Maybe this is what Spring feels like


Maybe this is what Spring feels like:
a sadness in the heart.

Steady summer is not here yet.
The skies turn from grey to blue and back
on a dime.

There is no easy release from Winter.
There is no clean break.

But sadness softens everything.
Sadness opens up the tough bud.
Sadness draws forth the green.

Sadness is a kind of resurrection,
though it doesn’t feel like it.

Savoring and Saving the World: Essentials of Unitarian Universalism, Part 6

Today’s message represents the completion of our year-long sermon series on Unitarian Universalist essentials. We are already busy with our religion—we are worshipping, studying, serving, giving, meditating, celebrating, changing lives in here and in the larger world, all this and more—but this does not necessarily mean our minds are fully connecting with our faith. This does not necessarily mean we are clear on why we are who we are.

Now I know that some days it’s just like herding cats; I know that when people use the phrase “organized religion” we feel tempted to laugh at the oxymoronic phrase and the equally oxymoronic speaker. But despite this, there really are certain beliefs we all hold in common. There really is a core to our Unitarian Universalism. Here it is:

1. The Sacred Heart of Reality is fundamentally a Mystery and always bigger than any beliefs about it;

2. The sources of truth about the Sacred are many (at least Six), and drawing from diverse sources makes for an exciting and rewarding path;

3. Spirituality is best seen as a lifelong journey in which we never stop learning. Mistakes are allowed. We can know we’ve encountered truth when it changes our lives in line with our Seven Principles;

4. A powerful way of supporting people’s growth over time in community is through the practice of covenant, not creed;

5. There is a pure sweet gospel that comes to us from our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, and it is just as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago: Love is where we all come from, and Love is where all we’re going.

But today, as I’ve said, comes the completion of the list of core convictions. I would even describe it as the capstone, the culmination. I say this because it characterizes the HOW of our being religious, as well as defines what spiritual growth means to us.

In essence, this: we want to save the world, but we also want to savor it.

The eagle in us wants to soar, but the hippopotamus who is also in us just wants to wallow in the sweet slippery sticky sensational mud…

Nervous Newborn Hippo

It DOES make it hard to plan the day—as writer E. B. White said.

But why are we Unitarian Universalists torn between the two? What anchors us in the middle of this tension of seeming opposites?

Human nature, for one thing! But our distinctive religious history has an important role to play also.

From our Unitarian side comes “salvation by character,” the beautiful idea that people are full of God-like potentials, and it is a main purpose of life to realize those potentials. At the same time, the world is full of broken places; and it puts those broken places within us. So our job is to heal the world and make it a place where as many people as possible can be themselves fully, can actualize the God-given potentials within. That is salvation, and salvation is something you work at. You work at developing all the public institutions that affirm human dignity; you work at developing all the personal traits that evidence good character. THIS is what saves. If you don’t, well, people won’t get to Love. Love won’t happen. That’s what the Unitarians said.

Which invited a backlash from the Universalists. They saw “salvation by character” as a case of inflated self-importance, and they countered it with a slogan of their own: “salvation irrespective of character.” See how cheeky they were, to echo the phrasing from the Unitarians even as they were subverting it? “Salvation irrespective of character” means that no one is going to be left out of Love. Everyone is going to get to Love no matter what. Yes, people need to work to make the world a better place. Of course. But don’t think it’s all on you. Martin Luther King Jr. was channeling the Universalists when he spoke of “a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us,” he says, “realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

And that’s it. Save the world, and savor it—both are in our spiritual DNA. Work to actualize your potentials, absolutely. Don’t dare think that there’s no work to do. God doesn’t have hands; we do. That’s what we are for. But even so, to think that EVERYTHING depends on us is equally wrong. The world is larger than our egos can possibly comprehend. The world is fundamentally Mystery. So: don’t push the river. Don’t thrash and drown. Lie easy, and let the river hold you.

Trust God but tie your camel
Trust God but lock your car
Trust God but row for shore
Trust God but make an annual pledge

I could go on and on. You get my point. Save the world, savor the world. Eagle, hippopotamus. Our Unitarian Universalist heritage puts us right in the middle of that tension. So it’s our task to learn how. To make the tension creative.

And it’s a struggle. We heard a little about that earlier, in today’s reading from the Rev. Dick Gilbert, which is a contemporary classic:

To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!

In other words, I just want to be a hippopotamus and wallow in muddy goodness! But:

No, you will not let me be.
You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes
To the sight of the afflicted.
No, you will not!

What is that you say?
To savor one must serve?
To savor one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me–
In my preoccupation with self,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.

Ultimately, Dick Gilbert’s poem envisions the save/savor tension as a conflict between public issues that call for our intervention and private satisfactions that can stop up our ears to the cries of the hurt and hungry. It’s so easy, he suggests, to get caught up in being private hippos in our private mud pits. But don’t forget what the eagle is calling us to. Get up out of that mud, and fly! Live so that your corner of the universe is better than when you first found it.

It’s all true. How can anyone not say amen to this?


And yet there’s a wrinkle to consider. When I read Dick Gilbert’s piece, I am led to think of people who hear the call of the eagle and respond to that and they give their lives to work and community and public service—but they do this in big part because they are trying to escape their private lives. They don’t know what to do with the hippo waiting for them at home. It’s the weekend and they can’t relax, they can’t take off the suit. In explicit social justice terms, they go to protest after protest at city hall because, well, they don’t know how to resolve the conflict with their partner at home.

As I say all this, I think of my father. He was such an eagle, of the medical variety! Medical school taught him how to do incredible things that saved thousands of lives. But it never taught him how to wallow very well. And I needed that from him. What an amazing joy it is for children to see their parents just being silly. Enjoying themselves in healthy ways. Oh, I wanted to see him savor his life more! I needed it! His friends needed it! He needed it!

This is the wrinkle to consider. Dick Gilbert says, don’t get so caught up in the private that you forget the public. Absolutely—but don’t serve the public because you are trying to escape the private. There must be a balance. It’s a sad thing if, at your memorial service, all the world cries except your own children, who never knew you.

Both eagle and hippopotamus ask certain things of us, and we must do justice to both.

Makes it not easy to plan the day…

But now let’s go even deeper into the tension between saving and savoring. Consider a different way of framing it: as happiness vs. meaning. “Over the past few weeks,” says New York Times writer David Brooks, “I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.” “But,” David Brooks goes on to say, “notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”

I was pleased to see this article, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. If laughter is “carbonated holiness,” as writer Anne Lamott puts it, then happiness is holy. Laughter that’s easy and free. Living that’s in the moment, silly and sweet, full of friends and fun. Maybe exactly the sort of thing that comes to mind when we think of that hippopotamus wallowing in his mud…

But as for meaning…. Meaning is the eagle who is not so much living in the present but reflecting on the past with all its pains and losses. Also thinking about the future with all its potential threats. Meaning is the eagle working through dissapointment and grief so as to understand the big picture, so as to learn the lessons, so as to bring greater compassion and wisdom to life.

People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

We have all been lost, at least in the geographic sense. It is so unsettling. You feel so vulnerable. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what might happen. Take this and crank up the intensity 100 fold, 1000 fold, we’re talking emotional lostness and spiritual lostness. You lose your job. You lose your health. You lose your love. You don’t want this, but it happens anyhow.

It’s terrible. No one wants this. Who can accept this?

Hippo, come close. Eagle, stay the hell away.


But listen to more of what David Brooks has to say: “[S]uffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony … smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.”

David Brooks also says that people in the midst of suffering also eventually learn that “They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. […] It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. […] Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”

Oh, we want our happiness. And why not? It is a worthy aim of life. Don’t tell me that carbonated holiness is not a worthy thing! Process theology teaches us that through our own pleasure we can feel the very pleasure of God. It is part of what makes life worth living.

But—as Christianity explicitly teaches through the figure of Jesus—the only way to Easter Sunday resurrection is Good Friday crucifixion. Go through a Good Friday episode in your life, and by Easter Sunday time, believe me, you are … different.

What Unitarian Universalism calls us to is an ability to hold it all together. To appreciate tears as much as carbonated holiness. To allow room for the inevitable moments of lostness as much as to moments when we know exactly where we are. To dance when it is time to dance. To mourn when it is time to mourn. To be large enough for all of it. To reject none.

That in fact is the true measure of spiritual growth for Unitarian Universalists, and I close with this insight. It comes from process theologian and Unitarian Universalist Bernard Loomer. He was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, and as the frequent leader of adult religious education courses, he would often ask his group, “What is the size of your soul?” “I mean,” he’d say, “the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions.”

Exactly like the tension between eagle and hippo.

What is the size of your soul today?

Can you both savor and save?

Can you live within that tension well?

I promise you, planning the day gets easier, the bigger your soul is.



Theology OUT of the Box

Summers in high school, I used to teach Vacation Bible School. We used popsicle sticks to create little Noah’s Arks. We played Pin-the-Animal-to-the-Ark. We ate a snack of animal crackers. It might not have looked like it, but we were doing theology. We were reinforcing a certain understanding of our big picture relationship to the world and to each other. That’s what me and the kids were doing, those sweet summer days….

It all comes back to me, all these years later, as I reflect on how, just this past week, I went to my local Lefont Theater, got buttered popcorn, got gummy bears, got chocolate, got water, found my seat and prepared my meal of goodies, ate too much of it while I endured ages of previews, and then, finally, saw the main event: Daniel Aranofsky’s movie Noah.

It is by sheer contrast that the Vacation Bible School memory comes back to me. Because there is nothing sweet in that movie. What you have instead is a graphically-depicted world that has turned morally depraved. You have a God who is all-powerful, who could have intervened in the ages before Noah to prevent the world from ever turning bad, but He does not. He chooses to intervene in Noah’s time, when the world is way past the tipping point, and his intervention takes the form of an apocalypse. Lots of screaming in that movie. Practically all life destroyed through a massive flood. You also have human beings, Noah and his family, who suffer each moment of the story as it unfolds, but God is above all that suffering, God is like the grey sky churning with clouds that Noah in the movie lifts his eyes to continually, pleading for help, pleading to understand, but there is no answer. The mysterious grey skies just churn away. God is above it all. God has a plan.

This is what I call theology IN the box. I was in the box during those sweet Vacation Bible School days, but didn’t really know it. I started to, however, when my Dad died and I lifted up my eyes to the same churning grey skies that Noah might have lifted his eyes to, and I pled for help and pled for understanding like Noah might have, and none of it came my way. God could have intervened so that my Dad didn’t die when he was just 60 fricken years old, but God did not intervene; he, with all his ultimate power, was a greedy miser, a Scrooge, a Grinch.

You see, this is the problem with the God of Vacation Bible School, the God of the movie Noah, the God that pervades the Western world, the God that so many of us imagine when the word “God” is spoken: the traditional God. This God is erratic. This God is demonic. Theologian Robert Mesle puts it like this: “In the Bible, and in much of Christian thought, God has been described as directly willing and causing great evils: war, slavery, plague, famine, and even the hardness of human hearts. At the very best, God has been depicted as standing by and allowing needless suffering that ‘He’ could easily have prevented.” Robert Mesle goes on to say, “To defend our ideas of God, we are driven to turn our ideas of good and evil inside out to explain why it is really good for God to allow such great suffering.” Here’s one specific example of that which animates so much of politics today. God doesn’t eradiate poverty? Well, it must mean that it’s all a part of God’s plan, and who are we to fight against God? So let’s all vote for politicians who support public policies that rob from the poor and give to the rich.

See what I mean? That’s what theology IN the box is all about. Right and wrong turned inside out.

I am tired of theology IN the box. Aren’t you?

And in fact, a lot of us are. A couple years back, New York Times writer Eric Weiner used the opportunity of the oncoming Christmas holidays to raise the question of what he called “the sad state of our national conversation about God.” “For a nation of talkers and self-confessors,” he writes, “we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?”

That’s another consequence of theology IN the box. It’s polarizing. True Believers who refuse to question the Vacation Bible sweetness of their God concept, and the Angry Atheists who are equally committed to the Vacation Bible God concept but reject it absolutely.

But what about the rest of us? “The rest of us,” says Eric Weiner, “turns out to constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones [N-O-N-E-S], the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones. Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones.”

And then Eric Weiner says this, which takes us closer to our topic for today of theology OUT of the box: “Nones [he says] don’t get hung up on whether a religion is ‘true’ or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that ‘truth is what works.’ If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people—more loving, less angry—then it is necessarily good, and by extension ‘true.’ (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: ‘It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.’)”

Couple things here. First, the idea of “truth is what works.” When we talk about being in search of a God idea that is better than the traditional one, yes, the “truth is what works” maxim is helpful. If a God concept confuses your sense of right and wrong, if turns you into a True Believer or an Angry Atheist, if it walls you off from your life rather than helps you engage it more creatively, then that God concept is going in the wrong direction, the direction of falsehood. But if a God concept illustrates the true meaning of love and compassion, if it turns you into someone who has Holy Curiosity, if it brings you into true abundance and hopefulness in your life—well, that’s what I call, “it works.”

It also works if you can joke about it. Just like G. K. Chesterton said.

Here’s a joke that immediately introduces us to theology OUT of the box. It’s called, “God will save me.” A big storm approaches. The weatherman urges everyone to get out of town. The priest says, “I won’t worry, God will save me.” The morning of the storm, the police go through the neighborhood with a sound truck telling everyone to evacuate. The priest says, “I won’t worry, God will save me.”
The storm drains back up and there is an inch of water standing in the street. A fire truck comes by to pick up the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.” 
The water rises another foot. A National Guard truck comes by to rescue the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.”
The water rises some more. The priest is forced up to his roof. A boat comes by to rescue the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.” 
The water rises higher. The priest is forced up to the very top of his roof. A helicopter comes to rescue the priest. He shouts up at them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.”
The water rises above his house, and the priest drowns. 
When he gets up to heaven he says to God, “I’ve been your faithful servant ever since I was born! Why didn’t you save me?”
And God replies “First I sent you a weatherman, then I sent the police, then I sent a fire truck, then the national guard, then a boat, and then a helicopter. What more do you want from me!!??”

That’s the joke, and before I show how it illustrates what theology is like when you get OUT of the box, I better do my job and tell you the name of this particular theology. It’s called “Process Theology.” Historically, much of it is home-grown; it emerges out of Unitarian Universalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spoke of the “deep power in which we exist, [how] when it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” Then there is the great Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century, Charles Hartshorne, who titled one of his books as follows: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Are you getting a sense of where we are going yet? How we’re moving away from the idea that God’s power is a power to supernaturally intervene in history?) And then there is the thinker who is considered to be the father of Process Theology, not a Unitarian Universalist but, says Wikipedia, a “friend”: Alfred North Whitehead.

Listen to something Whitehead once said: “When the Western world received Christianity, Caesar conquered, and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers… The brief [vision of humble and patient love that came from Jesus] flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly … but the deeper idolatry, the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”

That’s exactly why the priest in the joke does what he does. Why he constantly refuses help. Why he’s so upset at God in the end. God is supposed to barge into history like an imperial, all-powerful Caesar, to intervene supernaturally. That’s the kind of power the priest is convinced God has. Hard power to force things. Hard power that is coercive and violates natural laws and others’ freedom. The priest is stuck on this idea of power—even though, as Whitehead suggests, Jesus himself offered people a completely different sense of divine power: Power that is persuasive and patiently but steadfastly calls people to a better vision of life, which they can follow, but only if they choose to do so.

The joke takes the side of Jesus. And Whitehead.

The priest never got it. But we can.

I won’t speculate on how Jesus came to this conclusion about God. But as for Whitehead, he came to it in big part because of the findings of the most successful and battle-tested theory in all of contemporary science: quantum mechanics. The fundamental particles that make up everything, says the genius physicist Werner Heisenberg, “are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” In other words, it’s only when Noah chooses to build the Ark that a certain direction into the future begins to be born, and with each subsequent choice, the world of actualities expands…. But there is never a point where any being could know everything past-present-future. It’s impossible. A being COULD be able to envision all possibilities. That would be God. But even God cannot know what the actualities will turn out to be. Actualities require choices and choosers. That would be us. That’s what history is for.

The problem with the priest in the joke—and with people who are still IN the theological box—is that they conceive of God as some kind of super person whose hands are just like ours but bigger and stronger. We use our hands to pick our kids up when they have fallen, and God uses God’s hands to send all the animals, two of every kind, into the Ark. Think like this, and you will drown. You will wait for God to come save you. All sorts of real help will come on by, but you’ll ignore it. And you will drown.

We’ve got to turn from that, and turn to theology OUT of the box.


Process theology: here are the basics:

First: everything is in God. The world is God’s body. This is just so beautiful. I just want to repeat it like a mantra. The world is God’s body. “For me,” writes Herman Hesse, “trees have always been the most penetrating preachers.” Of course. Because trees are a part of God’s body, and so are stars, and so are rivers. Humans are too, but Process Theology is not human-centered. Everything is a part of God, everything needs to be honored and cared for, not just people.


Second: even though the world is in God, it has creative independence ands freedom, just like your own body does when it gets sick. Your mind doesn’t want it to be sick, but it gets sick anyhow, and you have to cope. Same thing with God. God doesn’t want the world to be sick, and yet the world has creative independence. God simply can’t enter into the world supernaturally, like a bull in a china shop, and stop this and start that.

Third: God is more than the world. God is the knower. Part of this includes possibility. God knows every possibility there is to know. There is no possible world that God is ignorant of. But as for what God knows about actuality or facts: only the ones that have happened. God is as constrained by the laws of quantum mechanics as we are. God can be disappointed. God can be delighted.

But here is the other side of God’s supreme power of knowing. This side is particularly interesting, because it goes against that image of God as some kind of imperial Caesar who is supposed to be supreme and worthy of worship because nothing bothers him, nothing moves him, he is permanently unchanged and unchanging. But process theology envisions a God that is worthy of worship because God is affected by everything. Every pain and pleasure ever felt is felt by God. God is absolute in empathy and rapport. God, writes Carter Heyward, “will hang on the gallows.”

God will inspire, fill, overwhelm Handel with power and splendor.
God will be battered. . .
God will have a mastectomy
God will experience the wonder of giving birth.
God will be handicapped.
God will run the marathon.
God will win.
God will lose.
God will be down and out, suffering, dying.
God will be bursting free, coming to life, for
God will be who God will be.

For me personally, it means that, when I am frustrated, I hesitate not an instant to cuss up a blue streak when I pray to God. God understands. God is not a prim, self-satisfied moralist who doesn’t know what it’s like to screw up, who is judgmental, who hasn’t a clue about what real confusion feels like, or hurting others, or being hurt. This is not a Vacation Bible School God. This is a God for real, adult life.

The world is in God, the world has creative independence from God, God is more than the world. And then also this, number four: In every moment, in every place, constantly, God calls us towards the better possibilities of life. God does it because God is love; and God is uniquely suited for it because God knows how life feels, knows everything about us, is far more compassionate about our flaws and limitations than we ever could be.

The question is never, God, are you with me? The question is always, Am I with God? Am I using my freedom to position myself in a way where I can feel God’s constant, faithful call? “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” God’s call to us is to become more than we ever thought possible. But we must choose to align ourselves to it. We must learn how to listen.

And when we hear it—well, sometimes it can scare us to death. We are called to go out from the place we are completely familiar with but it no longer serves our highest good and that of the world’s. We are stuck. But God calls us out. And it can scare us to death. And so therefore we deny, we delay. But God is not some imperial Caesar. God won’t force us. God just keeps showing us the vision of what is possible. God longs for it, and we can feel that longing….

Sing it with me, this song from the pen of James Weldon Johnson, number 149 in your hymnal. Just the first verse.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Do you feel that? That deep feeling of desire for a better world? Process theology would say that you are feeling the feelings of God right in this moment. It’s one reason why music is precious—it can tap us straight into God. And here, what we feel is God’s thirst for justice. How God sees all the ways in which the world could be better, could be healed, and God wants it. God wants it.

But there are no hands but our hands. God doesn’t have hands. We do. That’s what we are for.

This never crosses the priest’s mind, that priest from the joke. That the weatherman, the police, the fire truck, the national guard, the boat, and also the helicopter all represent ways in which people responded to the call to serve and protect, which is about love, which comes from God. Never crosses his mind. The priest wants a God who waves a magic wand and makes it all better.

But that is theology IN the box. There are no magic wands.

What we have instead is this. The world is in God. The world has creative independence from God. God is more than the world and knows every possibility and feels everything. And God loves us, wants our healing and our wholeness, sings to us every day, every night, every moment, sings us forward into greater things, sings love, sings courage.

And it is up to us to listen, and to sing back.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist Way

That’s a powerful video. It’s a segment from Anderson Cooper’s special 360 report entitled “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture,” and while we will definitely want to address its findings about “implicit racial bias” (we’ll get there in a moment), to begin with just think about what it’d be like to be Mikayla’s parents, to sit in the hot seat with them, to be under the bright lights being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and you know that millions of people are gonna see your kid in action, and therefore, inevitably, you are gonna be exposing your parenting to the judgment of millions of people.

Boy that sounds like fun! Woo hoo!

We’re talking about parenting this morning, and parenting is really hard. Part of what makes it really hard is the impression out there that parenting is some kind of exact science with definite formulas for what works, and it doesn’t matter who the kid is or what the situation is, you just follow exactly what Dr. Phil says and things are gonna turn out fine. And if things don’t turn out fine, well, blame comes on fast and easy. The parent or parents did not follow the exact science protocols with all the exact definite formulas which are all obvious and easy to do and so they must either be stupid, or lazy, or malicious, or all three.

It’s in the eyes of strangers, watching, where we can sense this judgmentalism so intensely.

Says Nancy Samalin in her amazing book Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, “One mother told the story of the day she took her two-year-old to the bank. The child was cranky, whining as she sat in her stroller, and the mother felt tense because the line was long. Suddenly, a fly started buzzing around the child’s head, and angrily the child flicked it away and said very loudly, ‘FRICKING FLY!” [The kid did NOT say “fricking.”] The mother felt her face redden as all conversation in the line stopped. She could just imagine what people were thinking. Her first impulse was to slap the child. But instead she went with her second impulse. She looked at her son and said in a very loud voice, ‘Wait until I tell your mother what you just said!’”

I’ll bet that Mikayla’s parents from the Anderson Cooper video were tempted, momentarily, to say something just like that. Just like that. “Wait until I tell your parents about how biased you are towards people of a different skin color! Just wait!”

Parenting is hard. Given the tens of thousands of messages that bombard our children each year through music, the Internet, magazines, TV, billboards, ads, video games, and social interactions with peers, it can make any sane person wonder just how much influence a parent can have on a kid. And then there’s the reality that each child is different, each situation is different, and so what’s successful for one might fall short for another. Which means the inevitability of trial-and-error, on-the-job learning, which means making mistakes. And doing all this in concert with a team of people (often a spouse, and for sure teachers and relatives) in which you hope that folks are on the same page but too often they’re not, the kids are confused by mixed messages and you feel undermined.

Parenting is hard. I could go on. But let me tell you about a picture I have. One of those pictures that captures a moment that is priceless. It’s of me holding my daughter, Sophia, who is 22 now. In the picture I am 24. Sophia has just been born. I am holding her so very carefully in my arms, so careful to be sure her head is supported, and for that brief moment in the picture, I’m looking up, and what you see in the young man’s eyes is sheer amazement, and reverence—the eyes of one who is standing on Holy Ground. What you see in the young man’s eyes is also resolve, and responsibility. That young man who is me will love this child as best as he knows, take care of her, no matter what. I already knew back then that parenting is hard. I already knew that things would happen to hurt her—that I myself would bring things into her life that would be challenging—but my primary job would not be to protect her from pain but to teach her how to be resilient, how to learn something good from anything, how to believe in herself in the face of any adversity. In the picture, this is what you see. Me at 24, who has just become a parent, standing on Holy Ground.

That’s what all parents stand on. Holy Ground. That’s why, despite all, even as the eyes of strangers watch and judge, we jump right in. We dive in deep.

But now the question becomes, What if you are a Unitarian Universalist parent? Does Unitarian Universalism provide guidance for jumping right in? WHERE to jump in? WHAT to emphasize?

And the answer is a most affirmative YES! All year long, in my Unitarian Universalist Essentials sermon series, we’ve been looking at our core affirmations and values as a religious people, and we can easily apply them in this context. Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means parenting in alignment with our theology and vision.

Start with this core affirmation: that the Sacred (whatever it is, whatever you want to call it) is fundamentally Mystery and Wonder, and when we’re plugged in, we are transformed. Our spirits are renewed. Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means supporting children’s natural sense of connection to Mystery and Wonder. Helping them plug in and stay plugged in, in a way that makes sense to them.

Writer Meg Cox, in her book The Heart of a Family, illustrates exactly what I mean in putting the emphasis on “making sense to them.” The story is about the Siegel family of Alexandria, Virginia. They “had started to eat dinner one night when two year old Rebecca, sitting in her high chair, suddenly got very quiet. Tears rolled down her cheeks, while her confused parents and older sister frantically tried to figure out what was wrong. She didn’t seem sick or in pain. The food on her plate was something she liked. What could be missing? What had they done differently? Suddenly, it came to them. They had forgotten to sing grace.” So they held hands and sang the grace their family used. As they began to sing it, Rebecca’s crying had escalated into loud sobs, but then subsided quickly as she heard the familiar tune that began their meals. She calmed down and ate her dinner.

The family never forgot grace again.

Unitarian Universalist parents come from all sorts of religious backgrounds. For some, it was not necessarily bad but fuzzy and undefined, with scattered traces of this and that but nothing coherent or grounded or articulate. For others, the background was much stronger but was ultimately rejected as limiting or irrelevant or downright dangerous. For still others, who might have been raised Unitarian Universalist, they might have lived through the years when our faith was not the fully pluralistic and holistic faith it is now but was rather far more head-centered and humanistic. You might relate to the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, where she says, “As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality—accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame.”

Whatever your background, today, the way of Unitarian Universalist parenting leads us to honor (without shame!) the “overwhelming inner tides” of our children’s spiritual lives and to give them the concrete tools and the means to express them. This topic is huge; there are so many ways to do this—and not just at the dinner table. But a great place to begin is to remember the lesson of Rebecca’s crying and sobbing. Ritual feels good to a child. Ritual makes a child feel connected to their depths and included in something important. Religious ritual at dinner becomes an opportunity to say thank you and in this way magnify a feeling that is essentially religious: gratitude.

But now we turn to a second core affirmation that guides Unitarian Universalist parenting: Everyone has inherent worth and dignity. Everyone has amazing potentials which are just waiting to become known, and the job of religion is to make it so. Make those potentials actual. The nineteenth century Unitarians called it “salvation by character.” Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means developing children’s character. It means guiding them in ways that develop self-esteem, helping them become life-long learners, enabling them to manage their emotions and tolerate discomfort. This work is ongoing. The work is, in a word, discipline.

Now that’s an uncomfortable word for some. Discipline. Setting limits. And it’s challenging. A recent U. S. News and World Report article says, “It would be hard to find a parent who doesn’t agree that setting and enforcing rules are an essential part of the job description. Yet faced with whining, pouting, and tantrums, many parents cave. ‘The limited time you have with your kids, you want to make it ideal for them,’ says Rex Forehand, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont… ‘As a result, we end up overindulging our kids.’” Whatever our reason for shying away from discipline, the facts are clear. The article goes on to say: “Paradoxically, not having limits has been proven to make children more defiant and rebellious, because they feel unsafe and push to see if parents will respond. Research since the 1960s on parenting styles has found that a child whose [parent or parents] are permissive is more likely to have problems in school and abuse drugs and alcohol as teenagers. ‘Parents ask their 1-year-olds what they want for dinner now,” says Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. ‘No one ever said that a generation or two ago.’”

Parenting is about growing people who can act responsibly and effectively in our world. People who are ethical. People who, when they make mistakes, can pick themselves up off the ground, dust themselves off, learn from what happened, do better next time. This doesn’t happen by chance. I always go back to figure skating as my favorite analogy. It is simply absurd to strap skates on a kid and say, OK, get on out there and figure out for yourself how to do an axel (which is a kind of jump, you launch yourselves forward into the air, rotate one-and-a-half times). You’ve got inherent worth and dignity, we say to them. The ability to do an axel: it’s inside you. So make it happen. This is ridiculous. This is abandonment, not empowerment.

Becoming a human with good character is far more difficult than figure skating, yet so often, our children are left to figure it out for themselves. We don’t want to be dictators, we don’t want to be punitive. But the solution is not to go to the other extreme. We must find the middle way, which is firm and respectful. “But why can’t I have that new doll?” says the kid. “Because I’m not ready to buy that today,” says the parent. “Why can’t I stay up late to watch the show?” says the kid. “Because that’s the rule in our house,” says the parent. We can draw the line in a neutral manner, without criticizing anyone. “Seat belts must be worn in the car and put on before we start.” “In this home, we use words: we don’t hit.” Fred Gosman, author of How To Be a Happy Parent … In Spite of Your Children says, “Kids won’t come out and thank you each and every time you make a decision they aren’t totally fond of….But in their hearts kids know you’re doing your job, just like they are doing their job by arguing.”

Some of my favorite books on firm and respectful discipline include: Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma by Nancy Samalin; Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child by Robert MacKenzie, and ScreamFree Parenting, by Hal Edward Runkel. The titles say it all, don’t they? But remember: it’s about living out our faith in the inherent worth and dignity of our children. We want them to have the kind of structure that will support their growth into becoming all they can be. That’s what we want.


But now, let’s turn to the third core affirmation that guides Unitarian Universalist parenting: everyone belongs to love. No one left out. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!” The Universalist side of our heritage proclaims this most loudly. Our purpose in life is to build beloved community in which everyone feels like they belong and they DO belong. Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means teaching our kids how to notice differences and value them. Teaching cultural appreciation skills. Diversity skills.

Not the opposite, which is unconsciously conveying unconscious racial bias. Of course, when we’re talking diversity, we’re talking all kinds. Class, gender, sex, ability, and on and on. But I want us to focus on race right now. I want us to go back to the video we saw earlier. Anderson Cooper and his 360 report, “Kids on Race: the Hidden Picture.”

It’s eye-opening. The reality of “subconscious racial bias,” which we saw in the white girl Mikayla, which is “a bias that kids pick up on–from messages they hear at school, at home, the characters in the TV shows they watch, what they see online. These are not overt feelings of racism, but rather the things that we’re not aware of, the things that we do when we don’t realize it.” I’m quoting here from Dr. Melanie Killen, Anderson Cooper’s go-to expert, and she goes on to observe something even more important and fascinating: “What was really interesting about the study,” she says, “was that the young African-American kids are just much more positive about the potential for friendship. When they’re looking at a picture card of a white child and a black child and you ask them, well, can these two be friends? They’re much more likely to say—in fact, the majority of them will say—yes, they can be friends. Whereas we found a different finding for the white kids. Much less likely to say that they could be friends. It really makes you think about why is that and what goes into that.”

Sharp guy that he is, Anderson Cooper then asks, “So why are young black children more positive about race than young whites?” Dr. Killen’s response? The misperception from some parents that kids are color blind has a lot to do with it. “African-American parents are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination. In contrast, what we find is that a lot of white parents, they sort of have this view that if you talk about race, you are creating the problem.” When, to the contrary, the real problem is not talking race.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way, when we are in alignment with our historic affirmation that “everyone belongs to Love,” means that we have to talk about race. Kids are not colorblind. Not talking about something that is so obvious to them means: it’s bad. That’s how they interpret the silence. When they don’t see different races interacting and getting along—when they are familiar with only one race (theirs)—the default conclusion is, I can’t trust people who have a different skin color. Not good. Stay away.

That’s subconscious racial bias, and I am here to tell you in no uncertain terms that it is positively as un-Unitarian Universalist as you can get. Yet it is here among us. It is.

But I am excited today to say that the solution is related to the fourth and final core Unitarian Universalist affirmation: that we are powered not by creed but covenant. We come together not to believe the same things but to learn how to love. We come together. It means that Unitarian Universalism is the opposite of lone-rangerism. It means that you can’t be a Unitarian Universalist all by yourself. It makes no sense. The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed puts it like this: “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”

Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means that we are going to rely on our spiritual community to help us talk about race—how to notice differences without falling into full-blown stereotyping. We are going to rely on our spiritual community to take the lead in showing us how Beloved Community naturally evolves in the direction of something more multiracial and multicultural. It’s a journey. It’s a good thing. It’s what our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to. And we just don’t have to figure it out all by ourselves, in the tight confines of our nuclear families.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way also means that we can join with fellow parents in figuring the whole discipline thing out, or how to support the spiritual lives of our children. Our covenant group program could be a great place for this. Groups of between 7 to 10 people in which participants can grow in relationship even as they enhance their parenting skills. One that comes to mind is called “Mindful Parenting,” and it’s led by one of our Lay Ministers, Rebecca Kaye. Check out our website for more information. Look for “Small Group Ministry” in the drop-down box. Check it out.

Ultimately, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way is something all of us do. Even if we don’t have kids. If we are part of this community, we need to see ourselves as guardians of our young. We need to find ways to love the mothers and fathers among us and support them as they stand on awesome Holy Ground. We all stand on it. Holy Ground.

It’s what the words of our child dedication ritual are trying to say. Are trying to reach towards.

We dedicate children to the personal and spiritual journey that lies ahead for them, calling them to a future filled with love and courage.

We dedicate the family and the larger faith community to the vision of covenant, in which we all promise to support each other in times of struggle as well as gladness.

We dedicate ourselves to a deeper awareness of the sacred mystery of life, evident in the passages of birth, of growth, and of death. We reaffirm that every stage of life has inherent worth and dignity, and we commit ourselves to a greater trust of the journey as it unfolds.

Let us do that. Dedicate the children. Dedicate ourselves.


Mother Body

1. Words of Love

For now, no more blood
will you shed in sympathy
with the pull of the cool night’s moon.

I grow inside your womb,
am soothed by your heart’s beating
like the thrum of river waters rising.

In this Eden I begin
as when the world itself began
immediately at your words of love.

Underneath your touch
I ripen like the fruit of Life
swelling out to stretch your golden skin.

2. The Sharpest Thorns and Cruel Pains

What have I done?
What have I done?
Suddenly my bones
burn, they
dislocate, they
spear my heart
as I hang, as I’m crammed
inch by inch
down a serpentine
way, and
you are screaming too….
How can I feel so apart
within you?
O will my eyes ever
open? Will I
die? Eden’s gone,
it is gone and there’s no one
to remember
me. What have I done?

3. The First Revelation

In whom we are endlessly born
Out of whom we shall never come

mother body of grace
mother body of pain

mother body of degradation
mother body of redemption

Eden lost and found and lost again,
eternal round of You

and me the tiny body born
again and again and again


This poem was originally inspired by my reading of the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwitch. In her book Showings, she spoke of God as a mother, as well as Christ. To this, I brought my sense of personal and spiritual growth as a process of birthing–being born and reborn again, together with all its pains and joys.

Julian of Norwitch is probably best known for her saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” So may it be.


Treasures of Our Heritage: Unitarian Universalist Essentials Part 5

The story is told about the Rev. D. B. Clayton, who spent 68 years preaching Universalism to the American South. This was years before Universalism would join Unitarianism and become the combined faith we know now.

Once, a torrential rain delayed and threatened to prevent his preaching at a little town called Freedonia Crossroads, South Carolina, forty-five miles from his home in Columbia. He went to sleep on a Saturday night with a flood beating down on his roof. At midnight, when the clouds broke and moonlight filled the countryside, he got up and began a fourteen-and-a-half hour struggle with horse and carriage over quagmire roads and swollen streams. Despite his best efforts, he arrived at 2:30pm. The service was planned for 11am. But three and a half hours after the time appointed for the service, the entire congregation was still there, waiting (anxiously, I might add, but they were there!).

When he finally arrived, this is what he said: “I’ve come a long way, and I’m gonna preach a long time.” He preached for an hour and a half.

Now what sustained Rev. Clayton through his fourteen-and-a-half-hour struggle to get to Freedonia Crossroads, and what moved the congregation to wait for him: THAT’S what I want to talk about this morning. Treasures of our Unitarian Universalist heritage, that inspired our spiritual ancestors to do what they did and can inspire us today. Stuff I just want to preach an hour-and-a-half or more on myself.

Just kidding. (Not really.)

I get fired up! I love this stuff!

One reason is because I know the alternative. I know how easy it is to get spiritually lost. Back in 1923, that great liberal religious preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick was talking about the increasing disinterest in religion he saw in his day (and in our day, we call it the “rise of the Nones”) and here’s what he said: that the problem is not really that people are going to hell but that “multitudes of people are living not bad but frittered lives—split, scattered, uncoordinated.” So many people in his day and ours: living in “one of the most needy and critical generations in history … when there are great enterprises to serve, great books to read, great thoughts to think; and yet their lives, like a child’s doll, are stuffed with sawdust. They represent in an extreme form of one of the commonest failures in character—the crowding out of things that really matter by things that do not matter much. They are absorbingly busy with trivialities. They have missed the primary duty and privilege of life, [which is] putting first things first.”

What motivated Rev. D. B. Clayton to go through his fourteen-and-a-half-hour struggle to get to Freedonia Crossroads, and what moved the congregation to wait for him, was a religion that helps people put first things first. A religion that helps people cut through the noise of life to listen for what’s truly important and life-giving. This is why our Unitarian Universalist faith matters, why we want to do all that needs to be done in sharing the treasures of our heritage with as many people as possible. The best way is one conversation at a time with folks we know who fall in the “Nones” category. One conversation at a time with our children, who are equally in search of truth and meaning and who have their own experiences and knowings that they want to talk about. And don’t forget the rest of us. Don’t forget. The world is full of artificiality, full of superficiality, full of messed up priorities, full of NOISE. But we know that we don’t have to get lost in all that. We can listen for the pure, sweet music of our faith.

And here it is: the pure sweet music, all through our long history: Love is where we all come from, and Love is where all we’re going. That’s the spiritual message. Keep it ever before you, and you are going to put first things first. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a veeeery loooong name—puts lots of syllables in your mouth, and maybe it feels like marbles. But let’s not allow that to be a distraction, to be noise. Let’s listen beyond that noise to the sweet song, which is the essential message that is very, very simple: Love.

But what does this very simple message mean?

The father of American Unitarianism, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, understood it to mean that people are full of God-like potentials, and it is a main purpose of life to realize those potentials. If Love is the parent, who is full of all good things, then so are the children full of all good things, and those children are us. Doesn’t matter what the circumstances of harsh living reduce us to. Doesn’t matter how over our heads we feel at any one moment. The God-like potentials are always there, just waiting to be tapped into. We are stronger than we know.

Heros aren’t born. They’re cornered. (Mickey Rooney)

Here’s how William Ellery Channing talked about it. It’s 1830. He’s preaching another one of those hour-and-a-half sermons that were so common back then, when people didn’t have the attention span of gnats like most do now. (Thanks, TV and Internet!) The sermon, which would become one of his most famous, is called “Spiritual Freedom,” and here’s a bit of what he says in it:

“I call that mind free, which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison to its own energy…. I call that mind free, which escapes the bondage of matter, which, instead of stopping at the material universe and making it a prison wall, passes beyond it to its Author…. I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven. I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect, which recognises in all human beings the image of God and the rights of his children, which delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering wherever they are seen, which conquers pride, anger, and sloth, and offers itself up a willing victim to the cause of mankind.”

Now that is one big chunk of complicated prose. I know it. But the main thing I want to you get is that every time William Ellery Channing says “I call that mind free,” he follows it up with a standard way we get distracted and stuck in trivialities, but then he says that we have the potential to do better than that. Love has put a power for living into our hearts, and we can trust it, no matter how imprisoning things feel. We are made for freedom, and we can be free.

Now right here is so much of our history as a freedom people, and how we have changed and evolved throughout the years. I spoke of this back in January, on Dr. King Sunday. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God; they believed in a direct free connection between the inherent worth and dignity of the individual and God without any go-between. 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that church traditions needed to be the go-between between humanity and God; they believed that the freedom way to the Source was the rational mind in its study of the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world and that we had an internal GPS that told us where and what truth was.

All of this reflects great confidence in the ultimate soundness and value of people. I mean, if our spiritual GPS systems were truly and fatally broken, so that when it tells us the way ahead is clear but, in fact, what’s really there is the side of a building, well, we wouldn’t have William Ellery Channings telling us to listen for the signs of the mind’s essential freedom. We wouldn’t have Ralph Waldo Emersons (who was another Unitarian minister and thinker) telling us to trust ourselves. We wouldn’t have it.

Love the Source has blessed us with good things.

Now, I have to say something. Every family has skeletons in the closet, and so does every religion. None hits the mark every time, in every way. Nothing in life does. Where historical Unitarianism is concerned, one of the less-than-treasures—one of the not-really treasures—is its elitism. Love put all these good things equally into everyone, but some are more equal than others. That’s how the good message got skewed.

One manifestation of the elitism was the Unitarian contempt towards Universalists. Did you know that that other great parent of our faith, Hosea Ballou, lived a short distance away from William Ellery Channing, they preached basically similar ideas, they both believed that Love was our source and Love was our final destination—but they never crossed paths? Channing would have nothing to do with Ballou, because Ballou was lower class, he was not Harvard educated, he was one of those hillbilly Universalists. Oh yeah. The old Unitarians were snobs.

There is a reason why, in the 20th century, one of the major growth initiatives in Unitarianism specifically targeted college towns for new church starts, because, after all, that’s where our people are. Basically: if you’re not white and you don’t have college or even graduate degrees: how can you possibly understand us? Folks who don’t read the New York Times or listen to NPR: how are they gonna get us?

That’s just a bunch of noise from our own history, and we need to listen beyond it to the pure music which is our historical affirmation in the inherent power of every person to be free. “I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect, which recognises in all human beings the image of God.” Yes, William Ellery Channing was a snob, but what he’s saying here positively undermines his snobbery. It can inspire us today to take the next step in our congregation, to take a close look at the bounds our community sets to love, and expand those boundaries. Be more welcoming. Be more inclusive. Not to want more Latinos and Asians and blacks in our pews but at the same time expect them to leave their cultures at home. Not to have more of the differently-abled, the blue-collared, the economic conservative in our pews, but hey, leave your culture at home. It’s time to kill the sacred cow of there’s only way to look like and sound like and be like a Unitarian Universalist!

Now make no mistake. This call for greater diversity is different from what you may already be familiar with. I am not trying to invite those of us who are temporarily-abled and straight and middle-to-upper class and educated and white into yet more self-flagellation. I am not trying to make people feel even more ashamed. And I am absolutely NOT wanting to encourage white liberals who too often want to step out of their shoes and become anything else but white: whites wanting to be saved by the Other. I don’t want to encourage this. The folks living on Buford Highway—come save us! I call that shame. I call that the feeling that I am not enough, I have to be saved by something outside of me. But I’m done with shame. I’m done with all that.

Let’s stop the self-flagellation long enough to recognize our gifts and use them for positive change. Stop wasting energy. Start moving and grooving.

One of the main problems with the old Unitarian elitism in our DNA is how it leads a person to reject everything in themselves that’s not up to snuff. Only some parts get to be acceptable. The part that knows how to be accomplished. The part that knows how to be respectable, acceptable, successful, secure. NOT the part that dares to demand what the heart yearns for but the world says is “irresponsible.” NOT the part that feels healed through dancing but the big critical inner voice says STOP IT YOU LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT.

The call to diversity—the call to remove the bounds to love—starts with discovering the diversity that is already among us which is richer than we know. Of course, it’s old hat to say we Unitarian Universalists are diverse. Of course, when you have atheists and theists sitting in the same pew! But what if I were to tell you that in this space, right now, is far more diversity than we recognize? It’s there but it’s not on our radar; it doesn’t compute because it doesn’t conform to the usual categories. African Americans who don’t like to clap in worship. Blue collar workers who read quantum mechanics for fun. White folks with chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, fibromyalgia. We have only just begun. We have only just scratched the surface.


All this weekend was our long awaited Diversity Retreat, which your Board, your Staff, and the newly formed Diversity Team participated in. The Long Range Plan that this congregation created—YOU—says that we want to be more engaging, more inclusive. And so it’s happening. We’re figuring out how. At any rate, one of the things we learned during the retreat was the Platinum Rule. Now we all know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you have them do unto you. But what if our behavior towards each other was more along the lines of the Platinum Rule? “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” What it means is that we put aside the idea of being “color blind” and “culture blind” (which are not good things actually but only evidences of privilege). What it means is that, instead, we get intentional about creating room for the differences. We try on an attitude of holy curiosity. We rejoice when we experience something that might not feel so great to us, because we know that that means it probably feels great for somebody else. Let me tell you: if we do that—if Atlanta sees how we are creating room for the differences that are already among us—then soon enough, we are going to look a whole lot more like Atlanta. Which is what we want! We want this congregation to reflect the diversity we encounter outside these walls every day.

And the best news (I’ve been saving the best for last) is that we don’t have to invent whole cloth what this next step for us looks like. Because of the treasures of our heritage. Not just the Unitarian affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person which is our birthright and our joy to actualize, but also the Universalist affirmation that says, Yes, this is actually going to happen. Somehow, some way, no one’s going to be left out of Love. I don’t care if the world constantly divides the sheep from the goats. I don’t care if even the old Unitarian snobs divided the classy from the slobs. I don’t care what the quagmires look like, or if, like the Rev. D. B. Sweeney, we arrive three-and-a-half hours late. Everyone is going to realize the greatness within them. Everyone is going all the way to Love.

We are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know within.
And we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.
It will be hard, we know, and the road will be muddy and rough.
But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.

One of the finest, most poignant statements about Universalism’s sense of All-Conquering Love comes from Atlanta’s prophet, Dr. King, who seriously considered becoming a Unitarian Universalist (I swear I am not making this up) but our churches were too white, they were too monoculture, they were too middle-to-upper class. Here is what he says, and he says it not just to the world, he says it not just to each of us as individuals as we fight the battles in our personal lives, but he says it also to us as a congregation, as we face the future:

“Let this affirmation,” he said, “be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry!

Let me hear a YES.


The Worst Form of Violence

Gandhi once called poverty “the worst form of violence.” For a person so well acquainted with violence, that is saying something.

Why did he say that?

Let’s take a look at a video that might help us begin to understand. Our narrator is scientist Frans de Waal, and he’s going to walk us through a recent study on fairness….

Economic unfairness—the unjust distribution of goods—is offensive at the core level. That’s what the video suggests about capuchin monkeys; and similar experiments, with similar results, have been done with dogs, birds, and chimpanzees. Deep in our animal core, there is a demand for fairness. And if it is not met, something breaks. Something within us. Something between us.

That’s where the violence comes in.

What happens to the capuchin monkey is that he flings the piece of cucumber back at the experimenter. He wants what the other monkey’s getting, which is better, sweeter: a grape. He wants it. It’s unfair he’s not getting it. He reaches out through a hole in his plexiglass cage and begs with an open hand. He grabs hold of the cage with his two hands and wants to shake it to kingdom come.

And then what happens? What happens to the poor monkey’s fight when, time after time, it’s clear that no matter how hard he begs, his lot’s not going to improve? That, no matter how hard he shakes his cage, it’s not going to shatter? The video doesn’t show this part. It doesn’t show how he learns that, despite his animal rage, the hunger in his belly does not subside and he must eat, he must accept the cucumber which is now humiliating to him. He learns that, unless he gets back to work, doing that thing he does with the rocks, he won’t get any food. He’s got to get with the system, even as the system crushes his self-esteem. This is the long-term picture of things, and the three-minute video shows none of this.

Now I might be ascribing way too much humanity to our poor capuchin monkey. But I hope you see that the distance between monkey and human is not far at all. The poem by Langston Hughes, entitled, “What happens to a dream deferred?” comes to mind:

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?

The dream is a dream of fairness, which goes down so deep that even our animal relatives carry it. It’s deep in the heart of life, this dream.

And when it is deferred. When it is denied…

For almost 30% of children living in Georgia, it’s been denied from birth. The choices their parents have made might have been every bit as bad as those blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly love to go on and on about, but they—almost 30% of Georgia’s children—are innocent. From the first, what they know is deprivation. They don’t know anything else. And it’s not their fault.

UUCA congregant Ron Davis tells a story about one of these children, whom he and his wife Beth met through our partnership with Hope-Hill Elementary School in the Old Fourth Ward. “Ethan was a second grader when we met him several years ago,” says Ron. “That year’s fashion was computerized instruction. In our first session it quickly became apparent that Ethan didn’t know the words the computer assumed he knew, and that he might as well have been asked to do an exercise in Old Church Slavonic. Ethan’s teacher was as frustrated as I was, and readily agreed to deep six the computer program and let me work with my own materials. In succeeding weeks I discovered that if we used a much easier vocabulary, Ethan was as capable of learning and reasoning as anyone else, maybe better than many. I also discovered that he was a troubled soul, and that his method of dealing with difficult tasks was to withdraw into a shell and refuse to come out–not a strategy likely to lead to success in life. Over the four years Beth and I knew Ethan we never learned what his story was, or why he was so troubled. We did learn that he lived with an aunt, a young, well dressed woman. We never knew what happened to father, mother, and grandparents.” Ron goes on to say, “During Ethan’s third grade year Beth and I worked with him and his cousin; she did math and I did language arts. On good days Ethan could handle educational games, provided the vocabulary was at the late first grade level. On bad days he would go into a sulk, and would have to be sent back to class early, because nothing was being accomplished. One day I tried to work with a globe to talk about some basic geographic concepts, but he forcefully rejected the idea, claiming that ‘I’m never going to go anywhere.’”

“I’m never going to go anywhere.” The dream deferred, and something within breaks. This is violence internalized, turned against oneself.

In 1967 Dr. King said, “There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system…. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised.”

Here’s a good question: How do we stand it, to allow almost 30% of Georgia’s children to live as they do?

Or how about the questions that Barbara Ehrenreich provokes in a recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “It is Expensive to Be Poor.” She writes, “When I worked on my book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, I took jobs as a waitress, nursing-home aide, hotel housekeeper, Wal-Mart associate, and a maid with a house-cleaning service. I did not choose these jobs because they were low-paying. I chose them because these are the entry-level jobs most readily available to women. What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life. I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.”

Listen to this! Questions must be raised.

And the violence of our unjust economic system in which the rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer grinds on….

“I smoke,” says an adult mired in poverty, honestly acknowledging a choice that is, on the surface, highly irrational given how the habit is outrageously expensive. But then she says, “It’s also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding. I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor….” (Linda Tirado).


Poverty is the worst form of violence. It’s done to you, and you do it to yourself. Something gets broken, within.

Let us bring compassion to this dream deferred….

But now I want us to go back to the video again. We’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring what that enraged capuchin monkey who only got the cucumber represents. But what about the other monkey who got the grape? Let’s not forget about him.

What I noticed—and you might have as well—was that he paid not one iota of attention to his brother monkey trying to rattle his cage. His brother could have been in a completely different world. He was in HIS world. He got his grape, ate it, then got back to his job picking up a rock and giving it to the experimenter, and then he got paid a grape again, and then he went back to work, and then he got his paycheck, then back to work, then his paycheck, ad infinitum. The tight loop of his little world.

And within that little world: smugness. Which, in his human cousins, translates to the full-blown conviction that people create their own good fortune. That if they study hard, work long hours, obey the lay, then a grape is coming their way. Simple as that. Conversely, if bad things happen—if it’s a cucumber and not a grape—well, the reason must lie strictly with them as well. It’s their fault. People need to take responsibility.”

Philosophically, the view that best supports this conviction is called laissez-faire capitalism. People should be free to get ahead or fall behind with no governmental assistance or interference. Yes, this may lead to rampant inequality; yes, some individuals get the grapes and others get the stupid pieces of cucumber, but hey, that’s the way the world works. People have a right to whatever they’ve legitimately earned through their hard work. If I have been working hard all day picking up stones and handing them to the experimenter and I get paid a grape, then that grape is mine and it is unjust that any piece of it, no matter how small, should be taken away from me to be redistributed. Therefore, says the philosopher of people-who-get-grapes John Hospers, “Government is the most dangerous institution known to man.”

Now I want no misunderstandings here. I am not saying that people who work hard for their grapes shouldn’t feel attached to them—I know I feel attached. Nor am I saying that there’s something flawed with the ethic of working hard and taking personal responsibility and we shouldn’t do it. I am not saying that. But what I am saying is that to use any of this as a justification for taking no responsibility for the public good is wrong. To focus on just your grape and yourself is wrong. Not to bat an eye as you pass by a scene of misery is wrong.

It means that something is broken inside you as well.

Have you heard of the work of Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske? She has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. No wonder the response to poverty is so often not sympathy but revulsion, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly style. And no wonder the response to government programs that fall short of effectiveness is so ruthless, because, after all, our hard-earned money has just been wasted on a bunch of things, not people.

The monkey with the grape loves to criticize and second guess. Violence of judgmentalism. Writer Tressie McMillan Cottom nails it on the head. “At the heart of [all] the incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand…”

That’s what we are doing today. Trying to understand. Trying to bring a deeper compassion to the issue than ever before. Trying to heal what is broken inside….

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson stood in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 1964, and, in his first State of the Union address, committed the nation to a war on poverty. “We shall not rest until that war is won,” he said. “The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.” And I am struck by what one of the fighters in this war says. He’s been a part of it for 40 years. Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. He says, “It never really felt like a war to me. There was never a feeling that our county or local communities would use any means possible to win this war. I served four years in the armed forces, some of them in Vietnam. That war felt different. There was tenacity—a sense of duty that soldiers still experience when they go to war. The War on Poverty has felt more conflicted. Instead of putting all our energy into fighting poverty, we’ve spent it arguing over facts, struggling with dysfunctional systems and fighting cynicism.” That’s Bill Bolling, and he is dead-on. President Johnson called for all-out war, but it’s not really ever been fought on the scale and with the focus of a World War II, for example. The sense of tenacity and sense of duty in all citizens has not been there. Yes, some welfare programs have been ill-conceived. Absolutely. But in the history of warfare, you see all sorts of crazy weapons and stupid equipment. It does not mean you just give up and let the enemy win. You double down and get smarter, try harder.

Meanwhile the reality still stands. The monkey who gets the cucumber. The monkey who gets the grape. The experimental set-up is intrinsically violent.

And those monkeys are us. We are just like them.

• Atlanta has the worst economic inequality of the 50 largest cities in these United States
• 20% of the people living in Georgia are food insecure, meaning that they don’t always know where they will find their next meal.
• 28.8% of Georgia children live in food insecure households.
• If you are poor, you have to figure out how to make just $133 last all month long for your food–$133 is how much the average food stamp recipient gets. That’s $4.38 per person, per day.

Where do we go from here?

sermon_poverty in atl

Bill Bolling says, “But I still hold hope. Fighting poverty has been a journey, rewarding for those who gave themselves to service, insightful for those who cared to learn about the systemic issues, transformational for those who were willing to overcome prejudices.” He’s such a great example of this, and we are so glad to support his Atlanta Community Food Bank today through our Give Away the Plate.

And then there’s all the Bill Bollings in this place, all the groups and activities devoted to the fight against poverty. Remember Ron and Beth Davis, and their work with a young man names Ethan who once said, “I’m never going to go anywhere”? Remember him? Well, Beth kept on working with Ethan through the fourth and fifth grades. Gradually, he came out of his shell, and his behavior became more normal. “I last encountered him at Operation PEACE during the summer after the fifth grade,” says Ron. “One day a staff member gave the students a vocabulary exercise and, not surprisingly, Ethan didn’t know some of the words. He politely beckoned me over and asked me what the words meant. That’s progress.”

Progress, one person at a time.

And, I will add, as a final word, that there must be progress systemically. Progress—or, rather, whole-scale transformation in what’s going on.

The problem is that the people creating the laws know exactly who they are in the system. They get grapes. But what if we were to forget about all that? What if—for the purpose of setting up truly fair laws—we imagined that we completely forgot who we are? We pretended we didn’t know who got grapes and who got cucumbers? If I believed that at any moment I—as a rich monkey—might find myself in the place of the worst off, what kind of laws might that lead me to create? I wouldn’t want to get rid of inequality completely, because that means that I wouldn’t get rewarded for initiative and hard work, and I want to keep that. That feels good. But on the other hand, given all the downward spirals a person can find themselves caught in, I don’t want a society that ignores me and doesn’t try to help….

People, here’s where transformation begins. Through a transformation of imagination…

Somehow, we find ourselves in some kind of experiment in which some of us get cucumbers, and some of us get grapes. This is where we are. Some of us feel violated at the core, and some of us are lost in our smug self-centeredness which we reinforce through philosophy. But we are all broken. The violence inherent in poverty hurts us all.

Let us not sleepwalk through life.

Let us not slumber.

Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us imagine something better, saner.

Let us imagine our world renewed.