Notice Who Matters: The Sermon (Part 2 of 2)

August 17, 2014

Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence 

 By Langston Hughes:

* Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1930. Photographer unknown. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

* Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1930. Photographer unknown. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

This poem keeps repeating itself in my head and heart these days. Of course, I know why. And so do you.

Our nation has just experienced a huge explosion. Let me take that back: are experiencing, present tense. The violence visited upon Michael Brown is far too common, far too familiar, for anyone to think of this as beyond the pale or highly unusual.

Maybe you have heard and were shocked, or maybe you already knew and are cynical or afraid, but since 2006, on average, in this nation, in this so-called home of the free, twice every week, a white police officer has killed a Black person.

 We mourn for Michael Brown.  We stand with his family. We mourn all these dead.

We can’t be surprised at this explosion, its force or intensity. It comes as the latest in a much-too long litany of young African American men, men of color and some women, too, who are killed “extra judicially” which is a big, official, obfuscating word for outside the due process of law, otherwise known as murder. Eric Garner last month in Staten Island. Ezell Ford in Los Angeles two days after Michael Brown was killed. The numbers grow: mostly-young, people of color killed, by police officers or citizenry emboldened by cruel laws purporting to be about self-defense, but too often are instruments of racialized fear and violence.

Originally this morning I was going to talk about my experience interning as a hospital chaplain, where I saw more than enough death and violence. Instead, I choose to preach the headlines. We are choosing to preach the headlines. And still I want to preach prayer, too.

UU minister and author Kate Braestrup writes this about prayer:

I can’t pretend to be unconditionally in favor of the practice of prayer. No, I’ve got plenty of conditions. I’ll pray only as long as prayer helps me to be more present, more aware and attentive, and as long as prayer helps me to see the suffering of others. As long as prayer reminds me to deploy both my resources and my generosity, I’ll pray, and I will keep on praying so long as prayer serves as a uniquely potent means of giving and receiving love….

Still, if someone is starving, for God’s sake, don’t sit around praying: Give him food. (The same goes for water, warmth, rest and the Heimlich maneuver.) To assert that prayer is always, under all circumstances, the first thing love should do, or even the best that love can do, is irresponsible at best and a self-serving lie at worst. (Beginner’s Grace, Kate Braestrup)

Still, if someone is being shot dead in the middle of the street, unarmed as they are, with their hands in the air, by police officer, for God’s sake: don’t let it happen (again).

So with that in mind, with all these stories and commentaries about Ferguson, about racial inequality, gun violence in the hands of police, tear gas and rubber bullets, I want to share a story with you about prayer. The power of prayer. Prayer and Ferguson.

Reverend Willis Johnson is a pastor at the Wellspring Church in Ferguson. Apparently there is a photo of him out there in social media land, one I hadn’t been able to locate til recently, of him hugging a young man, Joshua Wilson, one of the protestors, a young African American man he had never met before, in the midst of the protests in Ferguson. When interviewed by NPR, here is what Rev. Johnson said about this embrace:

I just embraced him. Because he was so angry. You could feel it in his body. You could feel it in his speech. And I have a newly turned teenager. I’ve been Joshua before. Something just said grab him, hold him, maybe initially to keep him back, but ultimately to become what is really symbolic of the situation at hand. People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt. People who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. Let me say it like that. I needed that as much as he needed that. We kept each other from harm’s way and from doing something that we need not to do.

 Rev. Johnson continues,

Well, one of the things I shared with him is that I understand and I know you want to – I know you want – you got to channel this in another way. Not to discourage protest. Not to discourage his expression. That was never the case. If anything, it was to affirm him. And to affirm both of us. Because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed. We were being told and suggested that what we were doing was wrong and it was not wrong. People are feeling, I believe, empowered by the fact that there are others who feel passionate like them. And it’s hard for people who are not there in it to maybe understand or understand why someone would choose or channel that mean or mode to express themselves. I don’t understand it fully.   But what I do understand is what it means to be that angry, so I’d rather if you are going to fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear,…

And then comes the prayer part:

…and at the same time, I just began to pray with him, “Give him the strength. Give us the strength, to be courageous enough not do what they expect us to do.”

What does courage look like? I couldn’t hug young Joshua, but Rev. Johnson could. I am so thankful he did.

Let me be clear, though Rev. Johnson suggests, as one Black man talking to another, that courage in that moment is resisting the strategy of violent protest, I do not think this is the only courageous choice at all times and in all places. Sometimes courage is renunciation of violence. More often than not. And sometimes, given imperialism, fascism, given oppression in many of its forms, courage is the intentional and skillful use of it. I say this with what I hope is an appropriately uneasy sense that it is likely right, though not especially desirable.

Either way, as someone who lives a racially privileged life all the hours of my days, it’s not really up to me to measure or judge, and certainly not to dictate. I have entered only recently, and the story line of current violence started long ago in our nation’s racial history, as Ta’nehisi Coates was quoted earlier:

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

So if (as one of our readings says) safety, and respect, and equality look different depending on race privilege, upon gender identity, upon class affiliation, then what does courage look like for you, at this moment, in your life here, in your life in the context of our nation on fire?

In an interview just a few weeks before she died, the great sage Maya Angelou said that “courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving any of those without courage.”

How do we, as Unitarian Universalists, live into the bookends of our Seven Principles, the one that says each person has inherent worth and dignity and that we are all part of the interdependent web of all being? How do we find the courage to do what it takes to not just believe in those values, not just say them out loud, but to live into them, to embody them, especially if our privileges provide protections from the harm of this systematically unjust society that allows fear-turned-to-hate to fester and run, allows it to stink like rotten meat, allows it to be a heavy load on the most vulnerable among us…

So what does your courage look like? How will you notice who matters, and who does not, and change that ~ in yourself, in your neighborhood, in your nation, in this world? Whatever it is ~ and there is a handout attached to your order of meeting that gives you specific ideas, if you would like them ~ may you find yourself praying or affirming or risking your way there.

May we all find our way there sooner, much sooner, because it is already later.

source: @thoughthawk

source: @thoughthawk

Benediction (by Rev. Wayne Arnason)

Take courage friends.

The way is often hard, the path is never clear,

And the stakes are very high.

Take courage.

For deep down, there is another truth:

You are not alone.

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

Notice Who Matters: The Readings from Many Voices (Part I of 2)

The following readings were the heart of worship this morning at the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence, reading aloud by eleven different voices.  With two exceptions, you can click on the author of each of the readings to find its longer source. 

The readings were followed by a reflection that you can find by clicking here.



From UU Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Preach the front pages.

Preach the news. Preach the fire. Preach the rage, the sadness, the lamentation. Preach it fierce. Bring your rage, your solidarity, your authority to confront: to confront ourselves, to confront our God, to confront yourself, to confront our sick, sick society. Confront what is really happening. Do not “spiritualize.” Do not offer bromides, cliches, or a load of Christian crap that everyone has heard before and that you yourself have heard too many times coming out of your own mouth because it feels easier to say that crap than to cover yourself in sackcloth and ashes and wail that you have no idea what God is doing, but that you only hope God is working in this, is in the suffering, is loving us still, will not abandon and forsake us.…

You pray this time, you pray this horror, you acquaint yourself with the news, you put on your protective headgear and you get out there and you put aside the sermon you were going to give on puppies and love and butterflies and you get in there with humanity and witness to it. Any minister who doesn’t address the pain and suffering in America right now from their pulpit this Sunday deserves all the disappointment — spoken or unspoken — that will come at them in passive-aggressive or straight up aggressive ways in months to come. It is our job to be alive, awake, attentive, thoughtful, connected and in relationship to the real world right now this moment as it is. And I’m sorry, but no matter what’s going on in your individual community or congregation this week, it can’t possibly be as spiritually enormous as the conflagration that’s burning outside all our windows. COME TO THE WINDOW. See. Witness. Pray for the Holy Spirit to assist us in saying what we are able about that fire.


posted Thursday, August 13 by Agent Provocateur and blogger, Kim Hampton

Robin Williams died sometime late Sunday night-early Monday morning. Within 24-hours of that, the public was given plenty of information regarding the preliminary autopsy.

Michael Brown died not long after 2:00 p.m. Saturday, August 9th. The public knows NOTHING about the preliminary autopsy.

Law enforcement has interviewed people around Robin Williams.

Law enforcement has still NOT interviewed people around Michael Brown; including Dorian Johnson, who was walking with Michael when things happened.

Notice who matters.


from Courtney E. Martin, in her essay, “To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown,”

I don’t believe in evil and I don’t believe in good, at least not that kind, when it comes to race in this country. I believe we, white Americans, are still — 150 years after slavery ended — dabbling in racial courage, specializing in amnesia, flummoxed by the acts of our ancestors and our responsibility for the past, and continuously struggling to wrap our minds around the structural racism that is our present.

I’m reminded of Ta’nehisi Coates important words:

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”


MLKJailLettersfrom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, published in 1963

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


From UU Rev. Jake Morrill, minister at Oak Ridge UU Church in Tennessee

Our country promises liberty and justice for all.  But we’re failing that standard.  It’s not one person, or one event.  It’s not even one police department, or one city. 

We’re all part of it–my prayers tonight are with and for everyone in Ferguson, Missouri.  For peace and strength in the hearts of police officers, community leaders, clergy and teachers, mothers and fathers, children and teens.  This isn’t about who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy–I’ve talked with enough police officers to know how stressful their jobs can be, and how the stories of how they help in the neighborhoods don’t make the news.  

source: Loavesofbread

source: Loavesofbread

It’s about a statistically predictable pattern.  About a system across the country that’s been producing injustice: different outcomes for the same behavior, depending on the color of your skin.

This is hard for a white person to see.  Because, for people who look like me, things seem to work fine.  It’s my lived experience that the system is working, that things are fair, and that the difference is in individual behavior.  But we know that our individual experience of things is not the same thing as the facts of the world.  That’s why it’s important to back up and look at the patterns, the outcomes, that the system produces like clockwork.

As protests in Ferguson, Missouri go on tonight, a lot of my white brothers and sisters are focused on how, in the short-term, to restore order.  But the real question is how, in the long-term, to restore justice.


from UU Rev. Carolyn Patierno, minister at All Souls New London (used with permission)

When a white kid steals cigars from a convenience store it’s called shoplifting. Stupid adolescent behavior.

When a black kid does the same it’s robbery. And somehow it justifies being shot.

Is stealing cigars justified? No. Pushing a shopkeeper around? No.

Is shooting a young man with arms held high justified?


God help us.


Readings: Part II

From UU seminarian and blogger, Diana McLean

Of course, the rights we think we have depend largely upon our social location: our race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, etc. It’s just that those of us who are privileged tend not to listen to those who are not, and so we don’t realize that freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to every American. Nor does safety, or respect, or equality. So many of the words we cherish, words we believe represent our country, actually represent the experiences of a limited segment of our people.…

Will we, personally, take action to make a difference in even one life, today?

And will we do it again tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and for as many years as it takes for things to change? Or will we be too busy getting on with our own lives, or think there’s nothing we can do to make a difference? Will we each leave the work to someone else, failing to see that then it will never get done?

These are the questions that haunt me.


UU Rev. Krista Taves, minister at Emerson UU Chapel in West St. Louis County, near Ferguson

If you are white, your job is to be a witness to racism, even and especially when it’s risky.  Don’t be afraid to say what you see, especially to other white people. This could mean a one on one conversation, speaking up in a group, writing a letter to your elected politicians, signing petitions, and posting on social media. Because of the way race works in this country, many white people (even liberal white people) will be able to hear from you what they couldn’t hear from a person of color. This will help other white people to understand what they are seeing. And maybe, it will give them the courage to speak out as well. White silence, white denial and white ignorance gives systemic racism a lot of power.   You have to model a different way and do your part to create the critical mass needed for real change.


From UU blogger Patrick Murfin

Discouraging? You bet. But no matter how much just the news makes you suffer it is not your life or your families lives that are on the line. Hiding from it will not save you. It will make you, however unwittingly, an accomplice. None of us have the power to stop these things. All of us have the power to move the world, if only a little, along that long promised arc that bends towards justice. We are called to crawl out from under the covers and unleash our love—muscular love—applied with plenty of elbow grease. Not platitudes but action.

First, pay attention to those around us, to our families, friends, and neighbors, but also to the chance encounters of our daily lives. Listen, really listen. Look and really see. Feel the cues of cloaked despair. Then simply reach out. Not to cure—that’s not in our capacity—but to care. To offer solace and support but also gentle guidance to find the real help that is out there. That’s not so much. We can all do that. … And if you can’t do everything, do something. Love calls us to action.


from UU Rev. Meg Riley, Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship

Where do you locate yourself in these stories? Who do you see as dangerous, and who is trustworthy? Where do you locate safety? What would safety look like for the people of Ferguson now, for instance? As a white person in the U.S., I am conditioned from birth to see whiteness as safety — white neighborhoods, white people, white authority figures. My lived experience, my conversations with people of color, and my study of history have shown me over and over that this is a wild and cruel perversion of the truth. But the cultural conditioning is strong. Unless I fight it every day, white superiority seeps into my brain in slow, almost undetectable ways. As a nation of diverse races striving to be one people, we are buried up to our necks no less than my neighbor, with histories that won’t quit, of violence and brutality against people of color. Where do we look for safety, for help, as we try to excavate ourselves from this sinkhole?…

I don’t know everything, but I do know this: This is a problem for our whole nation, not just for people of color. We are in this together. And riot gear, intimidation, and more brutality from police are not the way forward towards healing. They are, in fact, yet another giant step backwards. As for me, I’m looking on the local level for practical actions I can take. And I refuse to be silent or still any more.


From the UU Rev. Barbara Gadon, Lead Minister at Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, a neighboring suburb to Ferguson

We cannot afford to think that what happened in Ferguson does not affect us in Kirkwood and our surrounding towns. We are holding this service to mourn the death of this young man, to pray for his family, and to count ourselves among his friends. We also come to pray for the police officer involved in the shooting. We come to mourn the deep racial segregation of St. Louis, the stark disparities of wealth and opportunity, and the longstanding tensions that have contributed to this great tragedy. We stand on the side of love and justice for all.

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Stand (or Sit or Recline) on the Side of Love: Honoring the Life of Michael Brown, Witnessing His Murder


(Updated 8/20/14)

Local to St. Louis, this news from Eliot Chapel (at 100 South Taylor, Kirkwood, MO 63122 — has scheduled two more vigils: This from the Rev. Barbara Hoag Gadon: “Eliot Chapel will hold 2 more vigils for Ferguson, one from 6-7 pm Thursday night, 8-21 and one on the following Tuesday 8-25 from 6-7 pm. We’ll be out on the church lawn this time.”  All are welcome.  Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts encouraged, but not necessary.

Don’t turn away from the news. Find a way to read some of it. Be sure that if you do, that you also find stories of the heroes, the helpers, the resisters, the fighters, to help combat the distress and guard against becoming demoralized. The world needs you to be awake, but not knocked flat by despair.

Learn through Listening. Educate yourself about the work of places like the SpiritHouse Project, founded by civil rights activist and public theologian, Ruby Sales. If you identify as part of a group that is granted cultural privilege, learn more about what that looks like and how you can use it to combat injustice. Sometimes that means stepping up. Sometimes that means stepping back.  Also, read this: The Case for Reparations by Ta’nehisi Coates.

Practice Intentional (Financial) Generosity: The folks at Bolder Giving have verified as legitimate the following two funds (one bricks&mortar and one online) for the family of Michael Brown: “If you’re looking to support human immediate needs vs organizing, Michael Brown’s family has established a memorial fund at Fifth Third Bank. You can make a donation at any branch ( or you can mail a donation with “Michael Brown Jr. Memorial Fund” in the memo line and send it to: Fifth Third Bank, 8013 West Florissant Ave., Jennings, MO 63136.”  Or online at (please note: this is a different GoFundMe site than the one listed here on 8/17 for about 12 hours, which is likely a scam.  My apologies.  This GoFundMe has been confirmed by the lawyers of the Brown family as legit.)  Or you can donate money to the bail fund for people arrested protesting in Ferguson   For more ideas, go to, a list of confirmed/verified laudable foci for your generosity.  Thank you, Jason Franklin at Bolder Giving.

Speak Up: Advocate that municipalities require their on-duty police officers to wear video cameras on their person and their vehicles to be equipped with them as well, so that we might be able to replicate the results in Rialto, California, where in one year’s time, use of force decreased 60% and complaints decreased 88%.  Here’s one for Massachusetts (where I live).

Black Lives Matter.  Consider going to Ferguson as part of the Black Life Matters Ride to Ferguson, Missouri over Labor Day Weekend.  Click here for more information.  If you can’t go, consider other ways of supporting this act of witness and solidarity.

Join the Black Twitter-verse: If you aren’t on Twitter yet, but do engage in social media, consider joining, becoming more familiar with its use, and following sources that report on the real life experience of people of color ~ especially by people of color trying to get the word out when traditional means, even liberal-leaning public radio, don’t tell us the full story.  African American youth use Twitter 2-3x more than white youth in this country.  Go where the voice is.

Be on the Side of Love: There are multiple petitions of all sorts related to what has taken place in Ferguson. Some are about media coverage. Some are directed to specific municipalities. There are several out there calling for the federal Department of Justice to appoint a special investigator. Sign one. Or two. Or call: 202-353-1555. Join the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to take this seriously.

this list was compiled by the author of this blog. it was distributed as part of a worship service held in Northampton, MA on August 17, 2014.  please distribute widely or add ideas by commenting below

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This Is Not the Way

On Wednesday, August 6th, someone discovered that a flag on the grounds of one of the local synagogues had been set afire.  It was the flag of Israel.  It was unclear when the attempt to burn it took place.  The next day, there was an article in the local newspaper about it.  Since then, there has been little else in the newspaper about this incident, though there was a small letter to the editor today (August 15).  Last Sunday night (August10), upon my return from vacation, I submitted a version of this letter to the editor which has not yet been published (or acknowledged).  Having submitted letters to the editor in the past, I know that the wheels can turn slowly.  Given what else is happening the world, my guess is that the letter editor is very, very busy these days.  I waited to publish this online, hoping for it to come out in the newspaper first, but too long has this gone without other voices speaking out and without my voice speaking up.

speak-outThis is not the way.

There is so much going on in the world that is needful of peaceful, justice-infused resolution. There are so many questions–heavy-laden, emotionally-charged, politically-demanding– which do not lend themselves to easy, or even complex, answers.

The world is on fire.


Ferguson, MO. Ukraine. Gaza. Iraq.


This is not the way.

I do not agree with the policies and actions of the Israeli government. I do not believe that to make such a statement, in and of itself, to speak it publicly, is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. Both Israel and the people of Gaza have chosen unskillful leaders whose current default engagement with each other is violent and militaristic, resulting in too much death.

I am deeply thankful for those who speak out on behalf of disenfranchised Palestinians; grateful to those who seek both a peaceful and a just solution. I admit to wishing for many of these folks to be more skillful in their engagement and rhetoric, as I wish of those speaking in defense of Israel’s nationhood. Speaking about it has become interpersonally contentious and geo-politically fraught; in social media, it has become full of metaphorical landmines with potential and actual damage to real life relationships. At least in my world. I’m guessing in yours as well.

As a single individual, I do not have the power to stop what is going on in Gaza. But as Unitarian Universalist and as a seminarian, as someone who believes our cross cultural and interfaith relationships matter, I can and do so here and now, speak out against the attempt to burn the flag of Israel on the property of B’nai Israel, one of our two synagogues in town.

Yes, OUR synagogue. Our community’s synagogue: whether you are Jewish or not, whether you know someone who attends worship there or not, whether you have set foot inside there or not, it is our synagogue.

The attempt to set fire to one of its flags is abhorrent. Though the intent of the arsonist may have been a political statement about Israeli violence in Gaza (at this point, it’s not known who did this and it may never be known), the impact is an anti-Semitic hate crime. This was not a random flag, neither was it an Israeli flag in a random context.

It was lit afire while on the property of a synagogue (remember: our synagogue, our friends and neighbors, regardless of agreement or disagreement on political issues). It was lit aflame while explicitly anti-Semitic actions (vandalism, defamation) are on the rise, more visibly in Europe, but here, too: here in the United States, in Massachusetts, and dreadfully, here in our hometown, in our beloved community.

This is not the way.

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Helping Young Offenders Find Hope in the EveryDay


Here is a powerful witness piece that I highly recommend.

Originally posted on Kids in the system:

Many people who work with youth locked up in prisons or in juvenile detention centers aren’t just teachers, nurses, social workers. Something else compels them to stay at a job in what can be some of the most unwelcoming places you can imagine—and are designed to be that way. Something else stirs them, inspires them to put up with harsh working conditions, and with the frustration of having their efforts often garner only poor results. As challenging as the job is, even more challenging is finding answers to the Big Questions: “Why do I do this kind of work?” “Why do I stay here?” “What’s the point of what I do?” Answers don’t come easily, if they come at all, and their comfort rarely stays around long, but it’s a process many of us in the field go through.
What I appreciate about today’s guest contributor is her willingness to…

View original 1,581 more words

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Reflections on Small (sermon)

(a version of this sermon/worship service has been given in other places and exists also here on this blog.)


gloriousdustA Chassidic rabbi from the late 18th century, Rabbi Simcha of Bunim taught that every person should have two pockets. In each pocket should be a piece of paper. On one side, the paper should state, from Genesis 18:27, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other pocket, on the other side, the paper should state, from the Mishnah, “For my sake was the world created.” Let us sit in stillness between these two paradoxical truths, holding the creative tension which our existence sings.


Reading: from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to simply be in your presence, like a thing -
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones -
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.

Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

I would describe myself
like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I’m coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany                      August 3, 2014

Small—capitol S– embodies inherent spiritual paradox. It exudes a spiritual mandate to hold insignificant and vast in the same breath, minute and cosmic in the same moment.

“Wisdom tells me I am nothing.  Love tells me I am everything.  Between the two my life flows.” So said the 20th century Hindu guru, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who taught non-dualism.

Carl Sagan once wrote, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

“I want to be small but not so small that I am easy to miss,” tells us the poet, Thylias Moss, “About the size of the thought of a bud before it opens and becomes a universe in which bees orbit like planets.”

“I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough,” says the poet, Rilke, in our reading today.

The Unitarian Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote about his experience of being in the woods,

“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

We are taught, according to logic, that small and large, or their various synonyms, are opposites, that they fall into the realm of one-or-the-other, perhaps even contradictions. It is not rational to say that one is both small and large. Yet even the great advocate of Reason, Emerson himself, sees no contradiction: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

I love that last phrase: part or particle of God. I’m not even sure I know what it means, but I feel its deep and abiding truth. And I’m not necessarily talking abou the truth about God part. I’m talking about the part or particle of that something Vast part.

“Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars,” comes to us from Serbia. There is it again. Our perfect imperfection. Mind and heart, not as opposing dualities, not even as complementary qualities, but of the same essential cloth, distinct and reinforcing, renewing, regenerating.

I do not want to paint an overly pretty picture. Small is not always good. There are unpleasant and unredeemable connotations. Take puny, for instance. Where we might be able to rescue and reframe “small,” puny is unredeemable. Who wants to feel puny? That’s the guy on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face.

My friend Anne is now a hospital chaplain, full of deep compassion, sharp wit, and righteous sense of justice. She used to be an immigration lawyer, seeking asylum for all sorts of people from all over the world. You might not be surprised that after decades of stories of torture and denial of applications, she’s a bit on the cynical side towards our nation’s government. The other night she was describing Room 405 in the federal building in Hartford, Connecticut. It used to be where immigration officials work. There is a waiting room, full to the gills with people, whole families, small children, made to arrive on time, made to wait interminable hours, yelled out when their kids run around and do the things that kids do, made to feel puny. Unworthy. Insignificant.

Though I am still a seminarian, up until May, for two years I had the great fortune – a blessing, really – to serve as part of a co-ministry a small church as it discerned its future, choosing rather than to close, to move away from a strictly Christian identity to a more fluid – shall we say, UU – one. It’s in a tiny rural town where there is a mix of both old timers and new blood, long tradition and a strong sense of creating a local culture that will help people adapt to the new changes in our climate constricted world.

A year and a half ago, one of the congregants died at the age of 91. He had worked for one of those big insurance companies back in the day. In conversation with his surviving son shortly after his father’s death, the son reflected on how well the company treated his father in retirement, his son said, “They didn’t treat him like a cog in the wheel. They treated him like he was part of the machine. It’s not like that anymore. But it was then.” They treated him worthy. A small and worthy part.

Worthy but not arrogant, not self-important. It’s a connected sense of Small, it’s a contextual sense of Small. It’s one where I may be a small piece, a speck, a fragment, but I have a place. I may not (yet) know that place, but I have one – and somehow, in that paradoxical way, the wide vastness of the cosmos gives me a greater sense not of belittlement, but of belonging.

Not of belittlement, but of belonging.

It makes me think of the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s famous, “pale blue dot,” a photo taken in 1990 by Voyager One space probe as it was leaving our solar system. It’s an image of the earth but you can barely tell, because it’s taken from 3.7 billion miles away. From that perspective, the earth looks like a tiny “mote of dust” in the midst of a never-ending sunbeam. Here is what Carl Sagan said in 1996 while reflecting on that Small:

“On [that dot], everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 He continued,

“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. …To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Half a year or so ago, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewed on the public radio program, Fresh Air, as part of the roll out of the new and improved Cosmos show on television. He was asked about another scientist who complained that a show deGrasse Tyson had curated at the Hayden Planetarium had left him feeling, well,…small. Here is deGrasse Tyson’s response:

 I think if you walked in there with an ego that says I’m large, I’m important and I’m significant, [the show’s] going to hurt. This information is going to hurt. And so I think he went in there with the wrong attitude. …

He continued

I claim that if you went in there with no ego at all and then you saw the grandeur of the universe, recognizing that our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy, then you would see the universe as something you participate in, as this great unfolding of a cosmic story. And that, I think, should make you feel large, not small.

In seeking each other out, as we do when we gather for worship, fragments and Wholeness, human creatures and godly Mystery, deep fullness and essential emptiness, we become not opposites, not contradictions, but spirit-filled paradoxes just outside our own grasping. It brings with it the possibility of transcendence, of becoming Small and Vast at the very same time, which is another way of saying there is no separation:

  • not between us as stardust and that stardust “out there;”
  • not between us and God/Love Eternal/Ultimate Source/Deep Spirit; and
  • not between us and this pulsing planet that we have for too long treated as possession, but which breathes and lives.

There are times we need to be reminded of our capacity for transcendence – a reminder that is sometimes nearly impossible to find in the coarse and cruel interactions of human beings with one another, alienated as we can become, from our Source. Emerson wrote of finding such solace in nature; some of us find it in the young faces of children; and some in the flurry of stars always there, day or night, always — always –there. So we look out to the heavens and look back to the whole of this planet, this cherished blue mote of dust, to find our compassion and kindness for one another, a sense of belonging that transforms our smallness into a Mighty Smallness, connected and ever a part of that which is greater than ourselves.

Amen. And blessed be.

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Cracked: The Sequel

Chapel Service

Baystate Medical Center

July 28, 2014

These books on the altar represent the chapel services I did not give and will not have a chance to give:

  • God Got a Dog – about our opportunity and responsibility to embody divine love
  • Song and Dance Man – one of my learning goals was to give a chapel service on something I learned from my work with elders at the nursing home
  • In God’s Name – a beautiful story of the many names we call God, reflecting our needs and our experience of divine response
  • Henry Works – a bear inspired by the life of Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist which is one of the historical streams of Unitarian Universalism
  • Moody Cow Meditates – a book I have joyfully used as a part of worship to talk about meditation and strong feelings
  • In the beginning there was Joy – a wonderful rhyming journey into the cosmos of Original Blessing by the Christian theologian Matthew Fox

It seems important to bring them here as my way of acknowledging all that we have done together and all that is left undone. Of course, I am not talking just about sermons and chapel services here. In 11 weeks, there is only so much one person can do. Even as a full-time staff chaplain, there is always something ~ someone ~ left undone.

We CPE students are leaving.  Though we have our rituals and our reflections, our ceremonies and our good-byes, there is so much that has been opened and so much left undone, so much come to be known, and so much left to reside in the territory of uncertainty.

Instead of something new, I want to return to what I preached on at my first chapel service earlier this summer. Cracks. If you were here, you might remember I quoted from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Over this summer, I learned of the existence of a Japanese form of art, originating in the 15th century, called kintsugi. kintsugiThis is the process of repairing broken ceramics by mending them with a clear lacquer resin that is mixed with gold powder (or other powdered metals). In filling these cracks, these places were we encounter the broken aspects of the pot or the jar, the cup or the bowl, we see beauty and a new kind of wholeness that draws us to it, some might even say more attractive than the original.   I even read that some of the so-called damaged pieces fetched higher prices – were more valued – than their so-called flawless counterparts.

I know this will not surprise most of you, but in college I was an ardent feminist. Another not surprise: I still am. Back in college, I collected and hung on my door images and quotes that I found powerful. I remember a postcard of a woman, I believe it was Deena Metzger. In the photo she is outside, a wide sky the background. Her arms are spread wide, her face turned upward toward the sun, an expression of exaltation and contentment. Oh, one other thing: she was completely naked. One breast fully visible, as was the tattoo that covered the scar where her other breast had once been.

Her tattoo was not made of resin and powdered gold, but like kintsugi it brought out a beauty that she shared with others who might not have been able to perceive the beauty of that missing breast, that symbol of disease. With this photograph, she was not preaching from her scar, but was creating art from it, literally and symbolically, and thus, contributing to humanity’s capacity to turn towards the broken places, not away.

Deena Metzger

Deena Metzger.  Photo by Hella Hammid.

 It reminds me of the poem by Jane Hirshfield, For What Binds Us, excerpted here:

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

Who volunteers to have their heart broken? Who chooses this, on purpose, over and over again? Yes: chaplains.  We do. We not only speak of that Great Divine Love which name God, we embody it. We are walking works of love. Or at least we try our best.

$(KGrHqNHJDUE+O,FNWnYBP5(lLQvDw~~60_35I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how many times I fell in love in the past eleven weeks – basically every time I knocked on a door and was invited in.   And like the quote from Carl Jung that shared with us last week, in meeting each person, in risking this possible love, sometimes it caused a reaction, and I have been transformed.

It is like what that Wendell Berry poem from this morning told us:

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.

Since I don’t know exactly how many times I fell in love, I can’t tell you how many times my heart broke. That is the risk of love: offering it, embodying it, holding it out in invitation, holding onto the possibility of it (in this mad, mad world). Broken-heartedness.

 Over and over again my heart has broken. So has yours. And yet, here at the end of this internship, I shine. I glow. So do you. There is gold in these cracks, in these broken places. Let us hear their message:


you have less reason


to give yourself away.

 Amen. Blessed be.


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