Widening the Circle of Concern

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

October 4, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, New Jersey

What is at stake is nothing less than our future.

So says Widening the Circle of Concern, the highly anticipated report from the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change. Published this past June, it was a central focus of this year’s General Assembly.

Throughout this current year, many different groups within Unitarian Universalism have committed to making this report the focus of their learning and leadership development.  For instance, the Metro New York chapter of religious educators (our own Jessica M. Hess sits on their exec team), developed and held just this Thursday a Professional Day for professional religious educators, ministers, and musicians focusing on the report’s findings.

This past summer, a hard copy of the report was sent to EVERY congregational president with an invitation that boards spend time with the recommendations. I am unaware of any similar determined effort to get the word out to congregations: an indicator of how important the report is.

Side note: my guess is that if any congregation wants to be considered by minister of color or one who centers anti-racism work, they are likely going to be asked how the congregation engaged in this report. Choices now impact future options.

So, to large degree, today’s sermon is “insider baseball” for Unitarian Universalists. It’s important that we know not only of its existence, but become familiar with its recommendations. Backstory that brought the Commission on Institutional Change ~ and their report ~ into being will help make sense.

There was the “Spring of our Awakening” – as some call 2017, when a courageous voice among our Unitarian Universalist leaders of color spoke out about an unfair hiring process within the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Out of this whistle-blowing came accusations, later founded, of hiring patterns that reinforced white supremacy culture, hiring white individuals to leadership positions and people of color to positions with less influence and capacity to shape the course of our association. Threats also came – aimed at the whistleblower and her family, from within the congregation she served and wider Unitarian Universalism. Yes, from within our own faith movement.

Also that spring: surprisingly, and painfully, and in my opinion, non-covenantly, the president of the UUA, himself a Latino man, resigned with just a few months left in his term, which sparked other resignations within the leadership of Unitarian Universalism.

What seemed like our Association falling apart, became an opportunity to tend to the roots of the problem, to consider new ways of doing leadership and shared ministry, and to re-examine what we, as a faith movement, stand for.

Would this become yet another time in our history when we make bold promises about building the multicultural world we dream of, only to break those promises? We have done this repeatedly. Or would this be different? 

We don’t know yet.  Part of how we will know is if we – yes, this congregation, and others like us, for all of us make up the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations – decide to engage this report, or just let it lay gathering dust on a shelf.

What is at stake is nothing less than our future.

Commission on Institutional Change members

The Commission on Institutional Change was made up of six UU leaders from across our faith movement – representing different roles, positions, and cultural identities in Unitarian Universalism. The people who made up the Commission were chosen with great intention. They spent three years of deep listening, learning and researching, soliciting stories and input, analyzing data, and then, producing what turn out to be 30 recommendations with 90 identified actions in ten categories of our communal life as Unitarian Universalists. 

All of the categories are more or less relevant to every Unitarian Universalist. A few are more directly relevant to us, particularly the category, “Congregations and Communities.”

This report is not for the faint of heart.  But we are not a faint-hearted people, are we?  We can’t be, not if the report tells us that what is at stake is nothing less than our future.


The report recognizes that more and more folks opt out of organized religion and as such, the reasons that people opt into religion, are willing to check out a UU congregation, have changed over the past decades, have changed since some of you longer-here beloveds, found your way here.  The report notes that

“As institutional religion declines, more who enter our doors are not the refugees from other faiths, but are experiencing faith communities for the first time through our faith and are seeking spiritual ground.”

 and that

“We have spent [too] time comparing our religious wounds rather than healing them…our time as a haven or social club for those disaffected by other religions has passed.  In these searing times of political division, climate change, economic polarization and global strife, people need a sustaining faith.”

“We continue to attract a greater diversity of people and to retain a very small percentage of those who do not match the resourced, white, aging, majority within our congregation.”

The report attributes one of the reasons our congregations are in trouble is “our inability to address issues of inclusion, equity, and diversity.”  Adding to this is the toxic prioritization of individualism – of focusing on the First Principle without understanding it in the context of covenantal community.

The report goes beyond naming the problem, including sharing firsthand testimony, to making recommendations and naming action steps.  Of the 90 action steps, in the chapter on congregations and communities there are thirteen.  While there isn’t time to list them all here, I do want to share with you the “take-aways” at the end of this chapter in particular:

  • Congregations that choose to engage to increase equity, inclusion, and diversity are leading the way into the future.
  • Too often congregations must do this challenging work by themselves when learning communities would be easy to form.
  • Curated resources, learning circles, and funding to develop needed tools should be a priority for UUA-led efforts under the leadership of the Liberal Religious Educators Association.
  • Anti-oppression tools as well as conflict facilitation are essential to leadership development efforts, and leadership development is needed in the complex and often conflictual context of leadership today.
  • None of this can be accomplished without better communication between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the congregations it serves.
  • Regional gatherings could touch more Unitarian Universalists and help provide a common frame of reference.
  • Regional staff should provide a consistent structure for work on diversity, equity and inclusion.

What is at stake is nothing less than our future.

I wonder if we ~ The Unitarian Society ~ will take up the invitation to do this work? We have people in this congregation willing to spend their time growing their anti-racism skills.  We have people who express the desire for a more multi-cultural congregation. 

Can we do the deep work that goes beyond wanting a diversity of skin hues in the pews just to make ourselves feel better? Are we willing to do the work of opening to the deep transformation that genuine equity, inclusion, and diversity necessitates?

I welcome the chance to share this ministry with you.

It can feel daunting ~ it is daunting ~ particularly given everything else going on in the world. With that in mind, I want you to hear this voice, these words, of hope and possibility.  They come Rev. Sofia Betancourt. She spoke them a year after the Spring of Our Awakening, the year many congregations, including this one, took part in an association-wide Dismantling White Supremacy culture teach-in, a year in which it seemed possible that chaos might win. 

Reverend Betancourt teaches at Starr King, one of our two UU seminaries.  She was, for the brief period when we had no president of the UUA during that Spring of our Awakening, one of the three co-presidents who set our Association on a new course.  Here she is, her own self:

Reverend Sofia Betancourt, General Assembly, 2018, “The Missing Remnant”

With the strength of generations. This is what we are.

As the hymn sings: our grandmother’s prayers.  Our grandfather’s dreamings.

Living into and becoming “the weary, ragged miracle that is our living tradition.”


With our Soul Matters theme this month of Deep Listening, I invite us listen deeply to this report, even if it makes us feel all sorts of ways, like some of the animals in today’s story – like shouting out of anger, like trying to focus on fixing, like getting stuck on remembering the past, like wanting to blow up the hard work of others.  I wonder if we can move through all the feelings of resistance, of defensiveness, of intellectualization, and get through to the part where we can altogether take a step back and behold a vision of our faith movement building into something that will be amazing.

Reverend Betancourt was rightly quoted liberally in Widening the Circle of Concern, for she is one of our wisest contemporary theologians.  She said these words which I invite you to take in to soothe our troubled, challenged hearts as we listen deeply to this daring and demanding report:

“The good news is that we are in control of what we do with our daily living.  If we, each one of us, represent a missing remnant in the fabric of our collective future – then together we can lean into a possibility that we have yet to fully experience in human history.  A collective wholeness.   An unassailable good.  That is the very kind of salvation I am here to fight for in the small moments of every single day.”

I call on all of us to remember who we are: our grandmother’s prayers, our grandfather’s dreamings, just as the hymn reminds us. 

I call on all of us to remember who we are, just as the poet Joy Harjo urges us:

Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.

To remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you. And this includes our beloved Unitarian Universalism.

Amen.  Blessed be.

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The Impossibility of Universalism

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

September 27, 2020

The Time For All Ages story that connects with the sermon.

While Buddhism asserts that we all have Buddhanature – that at our core can be found a golden goodness – the roots of Unitarianism or Universalism does not make this claim.  Not quite.

Historically, Unitarians claimed that we have within us the capacity to be both good and bad and that we can BE good by DOING good, that we can build our character to achieve salvation, rather than it being reserved only for an elect few, as the Calvinists (and Hosea Ballou’s father) believed. 

Historically, the thing that made Universalism heretical is that no matter how much good or bad we do, god loves us and will welcome us into heaven – kicking and screaming, if need be, as one of my colleagues has famously preached.

What does that mean for Unitarian Universalists today?

For months, this sermon had a different title in my head.  It was “Marie’s Sermon,”

because during one of my June driveway visits, Marie Phelan, a member of this congregation, shared that she was struggling to find the inherent worth and dignity of a certain high placed politician, given all the pain and suffering he continues to cause. I knew she was not alone.

It IS easier to damn some people to hell. 

Frankly, it is easier to know there will be an ultimate judge of good and bad, and to assume (or hope) that such judgement reflects our own. 

It is easier to exclude someone from humanity – call them a monster, a demon, inhuman – when they do something terrible, rather than to tolerate the discomfort of knowing that person is within the same human family as we are.

Rev. Susan Frederick Gray President, UUA

The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association – the UUA – Rev. Susan Frederick Gray says “this is no time for a casual faith”. If we take Unitarian Universalism seriously, it is actually an exacting faith and always has been.  This is true, even if we have a reputation for not knowing what we believe, or “religion lite,” or what our current congregation’s board president thought before he checked us out, decades ago: that we were the McDonald’s of religion.

Unitarian Universalism, with our First Principle asks ~ even demands ~ that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Every. Even at a time when there is so much violence and hatred being fomented by both bot and real persons alike; when there is much policy-based harm being perpetrated against the already vulnerable and marginalized, including some of us in this congregation; when hypocrisy is rife among our elected officials: this is a radical act.

How to do this impossible thing? I’d like to ask you to reflect upon three things.

Number one: while each individual has inherent worth and dignity, not all behaviors do. 

Our faith requires us to see the inherent worth of every one – the killer on death row, the hypocritical politician, the child molester – and it requires us to bring all our personal and institutional power to not only mitigate that person’s harms, but to stop them, if we can. Acceptance of inherent worth does not, and cannot, mean approval of harmful action.

The easy part of our First Principle is affirming as having inherent worth and dignity

of those individuals or identities that are so often the target of hate or derision – trans and nonbinary folx, atheists and so-called non-believers, family constellations outside the traditional, Black Lives Matter, undocumented immigrants. It feels good to be a First Principle people on those occasions. 

Reverend Sofia Betancourt says it this way:

Rev. Sofia Betancourt

We are the theological inheritors of teachings on universal salvation.  There is no winnowing out of the supposedly unworthy that can be named sacred among us. 

It is our very Universalism that is at stake when we turn away from the impact that our institutions have on the same communities and groups that society encourages us to dehumanize and make small.[i]

This is absolutely where we should start. And it’s not where we should end. It is harder to be a First Principle person when we are face to face with someone who has assaulted us, or who has passed a law that demeans our humanity, or who has been cruel or violent towards another living creature. 

Can we practice affirming their inherent worth and dignity while denouncing their action?  Can we afford not to?

Number two: For, when we cannot perceive the inherent worth and dignity of another person, it is less a reflection of them, and more about us.  It is possibly, and I say this as gently as possible, more of a comment on the depth of our own humanity, or perhaps our own experience of trauma,than on the humanity of the person we are judging.

Reverend angel kydo williams, ordained Zen Buddhist priest, says it this way:

White supremacy couldn’t survive if enough of us set about the work of reclaiming the human spirit, which includes reclaiming the sense of humanity of the people that are the current vehicles for those very forms of oppression.

It is the nearly or wholly impossible aspect of Universalism that calls us to see the humanity of the police officers who perpetrate brutality ~ or the humanity of white supremacist shooters like Dylan Roof. Yet in so doing, we are more able to access our own.

Even though I do not believe in either heaven or hell, I do take seriously the legacy of our Universalist ancestors: that god loves all (no matter how muddy we get) and that everyone will get into heaven. Everyone.

On some days, I don’t like it.  I don’t like thinking that there won’t be an ultimate comeuppance.  It seems utterly unfair.

I don’t like the hard heart work it requires of me.  I don’t like to see myself regularly failing at this high standard set before me. 

But then I inhale and I think of how so much of our common project is aspirational, that we must aim and aim again, not because we are failing, but because we are practicing.

I think about how long eternity is and how I want to affirm life, not destruction, not ugliness,not punishment ~ so I try again.

I think of how moved I am by the song we played earlier by Arjuna Griest,

and by this poem, from Andrea Gibson called, “Daytime, Somewhere” shared here in part:

Andrea Gibson, poet

So when asked if I think you’re a good person,

I say, I don’t believe in good people. I believe in people

Who are committed to knowing their own wounds intimately.

Truth knows everybody’s dark side is daytime somewhere.

Do you know science just proved an atom

can exist in two places at the same time?

No one is ever only at the scene of their crimes.

Each of us is always also somewhere holy.

If what we are called to do this thing that is both necessary, and impossible, what are we to do?

Number three: We pay attention to where our empathies linger and attach themselves. 

Especially for those of us with identities of privilege – folks with white skin, folks who present as male, folks with economic protections and privileges, folks who have had positive experiences with law enforcement, folks living without physical ordevelopmental disabilities – it is easy to have our empathies collude with narratives that support systems of oppression.  It is how we have been trained. It is how I have been trained.

For instance, I noticed the pathways of my empathy as I watched the video footage, released this week, of the fatal police shooting of Hasani Best in Asbury Park this past August. 

I watched as the tension became so thick; as the police officers took attentive care of each other, making sure their shields would protect each other from assault by someone with a knife in his hand, screaming at them. 

I noticed as the officers demonstrated few effective de-escalation skills, using words and tone of voice that only made things worse.

I heard the way that tension overflowed into nervous laughter coming from several of the officers, not out of disrespect but because human nervous systems work that way. I recognized it because that is something I have experienced in my own body when engaging fragile men with violent histories in high-tension situations. 

And let me be clear: I saw no escalation in threatening behavior by Mr. Best at the time one of the officers pulled the trigger. Which means that I, and anyone who watches that recording, observed the unnecessary use of force that resulted in the death of another Black man. 

Now Mr. Best is dead.

With his yelling, his violence towards his partner (which is why the police were there in the first place), even with his brandishing a knife: I affirm Hasani Best’s inherent worth and dignity. I say Black Lives Matter. 

In their aggressive approach and in their fear for their own safety and that of their co-workers, I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the law enforcement officers. This is what my faith calls me to.

And my faith also calls me to seek justice and equity in human relations (our Second Principle). As such, I join with Mr. Best’s family in calling for criminal charges in this case.

This is a lot to consider, so as I come to a close, let me break it down once more:

Number one: while not all actions have inherent worth, all persons do.

Number two: we demean our own humanity when we cannot see another’s.

Number three: pay attention where our empathy lingers and attaches itself – do our empathy support equity and justice in human relations?

Let us recognize that we all are covered with mud or hardened, ugly clay at times, that hides our best selves.  Let us remember the poet’s words that

 “No one is ever only at the scene of their crimes.

Each of us is always also somewhere holy.”  


[i] Rev. Sofia Betancourt, quoted in Widening Circles of Concern, p. 15

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Walking with the Wind: A Sermon on Our Fragile Democracy

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

In June of this year, a bipartisan group of over 100 individuals with backgrounds that include two former governors, senior political campaigners, prominent journalists, social movement leaders, experts on national security, election law, and more, came together over three days to test the integrity of our democracy. 

They explored four possible scenarios:

·      a win for the incumbent by Electoral College, but not by popular vote (like last cycle);

·      a clear win for the challenger;

·      a narrow win for the challenger; and

·      an outcome too close to confirm a winner the morning after Election Day.

The purpose was not to predict winner or loser, but to identify weak spots in our democracy with an eye toward mitigation now.  As many of us fear, it turns out our democracy is more fragile than we would like.

Earlier this month, they issued a report that revealed alarming (their word) insights, including that the concept of “election night” is both no longer accurate and dangerous AND that we must anticipate a rocky transition period should there be a change in the presidency. Writer David Frum described the conclusions in the following way:

The bottom line: There do exist outer legal boundaries to the mischief that can be done by even the most corrupt president. The bad news is that there is A LOT of mischief that can be done within the legal boundaries by a determined president, especially with the compliance of the attorney general and enough political allies in the state capitals.

It’s sobering. So sobering.


The last words that John Lewis – 17-term Congressman from Georgia; long-time civil rights leader who was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday; who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — wrote to our nation are ones that were published on the day of his funeral, July 30, not even a month ago. It is a moving piece and if you have not yet read it, I commend it to you.

In it he said that democracy is not a state, it is an act.

In it he said that each generation must do its part to help build Beloved Community.

In it he invited us all to walk with the wind.

Like many others, has also invited us to remember that no matter who occupies the White House, threats to our democracy are rooted deep within our nation’s origins for, as Ta-Naheisi Coates reminds us, it was not only the genocide of Native peoples but also the erection of a slave society, which created the economic foundation for America’s great experiment in democracy.

this is the opening story at the beginning of the worship service. it comes from the prologue to John Lewis’ memoir.

It is the end of August. One political party’s convention has just ended and another’s is about to take place. In some ways, this sermon is a follow up to one I gave last November: Healing the Heart of Democracy.

I am preaching to you about this now because there is still time to do something.  Though not much time. 

I am preaching to you about this now because Unitarian Universalism is guided by our Seven Principles and the Fifth one affirms democratic processes not only in our congregations, but in society at large. 

I am preaching to you about this now because the 671 mail sorting machines that were taken off line so far this year – 150% more than last year and 400% more than the year before that – by the USPS were strategically and not coincidentally from those states that will decide both the presidential race and key Senate seats.[i]

I am preaching to you about this now, because as overwhelmed with the pandemic and our own personal lives as we may be, we cannot pay attention to this state of affairs just by watching television and social media, shouting at the pundits or the latest news, and then sinking back into to our demanding lives. We cannot let the terror some of us are feeling – many of you have shared it with me – that we are losing our democracy in front of our eyes – we cannot let the state of terror or rage be our only response. We must act.

In our Time For All Ages story, John Lewis referenced the parallels between this summer and the summers of the late 1960s, when there were also uprisings in the face of structural racial inequity in the nation.  In the report from the Transitions Integrity Project, they note that our nation’s closest experience to the contention of this election cycle was the 1876 election.  The TIP report describes it as

a time of extreme partisanship and rampant disenfranchisement, where multiple states proffered competing slates of electors, and the election was only resolved through a grand political bargain days before Inauguration—one that traded an end to Reconstruction for electoral peace and resulted in a century of Jim Crow, leaving deep wounds that are far from healed today.


That same TIP report tells us that the risks they identify can be mitigated.  It states that the worst-case scenarios that played out in their three-day experience need not come to fruition.  That they explored the possibilities and raised their clarion call to “spur all stakeholders to action.”  In their words:

Our legal rules and political norms don’t work unless people are prepared to defend them and to speak out when others violate them.

Spur all stakeholders to action.  ALL STAKEHOLDERS.  That’ us, right? Don’t we all hold a stake in the integrity of our democracy?  Isn’t this a call for each of us to act?

If you are already taking action in this arena, I welcome the chance to those hopeful stories. Actions beyond posting on social media.  Perhaps you have found a group that resonates with your sense of politics and are phone-banking or text-banking or writing postcards.  Perhaps you are attending local NAACP meetings where they are strategizing about how to ensure the widest access to voting.  Perhaps you have written letters or signed petitions to save the integrity of the United States Postal Service, given the shift to mail-in ballots, given the risks posed in areas where there will be Covid hot spots come early November.

Donating as part of this morning’s Be The Change is an act of supporting the re-enfranchisement of people in Florida, particularly when they are facing obstacles placed in front of their right to vote by the state legislature after the people voted to return the right to vote to citizens returning home from prison

How else can we live into our Fifth Principle?  As I raised to you last November, I want to raise to you again the organized efforts by our faith movement called UU the Vote. As part of our UU General Assembly this past June, UU the Vote made 117,000 calls to voters in Texas to help them overcome voter suppression. There continue to be many ways, small and large, that each of you, or small groups of you, can enter into strengthening the resilience of our nation’s democracy. 

For instance, there are phone banking opportunities to help get the vote out in Florida, including one THIS Tuesday night that you can register to take part in. There are other dates, other states, all in the next two plus months. Or postcard and letter writing efforts done together over zoom to provide fellowship and a sense of community.  Or efforts that focus just next door, in Pennsylvania. Put “uu the vote” into any search engine and explore. Get a couple of other TUSians together on Zoom and help our congregation live into our values and principles!


Let me close with these words from John Lewis’ final message to us:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

Let us clasp our metaphorical hands together and move towards that corner of our collective house that is weakest, bringing the weight of our presence as a saving act – one of many saving acts that save our democracy and, as Mr. John Lewis says, redeems the soul of our nation.

May it be so. Amen.

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Walking with the Wind by John Lewis

Here is a video story based on the prologue in John Lewis’ memoir, Walking with the Wind. This was originally used as a Time For All Ages during a Sunday worship at The Unitarian Society.

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Beyond the Apocalypse: Cultivating Eco-Resilience (sermon)

February 23, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

“…we are, indeed, facing the end of the world.  Not the literal end of civilization or the human species, but a transition so profound that on the other side of it, it will seem like we are living in a different world.  That is how deep the changes must go for the ecological crisis to be resolved.  We face an initiation, a metamorphosis, into a new kind of civilization.  From this place, what is possible, practical, and realistic changes as well.  Our successful graduation to a new world is by no means guaranteed; [there is the] necessity of a death phase, the dying of our present collective self, [yet we struggle to] see the rebirth.  And that is normal.  In a true initiatory ordeal, often there is a moment when there seems no hope of ever making it through.[i]”  Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story

It is possible that I have watched too much of the Walking Dead or the Norwegian thriller, Occupied – though I think one cannot watch too much of the latter. Or that I read too many dystopian novels.  I recognize that there are those more hardcore than I. 

I think I get extra points because I took a seminary class solely on the Book of Revelation, a special hell all of its own. The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Christian Scriptures, responsible for so many of our cultural reference points for the Apocalypse, like the four horsemen. But not the rapture, no matter what the rapturists say — it’s not actually in there.

I do not have a bunker filled with two years’ worth of food. But I do have a three-month supply (which, it turns out, is what the Church of the Latter-Day Saints encourages its members to have).  I have not bought either a full floor, or even a half floor, in the condominium complex built in empty missile silo (exact location undisclosed). Even if I had an extra $2.4 million in cash to cover the cost, I wouldn’t.  More within my means, I have not bought a time share at one of the franchise locations of Fortitude Ranch, where $1,000 annually buys not only a rustic vacation setting for ten days every year, but also access to an escape destination during the collapse, payable by crypto-currency. **

It is true that I am more than curious about what it will take to survive, if not the Apocalypse, then the approaching collapse that many suggest is in the foreseeable future – whether due to the climate crisis, or to the steady slide toward authoritarianism not only in this nation but throughout the world, or the convergence of both. 

And I am deeply committed to cultivating personal and community capacities to survive not at any cost, for I find that a repugnant goal, but to build compassionate, resilient “islands of sanity[ii]” that just might be possible beyond the Apocalypse.


When you think about collapse or about what an imminent apocalypse might look like, what comes to mind? 

Is it the spread of a new virus that fells an unfathomable number of humans?

Is it the relentless melting of our polar ice caps that leads scientists to propose building a 300-mile dam between Scotland and Norway?

The mass extinctions of so, so many species of both flora and fauna?

Is it the coming down of the electrical grid that leaves those of us who have become so dependent on our technology adrift in a sea of relative isolation and irrelevant skills? Or blocks access to life-sustaining medicines or treatments?

Is it those images seared into our brains from the hellscapes of wildfires throughout the globe?

Is it deep corruption of civic institutions, a justice system doubling down on its foundations of systemic racism, rising misogyny-fueled acts of violence, and the spreading white Christian ethno-nationalism[iii]?

What if, as our opening words from Chelsea MacMillan point to, this death knell collapse, this possible apocalypse, is the lifting of the veil on a world that for far too long has been saturated in separation and greed[iv]?  A painful lifting of the veil, a chaotic one, to be sure. One which is real, not metaphorical, not poetic. Yes, in which suffering is exacerbated, but which may be necessary before our collective compass might return to the deep, saving truth of our interconnectedness, from which we have strayed so damn far.

For that is the original meaning of apocalypse – not the end of the world, and definitely not judgement day, but, if we go back to the original Greek, an unveiling or an uncovering.  Which is another way to say a revealing – a revelation, and hence the title of that book from Christian Scriptures, which barely made it into the Christian canon. 

You see, back when that was written, there were many, many apocalyptic writings.  Learned people naming corruption, speaking out against false gods, calling us to return to living within the limits of natural laws. I don’t know what you are reading, or what is appearing on your media feed, but I am seeing alot of this.

What if we are facing an ecological apocalypse, not because we are facing so many forms of extinction (we are), but because we have the opportunity to accept the invitation of apocalypse, of uncovering falsities, and return to right relationship with Nature, with the planet, with other sentient beings, with each other.

What if our task now, in this moment not so much of pre-apocalypse, but the happening apocalypse (ask the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, in Louisiana, who have had to be relocated en masse, as a whole community, because their home of centuries is now drowning in salt and sinking into the sea, unlivable[v]), is to

Practicing resilience with our hands. With these hands. With your hands. With our hands and with our hearts.

Practicing now because if we wait for additional, more frequent catastrophes to begin, it will be too late.

What do I mean by resilience?  More than avoiding headaches from caffeine deprivation, though that’s a strategy worthy of consideration, especially for a people – I’m looking at you, Unitarian Universalists – who claim coffee as our holy water.  

According to David Fleming, resilience is the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing changes so as to still retain the same function, structure, identity, and feedback[vi],” both in a preventive way (ahead of time) and in an elastic way (during and after the fact). Resilience is emergent, meaning that we can’t know all of what makes up resilience because it emerges as part of the process of practicing it. 

Resilience exists on multiple levels[vii], including in ourselves and those we love and in our communities, networks, and organizations. The Emotional Resilience Toolkit for Climate Work,[viii] written by a group of psychotherapists in the Pacific Northwest, tells us that

Emotional resiliency includes increasing our capacity to bear witness to the difficulties we are facing; sharing our experiences with the support of others through community care help increase that ability. 

Resiliency expert Andrew Zolli says that resilient communities are

1) built before you need them and

2) rooted in generosity. 

As a congregational minister, these two gems resonate, not only about an impending collapse, but for sustaining a healthy congregation. Relevant, too, is this reminder to be rooted in generosity.  Too often I have heard cross the lips of congregational members the desire to add new members in order to make pledging goals – an attitude fed by a self-serving form of scarcity, rather than generosity; meeting our needs, already established, than reaching out and inviting in based on the needs of others.

Not that long ago, I was in a conversation with the executive director of a local soup kitchen and we ended up on the topic of surviving in the midst of chaos.  She told me how the soup kitchen stayed open throughout Super Storm Sandy, how there was no chaos within their walls, how the guests – primarily folks who are often homeless – kept order and ensured mutual care and protection.  I came away from that conversation convinced that the guests of that, or perhaps any, soup kitchen, were more likely to be resilient in the face of catastrophe than I am. More likely than any congregation, particularly ones that struggle with fake fights within their walls, or who live in a protected isolation that does not require the practicing this kind of messy, inconvenient interdependence.

It was a sobering realization.

It may be true that knowing how to shoot a gun is useful in a zombie apocalypse, as I have learned from The Walking Dead.  However, and I say this having grown up in gun country, just as important, and perhaps more so, is knowing when to shoot that gun and when not to.

And perhaps most important of all is how to de-escalate conflict among a group of people who are traumatized, freaked-out, and reactive. As such, I am most interested in the realm of emotional, psychological, and spiritual resilience and how to grow this in both individuals and communities. 

How to grow our capacity to return to the table – again, and again, and again — when we have been in conflict. 

How to tolerate and manage discomfort and strong emotions so that behavior can be intentional, rather than impulsive. 

How to prioritize connection, especially with people not gathered together because we are of like-mind, but because we find ourselves in close proximity – as simple as the semi-lost art of knowing our neighbors.

How to notice how resource scarcity can cause us to exclude and narrow, then practicing its opposite: wide sharing and radical inclusion.

How to build communities and networks now, before they are necessary.  Rooting them in generosity. With these hands.  With these hearts.

Chris Begley sounds like he is a bit of a Renaissance man.  A professor of anthropology at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, he is also an archeologist.  He has worked throughout the world, studied the collapse of civilizations, and is a wilderness survival instructor.  Last fall he wrote op-ed piece[ix] that caught my eye.  In it, he wrote that even though he could teach basic outdoor survival skills – how to make shelter, or fire, or how to orient oneself – these are not the skills one needs to survive collapse:

We will not be by ourselves, with only the people we choose, avoiding those we do not understand or trust. We will not be free from the need to cooperate and compromise.

Begley goes on to say

While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive. Armed with those skills, we will turn towards the problem, not away from it. We will face the need, and we will have to solve it together. That is the only option.

That, he says, is what survival looks like.

Let us reclaim apocalypse, admitting to ourselves, each other, and the wider world that it – the Great Unveiling — is happening now.

Let us strip away the lies of self-sufficiency and despair, finding our way back to the truth of our interconnectedness.

Let us cultivate the kind of resilience that looks like courage, that looks like caring, that looks like connection, that looks like compassion, all of which we are going to need when the world looks a lot different than it does now.

Let us, with hands and hearts, build connection, relish transformation, cultivate resilience.

Let the lyrics of this morning’s anthem be our company in the days and times to come:

What are you gonna do about it, when the world comes undone?
My voice feels tiny and I’m sure so does yours.
[Let us put it] all together [and] make a mighty roar

Amen. Blessed be.

** thank you to my colleague. Rev. Scot Giles, for his sermon, which sent me down the preppers wormhole.

[i] Eisenstein, Charles. Climate: A New Story, p. 73

[ii] Wheatley, Margaret. Who Do We Choose To Be, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017.

[iii] https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/articles/vulnerability-and-resilience-democracy

[iv] https://medium.com/@revchelseamac/its-time-to-reclaim-the-apocalypse-c2ee43001005

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/03/us/resettling-the-first-american-climate-refugees.html

[vi] https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/resilience-the-global-challenge-and-the-human-predicament/

[vii] https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/resilience-the-global-challenge-and-the-human-predicament/

[viii] https://secureservercdn.net/

[ix] https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article235384162.html

Posted in Book of Revelation, End of the World, Sermons, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mission: POSSIBLE (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

January 26 2020

To not let go of the thread, we have to find the thread, know the feel of the thread, make it ours, and hold it in our fingers.  That thread – our communal thread – is our mission. Our reason for existing. Our purpose for being.

We just recited our formal mission, the one that you can read every Sunday you are here because it is on the cover of our order of service.  How many of you knew that it was there, available to you so immediately, not hidden away on some shelf or by clicking through too many web pages?

Right here, in our own hands, and still, perhaps, not so much written into our minds or hearts.  Plus, if it were written there, would it be relevant?  Our mission was last updated about a decade ago.  Best practice tells us that we should be looking at the relevance of our mission at least every five years.

And, in fact, the congregation’s leadership, at the direction of the Board, has begun this important work.  Last June, leaders met to begin to identify the sweet spot between what the community and world needs and where our gifts and longing overlap.  In August, the board met to refine this even further.  I’ll tell you about what they came up with in just a bit.

I said this is important work and I want to tell you why.  Because I think a common reaction to the idea of revisiting or revising a mission statement is to either go to sleep, numb out, or quietly exit the room. For some of us, it sounds deadly. So here is my chance to convince you otherwise.

Congregations that are mission-driven, and their mission looks both inward and outward, are the best inoculated against decline.  Knowing one’s purpose, embodying it in how we are with one another and how we are in the world, is the best thing we can do to feed the vibrancy of this place and people; is the best thing we can do to slow, perhaps even reverse, the shrinking we are experiencing. 

In her essay, Soul of the Whole[i], Rev. Victoria Safford writes

It seems to me we speak all the time and all at once of two kinds of spiritual integrity, two ways of being deeply, liberally, religious—one looking inward, one looking outward. And that presents a kind of paradox. Our work as 21st century Unitarian Universalists is to attend to both at once, never one without the other, because in fact they are not as separate as they seem; they’re entirely intertwined. And whenever we forget this, things start quickly to unravel.  

That thread we are supposed to hold onto unravels.


I mentioned that last August, the Board worked to revisit and reclaim the congregation’s mission.  As I shared at our Rededication event in November, they moved us closer into connection with our mission, by identifying two core purposes of The Unitarian Society:

One purpose is to Connect with Something Greater than Ourselves.  In reflection, the Board articulated this as two things: doing good in the world and connecting with a sense of higher power or Unity. We talked about how to bring this concept alive in the very space you find yourselves in: sanctuary.  Sanctuary for spiritual exploration and development, perhaps even moving beyond our Bond of Union’s threshold of spiritual satisfaction to spiritual growth.

The other purpose is to Build Partnerships in our Diverse Community. Current examples of living into this purpose include

·      our commitment to ensuring that the Montessori School thrives;

·      continuing our decades-long relationship with Elijah’s Promise;

·      institutional, financial, ministerial, and participatory support to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project; and

·      another new ministry that feeds both the congregation and the community:  the MLK@TUS gathering on the Monday holiday that honors Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his vision of a racially just Beloved Community.

But I think I am getting the cart before the horse.  For these concrete manifestations of our values and possibly of our mission are what are called Ends.  And actually, we want to start not with Ends (seems obvious, right?) but with Values, which hold our mission, which direct our ends.

The Board is currently reading a book called The Nested Bowls: The Promise and Practice of Good Governance in preparation for our upcoming March 14th workshop.  This book, written by Laura Park, comes out of Unity Consulting, a Unitarian Universalist consulting practice that helps congregations bring clarity and focus to their ministry. It is based in Minneapolis. 

It is from this book that the activity I invited you to engage in at the end of the Time For All Ages – to write down up to five nouns of overarching qualities you would like to see the congregation embody – comes.  (There’s still time to write those down.  And if you find that you can’t do it today, feel free to email them to me over the next couple of weeks.)

These qualities are the first of the three nested bowls:  the values bowl.  It is the largest bowl, by which I mean the most foundational, for it contains all our efforts and reasons for existing.  It is our essence when distractions are brushed away.

For each of the three bowls, the author asks a question or two.  For the values bowl, the question is

What transcendent, timeless qualities of our religious community will we embody in all we do?

It sounds like a big ask, to name these.  And it would be if it was just your job, or yours. Or mine.  Lucky for us, it’s up to all of us.  That’s why I invited you to write down three, and up to five, words or short phrases that capture the unique mix of qualities the congregation seeks to make real in the world. This is just a gentle reminder, if you did yet write them down, I do hope you will do so and then leave them in the basket in the lobby as you leave the sanctuary.

Heads up, we are going to explore this and play with this a little more as part of our canvass breakfast this year.

Next comes the second bowl, nested within our values.  This is where mission sits.  If we do not hold the thread of our values, and hold onto that thread through good times and bad, there is no way for us to situate a mission that is relevant or worthy.  The key questions for the mission bowl are

·      If we live fully into our values, what is our transcendent purpose?

·      What overarching difference are we here to make and for whom?

·      Whose lives will we change and in what way?

We’re not answering those questions today – yes, breathe a sigh of relief!  But we aren’t fully off the hook.  We must set aside the time and the head and heart space to answer them. 

Finally, the third bowl, nested within the mission, which is nested within the values, is what they call “Ends.”  The term “ends” is borrowed from literature on governance, which is about decision making, authority and responsibility, and measures. The question for this third nested bowl is

What more specific, measurable differences will we make and for whom?

And while we are not answering this question in this moment, we do answer this question when we develop a budget and vote on it.

While I have asked you to help us with the Values portion of this approach, and will ask you again at the canvass breakfast, and while it is important for the Board to not lose sight of the Ends, our focus today is on mission. Mission, not as some dry exercise in revising a dead sheet of paper, but mission as something that animates and enlivens, such as the story of Throop.  Mission as something that looks both inward and outward.  Mission as something that we actually remember in times good and bad, that feels our souls and educates others about who we are.

Towards that end, though we might be – again – putting a cart before a horse – but I do so to fire up your imagination – there is a sub section of mission building that comes after a mission has been revisited, reviewed, and redefined.  And that is not just the mission statement, but the even pithier, mission tag line.

We don’t have a mission tag line.  I don’t even know what ours would be and that’s for the best. It’s not for me to decide.  It’s for us to figure out. 

I can tell you that I often experience a mild case of holy envy when I see ones from other congregations, especially when they are memorable or clever. Now, this is not necessarily a good thing – it’s that part of my personality that is drawn to shiny objects.

But I have experienced – in the congregation I served as an intern – that these taglines can help consolidate identity, convey to visitors and outsiders who the congregation is, and act as a discerning question when internal decisions are being made. And that is a good thing. At that congregation, First Parish Church of Groton, their tagline is


Here are some other examples from other UU congregations:




“In the spirit of courageous love, we forge a community of radical welcome and deep connection that moves us together to heal the world.” (Columbia, Missouri)


There are so many ways to approach a mission or to use the mission to approach how we live out our shared congregational life. For instance, one significant, upcoming way is already in process – the development and adoption of the yearly budget.

While a budget is a financial statement – both practical and aspirational – a budget has other qualities as well. If you listen to public theologians – like Dr. King, like the modern-day Poor Peoples Campaign, like the Nuns on the Bus – they remind us that the federal budget and state budgets are moral documents, not just financial ones.

This is true about congregational budgets as well. They are moral documents. And they are missional documents. They are one of the ways in which we measure – one of those Ends – whether we are living into our values and mission.

A budget reflects back in numbers what is most important (and what is least important).  A budget shows us, and sometimes not so kindly, where the gap between our stated mission is and where we put our money.  Budgets must always be developed by practical people, but if they are solely built by people who practice only prudence and not mission, then an essential part of what it means to be a people of spirit and vision is often lost. 

So here is another invitation to you.  On February 23, after the service, the Finance Committee is hosting the annual Budget Town Hall, when you are asked to engage in a review of a draft of the budget for next fiscal year. I invite you to save that time in your calendar.  I invite you to look ahead of time at that carefully ordered set of numbers that dear people will have extended great efforts to create and present to you. I invite you to ask questions about the congregation it describes and the congregation it aspires to be.  I invite you to read what it says about our looking inward and our looking outward. What does it say about our intentions around what we have called for a thousand years, religious education, but is really faith formation?  What does it say about how much you value the role of Minister? What does it say about the relationship between the congregation and the school sides of The Unitarian Society? 


I am deeply grateful for the past few months as we have been able to enjoy a stroll with our past.  I am thankful to Paula, Marie, Coleen, and Joyce, who created walls with images of our past, seeing old friends again, seeing current friends in their younger incarnations.  Now that those frames will be soon coming down for the most part, I have been wondering, “What next?” 

What if there was a wall, or a section of a wall, to give the past its proper due, and then walls and walls that reflected a vibrant now – images of what makes this place, this place. Images of what makes this people, this people.  Images that informed visitors, renters, new comers, and even folks who have been coming for a while, how we live into our values and principles? 

What if there were a wall, or a section of a wall, with images of the future, of a vision that drew people in, inspired them, made them want to be a part?  What would that wall look like if it reflected our mission? And inspired people to live more fully into it?  I don’t know the answer to that question, and that’s a good thing.  Because it is exactly that kind of thing that we should figure out together.

Let us discover, more intentionally, more explicitly, that, indeed, there is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.

Let us, remember ourselves into the future, along the endless yes of the horizon, shaking the scales from our imagination.

Let us continually remember to ask, not what is wrong, but what is possible.

Let us continue to look both inward and outward, never one without the other. Let us dig deeper where they intersect, combine, resonate, overlap, and create new synergies.

Amen.  Blessed be.

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Growing Equanimity: Via Rumi’s Guest House (sermon)

Do you know that old, and perhaps tired, and perhaps true, cartoon about Unitarian Universalists? There are two doors.  Each has a sign over it.  The first door says, “Heaven.”  No one is going through that door. The second door says, “Seminar about Heaven.”  All the Unitarian Universalists choose that one.

I want to begin with gratitude. Gratitude for so much, but especially for accepting the invitation to take part in our collective lectio divina.  I was moved by what we created together, what we allowed to rise up from our voices mingling with each other’s, a surrender to whatever would come of it. 

As you may have noticed, I am spending the year with the goal of preaching on the Unitarian Universalist principles – all seven plus one of them.  Thus far, I have preached on Principles 7, 1, 8, 5 and 4, in that order.  Today I am preaching the 3rd principle:

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

But I am not just preaching on the topic.  We, together, are exploring and practicing it.  And doing it in our pluralist Unitarian Universalist fashion: informed by Christianity, Buddhism, and Sufism to find our way in. Today, together, we are saying yes to the first door – not of heaven, but of spiritual practice, trying it out in our meditation prayer today, in the lectio divina contemplative practice, not just attending a seminar about it. 


Upekkha is the Pali word for equanimity.  It is one of the four Great Virtues or Divine Abodes in Buddhism, along with

Metta – lovingkindness,

Karuna – compassion, and

Mudita – sympathetic joy.

It is what the meditation teacher was trying to grow within himself when he chose over and over again to bring the clumsy tea boy along.  It is the capacity that the great Mystic and poet and Muslim, Rumi, is describing when he says to welcome all the hard stuff into the house of your soul, inviting them in laughing.

Equanimity is the quality of inner peace amidst change[i], disappointment, surprise, fear, reactivity, disgust.  It’s not that you don’t feel or experience those things – you do.  It’s that they have their place and no more.  That they pass through without getting sticky and staying beyond what is necessary.  It is the capacity to stay centered without judgment, without clinging (what some call craving or desire) or without aversion, avoidance, or denial.

The Zen Buddhist teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, describes equanimity as “the capacity to be in touch with suffering and at the same time not be swept away by it.  It is the strong back that supports the soft front of compassion.”  Gosh, when you put it that way, I want some of that.  I want all of that!  So simple, but not by any means easy.

Another way to think about equanimity, is the famous lesson called the Second Arrow.  Attributed to the Buddha, it is found in the original teachings of The Buddha once they were written down, which is a few centuries after he lived. In this case, this lesson was in the Sallatha Sutta

The Buddha noted that a person feels pain and that this is like being shot by a single arrow.  It hurts.  It may cause injury.  All this is true and real.  However, the untrained or unpracticed person – that’s you, that’s me, that’s most of us – we do not respond to the pain of that one arrow. We react as if we have been hit by a second arrow: we bring fear, or anger, or worry — all sorts of secondary emotional reactions that amplify the pain, turning it into suffering.  We might break our leg – that is the first arrow – but we turn pain into suffering by spinning stories of how we might not fully regain our strength or gait, or our livelihood might be impacted.

The Buddha said one can learn to feel just the one arrow. One can learn to not invite the second arrow.  Our modern interpretation has boiled this lesson – and perhaps all the lessons of Buddhism – into this: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Equanimity allows us to experience the fullness of the first arrow, without adding a second (or third, or forth) arrow.


The poem we know as The Guest House comes to us from an epic, unfinished collection called, “Masnavi,” that contains 50,000 rhyming couplets.  Rumi described the Masnavi as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”— which he understood was self-evident to mean Islam —“and the explainer of the Koran.”

Rumi, as you may know, was a 13th century scholar, poet, , a devoted student of the Qu’ran, and follower of the Mystic, Shams-i-Tabriz.  He was born in what is now Afghanistan and eventually settled in Konya, in what is now Turkey. 

There’s some information about this particular version of the poem that I think is important for us to know.  This English version comes to us from Coleman Barks and is likely the most familiar in America. 

Yet, the strange thing is, Barks does not read or write Persian, which is what the original verses were written in.  Saying he is a translator is an overstatement. He’s more of an interpreter and not even first hand.

Let me share with you some of the direct translation of the original text, just so you can get a sense of the liberty that Coleman Barks took

This body, O youth, is a guest house: every morning a new guest comes running (into it).

Beware, do not say, “This (guest) is a burden to me,” for presently he will fly back into non-existence.

Whatsoever comes into thy heart from the invisible world is th(e)y guest: entertain it well!

In 2017, published in the New Yorker,[ii] Rozina Ali wrote on the erasure of Islam from the Western encounter with Rumi, noting Barks willful ignorance of Rumi’s ties to Islam is part of a long line of other Western translators over the centuries who removed Islamic cultural and religious particularities in the original texts, while leaving in references to those shared with Christianity.  She quotes a Rutgers professor, Jawid Mojaddedi, who states,

“The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion.”


I hope that before you leave this morning, you will make the time to look at the painting of the poem which is a part of my family. I am no longer sure how old it is. I hope that it conveys the essence of the house metaphor for equanimity.

That metaphor — of house — for the encounter with equanimity is a powerful one that transcends wisdom traditions.  For instance, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book about equanimity, At Home in the World, writes

 “Our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and now. Our true home is a place without discrimination [or] hatred. Our true home is the place where we are no longer seeking [or] yearning for anything, no longer regretting anything…. [Our] true home is something [we] have to create for [ourselves]. When we know how to make peace with our body, to take care of [it] and release [its] tension, then our body becomes a comfortable, peaceful home to come back to in the present moment. When we know how to take care of our feelings—when we know how to generate joy and happiness, and how to handle a painful feeling—we can cultivate and restore a happy home in the present moment. And when we know how to generate the energies of understanding and compassion, our home will be a very cozy, pleasant place to come back to…. Home is not something to hope for, but to cultivate….”

Home is not something to hope for, but to cultivate.  Equanimity is not something to hope for, but to cultivate. In this, I hear the work of spiritual practice.  In this, I sense the fruit of spiritual growth. Not the low bar of spiritual satisfaction that the congregation’s Bond of Union names.  Just sayin’.


I want to offer you an example from my own life, hoping that it may be of service to you in yours, then connect to why growing our capacity for equanimity might be of service to us as a whole.

As some of you know, I have the world’s greatest dog living at my house.  


I know those of you who have dogs think you have the world’s greatest dog living with you, and it may be true, too. 

Anyway, Vera, while the world’s greatest dog, is not perfect.  She has a habit, nearly compulsive by my standards, of licking herself.  Constantly.  Most of the time, I can shut it off.  She likes to be near me.  And when I sit myself down to meditate, she settles in nearby and begins her practice – perhaps her spiritual practice, I haven’t asked her – of licking. 

Incessantly licking. Never-ending licking. Unremitting, persistent, ceaseless.  You get the idea.  No matter how much I come back to my breath, bring my attention away from Vera or the sound, it does not seem to work.  My nervous system is drawn in and I grow increasingly reactive to that. sound.  Often it results in my impulsively breaking my silence, impulsively raising my voice, and impulsively commanding her to stop. 

Vera does not like that voice.  Neither do I. (It does get her to stop, though.)

I am working on this in two ways right now.  One is that I am trying to move from impulse to intention.  If I must break my silence, if I must issue a command, then there is an increased elegance if I do it with intention, rather than with impulse.

The second way I am working on this is recognizing that there is space between me and my nervous system.  It is my nervous system that is reacting so strongly to the sound of her licking.  It is my nervous system that feels a growing sense of desperation that if the sound does not stop I will somehow – and I’m exaggerating here for effect – disintegrate. 

So, if I can both know that I am not nervous system and that my nervous system is not the whole of me, then I might be able to experience something closer to equanimity.  That can begin when I can observe even a moment’s pause between the trigger – Vera’s licking – and my reaction.  Then I can slow down, I can choose something that might soothe my nervous system.

It might be getting Vera to stop.  Like the hosts of that ancient meditation teacher suggested by not including the clumsy tea boy along on trips anymore. That’s an external solution and sometimes we need them.  Sometimes we need to remove external triggers from our lives – or remove ourselves from exposure to them.

And we also need to identify and grow the capacity for internal strategies.  Observing our reactions and trying to get under them, or before them, in order to possibly interrupt them.  Learning how to use breathing as a means of self-regulation.  Or self-talk. 

Or somatic strategies that can bring us to center, that can help us touch that sense of home that Thich Nhat Hanh named, that can help us – and this is the advanced version – stand at the door laughing and invite in that trigger – for me, invite in Vera’s incessant licking. This is why I don’t just close my door and not allow her into the room with me when I sit down to meditate.  She is my clumsy tea boy right now (and I have other clumsy tea boys in our lives – most of us have more than one).  I want to learn what it is she has to teach me.

The thing is, when I develop this capacity for equanimity in the small and perhaps silly circumstance of irritation at my dog’s compulsive behavior, I am growing my capacity in other, much more urgent situations, where the need for my thoughtful, skillful, intentional response has bigger consequences – in my family life, in my relationships, in our shared congregational life, in the midst of the mounting anxiety provided by a world inhabited by climate crisis, deep cultural divides, weaponized acts of hate, and a federal government that continues its dangerous dalliance with an authoritarian demagogue.

When we increase our capacity for equanimity, we know better how to move in that space between brittle reactivity and numbed-out avoidance, which is a form of resilience for us as individuals and us as a community.  Equanimity allows us to stay engaged without being on one hand, overwhelmed or oversaturated or overstimulated or, on the other hand, using privilege to remove ourselves from the chaos.  If this is the case, then it strikes me that equanimity just may be a necessary super power when it comes to the increasing threats to democracy, as well as what we are facing when it comes to the climate crisis.  I’ll be preaching about that on the 23rd of this month.


May we choose the door of spiritual practice, not just learning about them.

May you never forget that you are the golden thread running through. That even in times when love feels opaque and distant, you can find your breath, you can find this community, you can find the deeper truth that all changes change.

In that midst, may you give yourself kindness and heaping, joyful love to get yourself through.

May you refrain from that second arrow. May we all refrain from that second arrow.

May we find ourselves at the door laughing, entertaining the hard stuff as a path is cleared for some new delight.

May we cultivate the super power of the Middle Way in ourselves, in each other, and in the worlds we inhabit.

Amen. Blessed be.

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White Lies: James Reeb, a Podcast, a Missing Murderer, & Liberatory Memory (sermon)

January 19, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

most of the sermon made it — just the last few minutes were lost

[a clip 1:17 minutes from the White Lies podcast, episode, “A Dangerous Kind of Self Delusion”]

…Why must good men die for doing good? “O Jerusalem, why did you murder the prophets and persecute those who come to preach your salvation?”[i]

These words, along with those that Marie shared with us in our earlier reading, come from the eulogy that Dr. King gave at the memorial service for Reverend James Reeb.   Dr. King admonishes us not to look just for the actual persons who held the weapons and inflicted the mortal blow, but to the system that led, and allowed, and actively cultivated such murder.  Don’t look just to WHO killed James Reeb, but WHAT killed him.

It might seem that the two journalists behind the White Lies podcast did not heed Dr. King’s words, because they went looking into the mystery of why no one was held to account for the brutal murder. 

However, by returning to this violent history, they are exercising what is called, liberatory memory[ii]. And they have extended to us the invitation to do the same: to liberate our history from a lie and out of that, possibly be saved by the truth.  And if not saved, then healed. And if not healed, then to experience a sense of integrity that might allow for a more resilient future.


Originally Presbyterian, James Reeb turned to Unitarianism after seminary. He was a minister in our faith tradition, drawn by our focus on social justice. Reeb, and his wife, Marie, had four young children. They were committed to do what was theirs to do to resist racism. In the different cities where they lived – Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston –as a white family, they chose to live in neighborhoods where Black people lived, despite segregated neighborhoods in these Northern cities.

We just heard part of his last sermon, which he gave at All Souls in Washington, DC, where he served as assistant minister.  Longing to do community organizing, he left that position, unsatisfied with parish ministry.  He ended up working for affordable and integrated housing, moving to Boston.  Here is a small window into that new life, from a letter a friend[iii], dated the fall of 1964. I share it with you so you can remember the man alive, not just the martyr made:

It took me many days of looking to find this house.  It has three floors, 11 rooms and full basement plus a vacant lot across the street. Almost no one wants to encourage you to move here. One lady asked me if I was crazy when I told her I really wanted to move into the neighborhood. The children are in school and, in general, happy. John wanted to help to integrate his class.  Some gal in Washington wanted to know if I really wanted my children to go to school with Negroes and I said yes, of course, all children are lucky who integrate schools. 

Marie is busy, getting the house in order. I am faced every day to stretch my mind. There are new problems, new ideas, new experiences to deal with. I have seized the bull by the horns. I am doing what seems important. And let the damn torpedoes come.

We have a challenge to meet as a family.  We are together sharing in what I think will probably be one of the most significant times in our lives.  We are all amazingly well and I am spending more time with the family than ever before.  We have finally got our ping pong table and Marie, John, and I play regularly.  We are resuming our Friday night birthday festival: we have a cake, candles, and someone tells us about a person we admire, and we sing happy birthday. 

Just a few months later came Bloody Sunday – the violent encounter between police and marchers from Selma to Montgomery –  immediately after which Dr. King to put out the call to clergy across the nation and from all traditions to come to Selma.  Which Reverend Reeb accepted.


Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace are both journalists. Brantley is a professor at the University of Alabama. Beck Grace is behind something called Moon Winx Films. They are the authors of the White Lies podcast published by NPR in May and June of last year. Both are Alabama-born white men whose families go back in that state before it was a state; families that had been slave-holding and Confederate. 

I’m not a fan of the true-crimes genre of most anything, but this podcast, with its intersection with Unitarian Universalist history, captured my attention. It was riveting. And even though this sermon contains spoilers, it is well worth your time to listen to. According to its makers, the podcast is

“the story of a murder at the center of the civil rights movement and the lies that kept it from being solved. It’s an event that rippled far beyond the time and place where it happened, sparking national outrage and galvanizing support for one of the most significant laws of the 20th century.”

It is also an exploration into what happens when, in their words, “you call a lie and lie” and “find out what it means to live into that truth.”


James Reeb, along with other Unitarian Universalist clergy, arrived in Selma. That very evening, hungry for dinner, he and two other UU ministers – Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen – ate at a Black-owned diner. As civil rights workers, they were welcome there in a way they would not be at a white-owned diner.  As they were departing the diner, in a town unfamiliar to them, heading back to the organizing headquarters, they chose a route that brought them in harm’s way. 

Ultimately, three men would be arrested and charged, and quickly acquitted, for the beating that mortally wounded James Reeb on the street near that diner.  Initial reports said there were four men involved in the beating.  It is through the journalism of the White Lies podcast fifty years after the fact that the fourth man, never charged, is identified!  The podcast also establishes it was Elmer Cook, one of the three originally arrested, who was the man who swung the club that crushed Reeb’s skull. 

The night of the beating, during a harrowing ambulance ride to Birmingham, for there was inadequate medical care in Selma, Reeb lost consciousness and never regained it.  A few hours later, his wife was called before she would hear about it on the 11 o’clock news: you must come.  The national and world media was watching, as was President Johnson and Lady Bird.  Two days later, Reverend James Reeb died.


Out of this act of brutality, out of the culture of that place and time and system of justice, there arose a counter narrative of what happened.  While there was no denying the death, a story arose that he did not die from the beating outside the diner, but because the people with him in the ambulance – his colleagues and friends – inflicted an injury that led to his death. 

He died, they would say, because the movement needed a martyr.

This was not just some vague rumor or personal rationalization that the four men who beat the civil rights workers told themselves and their families (although they did do that).  This was the narrative that the prosecutor used in the courtroom, that secured the defendants’ acquittal.  In the podcast, Beck Grace and Brantley interview the only surviving juror from that case, who says that he still very much believes that Reeb was killed by his friends and by the movement. It was chilling.

This is not the only time of such a nefarious counter narrative arose during civil rights struggles.  Surely you remember the church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, the one that killed four little girls and maimed one? There was a widely disseminated – in the white community – that the church had bombed itself.  It had staying power until 1977, when then prosecutor, Doug Jones, now Senator Doug Jones, won the case against the actual bomber.

Though not as violent, but made of the same dangerous cloth, I think of the modern myth of the so-called transgender person – a person dressed as a woman who is really a man who goes into women’s bathrooms in order to creep on little girls and vulnerable women.  To my knowledge, there is no verified account of this happening, even though there are many substantiated cases of harm being threatened and inflicted on true transgender people just trying to pee. Yet the myth is perpetuated and transphobia grows.

To what lengths will we humans go to avoid culpability for our own evil?  To rationalize our own bigotry and ignorance?  It’s chilling.


In the podcast, they tell of the local cemetery in Selma, how there is a Confederate memorial circle with glorification of the fallen soldiers in the civil war.  There is one statute erected thirteen years after the war ended – like many others throughout the South, and the North, trying to make meaning after that horrific event. 

There is another statue, erected much later.  This one is of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan, a slave trader himself.  This statue was erected weeks after the first Black mayor of Selma took office. It was not a response to a war that had just concluded.  It was a response to a Black person holding political office. It was the KKK saying, we’re still here.  Want to guess what year that was? 

The year 2000.

I want to caution us.  Today’s sermon is about a story that took place in Selma, Alabama, it is true.  And in the story, we can see how that particular place struggles with history and memory in a particularly Southern way. This is also true. 

But let us not be arrogant or find ourselves wallowing in false exceptionalism.  There is no integrity in living such a life.  There is no liberation there.  The North has our versions of whitewashed lies. It is on us to call these lies the lies.

Perhaps you have heard of the concept of Sankofa.  That word comes to us from Ghana, from the Twi language. It translates as “go back and get it.”  It calls us to acts of “liberatory memory”: to look back to the past in order to learn for the future; to do so that we might liberate ourselves and others from some of the shackles of history – harm done, harm experienced, lies told, truths buried.  The Sankofa symbol is a bird.  Its body faces forward.  Its head turns back.  In its beak is an egg – fragile, precious, full of potential: the seed of knowledge from facing our past that we plant for a resilient future. A future with integrity.

The Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is our chance to exercise “liberatory memory.” It is our chance to call a lie a lie and learn to live with the truth of it. It is our chance to help others to do the same: to live a communal life of more integrity.

these are only some of the recovered names of the Lost Souls

For some of you the following is new information.  For some, this is an update. The Lost Souls Project is making known the horrific history of 1818.  A corrupt Middlesex County judge, who resided in what is now East Brunswick, along with what turns out is a cadre of other people, sold enslaved and free African Americans into the Deep South and permanent slavery. We are currently aware of 180 of whom we have the names for 141.  Just a month ago, we recovered three additional names. We have even discovered that the governor at the time was implicated. It’s chilling.

We call them the Lost Souls, though they were not so much lost as actively stolen away.  We are trying to build a memorial with all their names, and the history, so that it can never be forgotten, or whitewashed.  This spring we are developing the process for soliciting designs from artists and continuing community education.  In fact, next Saturday, Peter Kahn and I are presenting, along with Kristal Langford, at the Elizabeth Public Library.

The Lost Souls Project is a multi-racial, grassroots group in partnership with two African American community groups and in conversation with the Township of East Brunswick.  If you ever wonder how your life might be more multi-cultural, you might consider participating in this meaningful work.  We consider Lost Souls a ministry of this congregation, which currently acts as the group’s fiscal sponsor, enabling them to receive two grants so far.


In its conclusion, the podcast acknowledges that in this case justice is never done.  Three men were acquitted.  The counter narrative blaming the victim and absolving the white community took deep root.  The journalists identified the fourth man guilty of murder – yet, he died before any formal charges could be made.

The family of Elmer Cook knew he was involved in the beating, but they never acknowledged that his swinging the club caused Reeb’s death. That counter narrative – that lie — absolved their patriarch of murder.  A white lie to be sure, but not the kind we might call innocuous or harmless.

Still, acts of liberatory memory came out of this journalistic exploration. Katie Cook, the great granddaughter of Elmer Cook, went to college and learned outside and beyond the counter narrative told in her family. Out of that, she went seeking. Eventually, she met with the daughter and granddaughter of James Reeb and practiced authentic curiosity and reconciliation. 

Marie Reeb, James’ widow, had spent these fifty years not wanting to learn the names of the three who had been briefly arrested, for she did not want hate to grow in her heart.  In the course of the podcast, for the first time since her husband’s death, Marie chose to listen to the story of that tragic night. Not to start growing hate, but to rest in truth.

There came even further reckoning.   Katie’s grandfather – the youngest son of Elmer Cook – met with the podcast journalists. Despite a lifetime of holding fast to the counter narrative, he listened to what the journalists had to share and accepted as truth what they shared, opening himself to the possibility of healing, of liberation, of integrity. Opening his family, and his community, to that very same possibility. 

Just as the podcast offers us as a society and a nation.


In his eulogy for James Reeb, Dr. King asked us to work passionately, unrelentingly, and to make the American dream a reality, so that Reverend Reeb did not die in vain.

Let us take to heart the words those words, along with the words of Reverend Reeb in his last sermon, that we not allow ourselves to succumb to any kind of dangerous self delusion about how long in the making a truly racially just world is.

Let us keep each other company, making each other brave enough to call a lie, a lie, and to live lives of ever deepening integrity.

Let us be like the Sankofa bird: willing to look back so that the future might be more resilient.

Amen.  May it be so.

This plaque hangs at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston. It depicts Jimmie Lee Jackson, the first to be killed near Selma (in Marion) and whose death was the trigger for the march that led to Bloody Sunday. Next is Rev. James Reeb, Unitarian Universalist minister. On the right is Viola Liuzzo, Unitarian woman from Detroit, who came South to be a civil rights worker and was shot while driving a car of other civil rights workers.

Deep gratitude to the White Lies podcast and its makers.

[i] https://www.uuworld.org/articles/memoir-kings-eulogy-james-reeb

[ii] Chandre Gould and Verne Harris, https://www.nelsonmandela.org/uploads/files/MEMORY_FOR_JUSTICE_2014v2.pdf

[iii] https://www.npr.org/2019/06/21/734713126/a-dangerous-kind-of-self-delusion

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Three Gates: A Sermon on Right Speech (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

January 12, 2020

John Woolman, a New Jersey Quaker from before the Revolution, is most-known for seeing abolitionist values among the Quakers.  It is also from him that the concept of “right relationship” comes, calling on humans to live in right relationship with all creation.  In a nod to our Soul Matters theme for this month, integrity, as well as next month’s (resilience), modern day Quakers Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver tell us,

“A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life and wrong when it does otherwise.”[i]

While our story from this morning comes from the Quaker tradition, the ever-unreliable internet also says it comes from Socrates.  It’s hard these days to know what is fake news.

That concept of right relationship belong to all humanity, which has always yearned to do right by each other, even when there are more than enough examples of the opposite.  Humans have sought, and continue to seek, a workable combination of freedom and limitations, what one might call rules, even if we choose to disregard, or even to break, them.

Some of these are BIG RULES, like the ten commandments from Judaism and adopted by Christianity. There is the Tao Te Ching with its long list of virtues, which might be considered rules for living virtuously. Along Buddhism’s Eight-Fold Path are suggestions for how to live ethically in the world, with instruction about right understanding, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Then there are small rules, or considerations, for how we might build a better world, perhaps even build Beloved Community. Or at least become a better person. Today I’ll be focusing on, to borrow Buddhism’s phrase, the right speech.  How do we use our words responsibly and well?

Let’s start with the concept behind that Quaker story, which is called by the Three Gates.  It seems to come to the world from the mystical side of Islam – the Sufis — though it has become so ubiquitous and widely adopted, it’s not easy to trace its actual origins.  The Three Gates are three questions:

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Is it kind?

There is a simplistic poem from the Victorian era, written by Beth Day in 1835, with the subtitle “After the Arabian”[ii]:

If you are tempted to reveal

A tale to you someone has told

About another, make it pass,

Before you speak, three gates of gold.

These narrow gates: First, “Is it true?”

Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind

Give truthful answer. And the next

Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”

And if to reach your lips at last

It passes through these gateways three,

Then you may tell the tale, nor fear

What the result of speech may be.

There are many who attribute these three questions to the Buddha, though the perfectly wonderful and well-researched web site, Fake Buddha Quotes (#BuddhadidNOTsaythat), assures us that the Three Gates or Sieves or Funnels – whatever you call it — did not come from the Buddha, no matter what the pretty meme on Facebook says.  The Buddha had four – or five, depending on which sutta you look at – rules for right speech.  Inclusive of the three gates, with more[iii].


Oh! That life, and decisions, were so easy that all we needed to do was ask three (or even four) questions and the answers we received would be clear and incontrovertible, not subject to disagreement or subjectivity!

Interesting, for here the order of the gates is different than what I first found in my travels to write this sermon, which shared truth as the first gate and changed to order of kind and necessary.  Or of this button, which arrived in the mail yesterday, sent to me by a colleague who heard I was preaching on this topic.  It turns out that at some point in the not far past, there was a minor movement in our denomination that resulted in many of these buttons being spread far and wide.  They are lovely, but slightly different than the three gates, stating: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?  Which is a bit different than necessary – more proactive, in my estimation.

A gift from the Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson

Here’s a question that dogs me about this guidance – are all three gates of equal import? Do they co-exist on an egalitarian plane? Or is there some hierarchy, with one being fundamental, thus always the first gate by which to parse one’s words?

I have more questions.  First, what are the definitions of true, kind, necessary? Who decides?

Is the definition of what is true, or what is kind, or what is necessary strictly personal and subjective – each of us decides for our own selves? Is it covenantal, which is to say, a community-based definition? Is it possible that there is some absolute, universal definition that works at all times, in all contexts?

For instance. there are things I know to be true now, yet I did not know them to be true twenty years ago.  Others did.  My own maturity, and my social location, with its privileges and marginalized identities, impact this greatly…as do yours. My true experience as a white kid of Safety Officer Joe in elementary school is very different than the true experience of Eric Garner, a Black man murdered by a police officer who used excessive force.

How about kindness?  This, too, is both subjective, not only in that one’s intention can be different than impact, but also one’s own judgement of a thing that is kind can change over time.  Parents know this when we set limits on our children – they don’t think we are doing them a favor.  Yet, most of the time, by the time they grow up, there is a sense that what we did was beneficial, was kind.

And necessity?  That’s another one where one person in the equation might not ever agree that it is necessary, but another – perhaps the person speaking up on behalf of their own humanity – knows that it is true, that is a kindness to self, and that it is utterly necessary to speak up and say a thing that might make everyone else in the room uncomfortable.

Another question.  Or point of reflection. I wonder about the role of silence, of what happens when we decide not to speak.  Silence, too, can be unkind, or unhelpful.  Our silence becomes complicit with untruth, when silence is avoidance of hard necessities. 

“A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life and wrong when it does otherwise.”

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky wrote in her book, The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul, the following: 

There is merit in remembering that there can be a tension among the choices we make. There may be internal and external consequences. We may choose to do something that may mitigate consequences. We may choose to do something that may mitigate internal harm, but that, of course, doesn’t mean others will agree or understand or even respect our decisions.

Which is another way of saying, we might not all agree on what constitutes kind or necessary, or even true.  van Dernoot Lipsky’s response to this conundrum?

In these times, it can be helpful to take the long view. Don’t watch the ripples on the surface of the water; watch the still depths.

But why listen to her? She asks us to grow comfort with tension, and that’s hard.  So, why don’t we live by the wisdom of the 1970s heavy metal rocker, Meatloaf, and consider that “two out of three ain’t bad?” 

That still leaves us with two. Which may make life a little bit easier. Maybe.


So, if all these different traditions, faith or secular, have these different takes on right speech, what does Unitarian Universalism have to say? Do the Principles give us some idea of how to live into our best selves when it comes to our covenanted community? Or when we spend the holidays with our in-laws? Or when we are online and deciding whether to respond to a social media post? Or when we have to deal with that annoying co-worker who won’t stop with the xenophobic or transphobic pronouncements?

The 4th Principle can be invited to be our companion, along with all the gates and sieves and funnels, no matter their order.  The Fourth Principle names the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which I propose are our UU gates: the qualities of “free” and “responsible.”

There is creative tension between free and responsible. I think of it as the creative tension between the individual (who wants to freely be themselves fully) and the community (be that a partnership, a family, a covenanted community, Beloved community, or the whole interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part) – which requires different levels of conformity to be coherent. Free means that I (or my group) do not lose my humanity to conformity.  Responsible means that I do not, by intention or impact, demean or threaten the humanity of others, individual or group. Free means I have agency to enter into a covenant.  Responsible means that I sometimes place the needs of the community ahead of my own.  Using these as our gates raises these questions:

Are my words spoken freely, so that I am honoring my reality and the reality of those groups and peoples who claim me and I claim them?

Are my words spoken responsibly, so that from whatever my social location, from the intersection of my particular mix of privilege and marginalization, they are responsible not only to me, but to others with whom I am in relationship, or aspire to be?

These two additional gates greatly enrich the discernment process around right speech.  Because, what if being kind necessitates, from one perspective or another, that you subvert an important part of yourself, collude with making invisible some aspect of yourself that others actively, intentionally erase, refuse to acknowledge?  This is untenable in the long run.

Or it may not be kind to remind someone in public that they are misgendering you, but it may be necessary for your own dignity. And for them to live more fully into the First Principle, which affirms the dignity of all.  This is where that tension comes into play.  This is where learning to sit with the discomfort of tension is a key capacity for living a well-rounded human life.

I do want to say, because I think it’s important, especially as we talk about those the gate of kindness, that we confuse kind with nice far too often.  Frankly, as people of conscience and faith, with ethics to draw us, and the call to make a more inclusive world, we often have to choose a fierce kindness over a limp niceness.

That said, I like the interpretations of this gate that suggest that once you have determined that something is true, the kindness gate requires you to do it as kindly as possible, which exists on a continuum.  That might means saying what you have to say in private, to help save someone from embarrassment. It may mean waiting until any of our own anger or self-righteousness has ebbed, so we can offer our words in an unattached way, letting the other person accept it if they will, letting them drop it if they choose.

Sometimes, the kind way to say a thing is to say it publicly because the kindness is not to the person who said the mean or hateful or racist thing, but is to others who are watching or listening – others who need to hear that as a white person, you don’t condone racist behavior; others who need to hear that you don’t share a fear of a transgender person using the same restroom; perhaps it’s youth in the room, or even your own heart, that needs to hear that you won’t abide by fat-shaming or slut-shaming. I think about this often when I am trying to pass my words through the gate of kindness – kind to whom?


Which is more important?  Truth? Kindness? Necessity? Freedom? Responsibility?  I can’t answer that for you.  I do believe that they live in a synergistic relationship with each other.  It was probably not kind, the other day, when I spoke the truth that on the East Brunswick interfaith clergy council, we do not agree about the inherent problem of homophobia, but it was necessary. And I believe that I was being responsible with regard to how I represent this congregation, and our Unitarian Universalist values.

This is the thing: there’s no simple formula that will save you from being awkward, or clumsy, or from making mistakes, or from causing harm.  No formula that will ensure your good intentions will always have beneficial impact.  Life is much messier than that.  To live a life of integrity means getting it wrong sometimes, it’s a dance, it’s an art not a science, it’s an approximation. It’s when we choose to enter into that dance that the tension of messing it up can become creative tension, which offers the chance of deep connection and robust covenanted community.  

I encourage all of us, as Unitarian Universalists, to use both touch stones of free speech and responsible speech, free action and responsible action, free belief and responsible belief – not one or the other, but both in relationship, in regular check-in with one another, informed not just by our own most excellent thoughts, but also with reality checks from others with whom we are in relationship with, with others with whom we are in covenanted relationship, whom we choose as primary in our short and precious lives.

“A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life and wrong when it does otherwise.”

Amen.  Blessed be.

[i] Right Relationship Building A Whole Earth Economy by Peter Brown & Geoffrey Garver; thank you to Lara Campbell for this reference/citation

[ii] https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/5/23/1092850/-Is-it-true-Is-it-kind-Is-it-necessary

[iii] [iii] https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/if-you-propose-to-speak-always-ask-yourself-is-it-true-is-it-necessary-is-it-kind/: speak at the right time; the truth; with affection; beneficially; with good intention

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Awestruck (sermon)

It is said that in each of his pockets, Rabbi Simcha Bunim carried a slip of paper. On one was written: f

or my sake the world was created...

How awesome is that?!?

On the other was written:

I am but dust and ashes...

How awful is that?!?

Both messages he carried with him, living his life in between these two realities.

What is it to live a life as if awestruck? Aware of the motion, and commotion, careening and gliding between these two experiences of the world – of the universe – overwhelmed, fearful, humbled, reverent, inspired?  What is it to live a life understanding that these two experiences are not polar opposites – awesome and awful – but at their deepest root, are knit of the same stuff, two sides of the same coin?

Are the meticulous making of the awesome sand mandala…and the awful – or was that awesome too? – destruction of it?

It turns out there are many entrances into awe: song, prayer, dance, theology, philosophy, great art, great architecture, even great science. And possibly, death. Let me tell you a story of the most awful, and the most awe-filled, moment of my recent life.

Three weeks ago, the wife of a dear friend – and herself a dear friend – died.  A year of awful for them both, in and out of long hospitalizations. Awful for my friend, now a widow.  Awful for this woman, who had struggled for months with swallowing, not able to eat enough on her own. I had been visiting three weeks before, when her ambivalence about fighting for her life was palpable presence in the room; yet she was worried about disappointing others if she “gave up.” That was awful.

Then, I was there for the awe-filled part. Awe-filled: the minutes and hours after she died, I was there along with her dedicated, desperately sad friends, many of whom had known her for forty-plus years. I was with my friend, her wife of just under a year ~ for they had gotten married in the hospital when the cancer abruptly raged, (they had been together for the sixteen years before that). She was both in shock and completely present to her beloved.

Altogether, filled with awe at the absence of our dead friend and the presence of her dead body, we washed that body, we took cotton balls and tenderly anointed it with baby oil, and then put on clothing picked out especially.  In twos, and threes, and just her wife alone, we said our good-byes.  Then came the hospice nurse, to pronounce her dead. Then came the funeral home to take the body away, placed on a stretcher, covered. All of us put on our jackets and shoes.  We created a human arch through which the funeral home personnel processed as they carried out the stretcher. We whispered and sang and said our good-byes.

As I said, a most awful, and a most awe-filled, moment.

Wherever or however you access it, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests that when we enter into awe, it is the “Unio Mystica,” or being at One with the Holy One or the Holy One(ness).  He writes,

There are many ways we reach for the Holy One(ness). We can attain self-transcendence through our mind in study, through our heart in prayer, or with our hands in sacred deed.  We say, in effect, that through becoming God’s agent, though voluntarily setting God’s will above our own, we literally lose our selves and become One with the One whom we serve.  It rarely lasts for more than a moment.[i]

According to him, it’s not about becoming the same as the Divine; it’s about forgetting the boundaries of the Self. Forgetting where you end and creation or existence begins.  It is perceiving deeply, sensing in all the ways possible that creation is in you and you are everywhere in it.

Kushner practices from a Kabbalah perspective – an ancient, mysticial Jewish tradition – but these thoughts belong not just to Judaism. Think of Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of Interbeing, and we are in the same place.

So, there are many entrances.  Often, we think that to access awe, we must place ourselves in the midst of the rare and the extraordinary.  Visit the Grand Canyon, or Machu Pichu, or Alaska before it melts.  What if awe was available to us at home, in the ordinary?

There is an old story — told by many, I read it in Kushner’s book called Eyes Remade for Wonder — of a rabbi named Isaac, who lived in Krakow.  He was a good man and he was poor.  So, when he had the same dream, three nights in a row, of treasure buried under a bridge in Prague, he paid attention.  He made the long journey only to discover that the king’s soldiers patrolled the bridge.  He kept watch for several days and nights, hoping for his chance.  Instead, the captain of the guard spied him.  He was caught and questioned about his purpose there at the bridge.  Rabbi Isaac told the captain about his dreams.

The captain laughed in his face! “You mean to tell me you believe in such things?  If I believed as you did, I would be on my way to Krakow to find some rabbi named Isaac, because I have dreamed there is great treasure buried beneath his bed!” The captain never asked our friend Isaac his name or his vocation, but did allow him to return home, which he did.  Upon his arrival, he pushed aside his bed, removed the floor boards, and dug up the treasure that had been there all along.[ii]

That story makes me wonder what possibilities for awe am I missing here, where I make my home?  Here, among the mundane? On this side of the fence, even if the grass is not greener? 

What about you?  What might you be missing that is right under your nose?

Like the treasure beneath Isaac’s bed, might there be entrances into the Holy, to the Awe-filled, the Awe-some, nearby, waiting for you to discover them? Supposedly Albert Einstein said,

This might be another version of Rabbi Bunim’s two pockets. I know that while I’d like perceive the shine of miracles, I am often stuck in the tarnish of no miracles. So, while there is access all around us at all times to awe does not mean that we actually open that door.

There’s a wonderful Jewish tradition called midrash: telling stories to fill in the gaps from ancient scripture. Likely you are familiar with the broad strokes of the miracle story of the parting of the Red Sea, right? When Moses, with the aid of god, led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by crossing parting the great waters? Well, there’s a midrash that focuses on two of the people who made that journey.

In the midrash, they are given names: Reuven and Shimon. Like all the others, they cross the bottom of the sea, yet they complain the whole way.  Though safe, the ground was muddy:

Reuven stepped onto it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the botom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never happened.[iii]

This story, too, makes me wonder: have there been miracles – opportunities for awe – that I have missed, due to my own sense of grievance, or my own ignorance, or distraction, bidden or unbidden?  Due to my focusing on the solid facts beneath my feet, instead of the intangible possibilities swirling around me?

How about you?  Have you chosen to see the awful, when the awesome was available?

The skeptical mind, the mind habituated to poo-pooing miracle-talk, the mind that would rather explain why starlings fly as a collective awe-inspiring pack called a murmuration than let the awe-filled elegance wash over and be enough, calls out and asks, what’s so important about awe? And chides, don’t make me give up my science and my reason.  And by god, don’t make me have to do god, if you want me to even consider your invitation.

If that is you, I offer two gifts.  First, the work and words of Phil Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, in which he writes about “awe-ism:”

Aweism is the belief that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so power­ful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. To be an aweist is to be an atheist and/or an agnostic and/or a secular humanist-and then some. An aweist is some­one who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience. To be an aweist is-in the words of Paul Kurtz-to embrace and experience “joyful exuberance” sans theistic assumptions. Aweists suspect that no one will ever know why we are here or how the universe came into being, and this renders us weak in the knees while simultaneously spurring us on to dance. 

So that’s awe from a secular point of view. Here’s awe from a scientific perspective.

Dr. Melanie Rudd, from Stanford University, studies the phenomenon of awe[iv].  She says awe has two defining characteristics.  One is the sense of perceptual vastness or immensity – this might be size (think Grand Canyon) but it can also be scope, or power, or complexity (think of those sand mandalas we saw earlier). 

Dr. Melanie Rudd & her dog

The second trait is what she calls “the need for accommodation.”  For something to evoke a sense of awe in us, it must challenge our mental structures or worldview.  We must work to accommodate what we are perceiving.  That need for accommodation is the likely source when we experience the fearful or humbling aspects of awe: we are confronted with something outside our ability to fully understand, brought into the territory of uncertainty. Not comforting, and, at times, awful.

Research shows awe is beneficial.  This past May, a study came out that suggests that awe helps us to stop ruminating on our problems and daily stressors, inspiring generosity and a sense of connection with others.[v]

Dr. Rudd’s research shows that awe increases humility. It results in our feeling smaller and – this is key – AND connected to the larger world, the larger universe. Not small and alone, but small and connected.

Secondly, in Dr. Rudd’s studies, and this is relevant, given our service a few weeks back about slowing down since we haven’t much time: experiencing awe impacts and expands our perception of time. We feel that more time is available. 

Lastly, connected to that shift in the perception of time, we feel more open to the prospect of learning, which somehow draws us to create. Which kind of leads us full circle back to that list of human responses to awe, the many entrances into Unio Mystica: song, prayer, dance, theology, philosophy, great art, great architecture, even great science.

Kinda cool, huh?


I want to close another loop – one related to my friend whose wife died. She texted me while I was writing this sermon. When I told her that I was struggling with writing my sermon on awe, she offered her take on it. With her consent, I share what she wrote. Listen for some of Dr. Rudd’s concepts — the unknowing and uncertainty that leads to the need for accommodation, the immensity of the experience that there is a gap that must be bridged…

Well, for starters, you bridged the gap between awful and awesome on that Sunday night to Monday when you showed up for me! I had no idea I needed you and how important you became in that space between an in the beginning and the end.  Maybe you didn’t know either?  Birth and death (metaphoric and actual) are awful and awesome.  In between we hopefully keep showing up because and in case our people are in need of hand holding, witnesses. Or in the words of Hafiz, in the poem called A Great Need:


Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.


The terrain around here


Far too





As our reading from the Poet Laureate of the United States implores us to do, let us remember that you are this universe and this universe is you.

As our Unitarian ancestor says at the top of your order of service, “Let us express our astonishment before we are swallowed up by the jaws of the abyss.”

Let us not forget to look for awesome possibilities and hidden treasures that hide in our midst, available to us only if we embrace our dreams.

As we make our way through the mud and muck of our lives, may we not forget to look up and around, to perceive the ordinary miracles around us, reminding us of the blessings in our lives, the grace extended to us even in the midst of our fear, and the possibility of liberation for all, even if we cannot in that moment feel it.

Let us live our lives careening ever so gently between the realities in the rabbi’s two pockets, for we live there, whether we want to or not.

Amen. Blessed be.

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