Monday, March 18, 2019

Be Here Our Guest

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 18th, 2019 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

What makes you feel at home?  What makes you feel welcome? That's not a rhetorical question.  Really ... what makes you feel welcome and at home?

I read an article this week in which the author pondered this question.  She came to the conclusion that she felt most at home, most welcome, when the place looked like someone lived there. 

“The homes in which I’ve felt the most at ease have been the homes that feel lived in. They are the ones that are not perfectly clean or perfectly decorated. Now don’t get me wrong; they aren’t filthy either, but a little dust on the furniture and a few stray items cluttering up the counter top almost make me breathe a sigh of relief. The house is inhabited by real people! On the other hand, when I enter a house that looks like a show piece, I spend most of my time holding my breath, worrying about ruining something, especially if the kids are with me! It’s stressful enough to bring your children to someone else’s home without having the added stress of perfection to deal with.”

Then she asked herself what she did to try to make people feel welcome.  You might have guessed that she cleans the place top to bottom, making sure that there is no dust anywhere.  She puts away everything and sets the pillows on the couch “just so.”  (I added that last part, but I feel certain that she does.)  My paternal grandmother, Maria Quanstrum, put those plastic covers on all of the fabric covered furniture, and kept them on even when company came.  My dad said that that’s one of the reasons he never brought any of his friends over to the house – he knew they wouldn’t feel comfortable, wouldn’t feel welcome.

What makes a person feel welcome?  How can we make a person feel welcome?  How can we actually be welcoming, as we say we strive to be?

It had been my intention to dance with those questions as they relate to our lives as individuals, and as a community.  Yet recent events have led me down a different path.

The other day my son said to me something I never said to my father, “Did you hear that there was another shooting?”  Mass shootings happen so frequently today that they’re in some ways becoming part of the background noise of his life.  “Did you hear that there was another shooting today, dad?”
It wasn’t like this when I was growing up.  Oh I am sure that it was more like this than I knew.   There wasn’t the same kind of from-every-direction-at-once 24/7 coverage, and in those days (“the Before Times” as my kids call it), parents tended to shield their kids from the ugliness in the world in a way that not all parents do today.  Nonetheless, I do think that there’s been a real change.

We’re 11 weeks into 2019, and already there have been 58 mass shootings (defined as more than 3 people being shot in the same place at generally the same time).  58.  And there have been 11 times when there was more than one mass shooting on the same day! On January 26, on that one day, there were 4 separate mass shootings – in Georgia, New Jersey, Indiana, and Louisiana – that left 12 people dead.  On one day.

Shopping malls, movie theatres, outdoor concert venues, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques – these were places of relative safety when I was a kid.  I say “relative” because the places I, as a white person, felt safe were not always safe for women, people of color, homosexuals, trans people …  Yet even taking that into consideration, I do believe that there has been a quantitative shift, and a qualitative shift in life in the U.S.

I’ve talked with a number of you over the past few years, and you’ve told me – not exactly in these words – that you just don’t know, just don’t understand, what’s going on in the world anymore.  That the world as it is today doesn’t make sense to you, and that it doesn’t feel like “home” anymore. 
Just a few months ago a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding another 7.  This past Friday a gunman shot and killed 50 people in two mosques this past week, shouting words of hatred as he released destruction and death.  He filmed the whole thing, streaming it on Facebook live as it happened.

Two summers ago there were actual tiki torch carrying, robe wearing, klu klux klan members and other white supremacist marching in our streets, rallying in our parks.  There is a man in the White House who will not come out and directly, explicitly, and unequivocally condemn white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, trans-fobia, anti-Semetism, Islamo-phobia … And not only doesn’t he outright condemn these hateful ideologies, he seems to actually embrace and encourage them with winks and inuendoes.  Deniable, of course, yet all too disgustingly visible.

Hard won protections for the environment; equal rights for women, people of color, trans people, gays and lesbians, people with physical or mental disabilities, immigrants (just about anyone who isn’t white and well-off); peace on the planet; religious freedom; our country’s relationship with other nations and place in the world; worker’s rights; income inequality … in all of these areas where progress has been made over the past decades (however slowly and incompletely), there is currently regression to former, less fair, less safe, less “welcoming” times.

Mr. Rogers, spiritual father and grandfather to several generations, famously said this:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

It is so easy to become focused on the shooters in public, private, and sacred spaces; focused on the Islamo-phobes, and the people who desecrate Jewish cemeteries and synagogues with swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti; and those servants of the people who leave unarmed black youth lying dead in the street; and those venomous politicians (and preachers) who spew hate; and those men who prey with impunity on women and children …  I could go on.  It’s so easy to become focused on them.  Yet they do not represent humanity.  And while I need to stay aware of them, recognize their reality, and actively work against their agendas, I do not have to let them to define the world in which I live.  Neither do you.  We can follow Mr. Roger’s mother’s advice and “look for the helpers.”

This summer a man name Mamoudou Gassama came across a small crowd of people in the streets of Paris, looking up at an apartment building.  When he looked, and saw what they were looking at, he didn’t just stand there.  He started running toward the building, because what everyone was looking at was a baby dangling precariously from a balcony.  Gassama ran to the building and started to scale it.  You can find videos of it, and what he does is really amazing.  In almost no time he was at the balcony, and he brought the baby to safety.

Mamoudou Gassama could have stood with the others, staring at the infant’s precarious predicament.  Instead, he instinctively ran toward the danger.  Especially as an undocumented immigrant from Mali, in France for only six months at the time, he might have wanted to maintain a low profile.  But he couldn’t.  He was a helper.

The National Public radio program “Radio Lab” devoted an episode to the topic of “heroism,” and there was a story that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.  I guess I really don’t want to, because it’s a reminder of the helpers in the world.  A man was standing on a subway platform, when another person nearby began having a seizure and fell onto the tracks.  The first man, without hesitating, jumped down to help the other one up.  When he couldn’t, and when it was clear that a subway was coming, he laid down on top of the other man, holding him down on the track.  The subway cars passed over the two men, just grazing the top man’s back.  The two men were strangers, yet one risked his life for the other without a moment’s thought.

In the early days of my ministry I was officiating the memorial service of an elderly member of the congregation.  During the eulogy his son mentioned that his dad had gotten a purple heart because during a battle he had run out to pull back a wounded comrade.  “That’s not what happened!” a voice shouted from the congregation.  A little while later, during the open sharing of memories, this man took the microphone.  “I’m sorry I caused a commotion,” he said.  “But that’s not what happened.  He didn’t go out under fire to bring back a wounded member of our unit.  He brought the first boy back, and then went out again!”

And on Friday Abdul Aziz ran outside and toward the gunman, shouting “Come here!”  He threw the only weapon he could, a credit card machine he’d picked up on the way out.  After the shooter had gone back to his car to get another gun, Aziz ducked and weaved among the cars in the parking lot as bullets whizzed by him.  He saw a gun that the gunman had dropped, but it was out of bullets, so Aziz threw it like a spear at the shooter’s car, shattering the windshield and scaring the killer away.  But Aziz wasn’t done.  He ran after the speeding car, stopping only when he couldn’t keep up.  Because of him the shooter never got inside the second mosque, which is why the carnage was so much less there.

“When I […] would see scary things [going on in the world around me] my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

The haters, the demagogues, the killers, the oppressors, the ones who deny another person’s humanity, the ones who push people to the margins so that they can have the center for themselves, the ones who seem determined to make this world a living hell … they’re real.  They exist.  And we must do all that we can to see to it that they don’t win the day

The helpers are real too, though.  They are just as real.  And we must never lose sight of that.  We must keep them in their minds and hearts, drawing strength, and courage, and hope from their examples.

One last thought:  while reading for this reflection I came across an article in which the author said that Mr. Roger’s mother’s advice is not good advice for us today.  He had several reasons, a couple of which I found neither compelling nor convincing, yet there was one that struck me as both true and important enough to share it with you this morning.  He noted that simply looking for the helpers is not enough.  We need to be those helpers to the extent we can, wherever and whenever we can.
Friends, we can work to make this a world in which all people are truly welcome, a world which all of us can truly call “home.”  And not only can we … we must.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Science Fiction of Social Justice

This past Sunday, during the first service, I realized that I needed to trim my reflections before going in to the second.  The proverbial "cutting room floor" is often home to passages that, for one reason or another, were important or intriguing enough to include yet, ultimately, are not enough of either of those things to remain in the final draft.  Thus it always is for writers.

I remember once, early in my preaching career, emailing a sermon to a friend for her opinion.  Something just wasn't right about it, but I really couldn't tell what.  After reading through it she wrote back, "Erik, that's two of the best sermons I've ever read."  One of them ended up on that floor.

Still, that second sermon found its way off the floor and into the pulpit at some point, and today I want to expand on one of the things I didn't get too on Sunday.

This summer I read a fascinating book –  Octavia’s Brood: science fiction stories from social justice movements.  

Octavia E. Butler was a science fiction author -- the first science fiction author to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.  She was also something of a rarity in the world of science fiction literature for another reason:  there haven't been a lot of African American science fiction writers.  Her Wikipedia article notes that,
"Butler began reading science fiction at a young age, but quickly became disenchanted by the genre's unimaginative portrayal of ethnicity and class as well as by its lack of noteworthy female protagonists.  She then set to correct those gaps by, as De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Ranu Samantrai point out, "choosing to write self-consciously as an African-American woman marked by a particular history"—what Butler termed as "writing myself in".  Butler's stories, therefore, are usually written from the perspective of a marginalized black woman whose difference from the dominant agents increases her potential for reconfiguring the future of her society."
The editors of Octavia's Brood -- Sheree Renée Thomas and Walidah Imarisha -- dedicate their anthology to Butler:
"To Octavia E. Butler, who serves as a north star for so many of us.  She told us what would happen -- "all that you touch you change"--and then she touched us, fearlessly, brave enough to change us.  We dedicate this collection to her, coming out with our own fierce longing to have our writing change everyone and everything we touch."
The 23 contributors are, as Thomas describes them in her Introduction, “artists who in their other lives work tirelessly as community activists, educators, and organizers.” Imarisha notes in her Introduction that one of the things that makes this project so fascinating and exciting is that, "many of the contributors [...] had never written fiction before, much less science fiction."  She writes,
"When we approached folks, most were hesitant to commit, feeling like they weren't qualified.  But overwhelmingly, they all came back a few weeks later, enthusiastically, with incredible ideas and some with dozens of pages already written.  Because all organizing is science fiction, we are dreaming new worlds every time we think about the changes we want to make in the world."
That idea is what intrigued me and led me to include a reference to this in my last reflections.  I realized, though, that I could make the point I was trying to make without this reference and that, actually, this deserved more room than I could have given it there.

"All organizing is science fiction."  Think about that for a minute; let it sink in.  Whenever anyone works for justice, whenever anyone strives to help transform the world from what it is now into what we know it can be, we're essentially painting a picture of a world that does not (yet) exist.  That's the work of science fiction -- to show us alternatives to the reality we know.  Imarisha says,

“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction.  All organizing is science fiction.  Organizers and activists dedicate themselves to creating and envision another world. […]”

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a great deal more about Middle Earth than showed up in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.  One of the reasons the world he created feels so rich, so full, so real, is because he knew more about it than what he needed to tell us for his stories.  And you can sense it.  You can feel it.

He even wrote his own creation story for this world.  The Ainulindalë is a really beautiful and profound myth; it's actually my own favorite of all the creation myths I've ever encountered.  It is the one that feels most "true."  Simply put,  Eru Ilúvatar, the One, creates the universe and all that's in it through music.  
"The story begins with a description of the Ainur as "children of Ilúvatar's thought". They are taught the art of music, which becomes the subject of their immortal lives. The Ainur sing alone or in small groups about themes given to each of them by Ilúvatar, who proposes a "great" plan for them all: a collaborative symphony where they would sing together in harmony."  (Wikipedia)
There are a number of important details, meaningful nuances, that I would hate to rush past.  I encourage you to get a copy of The Silmarillion, which collects much of this "backstory," or Google around until you find a copy of the text online somewhere.  

The reason I bring all of this up is the way the story ends.  After the "collaborative symphony" is complete, Ilúvatar invites the Ainur to look at what they'd created together.  They do, and it is beautiful.  It is good.  And then everything vanishes.  Void.  Emptiness.  And then Ilúvatar tells the Ainur to go into that emptiness and bring into being all that they saw.

I get shivers -- The Ainur are shown not just the blueprint, but the total, finished reality of all creation, and then they're tasked with actually making it real.

When I read Thomas' and Imarisha's words about organizers and activists being engaged in science fiction I immediately thought of Tolkien's myth.  Those who work for justice are those Ainur who have seen this not-yet world right here in the midst of the world as-it-is, and they have set upon the work of bringing into being what they've seen.  In another way they are Ilúvatar, showing their vision to anyone "with eyes to see" (as Jesus is remembered as putting it), and engaging them in the work of world building.

Perhaps all this talk about myths and science fiction seems trivializing of the real life-and-death struggle that is this world for far, far too many.  We don't need pretty stories.  We need action!  That later part is right, but the former misses an important truth.  Walidah Imarisha explains in her Introduction the importance of engaging the imagination in the work for societal transformation:

“[T[he decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is:  for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born.  Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

Sheree Renée Thomas adds one fascinating thought:
"[T]hose of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs.  Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us."
As someone from a historically centralized position, this reminds me that I have to listen not so much to the dreams of my ancestors, to the science fiction that comes out of my history.  Why?  Because that's the world we're living in.  The world that was imagined, the vision that was dreamed and worked for by straight, white, cis-male folks with good educations and incomes has already been brought into being.  It's the world that's so in need of transformation into something new.

This doesn't mean that my ancestors have nothing of value to offer, that their vision offers no beauty or strength.  It does mean, though, that if we're serious about bringing a new world into being then the movers and shakers of this world need to start listening to new stories, new dreams.  Or, rather, new to me.  These stories, these dreams, this visions have always been here; they've just been largely displaced by those that brought us to where we are.  Reading the stories collected in Octavia's Brook opened for me a library the existence of which, I confess, I was only faintly aware.  There is so much more to read, and it pains me that I'm only discovering it at 56.  (At least I'm not first discovering it at 57!)

Pax tecum,


Monday, March 04, 2019

I Dream a World

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, March 3, 2018, to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The Opening and Closing readings were the incredible "Let America Be America Again!" by the incomparable Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes wrote “I Dream a World” in 1929.  34 years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously talked about his dream in front of approximately a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  Another 49 years would pass before the UUA published the Tapestry of Faith curricula, “Building the World We Dream About.”  There’s a whole lot of dreaming going on.

Which should hardly be surprising.  It takes dreamers to imagine a world other than the world as it is, a world where “[one person] no other [person] will scorn, where love will bless the earth and peace its paths adorn.”  As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, admittedly in a very different context, “You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?”

Yet there’s a danger here – a danger perhaps especially for good-hearted, well-meaning liberal white folk like … well … like most of us here this morning and most of us in our Unitarian Universalist faith.  The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, easily one of my top two or three UU preachers, has recently published her first book – After the Good News:  progressive faith beyond optimism.  The description on the back of the book says, “With humor and humanity, Ladd calls religious progressives to greater authenticity and truth-telling rather than blind optimism.”  There is definitely humor and humanity in this book, and also courage; compassion; boldness; truth-telling (to be sure); history; rebuke; challenge; hope; deep, deep thinking; and oh so much love.  She know us; she loves us; she is us; and from within that knowing, loving, and being she writes:

“For much of the past hundred years, even through wars, devastation, and the insidious persistence of systemic racism, modernist religious liberals in Eurocentric churches [meaning us] have preached about our near-unlimited capacity to fix just about everything that is broken.  We believe in ourselves so completely that the ‘good news’ has become a good word about our own capacity to heal things, leaving little room for honest atonement or our own complicity in brokenness.”

She says,

“[Y]es, with Theodore Parker and Dr. King, we believe that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ … [but] why are we so quick to focus on the ‘bending toward justice’ bit rather than honestly addressing the maddeningly long length of the arc – especially for people who live and struggle and lead at the margins of power?”

Because – and these are my words now – religious liberals, including us, have become comfortably complacent and complacently comfortable in our role as the shining beacon, the moral compass, pointing the way to that Beloved Community we “dream about.”  We look around us and see the morass of misogyny, the depths of depraved white supremacy, the incomprehensible income inequality, the xenophobia, the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender, anti-homosexual, anti-Semitic, anti- … well … the anti-just-about-anything-that-isn’t-white, we look around us and see all of that and know with absolute certainty that we offer both an alternative and an antidote.  We look around us “out there” and see all of that, and we look around us “in here” and see all of these beautiful, good-hearted, well-meaning, truly inspiring liberal folk who have in so many cases dedicated their lives to changing that world into the world we dream of.  (The fact that we are mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly well educated is seen as nothing more than a coincidence.)

My parents raised their children to be feminists, non-racists, believers in the vision, the dream, of a world in which all people are welcomed, in which everyone – absolutely everyone – had a seat at the table.  The problem is, as Nancy points out (and I’ll quote her again):

“[T]he table progressive religion invites everyone to, no matter how broad and expansive it may be, is almost always set by people who believe they are white.  Those same white people who set the table have chosen to repeatedly align that white identity with the predominant power structures of their day.

Among the difficult truths we are called to grapple with is the fact that oppressive power structures undergird every single era of progressive optimism in this country.  […] the great institutions of liberal faith were and are inextricably interconnected with systems of supremacy, patriarch, and oppression.”

Last week was the one-year anniversary of a racist attack on a member of our community most likely by a member of our community.  Our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, came in to work, took her mail out of the box on her office door, and found among the bills and requests for rooms an anonymous racist note that was directed not only at her, but at her husband and her kids.  One year ago I responded to this attack, as did the senior leadership of this congregation, strongly and clearly, and holy – or unholy – hell broke loose.  [Here is Christina's own response.]

I had preached on racism before.  I had begun to use the term “white supremacy” before, a term which scholars and activists of color have said is a more accurate description of what had heretofore been called, simply, “racism.”  I said unequivocally that if we’re serious about dismantling the systems and structures of the white supremacy culture, if we’re serious about changing the world “out there” as it is now, into the truly multi-cultural Beloved Community we dream about, then we who identify or are identified as white will need to be the ones who change.  We will need to face, and deal with, the discomfort that unavoidably comes with change.  We will have to become “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” or, as Dr. King put it so marvelously, we are going to have to be “maladjusted.” 

Time after time, sermon after sermon, I preached this same message – we, those of us who identify, or are identified, as white are going to have to shoulder the cross of dis-ease, dis-equilibrium, discomfort – and was greeted with the white liberal equivalent of shouts of “Amen!” and “Preach it brother.”  On that handshake line over there person after person said that I was “brave,” and “bold,” and “saying what needs to be said.”

And then, one year ago, I actually made us uncomfortable.  I had the audacity to disrupt our equilibrium.   I said that we – good hearted, well meaning, liberal white folks who have unquestionably toiled mightily in the vineyards of social change and the movements for justice – that we are complicit in the racism that revealed itself in our own home.  And more than that, I said, unequivocally, that whoever wrote that note is not welcome here.  And boy did people get upset.

In her truth-telling Nancy says, “Those who are accustomed to privilege consider it reasonable to expect comfort and assurance of their own fundamental decency.”  She doesn’t exclude herself from this truth, and neither do it.  Yet when we – those of us who identify, or are identified, as white – really and truly open ourselves up to seeing with new eyes, looking beyond, or through, the veil of the norms and assumptions of our cultural inculcation we will have to acknowledge that we – as individuals and as institutions – often unconsciously participate in, and unwittingly perpetuate those systems and structure upon which our society is built.

In especially potent section of her book, Nancy takes us backward from the liberal church we know today, back through our history, to show us our roots:

“Well past the beginning of the twenty-first century, liberal churches continued to remember the good old days of twentieth-century modernism.  The great modernist churches of the mid-twentieth century were tied to the concept of unending societal potential birthed after the industrial revolution.  That vison of unending societal potential was in turn tied to patriarchal and racially unjust systems that benefited from the oppression they decried.

The prevailing cultural and socioeconomic ethos of this gospel of unending progress was built by and for white men with significant power.  They exercised that power through seemingly benevolent dominion over the earth, its peoples, and its mysteries alike.”
She concludes,

“So, that explains a lot of things.”

We are complicit, all of us are.  How could we not be?  Unless we are consciously and pro-actively creating and living in radically new ways of being in the world, then we are reinforcing the way things are right now whether we want to or not.  Whether we declare our desire to change things.  Even as we work for the transformation of society.  Unless we are willing to live within a transformed reality ourselves while we do so, we are working against ourselves unaware.
This doesn’t mean that we are bad people.  We’re not.  This doesn’t mean that there is no distinction between us and those who carried tiki torches through our city two years ago.  There obviously is.  This doesn’t mean that we should flagellate ourselves with whips of guilt and shame.  We are, we truly are good-hearted, well-meaning folks who put our hearts, minds, and souls into fighting the good fight and striving for our mutual liberation.

This does mean that we need to recognize that if there is ever going to be change in this world, we – especially those of us who identify or are identified as white – are going to have to learn to be “comfortable being uncomfortable” … even when we are actually made uncomfortable!  It does mean that we’re going to have to recognize that some of what we hold sacred, even some of our most cherished ideals and values that we have for so long bravely and lovingly espoused, even these must be examined for their unintended consequences and their role in perpetuating what we are working to dismantle. 

And it means that when we dream dreams, when we see visions, when we strive to build a new way out of the world as it is toward the world as we know it can be, we have to make sure that they’re not just our dreams, conditioned as they unavoidably are by the culture in which we “live, and move, and have our being.”  It means that we need to listen to the dreams of those who have been historically, and who are still, relegated to the margins, to make their dreams our dreams, even when, and perhaps especially when, those dreams challenge our comfort and threaten to upend everything we know about ourselves.

This is scary my friends.  And believe me, it’s as scary for me as it is for you because it’s new terrain for all of us and little in the life I’ve lived so far has prepared me for this.  I do not, can not, know what the future will look like, or the path to get there, because it is a new future we are called to build, unlike, and not simply an extension of what we have known.  Yet if we hold one another in love – whether we see things the same way, or say things the same way, or strive in the same ways – then we can, together, be part of helping that dream become a reality.

I’ll end with the words of one of my predecessors in this pulpit, the 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.


Pax tecum,


Thursday, February 21, 2019


This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, February 17, 2019.

The choir just sang what is easily one of the most recognizable hymns ever composed.  (And the arrangement was by our own Scott DeVeaux.)  “Amazing Grace” was written in the mid-1700s by a preacher named John Newton.  As a young man Newton served as a mate on a slave ship where he, “gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”  (Wikipedia)

One day the ship was caught in a storm so violent, that everyone was certain the ship would be capsized.  Newton and another mate actually lashed themselves to the ship’s pump so that they could keep working – which they did for hours – without fear of being washed overboard while doing so.  This was a realistic concern.  Newton had watched a fellow crew member swept off the ship from the spot where he, himself, had been standing just a few moments earlier.  When Newton told the captain his plan to tie himself to the pump, he reportedly said, "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!"  He later said that it was during that storm that he began his turning from the life he’d been living, to the one which saw him ordained a priest in the Church of England and author of “Amazing Grace.”

The turn was a long, slow one, though.  He continued to serve on slaving ships, eventually becoming a captain, and never saw nothing wrong with this abominable, abhorrent trafficking in human beings.  “He admitted that he was a ruthless businessman and [an] unfeeling observer of the Africans he traded.  Slave revolts on board ship were frequent.  Newton mounted guns and muskets on this deck aimed at the slave quarters.”  [Excerpted from the essay about Newton on the website The Abolition Project.]

Many years later, though, after he had left the slave trade and had become a committed Christian, he also became an ardent abolitionist fighting against the he had, himself, both participated in and profited from.  The lyrics of the first verse offer something of a personal testimony to the salvific power of grace.

Now, “grace” is one of those words to which some UUs have an almost allergic reaction.  Perhaps that’s because it’s so intimately connected to two other, for some, problematic words – “sin,” and “God.”  I’m going to set “God” aside for a today, but I do want us to consider the word, “sin.”  And I want to talk about “sin” because I think that the Christian concept of “Grace” can’t really be understood without understanding the concept of “Sin.” 


If there’s one thing that many UUs have as much problem with as we do the idea of “God,” it’s “Sin.”  That’s because we know what “Sin” means; we know what being called a “Sinner” means.  It means that we’re a “loathsome insect … ten thousand times as abominable … as the most hateful, venomous serpent.” 

Those phrases come from a sermon delivered by the ever-cheery Johnathan Edwards titled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Here is perhaps the most famous passage:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.”

I told you he was cheery.  I’ve really got to read a little more:

“You have offended him [and that’s God, again] infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.”

Hearing this kind of rhetoric from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit, it is possible, of course, that some of you think you have done so.  See, we don’t talk about “sin” because we “know” what it means:  It means that God – the ultimate Pater Prosecutorial – is constantly watching for us to make the slightest slip so that he – always “he” –  can come crashing down on us with all the authority of … well … of God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and all Things Visible and Invisible.  It means that we are not only “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” but that we’re, “worthless in the eyes of a judgmental God.”
And we “know” that “sin” is not just an existential state, it is also a laundry list of things – both general and very specific – that we shouldn’t do.  (Because it would make us even more loathsome and abhorrent, I guess.) 

I came across a blog post this week with the title, “A List of Sins from the Bible.” 

“Idolatry, greed, covetousness, love of money, gluttony, complaining, not loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, tempting God, high-mindedness, disobedience, witchcraft, lover of self, putting family, friends, job, or anything else above God including food, money, sports, inter [sic], TV, Internet pornography, movies, cars, attachment to riches or material goods and dozens of other things.
The author, Jack Wellman, an Evangelical Pastor, was just getting started.  He goes on to list a a great many more things that God is on the look-out for, more than a few of which I am sure we here this morning, “sinners” that we are, are now or have been engaged and entangled with.  It’s worth mentioning, that there are several things on Pastor Wellman’s list which we, good UUs that we are, would consider virtues, things to be proud of.  Yet for most of us even those that we’d aren’t good aren’t things we think should condemn someone to the eternal fires of hell – if we believed in “hell,” of course.

I want to be really clear here – I’m not for a moment suggesting that this is how all Christians understand the concept of “sin.”  Yet there’s no question it is precisely the way that word is often used.  But whenever I hear that word being used that way I want to say, “Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my fa …”  No.  Wait.  It’s that other great line.  I want to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There are actually seven different words used in the original Greek of the Christian scriptures which are translated into the single word, “Sin.”   Each has a different meaning, nearly all of which have gotten lost in that unfortunate simplification and which, together, paint an entirely different picture than we have been led to believe.

One is a term from archery that means, “to miss the mark.”  Sinning can be understood, then, simply as missing the mark.  Nothing “abominable” about it at all.  We all do it.  We try.  We try our best.  And sometimes we just don’t quite hit what we were aiming for.  We don’t keep our cool as much as we’d hoped we would have; we forget that we’d meant to give someone the benefit of the doubt; we join in when others are speaking snarkily about someone even though we’d promised ourselves we’d stop doing that.  We miss the mark.  We “sin.”

Some of the other Greek words mean, “diminishing what should have been given full measure,” (or, maybe, not giving it our all).  Then there’s “ignorance when one should have known;” “refusing to hear and heed God's word,” (or, let’s say, ignoring that still, small voice of inner wisdom even when it’s more like shouting at us).  My favorite of them all is, “lying down when one should have stood.” 

Is there anybody in here this morning who has never behaved in ways that could be described in at least one of these ways?  Oh man, I surely have.  I’ve missed the mark; I’ve held back and not given everything I had; I’ve done things that I should have known not to do; and oh how many times I’ve lay down when I should have – and could have – been up and doing something. 

You see … the concept of “sin,” when properly understood at its spiritual core, is not all that much about judgement.  It’s really an observation.  I have two eyes, one nose, and one mouth.  I have a tattoo on my right arm.  I breathe air and can’t breathe under water.  I often miss the mark.  I sometimes do things when I really should have known better.  I don’t always give everything I can.  I sometimes drop down, out of sight, when I really should be present and counted for.  And except for the the tattoo, I’d wager that’s true for just about all of us, true for just about anyone we might ever meet.  That’s really what it means to say that we’re all “sinners.”

Well … what about “grace?”  “Sin” and “Grace” really go hand in hand.  They should, at least, because each is needed to make sense of the other.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I struggle with “Imposterism.”  That’s the psychological condition, sometimes called “Imposter Syndrome,” in which I look at myself and all of my accomplishments and am afraid that I’m really just a fraud one slip from being found out.  A few years back, we brought in a facilitator to lead a weekend retreat as the kick-off to a multi-session program called “Beloved Conversations” that was designed to help groups deepen their ability to talk about how racism plays out in the world, and in our own lives.  At the end of the first night of the retreat all of the participants sat in here – which is actually a really powerful thing to do at night.  We sat in here and went through a process that led us to our deepest, core, most fundamental fear.  There were some really impressive people here that night – if I were to read off a list of them, those who’ve been around a while would recognize a veritable who’s who of the best and brightest.  The room was full of really highly successful people, and just about every one of us said pretty much the same thing when we were asked to share – some version of, “I’m afraid that if people really knew me, knew the real me, that they wouldn’t love or respect me anymore and that I’d be abandoned.”  Just about every … single … person.

I’m not good enough.  I’m just not good enough; I don’t deserve this good fortune.  I’m not good enough; I don’t deserve this success.  I’m not good enough; I don’t deserve to see my dreams come true.  I’m not good enough; I don’t deserve to be happy.


The deepest spiritual understanding of the concept of “sin” says, essentially, “Okay.  So what?  Nobody’s good enough!  Everybody is fallible!  Everybody’s flawed!  Everybody fails!  What makes you so special that you think you’re the only one who secretly isn’t a good enough friend, or lover, or parent, or racial justice warrior, or whatever.  Get over yourself!  We’re all in that same boat.” 

The concept of “sin,” no matter how twisted it has become through the years, is simply telling us that we’re right, that we’re not perfect, and that no one else is either.  This means we can stop wasting energy comparing ourselves to somebody else who we’re convinced is somehow better than us.  We can let ourselves off the hook, because nobody’s got it all together.

That’s the lesson of “sin.” 

The lesson of “grace” is that none of that matters, because we live in a world of beauty even with our flaws.  People love us even with our imperfections.  In the theistic context from which these terms come, “grace” means that God loves us not because we’re good enough to deserve it, but because God is good enough to casually and extravagantly exude love like the sun just shines.

“Grace” tells us that we don’t need to earn our place in the Universe.  As the well-known poem “Desiderata” put it, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Sin and Grace.  We aren’t perfect, but we don’t need to be perfect to be happy.  We miss the mark, but we don’t need to hit the bullseye every time to be “worthy” (whatever that means).  We don’t always give it our all, don’t always show up, don’t always listen to our own inner wisdom, but we don’t need to do any of that to be loved.  We are sinners, among sinners, but that’s not a judgement, just an observation.  And it’s okay, because grace doesn’t require us to be anything other than what we are. 

Now … isn’t that amazing?

Pax tecum,


Monday, February 11, 2019

Rice Balls, Noodles, Fireworks, and Dragons

This is the text of the Reflections I offered on Sunday, February 10, 2019 to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Whether we call it “Chinese New Year,” the “Spring Festival,” or the “Lunar Festival,” this major Chinese celebration (which began this past Tuesday and will continue on through a week from this coming Wednesday) is a really, really big deal.  It’s celebrated by more than 20% of all the people in the world – that’s something like 1 ½ billion people!  And you know how Lorie said that setting off firecrackers is a part of the celebrations?  More fireworks are set off all over the world that last night than at any other time of the year … anywhere.  And do you remember how much Yuan Xiao wanted to go home to be with her family?  Well … so many people travel home during this time that in 2015, they were selling 1,000 train tickets … every second.  Like I said, it’s a really, really big deal.
There is usually more than one great legend tied to any particular event, and this is true about the origin of the lantern festival.  Lorie told you one, and I’m going to tell you another.  The one I’m going to tell you is different than the one Lorie told you in two big ways – first, it doesn’t focus on Yuan Xiao and Dongfang Shuo, and the second is … the monster is real.  Which one is true?  Probably both.  (Oh, and the one I’m going to tell is a variation of the story Rob Craighurst has told here so marvelously.)

In this version of the story, as I said, the monster is real.  Its name is Nian.  Most of the time it lived out in the depths of the sea, but each year, as the end of the lunar year drew near, it would come out of the water and onto land, where it would proceed to kill people’s livestock – goats, pigs, chickens, cows … you know – it would hunt the people of the village, and would generally cause a mess.  It was scary.  Since this happened every year, the people of the village knew that when the lunar year was coming to an end, it was time to grab their things and run for the hills.  (And unlike here, when an evacuation order is given, nobody would stay behind and “ride it out.”)

Well … one year an old woman came into town just as the mad preparations for the exodus was taking place.  She had piercing eyes, long white hair, was dressed in rags, walked with a cane.  She stood in the center of the town, and she looked tired.  A kindly grandfather saw here there and brought her some food … and a warning.  “The sea monster Nian is coming here tonight and we’re all getting out of here to hide in the hills, you should too.”

The old woman just smiled, tiredly.  “I’m not afraid of any monster,” she said.  “I’ll tell you what.  If you let me stay the night in your house so that I can get a good night’s sleep in your bed, I will take care of old Nian for you in return.”

The grandfather looked at her thinking that she must not know what she was getting into, but he didn’t have any more time to talk with her.  He had to finish getting ready.  “I really suggest you come with us to hide,” he said.  “But if you’re really intent on staying, you are certainly most welcome to spend the night in my humble home.  But whatever you do, I implore you – keep the house dark, and don’t make any noise, and maybe Nian won’t know that you’re there.”   And with that, he left to join the rest of the villagers.

That night, when Nian came into the village, the monster noticed something different about the town.  Usually the houses were all dark and empty.  Everything was quiet.  This time, though, there was one house that was all lit up.  Nian went closer to the house to check it out, and found that all of the windows had been covered with red paper, and every window had a candle burning it in.  This made the monster angry; whoever lived in the house wasn’t giving it the proper respect.  Nian decided to get to the bottom of this.

But as it descended on the house, there was suddenly a lot of crackling and popping in the courtyard.  This made Nian a little nervous.  And just then the front door burst open.  The old woman was there, wearing all red and laughing raucously.  Nian was now kind of scared, that someone would stand there completely unafraid.  Maybe the monster had underestimated these villagers!  So it quickly beat feet and headed back to the safety of the sea.

The next morning the villagers came back to see that everything was just as they’d left it.  The grandfather realized that the old woman had been as good as her word.  He told everyone about it, and they all went to his house to thank the good woman.  When they got there, though, the woman was gone.  But they saw the windows all covered in red, the burnt candles in the windows, and the exploded firecrackers in the yard, and they understood what she had done.

So the next year, even though they were a little nervous about it, everyone stayed in the village the night Nian was due to come.  They all covered their windows in red paper; they all lit lights in their windows; and when the monster did show up, they all set off firecrackers in their yards.  And they all saw the monster turn tail and run, just like they used to.

Everyone came out of their houses, and they were so happy that they started celebrating.  People made sweet rice balls, delicious dishes of noodles (which you would eat in one long slurp without cutting or biting it, to signify a long and uninterrupted life), and all sorts of other special foods.  And every day they would celebrate like this, and the monster never came back.

Now … there are three lessons that I learn from these stories.

First, sometimes monsters are real, and sometimes they are not.  I don’t believe that there are monsters under our beds or in our closets, but sometimes there are monsters like bullies at school, at work, in our neighborhoods, even at the highest levels of government.  There are monsters like poverty, racial injustices, violence toward women and people in LGBTQ communities, and the decimation of our planet.  Sometimes the monsters aren’t real, though – they’re just things we’re expecting to see, assumptions we make, projections of our own prejudices, and fears about “what might happen if …?” with a worst-case scenario as our answer.  It is so important to be able to tell the difference.

The second thing I hear in this story is that running away and hiding isn’t the best solution.  Last week the reflections I offered were called, “Fear Never Fixed Anything,” and that’s absolutely true.  We can’t always be brave all the time, and sometimes we do have step back a little, to look away, to go to our “happy place” and pretend that there isn’t anything wrong.  We just can’t stay like that forever.

And that brings me to the third thing, and maybe most important thing.  I don’t think the real hero of the story is the old woman.  As important as she is.  The ones who really saved the village … are all the villagers themselves.  If they have said to one another, “That cool, smart, brave old woman scared the monster away and we never have to worry about it again,” that next year would have turned out very differently, and probably a lot worse.  The fact that they all faced down Nian that second year is what changed things.  It was them banding together, working together, being brave together, supporting each other, that made the difference.  Alone, there are things we just can’t handle.  There are problems that are too big, too scary, too dangerous.  Together, though, there’s nothing we can’t handle.

One more thing.  About that old woman.  The story doesn’t say so, but I think that she was a dragon in disguise.  These reflections are called, “Rice Balls, Noodles, Lanterns, and Dragons,” and I’ve only talked about the first three.  So .. about dragons.

In every Chinese legend I have ever heard, when there’s an old person, a stranger, with piercing eyes, long white hair, dressed in rags, and walking with a cane, it’s a dragon.  One of my favorite books is Everyone KnowsWhat a Dragon Looks Like.  In that story, it’s an old man who comes to a village to help the people there face The Scary Thing that’s threatening them. 

That’s the old man.

And in one of my parts of the story, the old man:

“sprang up into the air and his form changed.  He grew taller than the tallest tree, taller than the tallest tower.  He was the color of sunset shining through the rain.  Scales covered him, scattering light.  His claws and teeth glittered like diamonds.  His eyes were noble like those of a proud horse.  He was more beautiful and more frightening than [anyone] had ever seen.”

In the west, dragons are something to be feared.  In the east, not only do they look really different, but they’re considered symbols of power and wisdom.  In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say to a parent, “May your child grow up to be a dragon.”

Each of us can “grow up to be a dragon.”  And there’s nothing we dragons can’t do … together.

Pax tecum,