of service.

It’s interesting that this is a Catholic woman religious speaking of faith and doubt this way.  Interesting for two reasons.  The first is – and this is for the many folks in the room who grew up Catholic and walked away — because it is likely not what you felt were the lessons you were taught.  And secondly, what she has to say is so similar to what the Western Buddhist Sharon Salzberg has to say about faith.

Salzberg, one of the co-founders of the Western iteration of Buddhism called Insight Meditation, which is the stream I swim in, wrote a book, published in 2003, called Faith.  In that book, Salzberg writes,

In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt.  In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is a sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern truth.

Sounds like Sister Simone.

Let me back up just a bit to talk about what Salzberg means by faith and what are the stages of faith that she identifies.  First of all, Salzberg defines faith as independent of any presence or absence of a deity, or as independent of one’s belief system, and as “an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”

Especially for those in the room for whom the word and concept “faith” is a trigger, for it has been a source of spiritual wounding for many, I’ll say that again:

  • Faith is independent of any deity
  • It is not about a set of beliefs
  • It is an inner quality of trust

According to Salzberg, in Buddhism there are three stages of faith, related to each other with increasing elegance: Bright Faith, Verifiable Faith, and Abiding or Unshakeable Faith.

Bright Faith is like being crushed out on someone.  It’s intoxicating.  An idea, or a teacher, sparks the imagination.  There is a sense of new possibility and openness to a new engagement of the world. While it can be exhilarating, like infatuation of any kind, it cannot and does not last forever.

Next is Verified Faith, which relies less on external sources, and requires more effort because it is fed – and verified – by one’s own intentional seeking and experiences of reality.  We move from believing what we are told, no matter how charismatic or wise or persuasive the source, to confirming the truth by our own seeking and examination.

In the transition from Bright Faith to Verifiable Faith, doubt plays an essential role. This is where the skeptics in the room will do a little happy dance.  This is where the Buddhist directive to figure it out for yourself resonates with the Unitarian Universalist principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  Listen to what Salzburg says about this:

“It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings out by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our lives.”

But not just any doubt – it must be skillful doubt.  This kind of doubt is curiosity, engagement, trying it out, trying it on, seeking to know it by your own experience rather than become someone else, not just intellectually but experientially – that quality of doubt, moves us out of bright faith into verified faith, moves us out of being crushed out into something sustainable over the long haul, over decades, perhaps even over a life time.

The third, and most elegant, is Abiding Faith.  This is a kind of faith that personally, I have not often touched, though I have met people – of all different spiritual traditions – in whom I sense this kind of faith resides.  This faith remains deep in one’s bones so much so that there is no need for an external reference.  I imagine it being a source of comfort and grounding in times of deep uncertainty and distress.

Sharon Salzberg

There is a fourth kind of faith – I’m not sure if “stage” is the right word – that Salzberg calls “blind faith.”  This can be associated with unthinking devotion or be confused for the fulfillment of a faith journey.  This is the kind of blind faith we most often recognize, and sometimes arrogantly, in others.  But it can also be fed by unskillful doubt – a different kind of doubt, one that I think we often seen in Unitarian Universalist circles — that takes the form of cynicism, subtle apathy, and undiscerning intelligence, as well as a lack of willingness to venture from our own entrenched way of seeing the world.  This kind of unskillful doubt leads with a dismissive edge.  As Salzburg says,

[Unskillful doubt] is actually an excuse to remove ourselves from a situation and not put something into practice. We can then stand back and judge, speculate, not commit ourselves, not take a risk, not see what happens if we practice. But all of this is a process of intellectualization; it is not at all from our own experience.

I ask you to hold these ideas about faith and doubt, that faith requires active, skillful doubting, which I think is an easy thing for many in a room of Unitarian Universalists to accept.  But I also ask you to accept what is likely harder, again in a room full of UUs to honor: that skillful doubting requires us to try out concepts and ideas by experiencing their possibility, rather than outright dismissing them.

Part II: #metoo

Who recognizes the source of the title of these reflections? I believe. Help my unbelief.

It’s one of my favorite lines in the Christian scriptures, from the Gospel of Mark, one that feels close to my heart.

I couldn’t deliver a sermon with the title containing belief/unbelief, focusing just on the spiritual issue of faith and doubt. Not at this time, given the national conversation around sexual harassment and assault, and generalized-yet-ever-so-harmful misogyny.

Some women, and some men, and genderfluid folx, have been brave – which only means they – we – have faced our fear, not vanquished it – and come forward to say #metoo, a hashtag movement, first started in 2007 by an African American woman named Tarana Burke, and one that came alive in the past month after allegations about Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul, finally found a full public hearing.

As the NYT Op-Ed writer, Lindy West, has written, it’s not just the past month:

In the past five years there has been a positive deluge of victims speaking out — an uncountable number that represents not just the acute trauma of an unwanted touch or a dehumanizing comment, but the invisible ripples of confidence lost, jobs quit, careers stalled, women’s influence diminished, men’s power entrenched.

This is not the first time our nation has been here.  Those of you who remember the Clarence Thomas hearings, when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, and what Dr. Anita Hill went through to tell her truth, to speak the truth of so many women, facing the race-tinged misogyny of elected (male) representatives as they interrogated her, not him.

Not enough has changed since then, given the ever-expanding list of powerful men who are being called out for misusing their power in highly gendered and sexually aggressive ways.  Not enough has changed, given the ways in which so many forms of cultural dominance are used to exclude, or marginalize, or harm, and even kill.  I am thinking here of the inequities and outright harm (including violence and loss of life) within our criminal justice system disproportionally visited upon communities of color.  How the numbers of trans women, particularly of color, who die violent deaths continues to grow each year.  Last year 23 trans women met violent deaths in this country; already this year, with still nearly two months until the calendar’s end, 24 have been killed.

So, if failure to take as true these victims’ realities is a symptom of cultural disbelief, then what might it look like if we were to practice believing?  And while, yes, I mean this when it comes to those trans women’s lives cut short, and what so many communities of color have been saying for way too long about how they are mistreated, I am also talking about any women close to home, ones known to you, perhaps loved by you: women and girls and people who born into girl bodies.  What if we were to turn the Gospel of Mark, particularly for those of us with privileged identities, such as being white, or being heterosexual, or male, or cisgendered — on its head and say, “I have unbelieved.  Help my belief.”

What might the world look like?  What might our world look like?  Can we imagine it, a world without sexual harassment? Without implied or realized violence based on gender?  Can we create it here? Can we create a space where belief is what we offer, not unbelief? A whole-hearted, public unbelief that just might heal the personal shame, the individual stigma, that too many women have taken as our own, have internalized?

One thing, small but not small, when it comes to sexual violence, is to stop using the passive tense.  Instead of asking how we can stop women from being harassed or raped, we can start asking, how and when will men stop harassing or abusing or raping? When will some men stop other men from doing these things?

If thoughts taking shape in your mind are these: — not all men harm; not only women are harmed – I ask you to slow down, notice, and stay with me. While true statements, I ask you to practice that skillful doubting that Sharon Salzberg introduced to us – instead of countering the question with cynicism or skepticism, try curiosity, like asking yourself why the discomfort? why the need to defend or dilute?  Instead I ask you to choose to make space for this particular hurt that women are naming at this moment in time.

What else to do? For anyone who has experienced harassment or assault, first and foremost, always is finding ways to be and stay safe.

And then, when possible, speak up.

Tell your truth.

Listen to the truth of other women.

Believe them.

Believe us.

This is a powerful moment and the momentum is building. This is not just glamorous movie stars, or ones wishing they could be.  This is women in every walk of life and for those women

with added layers of vulnerability due to marginalization, like women of color, like women who are economically disadvantaged, like women who are disabled, we must acknowledge and believe the hazard is higher.

The more who share their experience, the more can see themselves in this act of courage, in your act of courage and survival, and add their voice and their story.


Change can come.  Change will come. The more we coax it along, the more likely it is to be the arc of the universe bending towards justice.  It was only after the public spectacle of those hearings with Dr. Hill that complaints of workplace sexual harassment began to be officially filed in strong numbers.  Collective visibility, while painful, can also be empowering. It reminds us that none of us is ever alone.

For folx who identify as men in the room, you can read and add your name to a document created by Rev. Rob Keithan, the UU social justice minister at All Souls in Washington, DC, who co-founded a response to the #metoo movement called, #wecommit, which is a “Declaration of Response and Responsibility from the Undersigned Men.”  The declaration begins

To all the people–and especially the women and gender nonconforming people–who have publicly self-identified as experiencing sexual harassment or assault: We hear you. We believe you. We support you. And we know that there are countless others who choose not to or who cannot safely self-identify as having survived harm and violence. We understand that you should not have to share personal stories or re-experience trauma in order for men to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating sexual harassment and assault. And we know that we must do more than just acknowledge your experience with our words.

How powerful to hear those words from the mouth of a man – a co-worker, a lover, a brother, a friend:

  • I believe you.
  • I want to support you.
  • What can I do?

What else is there to do? All of us can learn to be upstanders – when we see or hear something with an ick-factor directed at a woman  – it need not even fit some hard-to-define category called “abuse” – we can say something.  If you cannot interrupt the act or words, reach out to the person who was its target.  Too often, and without our intending it to be so, our silence comes across as endorsement and we become complicit.  This is true about misogyny, but also racism, assumptions about heterosexism as the norm, and other forms of cultural hegemony.  Instead of being a bystander to this, you can be – we all can choose to be — an upstander.

We all have the power to create an environment for victims of sexual violence and harassment that will meet them with empathy and support, and help give them the confidence to speak their truth without fear or shame.  This is not theoretical.  After the musical interlude, it is the time in our service for prayer and meditation.  Today, this prayer will include an invitation to women in the room who understand themselves as part of the #metoo movement, to come forward and be seen and believed in this place that is your spiritual home.  The invitation will include one to men to be our witness, to hold these realities in the spirit of belief, offering that powerful validation that amplifies healing, that is part of building the world we dream about.

Part III: what if?

The most powerful invitation of faith I have been exposed to this past year – not requiring me to believe, but asking me to trust, offering up inspiration, delivered with contagious confidence – came in the form of poem from the Sikh lawyer and community organizer, Valerie Kaur.

I share this poem with you today as a way to bring together Parts I and II, the first on the symbiotic relationship of doubt to faith, the other on the mandate to believe in the midst of societal unbelief.  I offer it here, in part, because it names this era’s divide not only between political stances and ideologies, or faith and doubt, but also hope and despair.  I offer it here, because it asks some powerful “what if” questions.

In a speech Kaur gave last New Year’s Eve (see video above), with such heartbreak in her voice, she reflected on her experience as a parent:

I am leaving my son a world more dangerous than the one I was given. I am raising – we are raising – a brown boy in America who may one day wear a turban as a part of his faith. And in America today, in an era of enormous rage, as white Nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high, I know that there will be moments – whether on the streets or in the school yard – where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist; just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls still seen as someone else’s property, and when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, incarcerate them, to kill them.

And then she spoke her poem, only an excerpt of which I offer here:

What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?

What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?

What if all the [ancestors] who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave.

What powerful images: not doom, not tomb, but womb. That these increases in hate crimes, that these ever-continuing assaults on women, that these might be, cause for eventual hope, rather than for ultimate despair?

What if this movement of #metoo and #sayhername and Black Lives Matter and naming white supremacy in our midst and backlash against the browning of America is moving our whole society toward a long overdue tipping point?

What if we might be able to leave behind all forms of our unskillful doubt and exchange it for the skillful kind that engages curiosity, suspends disbelief of those different from us, and allows us to see a new world that is in the midst of being born, that is asking us to be midwife to it?

Let this be the time and let it be our task to join the midwifing of this moment.

May it be so.  Amen.  Blessed be.




Salzberg, Sharon.

Interview, Wisdom Publications, June 28, 2016.

Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Riverhead Books, 2003.


Sola, Esther.

West, Lindy.

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#metoo prayer ritual

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Remembering to breathe and to breathe deeply and then once more, to take the breath in and let the breath out, we pause, poised as we are, at a point of risking, at a possibility of courage: #metoo.

Risking vulnerability

Risking pain

Risking being known

Risking being not believed

Risking being believed

Risking so much, including leaving the shadows behind, and stepping into healing light.

Risking being brave.

I invite any women in the room who understand yourselves to be included in the #metoo movement, this moment in time when women are stating publicly that we have been sexually harassed, or sexually assaulted, or sexually harmed, any one of these or all of them.  I invite you to come forward and be with me, and stay with me, and if you are so moved, to add your stone to this well of tears.

image by Denise Mayfryer

[allow time & space for those to join]

I will try to be brave.  And if you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine.  And if I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours.  We will add our brave together, add it all up so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

I add this stone – larger than the actual one in my hand — for those in the room who are not yet ready to come forward, but know the truth of their story and are a part of #metoo.  We honor your choice to not come forward at this time.

I invite anyone in the room who knows someone, loves someone, regardless of their gender, who has been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, sexually harmed – any one of these or all of them.  I invite you to rise in body or raise your arms, adding your committed witness to those who have risked coming forward, who have risked being brave.

I will try to be brave.  And if you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine.  And if I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours.  We will add our brave together, add it all up so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

Let us bring intention to this act of courage, of witness, of solidarity. Let us notice and see, truly see, the pain in this room,…and the possibility.  Let us commit in the quiet of our hearts to do what you can to stop any future harm. And may we build and ever rebuild the world where safety, equality, and justice, wholeness and integrity, are the air we breathe.

May it be so. Amen.

Posted in grief, Hope, Justice, Spiritual Practice | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

There Are No Unsacred Places (sermon)

September 17, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

(this sermon was delivered extemporaneously, though written in full ahead of time; the content is substantially the same, though minor changes exist between this text and the one preached)

Place is important.  Where we are informs who we are and who we become.  When we are rooted in our place, we can expand our wings and feel our fullest power.  It’s part of why I am excited for our children today – their One Room Schoolhouse is outside on the grounds, connecting them to this place in a way that being inside the building cannot do, connecting them with our Seventh Principle in ways that only Nature can help make real.

To grow my roots here, in this place of all places, one focus of my study leave this past summer was getting to know New Jersey better.  Of course, everyone has an opinion about how to do that. Read Junot Diaz or Phillip Roth. Go to Patterson. Watch the Sopranos (which I did not do, have never done, and don’t plan on doing – that’s not the New Jersey I want to get to know).

I had my own ideas, as idiosyncratic as this may seem.  For instance, I visited New Jersey’s only green burial preserve.  I hope to tell you more about it at the end of October, but I just want to say that there is a line from a poem by Wendell Berry – it is at the top of your order of service: there are no unsacred places; only sacred places and desecrated places.  This green burial preserve is a fine example of a sacred place, sustained as such in how they honor the land and honor the natural processes of decomposition.

I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which seems apt, given his iconic status as a Jersey boy.  I also read two books about the theologies in the Boss’ music – one written by retired Unitarian Universalist minister Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz, and a more recent one, written by a Rutgers professor, Azzan Yadin-Israel.

Aside from my field trip to Steelmantown Cemetery, and reading more about icon Bruce Springsteen, my New Jersey study leave time led me to a heart-breaking piece of local history that I mean to share with you today.

But let me back up a bit.  Back to a workshop presented by UU religious leaders of color in New Orleans this past June.

During the Q & A time, a white colleague asked what she can do to address racism since her congregation is not only majority white, but was 100% white.  The response came from religious educator of color, Aisha Hauser, who has been an important voice in our faith movement for a long time, and who gained more visibility in this past half year as we have more actively struggled with patterns of racial bias and white supremacy in our own midst.  Aisha said, “If you are anywhere on this continent and in a space that is white-only or white-majority, it wasn’t always that way.  Start there.  Start with that story.  See where it takes you.”

It wasn’t always that way.  Start there.  Start with that story. See where it takes you.

Even though our congregation is by no stretch all white, this piece of advice stuck with me.

There is a story of this place, this here. Pieces of it have been made public in academic history journals and by local history efforts. When I learned this story about East Brunswick, I heard the echo of Aisha Hauser’s admonition – start with that story, see where it takes you — I knew that I had to share it with you.

This story speaks of a place desecrated by the forced removal to slavery of human beings, done so for profit, done so by abuse of judicial power.  It is a story of white supremacy and it is a story of our place’s white supremacy.  As such, it belonging to the same place we belong, it makes it our responsibility how we respond, it makes it our responsibility how to change a place that has been desecrated back into a sacred place.

New Jersey was the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery, voting in 1804 to do so in a gradual way – so gradual that there were still 16 slaves in this state when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1865.  Until 1812, New Jersey law that allowed the removal of slaves and apprentices out of state (and into the Deep South) with their (or their mother’s) assent.  This is important because six years later, Judge Jacob Van Wickle, who lived here in East Brunswick and served in the Middlesex Court of Common Pleas, used his corrupt court to falsely claim the consent of children and their mothers to being sent to Louisiana, promising them pay, promising them safe return to New Jersey, promising these things all falsely, and benefitting financially.

We heard some of their names when Marie read them earlier:





Rosinah, aged 6 weeks





It is my understanding that Van Wickle brought these people, either under false circumstances or against their will, into his court.  In one case, in Rosinah’s case, he placed her in his courtroom, asked if she – a six week old — would like to go to Louisiana and when the infant cried, he announced to the court that cry was the cry of assent.  Then, with that child’s mother next to her, Van Wickle basically said, “Your child is going to Louisiana.  Where would you like to go?”  In this devious way, Van Wickle stole the real or promised eventual freedom of those people, consigning them and their next generation, to a life of slavery.  Despicable.

Van Wickle was able to do this with the help of at least two other primary co-conspirators, both of whom were related to him by blood or marriage.  They all benefitted from this financially, as payment for slaves in Louisiana was high.  However, they were not able to get away with this for long.  Once this slave trading ring was made known, there was public outcry.  There was the founding of the Middlesex County Association for the Prevention of Kidnapping – and the eventual legislation to prohibit the “exportation of slaves or servants of color” which shut down the slave trading ring within six months of its inception.  Van Wickle’s co-conspirators were eventually indicted. Van Wickle never was, though it was his home that was used as headquarters.  He continued to serve as judge, and histories stopped paying attention to this dastardly deed.  And in the way of things, particularly in the way of white supremacy, it was erased from our collective knowing.  It was only in the 1990s, when this history was recovered, that we can now know it.

Just off Old Stage Road, here in East Brunswick, near the border with Spotswood, there is Van Wickle Road.  The people in the 1970s or 1980s who named that street did not know this history, did not know that Judge Van Wickle had done such a devious thing. The tarnish on Van Wickle’s reputation had been polished by the whitewashing of history. No one knew at the time of the street naming, but now it is known.

More to the point: now we know.  Now you know.  What are we going to do with the information?  How do we become faithful stewards of this history?  Given that this is our place – it does not matter if you reside in East Brunswick or not, your congregation exists here, and thus our roots are here, a source of your authority and power is here, a place of your accountability is here – what are we called to do?

This has been my question ever since I learned this history this summer during my study leave.  I did not go looking for this history, yet in the course of a conversation, I came to know this horrendous history.  And I cannot unknow it.

The East Brunswick Township Council next meets on September 25.  It is my intention to attend that meeting, to find the courage to speak during the public section, and to add my voice to those who have asked the Council to remember the deeds of this slave trader judge and to change the name of the street. I will ask them to do so before the end of 2018, the 200th anniversary of act wherein he sent those people – let me again say their names: Harriet, Susan, Mary, Augustus, Rosinah, Dianah, Dianah again, Dorcas, Hercules and others with names unknown to us  — into permanent slavery.

We have a Racial Justice Team here at TUS.  We met earlier this week to reflect on the question, “Given our Unitarian Universalist principles by which we seek to live, what is our obligation as a good citizen of this Township?”  That team came up with some ideas and they are all invitations to you – to all of us:

  • Read the brief summary of information in the order of service;
  • When next Wednesday’s email comes out, read the information provided there – it will be more in-depth, including written materials and some video links;
  • A link to today’s sermon will also be there;
  • As an individual, consider signing a joint letter to the East Brunswick Township Council, asking them to change the name of Van Wickle Road. That letter will be available next Sunday for you to sign – so that it can be presented to the Township Council;
  • Consider attending the Council meeting on Monday, September 25 at 8pm – any and all of you are invited, but especially if you are an EB resident. Personally, I welcome your company, even if you don’t speak.  My confidence will be stronger if I have your good company.  More importantly, the more of us who show up, the more powerful of a message it sends to the Council.

Last week, I drove the short length of Van Wickle Road.  It’s lined with homes.  I wondered about the folks who live there.  I wondered how many know this history.  I’m guessing not many. I wonder if there has been any attempt to inform them.  I wonder, once they do know, what it will mean to them?  There is something powerful about place and knowing its history, knowing one’s connection, and thus becoming the steward of that history.

But I wonder about those folks, for they are just like us, could be us – how many would be allies, seeking a name change despite the inconvenience?  How many would be “apathetic”? (which is how one historian described New Jersey’s general attitude history when it came to the abolition of slavery).  How many – god forbid – might resist a name change, claiming good intentions, but the impact being a dangerous message about who earns commemoration in this town and in this nation.

I am struck by the powerful convergence happening here.  Our nation’s active grappling with Confederate monuments these past few years, but especially these past few months.  The ugly uprising of white supremacists with torches in hand, no hoods to hide their faces in Charlottesville last month.  And now history — how a corrupt East Brunswick judge sold away a hundred people into slavery and how he has a street named after him; how this happened 200 years ago next year – 1818 to 2018; how there was a public outcry then; how there can be a public outcry now.

As Unitarian Universalists, as people of conscience and people of faith, as people of this place, of this “beautiful neighborhood” as Nick sang earlier to our children, we can be a part of making once again sacred, a place and a history desecrated by human trafficking in African American slaves.

Let’s start here.  Let’s start with this story. Let’s see where it takes us.


** Deep gratitude to the extensive historical research conducted by Richard Walling on this subject and for his persistent advocacy to have this wrong made right.

Posted in Justice, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Visit to Steelmantown Cemetery

I don’t remember ever needing or wanting a burial spot, though I do remember thinking about it from an early age.

When one looks at my family, there are many ways to respond to the dead human body and the human desire to mark one’s death by location. My father’s ashes were spread near and in a river that he had loved to fish as a young man. When my Great Aunt Ruth was buried in one of the Jewish cemeteries in Sharon, Massachusetts, I found it powerful to shovel dirt onto the casket. The plan for my mother is to have her ashes interred with the ashes of her mother and father, in the valley where generations of her family lived out their lives. My husband cares less about what ultimately happens to his dead body as that we try, in the first three days after his death, to have his spiritual community be able to do the proscribed rites and rituals required.

I did not grow up with religion and so, was not raised with dogmatic admonitions of what would be necessary at the end of my life, either ritually or salvifically. As a young adult, when I learned of the cost involved in a typical burial, cremation seemed to be the way to go. Then I learned about the excessive pollutants thrust into the air when human bodies burned. I knew that if I could avoid it, I would. Thus entered my interest in the green burial movement.

I recently visited Steelmantown Cemetery, the only green burial preserve in the state of New Jersey. What a beautiful and peaceful place.

There are black iron gate that marks the entrance. After walking a short distance into the space, it becomes clear that this is a special place. The shape of an old cemetery becomes evident. Then there is the reconstructed chapel, built originally in 1910, it was vandalized and burned in the1950s. It is simple and sweet, with natural light through the windows or from lamp flame. It also holds an old pump organ. There is a small outdoor seating area with stone benches that suggest sitting there would be a good idea, just not for long periods of time.

There is an outhouse (a two seater) in recognition that those of us still among the living still have bodily functions we must perform.

The cemetery is old. The oldest section dates back to the 18th century and contains people who died in the Revolutionary War.   There are more recent – 19th through 20th century – traditional grave sites with cement or stone stones with names and dates, perhaps a word or two about the person.

There is the section that includes 138 markers for “boys” (really, these were men, some of them dying in their seventh decade) from a local home for the “retarded.” Each of these markers has a name, the year of death, and the age of the man at his death. I appreciate that each of these deaths is marked and named; where I last lived, there was a potter’s field where the graves were unmarked for the hundreds of dead from the local once-mental asylum.

And then there is the natural section, the section that is growing: the green burial preserve.

The cemetery’s mission is “to provide a place of sanctuary, open to all, and preserve its unique history and the pristine environment it encompasses.”

The cemetery has a long history, which I won’t go into here. Most recently, the Bixby family, with ties to the cemetery already in place (families members are buried there), decided to save it from neglect and disrepair. Then, struck by inspiration, they decided to turn it into a green burial preserve. For this, I am – and we all should be – deeply grateful to Ed Bixby Jr. and and Ed Bixby Sr. whose company I was blessed to have as I toured the cemetery.

Burial sites are in the midst of a forest, with a former cranberry bog nearby. The paths are covered in a carpet of moss. Graves are dug by human effort and shovel. It takes two people about six hours to dig. Given the forest setting, graves can be dug in all seasons. Bodies are brought from the iron gates at the entrance on a large-wheeled wagon, pulled by human effort. All this reminds us that none of this is a new innovation. It is, in fact, how it used to be done, for centuries. Most likely for millennia.

The gravesites that already contain a human body are the same general shape. Depending on how long ago the burial took place, there are varying degree of mounded-ness. More recent gravesites peak above the surrounding ground. Ones from five years ago or longer seem more level. This is the natural consequence of not having a cement vault that keeps hidden the effects of decomposition. Here, in this green burial preserve, we get to observe the natural processes otherwise hidden from view.

All gravesites are marked by a large stone. You can choose one from the collection, gathered over the years by Ed Sr. or you can bring in your own. Only natural markers are allowed. There are stone markers on sites that have been bought but not yet used. You can purchase sites side by side, or for whole families to be near each other.

There are stone markers on those sites that already have occupants. Some of the stones – more than not – are etched with words. Some are the name of the deceased, their birth and death dates, perhaps a message to or from them. Some stones are etched but do not have the name of the person, but a message related to their life.

My favorite marker not made of stone. It was made of wood. It topped a mounded grave site that showed the most active wear from earth settling. This seemed aptly-suited, given this person had chosen a marker, but one that would give way to the natural processes of decomposition, just like his body. He was a surveyor – had been, in fact, the surveyor for the cemetery, so I imagine that he had a deep affection for the land and its ways, and wanted to join it as fully as possible. No stone carved with human attempts to leave our mark. But a small sign that would exist for a few years, possibly a decade or two while his relatives are still on this earth, then it, too, would go the way all organic matter goes.

There were other graves and stories that caught my attention. There’s the Painted Turtle Man. I might not be getting all the details right, but apparently when he arrived to pick out the spot where his future grave would go, he encountered a painted turtle and decided that was the location where his burial would be. He is buried there, with an etched stone that speaks his truth but does not reveal his name. A real painted turtle — by which I mean live, not a statue as I first mistook it – is also there, right alongside it, and though it moves around, it apparently always returns to that spot. I nearly stepped on it as Ed Sr. was telling me the story.

On their web site, there is a short movie that tells the story of the cemetery and preserve, as well as the poignant story of Cheri Hall Decker. Cheri was an environmental educator who worked with the Bixbys and who, when she died from an acute form of cancer, is buried at the entrance to the forest trail, still keeping company this piece of earth she loved and stewarded.

Cheri was a local, but there are people from all over the country buried in this place. It takes some planning, and if you are far away, an airplane ride for a corpse along with a New Jersey licensed funeral director to pick up at the airport, but it’s possible. Not every state or locale has easy access to a treasure like this. Most recently, I was living in Western Massachusetts where such a thing does not exist, though there are people trying to bring a green burial preserve into existence there.

There are some traditional cemeteries that have sections that allow for green practices. You can go to this link and find out if there are some near you.  Yet having a full out preserve, where the natural environment is not only maintained, but sustained, is incredibly compelling.  It may not be accessible geographically to all, but it is often much more financially accessible.  Unfortunately, that it costs less may lead some in the funeral industry to not share information about green options unless asked.

I am new to New Jersey. I do not know whether I will be here when I die. If I am, Steelmantown is where my body should be laid to rest.  This is how I want to do it when I die. I want my body to rejoin the earth. I want my people to take part. I want to co-mingle my atoms with soil atoms and leaf atoms and acorn atoms and moss atoms. I want to decompose directly, without barrier.

Posted in Death, Travelogue | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment