Wisdom of Play

One day the great Mulla Nasruddin was invited to deliver a sermon. First thing out of his mouth was, “Do you know what I’m going to say?” The response was NO and at that, he announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” and with that he left. It confused and embarrassed everybody. But maybe they had misunderstood…. So they called him back for the next Sunday, and again, he asked if they knew what he was going to say. This time they replied YES. “Well,” said Nasruddin, “since you already know what I’m going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!” and left. The people were completely flummoxed. They decided to try one more time and invited the Mulla to speak the following week. He asked the same question as before—“Do you know what I am going to say?”—but it is said, “forewarned is forearmed,” and so half of them answered YES while the other half replied NO. Unfazed, Nasruddin said, “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and he left.

Now I can’t say I wasn’t tempted by this story to ask the same question of you, and let the chips fall where they may. That would be playful, right? In a sermon about the wisdom of playfulness?

But it would perhaps be a very short sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure myself what Islam’s holy fool was trying to get at.

Except for this: whatever it is, he’s playing by a different set of rules than his hearers. Everyone else sees a duck, but he sees a rabbit. Everyone else sees the goblet, but he sees the two faces. He’s coming at things from very different angle.

And that IS part of what makes up the wisdom of play.


Listen to this wonderful story that comes from Boston College psychology researcher Dr. Peter Gray. It puts a smile on my face every time. A few years ago I had an experience that helped me see the difference between play and PLAY. I was invited by two ten-year-old girls, whom I knew well, to play a game of Scrabble.  I’ve played a fair amount of Scrabble in my life and am not bad at it. […] The two girls, in contrast, were complete novices. So, I saw this as an opportunity to teach; I would teach them the rules and some of the strategy of Scrabble. I would be their Scrabble mentor!

But, as it turned out, they taught me something way more important than Scrabble.
They loved the basic situation—taking turns at putting down letters in an organized way on the board, with sets of letters interlocking with other sets in crossword fashion, making interesting designs. But they had no interest at all in keeping score, and the idea of limiting themselves to real, actual words—words that can be found in the dictionary—bored them. They very quickly and effortlessly, with no overt discussion at all, and despite my initial protests, developed their own rules and strategy.

Their unstated but obvious goal, on each turn, was to put down the longest, funniest nonsense word that they could, using as many letters as possible from their rack combined with at least one letter on the board. It had to follow the rules of English phonology (or, as they would have put it, it had to sound like it could be a word), but it could not be an actual word. The object was not to score points but to make each other laugh, and laugh they did! They laughed like only two high-spirited ten-year-old girls who have long been best friends can laugh. Sometimes one would “challenge” the other’s “word,” asking for a definition, and the other would offer an hysterical definition that somehow seemed to fit with the way the “word” sounded; and then they would laugh even harder.  I realized, as I pulled back and watched them and began to laugh along with them, that my way of playing was something like what we usually call work. Their way of playing was play. I realized, too, that I used to play like that, as a child. What had happened to me in the interim?

That’s the story from Dr. Peter Gray. And note how he thinks he’s going to teach the girls a thing or two, but ultimately they pull a Nasruddin on him, and in the end he’s left wondering what the heck’s happened in his life, why he can’t play like THAT, because play like THAT is what aliveness looks like….

Play like THAT is full of all good things…

Says the immortal Greek philosopher Plato, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

And already we are deep into our subject. Part of it has to do with what makes play PLAY—five factors—each of which the story illustrates. One is that the activity is freely entered into. For the two girls playing Scrabble, there’s absolutely no feeling of being pushed into something against their will, and no sense that it’s impossible to quit. If a person feels coerced or forced, it’s not freedom and therefore, it’s not playful.

As for the second factor, think for a moment about how the girls are self-determining. They are free agents and determine their own rules and strategy—-even in the face of Dr. Gray’s protests. Dr. Gray thinks he knows best (just like all the people in our lives who think they know what’s best for us) but it can’t be playful for those girls if they are feeling micromanaged down to the details, and it’s the same for us.

Which takes us immediately to the third factor in all playfulness: imagination. Scrabble, in conventional reality, aims at real, actual words; but the girls aim for nonsense words which have to at least sound real and which are as long and silly as possible. They even invent definitions to fit the way the fake words sound. In the hands of imagination, everything can be different than what it is, or more than what it is. Imagination can even go so far as to find windows where there seemed to be only walls. It’s writer Jules Verne in 1870, in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fantasizing about electric submarines—and eventually science was able to make that fantasy come true. Maybe this is why Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Now what I have just done with this Einstein quote is to suggest the practical usefulness of play. And the usefulness is tremendous. But the irony here is that the emphasis on usefulness actually violates the fourth factor in genuine play: that’s it’s done primarily for the sake of fun and not for any other further purpose. Our Scrabble-playing girls are not endeavoring to create new words and thereby improve the English language. They just want to make each other giggle. They just want to make each other guffaw. They just want to make each other laugh so hard that whatever it is they’re drinking spurts out of their nostrils. That’s the principal thing in anything qualifying as genuine play. Yes, there can be practical positive side-effects. But that’s not principally why you do it.

And finally, the fifth factor in all genuine playfulness: you are completely absorbed. Intensely and utterly: you are focused on what’s happening. You are in the flow. You are in the sweet spot. Above all you are not distressed, you are not afraid of failure, you are not distracted by anything else. The path to learning how might take you through the valley of the shadow of awkwardness, or appearing foolish, but you are not afraid. You give yourself to the process, no matter how messy.

All this is what makes play PLAY. Activity that is freely-entered, it’s self-determining, it’s full of imagination, it’s valuable in itself, and it’s characterized by a mindset of utter absorption.

Play sounds pretty sweet, right?

What’s amazing is how evolution—which is as practical and even ruthless as you can get—seems to love playfulness. There is a reason why a puzzle game like Candy Crush Saga [who are my Candy Crush Saga addicts in the room? you know who you are] has inspired players to spend $1.3 billion dollars in 2014 alone, with the dollars used towards game purchases like extra lives, extra moves, color bombs, lollipop hammers, and gold bars. There’s a reason, and it’s not moral terpitude.

It’s because play develops your mind and keeps it sharp.

It’s because play can provide safe outlets for releasing aggressive impulses—who hasn’t witnessed a generous, sweet friend at the game board turn into Donald Trump?

It’s because play of the specifically risky sort (like climbing heights, going fast, chasing and being chased, wrestling, wandering and getting lost) teach kids how to regulate fear and anger—and when risky play declines, emotional disorders in children increase.

There’s a reason why we play….

It’s because play teaches people how to take turns, which is nothing less than the basis of civilization.

It’s because play gives people the opportunity to connect and socialize—this is why video games never killed off the more traditional board games which, when you think about it, have the quality of a campfire about them, around which people gather and become friends.

It’s because play energizes the imagination and can open doors to new insights and connections.

The reasons for why evolution selects for playfulness go on and on because, very simply, there are so many things that human beings must learn to claim their full humanity. “An amazing fact of human nature,” says Dr. Gray, “is that even 2-year-olds know the difference between real and pretend. A 2-year-old who turns a cup filled with imaginary water over a doll and says, ‘Oh oh, dolly all wet,’ knows that the doll isn’t really wet. It would be impossible,” Dr. Gray says, “ to teach such young children such a subtle concept as pretense, yet they understand it. Apparently, the fictional mode of thinking, and the ability to keep that mode distinct from the literal mode, are innate to the human mind.”

There is nothing of moral turpitude in this.

There is only nature.

Nevertheless, just like Dr. Gray in the Scrabble story, we might find ourselves remembering how we used to play like the two girls played—how we used to be able to get into a Nasruddin space—but no longer. Our lives have gone contrary to nature. What has happened?

Well, think about the sound of fun. The sound of fun is LOUD. And when you are holding pain, you don’t want to hear anything LOUD. “Children,” I was constantly told growing up, “should be seen but not heard.” But it’s not really about kids. It’s about adults with trauma hangovers and they can’t bear fun happening around them and so they kill it wherever they find it.

It’s not hard, after all, to explain how our lives have gone contrary to nature. Adult pain, adult fear. Evolution has designed children to know innately the difference between real and pretend, and so one day you catch your son playing cops and robbers with a toy gun and he is shooting that gun for all it’s worth and it scares you to death because you KNOW all about gun violence and (as a parent) you KNOW that your kid’s behaviors right now might be an indication of an enduring trait (as opposed to just a phase). Which one it is—well, that you DON’T know. So you worry. You are a parent. That’s what parents do.

Our lives go contrary to nature. But it’s not just about parents and children.

If playfulness involves freedom to enter into and to leave, think of all the ways in which you might be tied to a position you can’t afford to leave, or to a marriage, or to something else. Recently someone told me about a job they were tied to with “golden shackles.” Good money but it’s soul killing. Ugh.

If playfulness involves the ability of choosing exactly how you will play, think of all the ways in which people of all ages are micromanaged—at school, at work, at home. For example, in some schools, children come home every day with a color that indicates what their behavior has been like that day. No slack at all. Every day you are judged. Parents, every day, have to deal with it. Ugh.

If playfulness involves doing something just for fun, think of all the messages we receive about getting on track, growing up, getting a life. Don’t get that degree in philosophy! Don’t get that degree in studio art! What are you thinking? How are you going to make any money with degree like that? Ugh.

If playfulness involve full absorption in what you are doing without any distress or pressure, just watch the evening news and allow the pain of the world to pour in and that will make you feel plenty distracted and plenty distressed. Ugh.

If playfulness involves imagination, just think of all the ways in which the world wants us to be serious and literalistic. All the literalism and conservatism out there that makes religion, for example, shallow and uncreative and violent. Ugh.

If we could just flip the joylessness script for a moment….

If we could just channel Nasruddin even a little bit.

Muslims say, “Take one step towards God and God takes seven steps towards you.” “Walk to God and God comes running.” If playfulness is anything, it is God energy stirring in us!

We want to take that one step, we want to start walking….

There’s a fascinating finding in developmental psychology that I just can’t resist sharing even though we are near the end and all the preaching professors say, “Don’t introduce something new near the end!” But rules schmools. You gotta hear this.

According to classic developmental theory, children under 10 or 11 years old simply do not have the conceptual ability to solve arguments like the following:

All cats bark
Muffins is a cat
Does Muffins bark?

“When British researchers,” says Dr. Gray, “put syllogisms like this to young children in a serious tone of voice, the children answered as [classic theory would predict.] They said things like, ‘No, cats go meow, they don’t bark.’ They acted as if they were unable to think about a premise that did not fit with their real-world experiences. But, when the researchers presented the same problems in a playful tone of voice, using words that made it clear that they were talking about a pretend world, children as young as 4 years old solved the problems easily, and even many 2-year-olds solved them! They said, ‘Yes, Muffins barks.’” “Now think of it,” says Dr. Gray: “Four-year-olds in play easily solved logic problems that they were not supposed to be able to solve until they were about 10 or 11 years old!”

Now isn’t that amazing? How everything changes when we shift from a serious tone of voice to a playful tone of voice?

Yes, BUT, we say…

The joylessness script runs so deep….

Just taking that one step, just starting to walk, can feel so hard…

The other day I was in Marshall’s looking for even more silly socks to wear on a Sunday morning, because I want to be playful with you, and there were kids playing chase, and they were laughing and carrying on and it was the sound of fun (LOUD!) and I just wanted them to SHUT UP, it had been a long day, I was upset about things, and there I was—being contrary to the nature that surges within me and within you and wants playfulness, wants us to be alive and vital, wants us to feel charged up with the electrical charge of the soul.

Did I think I could solve things by being a grinch? I think I did.

But again and again, the playful approach is the powerful one. It releases 4-year-olds to solve problems supposedly impossible for them to solve. And maybe the playful approach can release us to solve whatever is hard for us.

A little bit of Nasruddin can go a long way.


The video before this sermon:

Sacred Laughter of the Sufis

On January 7 of this year, the French satirical weekly magazine called Charlie Hebdo was the target of a terrorist attack. Twelve people died. Witnesses said they had heard the gunmen shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic while calling out the names of the journalists who dared portray the founder of Islam in irreverent ways.

This came to mind as I was coming to know the figure of the Mulla Nasruddin, Islam’s great comic foil who is village simpleton and sage all rolled into one. The earliest written accounts of him go as far back as the 13th century. He is shown as wearing a turban, which is the traditional sign of a person of learning, but in fact he has no formal education. He is seated on a donkey, but backwards. In one story, he is rushing through the marketplace. When the townsfolk greet him, he replies to them hastily, “Sorry—can’t stop to talk. I’m looking for my donkey!”


He is a holy fool. Everywhere there is Islam, there is Nasruddin. In the Albanian language, in Arabic, Armenian, Berber, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Daghestani, Greek, Judeo-Arabic, Kurdish, Maltese, Mandaic, Macedonian, Persian, Serbian, Sicilian, Syrian, Tajik, Turkish, Uighur and Uzbek—in all these languages—we find tales of his outrageous silliness. We laugh and laugh, but this laughter opens up a space in our hearts, and into that space the Nasruddin story slips a piece of wisdom, and that piece of wisdom helps us wake up.

“What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts?” says the Sufi poet Hafiz. “Listen … it is the glorious sound of a soul waking up!”

So it comes as no surprise that Nasruddin was the main character in a magazine called, simply, Mulla Nasruddin, published in Azerbaijan from 1906 to 1931. Wikipedia reports that it addressed corruption and inequality and “ridiculed the backward lifestyles and values of clergy and religious fanatics, implicitly calling upon the readers to modernize…. The magazine was frequently banned but has a lasting influence on Azerbaijani and Iranian literature.”

It’s Charlie Hebdo before Charlie Hebdo. From out of the very heart of Islamic culture comes a wisdom that wants to heal that culture of its excesses and evils, and it wants to heal every culture. Wisdom that takes the form of a turbaned man riding a donkey backward.

No punches are pulled with this guy.


The Mulla lay gravely ill, surrounded by family, friends, and his wailing wife. The doctor arrived and a hush came over the room as he examined the Mulla. After quite some time the doctor turned to the Mulla’s wife and declared, “O honorable wife of the Mulla, only Allah is immortal. It is with deep sorrow that I have to inform you that your husband has passed away. He is dead. His soul has flown to the bosom of God.” As the doctor continued his eloquent remarks, the Mulla feebly protested. “No! Wait! I’m alive! I’m alive!” “Quiet!” retorted his wife. “The doctor is speaking! Don’t argue with the doctor!”

Listen again:

Nasruddin was walking in the bazaar with a large group of followers. Whatever Nasruddin did, his followers immediately copied. Every few steps Nasreddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling “Hu Hu Hu!” So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing. One of the merchants, who knew Nasruddin, quietly asked him: “What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?” “I have become a Sufi Sheikh,” replied Nasruddin. “These are my students. I am helping them reach enlightenment!” “How do you know when they reach enlightenment?” “That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!”

No punches are pulled in a Nasruddin tale. In both stories, blind faith is lampooned, whether in doctors or spiritual leaders. Whatever else enlightenment may be, it’s freedom from slavish dependence on the “experts.” It’s coming to realize that a fake teacher is indeed a fake and a fraud.

All this suggests an even larger truth. That the enormous power religious communities wield can be co-opted to serve unworthy ends. Thieves can break in and steal. And so, another story has Nasruddin noticing the Devil sitting down, looking confident and relaxed. “Why are you just sitting there, making no mischief?” the Mulla asks. The Devil replies, “Since the clerics, theoreticians, and would-be teachers of the religious paths have appeared in such numbers, there is nothing left for me to do.”

This is blasphemy equal to what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists committed. But thankfully you can’t kill stories.

In every Muslim nation, and around the world, the Mulla Nasruddin is unstoppable. A force for spiritual freedom. He represents the “loyal opposition” to religious institutions everywhere. For as important as institutions are in transmitting wisdom from age to age and in shaping people’s character in the image of such wisdom, still, institutions are imperfect. They can lose track. The pristine message of founders like Muhammad or Jesus or Buddha or Ralph Waldo Emerson can be degraded. Constant reform is needed.

One day a student came to the Mulla and said, “I have heard that there are secret words that, when repeated, open the gates of enlightenment, accelerate our ability to find contentment in life, and connect us to divine mysteries.” “Absolutely true!” said the Mulla. “You may start your special secret lessons tomorrow and will be joined by a student who is at a similar level of attainment.” The next day the student arrived with eager anticipation and found the Mulla teaching the mystical words to a parrot!

We all want a silver bullet solution. A silver bullet theology that gives a person a spiritual identity that is always clear and never changes and defends against every anxiety. A silver bullet spiritual technique that protects a person from making mistakes and racking up regrets. Silver bullet church strategies guaranteed to result in governance without tears, leadership development without bumps, and numerical growth in the pews without a doubt.

That’s when the Mulla says to us, “Absolutely true! You may start your special secret lessons tomorrow and will be joined by a student who is at a similar level of attainment.”

When an institution promises to deliver a silver bullet strategy, you can bet that its focus is to create parrots, not people. I call that a degraded spiritual mission.

You just can’t be both parrot and spiritually free.


Now, besides “loyal opposition” to religions and religious institutions, Nasruddin stories address other aspects of spiritual freedom. Islamic teacher Imam Jamal Rahman, in his book Sacred Laughter of the Sufis, helps us understand what these are. He identifies them as “a common thread of Sufi teachings:”

1. Every human has a divine spark veiled by the layers of personality. Whether we call it Allah, Jesus, Elohim, Krishna, or any other name, that spark is the same, and we are foolish not to realize our astounding potential.

2. An essential spiritual practice is to observe and witness oneself continuously and compassionately, acknowledging and laughing at foibles and weakness while working relentlessly to evolve into higher consciousness.

3. The light of persistent awareness is bound, little by little, to dissolve our false self and bring us closer to our authentic self.

As Unitarian Universalists, we speak of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and we can bring a distinctly Sufi understanding to this. We call it a SEARCH and not an automatic accomplishment because it takes time and trial-and-error and lots of help from others and lots of compassion to dissolve the ego patterns that keep us bogged down. Our authentic selves are inside us, but it can feel as if they are a million miles away. Thus the SEARCH. Thus the need for the PERSISTENT LIGHT OF AWARENESS, which dissolves the false self.

Enter Nasruddin, the holy fool. Lots of his stories shine a light on the false self….

In one, we meet the Mulla as a court advisor. One day, he encountered the royal falcon for the first time. He thought to himself, “What an odd looking pigeon!” Wanting to be of service, he trimmed the claws, wings, and beak of the falcon until, crowing with satisfaction, he declared, “Finally, you look like a decent pigeon. Obviously, your keeper was neglecting you!”

In another story, the Mulla went with a friend on his pilgrimage to Mecca. People from every corner of the world go on pilgrimage each year, all of them clothed in plain white robes, so the Mulla tied a conspicuous eggplant around his waist so that his friend would recognize him if they got separated. One evening after the Mulla fell asleep, a trickster untied the eggplant and fastened it around his own waist. When the Mulla awoke in the morning, he was confused. He saw the man with the eggplant and said, “I know who you are, but then, who am I?”

In yet a third story, the Mulla happens to be working in a factory. The president of this factory called a meeting and told all the employees that, starting next month, the factory would be completely automated. There were gasps of disbelief and people shouted, “But how will we feel our families?” “Please don’t be alarmed,” the president said. “All of you have been loyal employees. You will no longer work here, but I’ve got some fantastic news. Because of the increased profits, you will be paid as usual with annual increments! You will continue to enjoy the subsidized cafeteria and sports facilities! All you have to do is come in on Friday to collect your pay.” There were sighs of relief, tears of joy, and much laughter. After a while, the Mulla raised his hand and asked, “That’s great, but not every Friday, I hope!”

The stories help us wake up to the silliness of our egos. They always want more—that’s the lesson of the last story. A sense of entitlement is always around the corner if not center stage, and that sense kills an ability to inhabit the spaciousness of the present moment and appreciate our lives as they are….

Then there’s the second story, the one in which the Mulla establishes his identity through something external to him: an eggplant. But he could equally have done that by crowing over his expertise with social media (as we saw in the video from today), or by pointing to the kind of car he drives, or the career he has, or how his body looks, or the size of his paycheck. We do that all the time—base our sense of self on externals and not on the divine spark within which is what truly gives the peace that passes all understanding…

This is all false self stuff. This is what makes the free and responsible search such a long and winding road…

Same thing with the story about the falcon. Like the Mulla, all we know is pigeons, and so every bird we meet we treat like a pigeon even though it might be something vastly different. Situations and people come to us like falcons, but we don’t know how to appreciate them in all their fullness….

Just yesterday a friend confessed that, like me, she is terrible at remembering song lyrics. That old Bangles’ classic, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” has a line that goes, “All the SCHOOL kids sooo sick of books they like THE PUNK AND THE METAL BAND.” But in her mind that had become “All the cool kids sooooo sick of books they like the funk in the Indian.” It had become that, and it had stayed that for years and years like a broken record until she checked the actual song and realized there is no funk in the Indian involved in walking like an Egyptian…

It’s just like the false self. The false self is an old record, a tired groove, the words are all wrong, repetition ad infinitum. But laughter is the glorious sound of a soul waking up. Sunlight exists underneath this skin. “This little light of mind, I’m gonna let it shine…” But only as the false self patterns are dissolved….

It is said that the Mulla complained every day at lunch that he was sick and tired of cheese sandwiches. Every day, his coworkers had to listen to this. Finally, one of them offered some advice. “Mulla, tell your wife to make you something different. Be persuasive with her.” “But I’m not married!” “Well then, who makes your lunch?” Replied the Mulla, “I do!”

What are your cheese sandwich patterns? What are the cheese sandwich patterns of our families, our nation? What about this community right here?

Shine the light of persistent awareness. Dissolve the false self systems.

Mulla Nasruddin comes on his donkey, sitting backwards. He wears a turban that indicates he is learned but he has no formal education at all. Mulla Nasruddin the holy fool comes into our midst, and he makes us laugh, and we need that laughter, the world is so serious, there are so many circular firing squads we find ourselves in, we need something to dispel all that deadly serious energy that only binds us even further to the deadliness…

Do you know that Sufis are regularly accused by conservative Muslims of being overly flexible (much as Unitarian Universalists might be regularly accused by conservative Christians)? But the Sufis smilingly reply, “Blessed are the flexible for they will never be bent out of shape!”

It is said that laughter is the best medicine.

It is said that the person and the community that laughs, lasts.

Mulla Nasruddin, come give us a blessing today!

Care of the Soul

“Turn your wounds into wisdom,” says Oprah Winfrey. She’s on the same page as countless others. “Do you not see,” said the poet John Keats, writing hundreds of years earlier,” how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

Norse mythology underscores this exact point. The God Odin wants to be wise and so what does he do? He plucks out an eye and offers it to Mimir, the god of the well of wisdom, in return for a drink. Or he hangs himself from the world tree Yggdrasil for nine nights and wounds himself in the side with a spear so as to win the wisdom of the Runes.

Wounds become wisdom.

Our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle that affirms a free and responsible search for truth and meaning—it’s often a wounding way.

The wound is where the light comes in.


That’s what I want to talk about today, as refracted through the fascinating thought of Thomas Moore and his book, Care of the Soul, originally published in 1992 and still going strong.

Here’s how he echoes the ancient “wounds into wisdom” idea. “A person doesn’t wake up until he or she is forced to deal with something—a major problem, issue, trauma, or life change that causes them to reflect. If everything’s going well the tendency is to just go along unconsciously. But once something happens that is disturbing, then you have to take a look.”

Here are some disturbances:

You’ve been planning to escape your job for years, you are depressed and completely dissatisfied, but you’re still in it.


You feel like your relationships aren’t working because you’re just too dependent. This is how you see it.


You’re in your fifties and you’ve fallen madly in love, like a teenager—and it’s the full stereotype, you know it completely, and you are deeply embarrassed.


You have all this energy to change the world—when someone says PROTEST you jump up and you’re right there!—but your home life is in constant crisis and you just can’t relax and enjoy.


You feel empty, disillusioned, spiritually unfulfilled. You’re dry.

Compulsions and symptoms of all kinds.

Something disturbing is happening—so we have to take a look.

Did you know that the success of Care of the Soul shocked pretty much everyone, most of all its author? Millions and millions of copies have been sold; it’s been translated into more than 30 languages. Clearly, a nerve has been struck.

The reason is: because it’s fascinating, what Thomas Moore sees when he takes a look at our wounds. What he sees is something he calls “soul.”

Now we all know that “soul” is a word charged with theological static electricity. Plenty of meanings already stick to it, like lint. We want to try and pick off all that lint so we can engage it as if for the first time…

We are reclaiming the word, and let’s begin with the following quotes that all revolve around a central theme:

“The soul finds its fertility in its irrationalities. Maybe this is a hint as to why great artists appear mad, or at least eccentric.”

“The soul generally does not conform to the familiar patterns of life. Whenever the soul appears strongly—in love, passions, symptoms—its moods and behaviors seem odd and are difficult to fit into life.”

“When soulfulness appears in any human institution, its asks of us unusual tolerance and broad imagination.”

From these quotes we can infer that whatever else the soul is, it is a force that disrupts the status quo. The little town of your life has been peaceful for years but suddenly it’s overwhelmed by an earthquake. Feelings and behaviors come upon you threatening the status quo, and you try to reason them away but they can’t be reasoned away. They are impervious to all your pep talks and all the pep talks of others. Because the earthquake is you, too—an expression of you that may, in fact, be far more authentically you than the current status quo ever was….

That’s why Thomas Moore uses the word “soul” and not something else. “Soul” connotes something that is fundamentally who we are, larger than ego consciousness, and we can feel like marionettes in its hands. “Soul,” he says, “is the font of who we are, and yet it is far beyond our capacity to devise and control it.”

An old saying comes to mind: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Our egos are busy making others plans—our egos imagine themselves completely in control—but then they learn the hard way that they are not in control.

Soul is the “font”—the abundant source, the living stream, the wild nature of our being….

But it is understandable how, when our status quo lives are disrupted, the go-to strategy is to want to surgically remove whatever the disrupting thing is instantly. Find what is to blame, cut it out, bludgeon it, remove it immediately.

And so:

You’ve been planning to escape your job for years, you’re depressed and completely dissatisfied, but you’re still in it. Stop complaining and just get out of there! (This is from the shouting school of psychotherapy.)

You feel like your relationships aren’t working because you’re just too dependent. Get a grip and stand up on your own two feet!

You’re in your fifties and you’ve fallen madly in love, like a teenager. Snap out of it already, for God’s sake!

You have all this energy to change the world—when someone says protest you jump up and you are there!—but your home life is in constant crisis and you just can’t relax and enjoy. But the world’s going to hell in a handbasket! Some sacrifices you just have to make….

You feel empty, disillusioned, spiritually unfulfilled. Wow, talk about a first-world problem. You should feel ashamed!

They say that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is choosing to keep it out of a fruit salad. When we bludgeon ourselves or others, it’s like piling tomatoes on the fruit salad. We are not wise where the human heart is concerned.

Wounds can be turned to wisdom.

But the way there is through caring. Care for the Soul.

One aspect of this is a sheer capacity to bring compassionate and nonjudgmental attention to what is happening. We receive this message from so many sources. Speaking from a Buddhist perspective, Pema Chodron says “The peace that we’re looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth; it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.”

Similarly, and perhaps more picturesquely, Thomas Moore says, “Care of the soul begins with observance of how the soul manifests itself and how it operates. We can’t care for the soul unless we are familiar with its ways. Observance is a word from ritual and religion. It means to watch out for, but also to honor and keep, as in the observance of a holiday. The serv in observance originally referred to tending sheep. Observing the soul, we keep an eye on its sheep, on whatever is wandering and grazing—the latest addiction, a striking dream, or a troubling mood.”

So we keep an eye on the soul’s sheep. The latest addiction, a striking dream, or a troubling mood—we pay attention to them as they roam through our lives. And then we do something else: we trust that there is more than meets the eye. We shake the habit of literalism. As Unitarian Universalists, we say that we ought to read the Bible seriously and not literally. So why should we not extend this principle to the kind of scripture that is even more sacred: the Bible of our hearts?

So we don’t automatically interpret the discomfort we’re feeling as something that is fundamentally bad. We don’t react, cut away what’s offensive. We take a deep breath—we have to, because the whole thing is deeply unsettling!—and we try looking beneath the surface of the disturbance for the healing message that’s there.

And so:

You’ve been planning to escape your job for years, you’re depressed and completely dissatisfied, but you’re still in it. But have you truly given yourself to that job? What would it be like to stop trying to escape it and, by extension, the life you’ve been given? What would happen if you chose to enter into your job even more fully—to give yourself to it? The only way out is through…

You feel like your relationships aren’t working because you’re just too dependent. Maybe your sense of dependency is asserting itself because it needs more attention from you. You think you need more independence but, in fact, you’ve been avoiding deep involvement with other people and the world all your life…

You’re in your fifties and you’ve fallen madly in love, like a teenager. The Romantic Youth that has suddenly appeared in your life—has it not returned a world of energy and beauty to you, which is a good thing? So: can you find enough space for both the Old Man and the Romantic Youth inside yourself, to give each a proper place?

You have all this energy to change the world—when someone says protest you jump up and you are there!—but your home life is in constant crisis and you just can’t relax and enjoy. Can you give proper place to your needs to savor the world, as opposed to just saving it? Can you trust that, were you to relax and enjoy more, that your passion for justice would not evaporate but, in fact, be more focused?

You feel empty, disillusioned, spiritually unfulfilled. Your tears will bring you healing. Your tears will open the door. (This was what my therapist once told me, when my soul was disturbing my life by bringing me symptoms of disillusionment and dryness and I was simply flummoxed. In the end, she was exactly right.)

Ultimately, looking underneath our symptoms and disturbances for some kind of message with helpful intent means trusting what’s going on, trusting our process, even if in the moment things feel confusing and chaotic. “In care of the soul,” Thomas Moore says, “there is trust that nature heals, that much can be accomplished by not-doing.”

Don’t do. Just look. Just see.

We are so surrounded by the artificial, and we are so studied in the artificial, that we treat ourselves as if we were artificial too. We don’t know who we are! We must reacquaint ourselves with the nature that is within us, nature that is as wild and strange and surprising as stars and sky and trees and animals.

This nature within us, which is the soul: pay attention to it long enough—love its sheep long enough—and what you will realize is that it is always uniquely itself and never about adjustment to accepted norms. Imagine Henry David Thoreau, a man who always had mud on his shoes. That is the soul.

The wild nature within us: it seems to delight in paradox and complexity. It just does. So why are we always surprised when life takes us into paradox and complexity? Ego consciousness wants the world to be flat and black and white. But the soul is multidimensional and shades of grey….

Nature within us: its preferred process is slow and not fast. It tends to go over the same territory of memory again and again, like a cow chewing its cud. The soulful path through life is a spiral path. We are always going back to old things but with minds and hearts that are new.

The wild within: when we lose touch with it, when our status quo lives become soulless, earthquakes come—the soul sends them our way, as the gods in Greek tragedy might—so as to bring us back to sanity.

Nature within: it is the font of our deepest life, it is the absolute richness of our being, and when we are in sync with it, we are filled with purpose and meaning. Not necessarily happiness, though….

“I spent three weeks with a man,” Thomas Moore says, “a psychiatrist, who had just turned 90 years old. His family was killed in the Holocaust in Lithuania. And he is still in grief over this, from when he was 17. He is still deep in it and wanted talk it through. He is still dreaming, still having nightmares. From 17 to 90—and he hasn’t worked through his grief. Does this mean that he’s missed the boat? That he’s not done something he should have done? Not at all. He’s lived an absolutely beautiful creative life, more so than most people. But the grief is there with him and you might even say that his capacity for that grief has allowed him to be a psychiatrist and help many people.”

It’s like that ancient story of Odin. An eye is the cost of being wise. The soul wants us to be wise, but ego consciousness doesn’t want to give up an eye, but there is no stopping the soul.

Or at least, we may try. We may bitterly protest our fate. We refuse to let go of the ego-oriented hopes we have for our lives. And so we are dragged.

As I say that, imagine a waterskier who’s fallen down. Don’t be the fallen waterskier who refuses to let go.

Joseph Campbell once said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

That is the essence of Thomas Moore’s care for the soul.

Economic Inequality in America

The spirit of Dr. King gathers us here today, as congregations around the nation remember this great man and his message of social justice. Early on in the recently-released movie, Selma, he asks his friend, confidant and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy what is the use of integrating lunch counters if black people still could not afford the items on the menu.

That is exactly what a prophet of social justice asks. A prophet who sees completely the tragedy and complexity of our situation. It’s not racism over here and economic exploitation over there. They travel together. They go together. With all the other terrible –isms.

But did you know that it was not until the late 19th century that the very phrase “social justice” came to exist? It was coined during that time, as a way of articulating the main insight of a progressive movement called the Social Gospel. Social Gospel leaders like Walter Rauschenbusch said that the church needs to stop emphasizing individual salvation in some afterlife as the full story. We have to start talking about how the church can help save society in THIS life—how churches can inspire and support initiatives that will impact public policies and institutions and take them in the direction of Beloved Community. How churches can bring salvation to the broken-down human community, and not just to private souls.

From this turning point of consciousness, the phrase “social justice” comes, and Dr. King took up the baton and he ran the next leg of the race and he was faithful. He was faithful. May we pick up the baton and be faithful in our turn.

Hand Passing Baton, Motion Blur

So I ask the question today: Can we afford the items on the menu? Can we do that, whatever our skin color happens to be? The Unitarian Universalist Association, at its 2014 General Assembly, selected “Escalating Inequality” to be the question that Unitarian Universalist congregations across the land are asked to wrestle with in the next several years. Back in 1964 LBJ declared a War on Poverty, and Dr. King’s voice was lightning and thunder on that, but here we are in 2015, and … just exactly how is that war going? Now people are talking about another kind of war: to preserve the middle class!

It’s a sad story. America’s “shining city on a hill” has become, among all the advanced countries of the world, the one with the greatest level of inequality. Of all the cities of our nation, income inequality is greatest right here, in the Big Peach, the City of Trees, the Empire City of the South.

Who by now has not heard the statistics? The top 10 per cent of the US population appropriated 91 percent of income growth between 1989 and 2006, while the top 1 percent took 59 percent. CEOs enjoy salaries that are on average 295 times that of the typical worker, a much higher ratio than in the past, without any evidence of a proportionate increase in productivity. Dr. King said “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages”—and the crime still goes on. Bankers, among the strongest advocates of the government keeping their hands off economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from that very same government in bailouts during the Great Recession. Big Money triumphs, and Big Money takes care of its own. We say democracy, but really, how can democracy withstand the enormous political influence of the Koch brothers and others like them? Don’t say democracy—say OLIGARCHY. Rule by the wealthy….

In all of this, perhaps the saddest part is the internalized hatred of the poor. One of our Unitarian Universalist writers, Kurt Vonnegut, talks about this in his book Slaughterhouse Five. “Americans, like human beings everywhere,” he says, “believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times.” He goes on to say, “Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor.” That’s what Kurt Vonnegut says, and let me emphasize how increasing inequality only intensifies this assault against people’s inherent worth and dignity. As the worlds of the oligarchy and the insecure widen, it only becomes easier for one to misunderstand the other and to blame it. The oligarchy imagines itself as truly human and projects onto the other animalism and unworthiness. Which of course translates into oligarchy-made social policies that are merciless and only make things worse. Downward spiral.

Warren Buffett has said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

It is a sad, terrible story…

But must we keep telling it? Over and over and over?

Go back to the Social Gospel and progressives like Walter Rauschenbusch. He had a vision. He once said that what we need to do is create structures in society which incline people doing bad things to reverse course and do what’s good. This is soft power, not hard. Structures in which cooperation is rewarded, not selfishness, not greed. Set up reward systems that make a better society. Just as the architecture of cities can incline people to go in some directions and not others, so can an architecture of choice do the same…

The Social Gospelers got all excited about this vision, but then what happened next was World War I. The war knocked the air out this positivity, as just as Vietnam did to the War on Poverty. The Social Gospelers ultimately found themselves passed over, and then: silence.

But you can’t keep a good idea down forever. Listen to the insights that come from some contemporary holders of the vision of choice architecture: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the one from the University of Chicago, the other from Harvard—both drawing on research in psychology and behavioral economics in their enormously interesting book entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.


Here, I’m highlighting chapter 3 of that book which focuses on creating collective change by drawing on the very human tendency to be influenced by others. As in, if you see a movie scene in which people are smiling, you are more likely to smile yourself (whether or not the movie is funny). As in, peer pressure, as the following case study illustrates: “People were asked, ‘Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?’ Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health, and crime and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!” That’s power! Power of peer pressure…

But how to leverage that power for the common good?

We already know that people tap into it for other kinds of purposes.

“Advertisers,” say Thaler and Sunstein, “frequently emphasize that ‘most people prefer’ their own product, or that ‘growing numbers of people’ are switching from another brand, which was yesterday’s news, to their own, which represents the future. They try to nudge you by telling you what most people are now doing.” “Candidates for public office, or political parties,” they continue, “do the same thing; they emphasize that ‘most people are turning to’ their preferred candidates, hoping that the very statement can make itself true. Nothing is worse than a perception that voters are leaving a candidate in droves. Indeed, a perception of that kind helped to account for the Democratic nomination of John Kerry in 2004. When Democrats shifted from Howard Dean to John Kerry, it was not because each Democratic voter made an independent judgment on Kerry’s behalf. It was in large part because of a widespread perception that other people were flocking to Kerry.”

It’s the power of “most people prefer,” the power of “growing numbers of people.” The power is simply there to be used. So make it smart, say the choice architects. Make it responsible, say these inheritors of the Social Gospel vision. Turn it to the common good.

That’s what I want to do, right now. Nudge you by simply informing you of what one of the elite 1 percenters—one of the members of the American oligarchy—is doing, and it’s quite surprising.

I encountered the story in the Huffington Post:

Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini announced on Monday that the health-insurance company will be raising wages for its lowest-paid employees. Starting in April, the minimum hourly base pay for Aetna’s American workers will be $16 an hour, according to a company press release.

The 5,700 workers affected by the change will see an average pay raise of about 11 percent. The lowest-paid workers, who currently make $12 an hour, will get a 33-percent raise.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Bertolini recently requested that Aetna executives read Capital In The Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Piketty. The book, which has been hailed as the “most important book of the twenty-first century,” warns that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is heading toward Gilded Age levels of inequality and calls on the world’s largest economies to fix the problem.

The U.S. government, which last raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in 2009, has not exactly scrambled to respond. Aetna’s move is one way companies could help close the gap. “It’s not just about paying people, it’s about the whole social compact,” Bertolini told the Journal.

That’s what one of our American oligarchs is doing. “He’s doing it,” we can say to the other American oligarchs, “so what about you?” We already know that nothing’s worse than a perception that voters are leaving a candidate in droves; so why not create the perception that economic elites are leaving a fundamentally foul arrangement of excessive inequality and moving towards something far more sane?

I’d rather help create this perception (which IS based in reality but we want to make it more and more real) than revert to a standard strategy of the 99 percent which is to tell folks all about how wealth infects people and makes them evil. I mean, there is article after article floating out there that essentially wants to demonize the financial elites.

But I will not do that. Yes I’m frustrated and angry. Yes I am! Yes I am! But I will not go there. Because it is not helpful to freeze people in time. It is not helpful to decide in advance what is and is not possible for the human heart. It is not. Cornel West (whose vision we explored a couple weeks back) says something of key importance to progress around economic equality: “Our elites are not to be demonized. Elites can make choices. They’re not locked into a category. Choices that are connected to truth and justice. But it takes courage.”

At first I thought he meant courage in the 1 percent—the kind of courage that Aetna CEO Mark Bertolino shows. But maybe it also takes courage in the 99 percent. For the people who are not elite to believe that as a nation we just don’t have to keep on telling the same sad small story. Psychologist Jean Houston once said, “If you keep telling the same sad small story, you will keep living the same sad small life.”

Don’t demonize, says Cornel West. Do this instead. Make elites see. Believe that they can see. “Democracy,” he says, “is always a movement of an energized public to make elites responsible; at its core and its most basic foundation is the taking back of one’s powers in the face of the misuse of elite power.”

Don’t demonize but democratize.

Make the American oligarchs responsible and responsive to what’s happening, using the power we have: of giving them examples of how other oligarchs have shaken off the stupor of greed and have done the right thing. Tell these stories. Shout these stories from the mountaintop.

An American oligarch has really said, “It’s not just about paying people, it’s about the whole social compact.” He had other American oligarchs read Capital In The Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Piketty, so they could see, like he does, the disaster that awaits for all of us unless, as a nation, we are born again.

That is a conversation among peers we want to encourage.

We should buy a thousand volumes of that book by Piketty and distribute them like Gideon Bibles. That’s what we should do.

Don’t freeze the elites but free them. Defy the tragedy that we see again and again all throughout history, as suggested by Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who says: “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”

Let’s not allow it to be too late in America.

Let it be not sunset, but sunrise, in America!

This sermon is a democratic message to America….

Writer Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

We are most definitely not ready for the harvest. Right now where economic inequality is concerned we are in a terrible place. As a nation. Here in Atlanta. But there is still hope. We need to be smart. We need to know what our power actually is, and use that power.

I still want to believe my vote has power. I still want to believe that the politician I vote for will legislate in ways that heal the poor and defend the middle class. I am most certainly not going to stop voting and stop hoping. But rock beats scissors, just like money beats the ordinary citizen’s vote….

But I also know this: money is not unbeatable. Thank God. Paper beats rock, and human connection beats money. The Bible tells me so, and so does science.

So use it. Use the power of human connection to nudge people to walk in the ways of social justice. To walk the ways of righteousness, not greed.

Fulfill that old Social Gospel vision. Fulfill the dream of God.

Bring salvation to our nation. Turn sadness to gladness.

Dr. King hands the baton to us, and now it is our turn. It is our time.

Doing Justice to Mental Illness

So I want to tell you a little about my Mother.

Mom and Dad

The quickest way I can invite you into her life is by sharing a dream she had repeatedly over the course of many years. When she shared it with me, it helped me to appreciate the journey and challenge of her life in a new way. She certainly knew it was one of those big dreams people have which come like nothing else, with the force of undeniable urgency, to tell the truth the way only big dreams can.

In the dream she would find herself kneeling on the ground and wanting to rise up, stand up on her feet, but she couldn’t, she wasn’t able to, because an invisible and unknown pressure from above was holding her down. And that’s the dream. It was always the same sequence of events. Always ending with her trying to get up, but not being able to. The last time she told me about this dream, she looked at me with her big beautiful eyes, and I felt so helpless.

Hers was not an easy life. People would call her up on the phone, invite her to lunch, to chat, but she would say NO. So many friendships could have been possible, but Mom was self-isolating. She just wanted to be alone, and was stubborn in this. “It’s hard being around people,” she’d say. She would open up to her sons, but to few others.

The pain she carried was immense. Being with her was like a desert experience, wind whipping up the sand of her emotions, and the sand would get everywhere: in your eyes, in your mouth. Mom was the kind of person who nursed resentments. She would remember a slight from decades ago, and she couldn’t let it alone, would talk herself into the memory until the old emotions flared and took on explosive life. She could get enraged. Screaming angry. Her beautiful face all red, bulging veins in her elegant neck. One moment I am her “precious darling angel” (her words) and then the next, in a completely unpredictable way, she is telling me she hates me, how she wished I had never been born. She was unstable in her relationships with others and especially with herself. She looked to drugs to help her cope. There was depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, suicidal ideation. It was so very hard growing up. Mother’s Day is a difficult day for me.

Only much later did I put all the pieces together to see that she was a person with a mental illness: borderline personality disorder. She had seen doctor after doctor, but there was misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis. And then there was the terrible stigma of mental illness, which wounded her proud spirit and caused her to avoid treatment as far as possible. Dad enabled this because he was equally proud and equally stung by the stigma.

This was the pressure from above holding her down. Why she could never really stand up.

My mother graduated from the Edmonton General Hospital School of Nursing in 1962 and was inspired by its vision statement which said, “Together, we are summoned to be vibrant and compassionate signs of hope in our broken world.” That was her ministry, preceding mine. One day on the job, Mom happened to see a young boy being prepped for surgery. He looked so frightened and alone. Mom went over to him and took him in her arms, and loved him, asked him what his name was. The boy said, “Anthony.” She said to herself, “If I ever have another son, that’s the name I’ll call him.”

This is her story, and it is equally my story.

So many of us share similar stories of love and pain.

One UUCA congregant tells me about her son, who was diagnosed just recently with bi-polar with a dominant manic component, after years of living with a misdiagnosis and all the trouble that has caused. The misdiagnosis was adult attention deficit disorder (AADD), which resulted in mis-medication with drugs that only made the mania worse. She says that this particular misdiagnosis may be fairly common, since AADD has become a “popular” diagnosis, one that does not carry the stigma that bi-polar does, and therefore is aggressively promoted by the pharmaceutical industry. She says, “We lived through (as did has wife of less than a year) a major behavioral and psychological crisis as he self-medicated with too large doses of his AADD meds as well as alcohol—all this to handle his run-away anxiety, work crises due to his mania, rising debt due to spending during mania episodes, and fear of losing his job.” Just listen to all the issues here, the ones explicit and the ones implied!

We have, in this beloved community, so many stories of love and pain. They are more common than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. One in four adults (approximately 61.5 million Americans) will experience a mental disorder in any given year. In any given year: approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 will have this experience, and of children ages 8 to 15: approximately 13 percent.

Just look around you. Just think about what I’m saying.

There is no one kind of mental illness, I hasten to add, although if there is anything the various kinds of mental illness hold in common, it’s this: (1) they manifest as alterations in thinking, mood, and behavior which are not signs of moral weakness or irresponsibility but are like asthma, or a broken arm—they rooted in brain chemistry imbalances, or something physiological; (2) the result is distress and or/impaired functioning; and (3) the people who have them (and the families who love them) face overwhelming prejudice every day, on both personal and social levels. That’s what the various kinds have in common.

And what are these various kinds? There are mood disorders, like depression and bipolar. There are anxiety disorders, like panic attack, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia. There are psychotic disorders, like schizophrenia. There are eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. There are personality disorders, like narcissism or borderline personality. Many of these co-occur with some form of substance abuse or other.

One kind of disorder that doesn’t comfortably fall under the category “metal illness” but also results in significant impaired functioning are the degenerative brain diseases—one of which is known as Alzheimers. It impacts millions of families, including families right here. One of these families includes longtime member Ortrude White, whose story was featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in 2012. So grateful to her and to her husband Myles for their willingness to share their story publicly. “Ortrude White, a Harvard-educated architect,” says the article, “wears a silver bracelet on her left wrist engraved with her husband’s telephone number. White won’t leave her home in Inman Park without it. At night, she leaves it by her bedside table. For months earlier this year, a recurring nightmare filled White with terror. The jumbled scenes repeated themselves: She stood alone, surrounded by walls, trees, buildings she didn’t recognize. The bracelet ended the nightmares. On mornings she feels foggy, she grabs hold of it. Two and a half years ago, White’s brilliant mind started unraveling. The woman who depended on figures for her livelihood could no longer add or subtract. […] White struggled. She had trouble connecting the dots on a sheet of paper. Counting backward by sixes in timed sessions was difficult. She puzzled over drawing the hands of a clock, a tell-tale sign of Alzheimer’s…” The story goes on from there.

It’s our story. Ortrude and Myles are us.

But now, recall the mission words from the hospital my mom got her nursing degree from, way back in 1962: “Together, we are summoned to be vibrant and compassionate signs of hope in our broken world.” Besides simply breaking the silence around mental illness—besides just saying that it’s real and it impacts all of us in one way or another everyday—this is what I want to talk about: doing justice to it. How to be signs of hope. How to be bringers of hope.

Back when I was a teenager, a bringer of hope in my life was my pastor. Pastor Dan Manual of Crocket Road Church of Christ. We didn’t talk about mental illness as a church community, but my pastor, he cared. He knew my family and felt a special connection with my Dad. On two or three occasions when things got really bad (as in Mom had locked us out of the house, or she was particularly vicious and violent), he had me and my two brothers spend the night. Safety in a warm bed. In the morning we awoke to the revelation of a family at peace, sitting together around the kitchen table. Toast and jam. Eggs. Orange juice. Prayer to begin the day. Today I am light years away from my pastor’s theology, but the theology of a warm bed, the theology of a family at peace sitting around the kitchen table, the theology of toast and jam and eggs and orange juice: this is theology I can get behind and proclaim again and again and again.

Thank you Pastor Dan. You helped me keep walking. You were like the Jesus you always preached about. Thank you.

But as sweet as this was, I need to say that I cannot in all good conscience recommend it as how to do true justice to the challenges of mental illness. I simply cannot.

I will always be grateful. But it’s not the way to go.

Because sustainable justice in a congregational setting can’t rest on any single person’s shoulders. For the pastor to do it all is overfunctioning. Sustainable justice in a congregational setting, which works to create sustainable justice in the larger world, is about all of us. Collective commitment. Communal engagement. The challenges are simply too big and multifaceted.

Says Dr. Thandeka, “… if someone tells you that she or he knows pain, loneliness, loss, fear, and dismay, but does not know the feeling of being sustained by a love that is wider, deeper and infinitely vaster than the sorrows, hear those words as a commission. Hear your commission to love, to create community, and to heal.”

Do you hear this?

If you come here to UUCA, you are not being ushered into some sit-and soak-it-all-up sort of passivity. You are not being invited into lethargy. You are not being invited to be a Wal Mart-Target-Amazon-like consumer. You are being charged to serve. You are being charged with the electrical charge of the Soul. You are being charged to get on up and not to sit down.

Be charged today! Find a purpose and a mission! Hear the commission!

Listen to this study from Baylor University. It indicates that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness. See this side-by-side with the statistical realities I mentioned earlier (that, for example, one out of every four adults is going to struggle with mental disability this year) and I hope you see that ranking the needs of people and families coping with mental illness 42nd is a recipe for congregational irrelevance. A recipe for doom. People are hungry for bread and we give them stones. Not going to cut it.

There are at least four things we can do.

One is education. So much to do around this. A recent survey found that 57% of adults WITHOUT mental illness symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness; but as for adults who DO have mental illness symptoms, only 25% of them agreed. The gap between the two is galling. Stigma, says the Surgeon General, is the “most formidable obstacle to future progress in the area of mental illness and health” because “stigma is an excuse for inaction and discrimination that is inexcusably outmoded” in our day and time. Nearly two-thirds of all people with mental disorders do not seek treatment or resist treatment—just like my mother. People aren’t afraid of putting a cast on a broken bone, but there’s something shameful about taking medication to stabilize a chemical imbalance in the brain. When the government at any level has to cut the budget, guess which programs get the axe first?

But education is the antidote. Hit the source of the prejudice hard. Call it what it is: “Sanism.” It’s a word I had never heard before, but I had asked Joetta Prost, past Board President who happens to be a psychologist, to send me some stuff to read, and you better believe she did. “Sanism,” says Michael L. Perlin, “is an irrational prejudice against people with mental illness [and] is of the same quality and character as other irrational prejudices such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnic bigotry that cause (and are reflected in) prevailing social attitudes.” Attitudes such as: “people with mental illness are erratic, deviant, sexually uncontrollable, emotionally unstable, superstitious, lazy, and ignorant; that they demonstrate a primitive morality; they are invariably more dangerous than persons without mental illness.”

More dangerous? Compared to Dick Cheney? I don’t think so.

And then Michael Perlin makes a fascinating claim. That one explanation for the stubborn quality of the prejudice lies in history. He says, “Thousands of years ago, it was commonly believed that sickness was ‘a punishment sent by God.’ Historian Judith Neaman has concluded that ‘demonic possession remains the simplest, the most dramatic, and secretly, the most attractive of all explanations of insanity in the Middle Ages.’ Society saw madness as a condition ‘in which a person was possessed, controlled, or affected by some supernatural power or being, and this connection has remained extremely resilient in western culture.” So is that it? The stigma is ultimately rooted in an irrational feeling that people who are mentally ill echo all the creepiness of a movie like The Exorcist? With heads that rotate 360 degrees?

All I know is that my Mom died alone. At some level she probably thought she was a demon and unworthy of care. So she died alone.

We must hit “sanism” hard. Name it so we can claim it. Brain disorders have nothing to do with demons and devils. We are at a place where the vast majority of mental disorders can be managed, but stigma is the main obstacle to progress. So hit it hard.

That’s one thing to do, and here’s a second: Be more welcoming. An important way to do this is being more careful about language. Don’t say “the mentally ill.” Say, “people with mental illness.” Don’t say, “She’s a depressive.” Say, “She is a person with depression.” Can you see the difference? On the one hand, we have a form of speech that reduces a person with all their inherent worth and dignity to a narrow diagnosis; and then on the other hand, we have a form of expression that puts the person first—affirms that FIRST—and then acknowledges that one of their many characteristics has to do with mental illness.

Let’s cultivate a habit of using “people first” language. It reverses the tendency to stigmatize. It works to include people coping with mental illness in the larger circle of humanity, which is where we want them.

There’s this great story from the Talmud: A rabbi asks his students, “How do you know the first moment of dawn has arrived?” After a great silence, one pipes up, “When you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog.” The rabbi shakes his head no. Another offers, “When you can tell the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree.” Again the rabbi shakes his head no. There are no other answers. The rabbi quietly walks in a circle around them, then says, ”You can know the first moment of dawn has arrived, when you look into the eyes of another human being and see yourself.”

Fight the stigma through education, be more welcoming through a more thoughtful use of language, and then, third of all, be supportive. Individually, for sure, but even more so as a congregation. Myles and Ortrude are a part of a covenant group here at UUCA called Journeying Friends, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Same goes for the Caregivers Support Group that meets later on today. On January 20th, your staff, at its January retreat, will have a two hour workshop that focuses on mental illness in the church and how to be more informed and more effective around this issue. Rev. Thickstun and I are planning on a similar training for our Lay Ministers, so that they can feel confident in being compassionate and helpful presences to people in need.

Let me add to all of this my excitement about the Lifelong Learning and Growth Minister we are currently in search of. As a congregation we cannot flourish unless the way we configure staff positions is in sync with the reality of our needs. Our reality is one in four adults coping with mental illness in any given year. Our reality is approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 coping with mental illness in any given year, and of children ages 8 to 15: approximately 13 percent. To face this reality, and all the other realities of people in their journey from cradle to grave, we must have visionary leadership that makes a focus on this a priority and then knows how to implement. Unfortunately, in my experience, Unitarian Universalist congregations have historically fallen short in doing this—as opposed to conservative religionists whose theology may be painfully regressive (my opinion) but they do an absolutely outstanding job taking care of their people. We need to do that too.

We will do that here at UUCA.

Finally, there is the social justice dimension. As a congregation we come together to be Beloved Community, and then we work for the larger good. One aspect of this is brought up by the UUCA member we heard from earlier. She says, “For any patient in crisis who needs in-patient care, particularly a dual-diagnosis mental illness/addiction patient like our son, a minimum of 4 weeks in residential program is recommended. Just try to get a health insurer to say ‘yes’ to more than a couple of weeks of inpatient therapy.” Yeah. What she said. From health insurance, to job support, to ensuring that law enforcement can deal fairly and effectively with people who are mentally ill, and on and on—the justice issues are plentiful. Advocacy means improving the situation in the public sphere so that access to care is easier, there’s truly sufficient funding and support for mental health treatment, and mental health concerns are voiced loud and clear.

Four things we can do. At least four. Do them because you love these people in the pews that surround you. Do them because you love your family. Do them because you love yourself.

I do it because I love my mother, who, until recently, I had always thought I hated. But it’s not true. I love her. Pressure from above held her down on her knees. She could never stand up. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up, or someone you love.

We need to get up off of our knees. We need to make it possible.

We need to stand up.

What Cornel West Says


Here’s what his father would tell him, as a child: “You can’t fight other people’s battles.” His mother clarifies: “He would take things from somebody who he thought had too much and give it to somebody who didn’t have as much. Such as their lunch money or their whatever. He shouldn’t have been involved in that kind of situation, and that’s the kind of calls we’d get from school. Where he was trying to help one kid by taking from another kid…”

We are speaking of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2015 Ware Lecturer. The prestigious Ware Lecture is given every June at General Assembly, and you are not invited to present unless you are one of today’s most visionary people, willing to fight other people’s battles. Visionaries like Eboo Patel, Karen Armstrong, Mary Oliver, Kurt Vonnegut, Martin Luther King Jr., and now: Cornel West.


Bill Moyers calls him “one of the most prominent public provocateurs in America.” The man is simply brilliant. Gary Dorrien, his colleague at Union Theological Seminary, talks about how, in conversation, he can glide effortlessly “from Matthew Arnold to C. L. R. James to Socrates to John Coltrane to Kierkegaard to Michel Foucault to Toni Morrison to Dostoyevsky to Alain Badiou to Jay-Z and Outkast.” A student of his at Princeton says, “Once we were talking about jazz, and he extemporaneously wanted to talk about the similarities between bebop and a particular moment in the Italian renaissance. I wondered,” he says, “What kind of mind is this?”

A mind on fire.

We want to know who Cornel West is. We want to know what Cornel West says.

There are two reasons for this, essentially. One is, he reminds us of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. And two, he can scare the pants off of us.

He brings us into the peace of our religious identity, and he disturbs that peace too.

Begin with the insight that to understand Cornel West, you must understand Ralph Waldo Emerson. In fact, time and again you will hear Cornel West described as the Emerson of today. There are many reasons why this is true, and certainly one of them is RAGE. How how he channels Emerson’s outrage at an America that is failing to live up to its promise.

First, Emerson: who said, “my quarrel with America … was that the geography is sublime, but the [people] are not.” America is full of “selfishness, fraud and conspiracy.” “[People] such as they are, very naturally seek money or power; and power because it is as good as money …. And why not? For they aspire to the highest, and this, in their sleep-walking, they dream is highest.” “We are,” Emerson said, “a puny and feeble folk.”

Now listen to Cornel West, from his book Race Matters, “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks—family, friends, school—that sustain some sense of purpose in life…Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness.” “Most of our children—neglected by overburdened parents and bombarded by the market values of profit-hungry corporations—are ill-equipped to live lives of spiritual and cultural quality.” This, says Cornel West, applies to all Americans but especially and above all to black America. A nihilism of “horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” descends…

Cornel West is positively Emersonian in his outrage, with that special emphasis on the false dream of financial success as the highest a person can aspire to. So naturally, like Emerson, Cornel West urges folks to wake up. “We have to draw a distinction,” he says, “between success and greatness. And you tell people, look, you can be successful in terms of financial prosperity, but greatness has to do with moral integrity. You can be successful in terms of your personal security, but greatness has to do with your magnanimity, your willingness to do something for others, to take a risk, and so on. I say to young people, always aspire to greatness. Have a habitual vision of greatness, that greatness has to do with a love for all translated into a justice for all.”

That’s what Cornel West says. But tell us more!

And he does in another one of his books, Democracy Matters. The answer he gives there is: be like Emerson, whom he describes as “The indisputable godfather of the deep democratic tradition in America.” “He reveled in the burning social issues of his day (the annihilation of Native Americans, slavery), highlighting the need for democratic individuals to be nonconformist, courageous, and true to themselves. He believed that within the limited framework of freedom in our lives, individuals can and must create their own democratic individuality. He understood that democracy is not only about the workings of the political system but more profoundly about individuals being empowered and enlightened (and suspicious of authorities) in order to help create and sustain a genuine democratic community, a type of society that was unprecedented in human history.” Greatness is in being like this. Democratic individualism.

Again and again, he quotes passages from our spiritual ancestor—the very same passages I read in seminary and formed me in my Unitarian Universalist ministry:

Whoso would be a person] must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.


Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,-cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [people] at first hand with Deity …. Look to it first and only… [make sure] that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money are nothing to you,–are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see,–but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.


What is the hardest task in the world? To think.


We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.

People, this is the root of our spiritual way which is at one and the same time a justice way. “The privilege of the immeasurable mind.”

Today we might summarize it all more simply—say “All people have inherent worth and dignity” or “We affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” or “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” But we say all this because of people like Emerson. Emerson gives us ourselves, and Cornel West, as he channels Emerson, does too.

(Now as a side note, I will say Cornel West explicitly identifies as Christian. And then he immediately follows up with: “But it’s self-styled; it goes through Chekov, it goes through Samuel Beckett, who are two of the great lapsed Christians, two of the great agnostics, probably two of the greatest writers of the 20th century, actually, Chekov and Beckett. Can’t live without them. Kafka would be the other for me. Another agnostic in that sense. Full of love, though.” So: his Christianity is self-styled; it’s being fed by agnosticism and atheism; and what ultimately matters is that it’s full of love. That sounds VERY Unitarian Universalist to me…)

But now let’s take a sharp turn, go a different direction. Remember from the video, how, as a third grader, Cornel West hit his teacher with “a Joe Frazier counterpunch”?

Here’s one example of the counterpunch for us.

It starts out innocently enough, with an insight from Emerson (naturally) about the character of a truly democratic rhetoric that can speak to all, not just to the elite. Emerson says “The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. […] I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.”

So that’s what Cornel West has done. Besides his scholarly work, he’s appeared on numerous TV sitcoms like 30 Rock, he’s recorded with a hip hop band called The Cornel West Theory, he’s released several hip-hop/soul/spoken word albums of his own, and he’s also featured in the movies The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions as “Councilor West.”

But his critics could care less about the underlying democratic impulse. One of them says, “West has sadly exchanged the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship to the siren call of public gestures.” When Cornel West was still at Harvard, its President, Larry Summers, blasted him for his rap CDs and other forays into popular culture and said he was embarrassing Harvard.

Now, there is an issue for us in all of this: what is required for UUCA to be a truly democratic free faith….

If we should feature hip hop or soul on a Sunday morning—or do other things that smack too much of popular culture—how many of you would feel, like Larry Summers did, that we were embarrassing Harvard?

For how many of you is serious church equivalent to “the unsexy tedium of sustained scholarship”?

Cornel West likes to ask, “How funky is your faith?”


Here’s yet another. Has to do with what I’ll call his “prophetic stubbornness.” How he says what he feels he needs to say—and lets the chips fall where they may. Why this is so is suggested by the signature on emails coming from his office: “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth. There is a bigger price for living a lie.”

Cornel West just doesn’t want to pay the bigger price.

So, right before the 2012 presidential election, this is what he’s saying about President Obama: that he’s “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” How he wants to “slap him on the side of the head.”

New York Magazine writer Lisa Miller met with him in his office and “offered the argument [she’d] heard: that his assault on the president hurts poor and working people more than it helps them. By seeding the left with dissatisfaction, West risks suppressing that vote and jeopardizing the outcome of November’s election. Whatever his failings, this reasoning goes, Obama is bound to represent poor people better than Mitt Romney would.” What happened next is this: “West considered the objection for the smallest fraction of a second before casting it, witheringly, aside. What, he asked [her], leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch? ‘Well, Amos,’ West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-person voice, ‘Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’ Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ ‘Kiss my Jewish behind.’” And then West said, “My calling is to say, ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

What do you think about that? Do you think he was right about speaking out against Obama so strongly, at risk of inflicting even greater harm to poor people?

As democratically-empowered individuals, nonconformers, true-to-selfers, do we take a hard line, insist on all-or-nothing; or do we compromise for now in order to secure future victory?

What do you think about the idea that liberals prevent themselves from succeeding because they keep on shooting eachother in the foot?

This leads to the third counterpunch coming our way from Cornel West.

Fast-forward from 2011 when he’s slamming Obama to October 2014, when he’s addressing the travesty of the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A huge crowd has gathered—mass protest. It’s rainy, cold. The event begins with one speaker after another saying that the best way to confront police racism and use of excessive force is through peaceful and orderly protest. Eventually, the speakers are shouted down by those pressing for more confrontational tactics. Someone says, “The people who want to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all didn’t show up,” and this is greeted with loud cheers.

Finally, it’s Cornel West’s time to speak: “The older generation has been too well adjusted to injustice to listen to the younger generation. The older generation has been too obsessed with being successful rather than being faithful to a cause that was zeroing in on the plight of the poor and working people. Thank God the awakening is setting in. And any time the awakening sets in it gets a little messy.”

That’s the scene from back in October 2014, and the ultimate question raised here is: what does effective reform really look like?

Here in Atlanta, folks protesting police brutality marched on to the Downtown connector and blocked traffic. That’s what “confrontational” looked like to them. Is this how we’re going to make society better? And if you don’t participate in all such confrontational tactics, does that mean you are not sufficiently maladjusted to evil?

Furthermore, as we struggle to define effective protest, does it really boil down to a clash of generations? Younger vs. older folk? (I can’t resist adding that Cornel West is not at all young; and also that I have known people grow more radical as they’ve grown older. Just sayin’.)

And what do you think about him saying “any time the awakening sets in it gets a little messy”?

Fact is, Cornel West is just not afraid of revolution—he believes you don’t have to have all things figured out ahead of time before you pull the trigger. “We need,” he once said in a burst of democratic frustration, “a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to ordinary people, ordinary citizens. I don’t know how it happens. The central political system right now is decrepit, it’s broken. Congress legalized bribery and normalized corruption. Presidential candidates are basically bought off by big money. Both of them. In both parties, oligarchs rule. Mean-spirited Republicans, oligarchs rule. And milquetoast, spineless Democrats—oligarchs rule. Democrats [are] much better than Republicans but still caught within the oligarchy.” We need a revolution. And it’s “going to be fought less in the political system and in the courts than in the streets.”

But note one line here in particular: “I don’t know how it happens.”

Is it ok to plunge on ahead if you have no idea what steps to take?

In fact, how much messiness is ok? Can we possibly succeed without some kind of reasonable strategy?

If you are a white person, does your answer change when you consider Cornel West’s conviction that the feeling of being a black person in America—“feeling unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hate”—is equivalent to the feeling all of us had as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks? With this in mind, can white folks see how anxiety over perfecting strategy plans can appear as just another form of privilege to the people who are suffering?

I’m throwing a lot of questions at you. I know it. And it’s not like I have answers—the questions are open, truly. But January is our Justice month, so we’re going to reflect on these questions. Take them seriously. Take them into your small groups, your classes, your conversations over coffee. I have phrased them in intentionally provocative ways because I am very much aware of our history as a people who in general (despite the few radicals among us) prefer peaceful protest and gradualistic change.

What above all in us feels the smack of Cornel West’s counterpunches is our Unitarian Universalist Superego…

That’s why thinking is the hardest task in the world…

But all this is far better than being oblivious to the needs of our day. We want the counterpunches to wake us up, stir things up, call us not to success, but GREATNESS.

How funky is your faith?

How deep is your love?

Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.

That’s what Cornel West says.

Dear Mary: A Letter to the Mother of Jesus

One of the best-known images of this season is that of the Manger. The figures tell the story of a mythic scene from 2000 years ago, and they are perfectly silent. A wall of silence separates THEN from NOW. But what if we could break the wall? What if?

That’s what I do now. Here is my letter to Mary, the mother of Jesus.


December 21, 2014.

Dear Mary,

It was two thousand years ago in a stable, surrounded by oxen and donkeys and your husband Joseph, when the main event happened: your giving birth to Jesus. The image is one I have known all my life, from Christmas cards, paintings and works of art, outdoor manger scenes, and even from some Canadian and American stamps I used to collect as a boy. The image of you holding the baby Jesus; the strength and protection of your arms. To this my eyes would always go, even if there were other amazements to look at, like wise men, or shepherds, or the Star.

I’m not alone in my feelings about this. Throughout the ages, and around the world, feeling for you has always run deep. Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican Christians out-and-out venerate you. In your honor, Mary, they compose poems and songs; they paint icons and carve statues; they kneel before your image; they even pray to you for intercession with your son. I know this personally, for my own grandmother was Ukrainian Catholic, and I can still remember her fervent prayers, the depths of her devotion.

But it’s not that Catholics like my grandmother, or Anglicans, or Orthodox are setting you up as some idol. They don’t see you as God. It’s just that honor is being given where they feel honor is due—you, after all, are supposed to be the bearer of a God. Even Muslims, who deny that Jesus is God, honor you. You are the only women in the Koran who is directly named; and along with Jesus, you are said to be Ayat Allah, or the “Sign of God,” to humankind.

That’s what I call special. You are important for so many people around the world. Hunger for you is great. And that’s what this letter is about, Mary. The comfort and protection of your mothering arms. Your strength. People can’t seem to get enough of it. It all begs for a closer look.

Though right at the start, I need to acknowledge that opinions differ about the exact nature of your strength. From almost the very beginning, Christians have wondered what you needed to be like to give birth to one who was supposed to be without sin. To raise a person like this. Did you have to be without sin, too? Or was your ordinary, imperfect humanity good enough? Exactly what kind of strength are we talking about?

Catholics in particular have seen you as perfect. That’s the official position, anyway. They see you as having a miraculous kind of independence from sex and death. This is what gives you your strength. All sorts of formal theological doctrines lay this out. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, according to which God directly impregnated you. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which says that you yourself were the product of a miraculous virgin birth. The doctrine of Perpetual Virginity, meaning that all of Jesus’ brothers and sisters had to have been cousins, or they had to have been children from a previous marriage of Joseph’s. And then the doctrine of the Assumption, proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, which says that you never physically died, and that you ascended bodily into heaven at the end of your days. All of these are doctrines Catholics have discerned over the years, as ways of articulating your strength and explaining how you were able to be adequate to what your perfect son needed to grow up true.

Mary, my own mother’s family believed this, being the good Catholics they were. But I myself grew up Protestant and eventually became Unitarian Universalist, and both influences lead me to balk at all these doctrines. I never grew up thinking that life in a body and all that it implies is tinged with sinfulness. As a Unitarian Universalist, I absolutely do not. In being born, in sensuality and sexuality (whether gay or straight), and also in dying, all people possess inherent worth and dignity. I believe it.

I also believe that you did not need to be perfect to meet the challenges of raising your prodigy of a son. Your ordinary, imperfect humanity was good enough, and it gave you what you needed. The thought makes me smile, actually, because God being born through just an ordinary human being is scandalous in a wondrous sort of way. The thought that people could be used by God for great things despite any and all limitations is wondrous. it’s a source of great hope, and we need all the sources of hope we can find…

Mary, I really resonate with the idea. That you could be effective despite your imperfections. That you could be wise exactly because of your sins. The Unitarian Universalist in me loves this, and every day, I walk in trust that the universe will receive whatever I offer up to it, however flawed, and turn it to some good, somehow. This is the core of my religious faith, and above all, it’s the core of my faith as a parent. As a father, the responsibility of parenting would be unbearable if I didn’t believe that being good enough was good enough. Know what I mean? This belief is sometimes all I have to go on, to get me through times when I feel I’m totally screwing things up, and there won’t ever be enough money in the proverbial therapy jar for my daughter…

I don’t know. Did you have to be perfect to do true justice to your child Jesus? To be enough for him? What’s clear is this. I’ve read stories in the Christian scriptures that hint at your parenting style, and I’m impressed. You really knew what you were doing. Here’s one story that springs to mind. It’s the story of Jesus turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. There you are, at the wedding with Jesus, who by now must be around 30 years old. He’s never performed a miracle before, and let’s assume that he’s wanting to be very careful about choosing the right first miracle, since the first of anything can be a predictor of everything else to follow.

The first miracle has got to be special. It’s got to be right. And Mary, you know this. You also know that people can get so anxious about getting things right the first time that they might never even allow for a first time—to them, no time will ever seem special enough, nothing will ever seem good enough.

So when you learn that the wine has all run out at the wedding party, you see that this is your opportunity to do a little mentoring. Light a little fire under your son, the brilliant rabbi. So you go to Jesus … and nudge him. “There’s no more wine,” you say. Jesus catches your drift, senses the pressure you’re putting on him, and he replies, rather testily, “Woman, what concern is that to you? My hour has not yet come.”

In other words, MOoOM! STOP IT! Jesus sounds like a sulky teenager here—it’s just amazing how seasoned adults of practically any age can time warp right back to being a teenager when a parent pushes the right button—but here’s what you know: the bark is worse than the bite. I’ll bet you even rolled your eyes, tough cookie that you are…

The rest is history. Jesus turns the water to wine, and this really was the perfect first miracle. It couldn’t have happened at a better, more joyous time (during a wedding party) and the central message it telegraphs, essentially, is that the power of God (or whatever Mystery that that word “God” stands for) is everlasting abundance. Everlasting abundance that people can tap into even in the midst of moments of scarcity and loss. Even after the worst has happened. Even after all that, the best wine can still come. Don’t give up hope. Don’t give in to despair. Mary, this is a great message, and you are the one who nudged Jesus into making it. You helped get him unstuck. You were part of a great mentoring moment.

That’s got to be one of the reasons for why people can’t get enough of you. It’s about your awesome responsibility as a parent, and the great job you did, perfect or not. There’s also this: the way other people have experienced your parenting and protection, long after your physical death (or, as the Catholics would have it, long after your bodily ascension into Heaven).

I was reading the other day about the history of a country named Portugal and its political struggles, particularly in the early 1900s. The country’s monarchy had been ousted and replaced by an almost totalitarian regime, and this regime was determined to eradicate the country’s Catholicism. Religion, it thought, was pure superstition, and destructive, and wrong. Tolerance towards religion is just part of the problem, and it only makes things worse. So this regime closed the churches down, and it confiscated their property. It banned religious holidays, as well as the teaching of religion in schools and colleges. Its actions were so aggressive that even people in rural areas—people who are usually unaffected by the quicksilver fads of urban sophisticates—took notice and went underground with their spirituality. Things got very, very bad. This is when you came in. The story goes that, in 1917, you appeared in a vision to three children from the rural village of Fatima. You encouraged them to stay hopeful in their religious faith, to pray for sinners, to keep on saying the Rosary. You appeared any number of times, and it is said that in your final appearance, on October 13, 1917, the crowd was far more than three children—something like 70,000 people, including newspaper reporters and photographers. Eyewitnesses said that it rained heavily that day, but at one point, the clouds broke and the sun took center stage, at which point it spun like a disk, radiated flames of scarlet, yellow, and purple, and then plunged towards the earth in a zigzag pattern, finally returning to its normal place, and leaving the people’s once wet clothing completely dry.

That’s the story. Definitely one message I get from this is that religion in the hearts of the people is irrepressible, and it’s going to break through the walls put around it, every time. People hunger for your presence, and you show up. And not just in Fatima, but all over the world, over the course of centuries. I have no clue what actually happened. All we might be talking about is some kind of communal hallucination. But no one can deny that you are in people’s hearts and minds. You are there. And when the threat to religion or to life is great, they draw on you for strength, they take comfort from you, their imaginations soar with and through you.

Your mothering is like sunlight, and like leaves we absorb you, we grow by virtue of you.

Dear Mary, you fascinate us, and there is yet one more reason why. How you model the sort of strength it takes to be vulnerable and let go. The strength it takes to step back from a broken dream and let it die. Mary, you understand all about this. Blessed among women, you were condemned to witness your son’s execution on the cross. That’s what I call a broken dream. You know all about broken dreams.

This is the real reason for why I am writing this letter to you today. Perhaps the influence of my Catholic grandmother is stronger than I knew, and really, this letter is a prayer. For, you see, there have been so many broken dreams. I pray for the people I serve in my congregation—all their life changes and losses that I know of and those I don’t. I pray for my country which is so mired in injustice and cruelty. I pray for my own life too. All the brilliant, beautiful Christmases of my childhood which will never come back again; all the precious people who have passed out of my life and they are shrouded in silence forever; all the hurts I have caused and cannot heal.

Mary, I pray for a miracle. Water into wine. My people. My world. Myself. So we can make peace with regrets. So we can savor the wonderful things that we do have. So we can keep on showing up to our lives every day, every moment, with an open heart, no matter what. So we can believe that the best wine of life will indeed come last, never fear.

Mary, nudge us, just like you nudged your son. Light a fire. And if we should snap at you like your son did, and say, “Woman, what concern is that to you?” know that our bark is worse that our bite. Just roll your eyes like the tough cookie you are. You understand. Just keep showing us the way to the most amazing kind of strength there is: to be hurt and yet come back; to be all in pieces and yet to be whole; to endure ruined dreams and yet still dream; to give up so much, and yet, in the end, to find more than you ever believed possible.

Water into wine. The best wine saved till last.

Dear Mary, I thank you for your life, and I bless your name. Be with all of us this Hanukkah and Christmas time.

I am yours, sincerely,