The Great Journey

This morning we begin with an insight from writer Jeremy Dowsett that stems from his experience as a bicyclist. He rides a bike, and that’s taught him something. “Sometimes it’s dangerous for me,” he says, “because people in cars are just blatantly [rude]. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think it’s funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose.”

He continues, “Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.”

“And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile to-ward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a build up of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.”

How many of you ride a bike and can immediately relate? How many of you don’t ride a bike and this is all news to you?

But Jeremy Dowsett’s main point goes way beyond this.

“I can imagine,” he says, “that for people of color, life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experi-encing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.”

Above all, what white privilege talk is about is NOT shaming anyone. It’s NOT about saying anyone is bad. It’s simply about understanding why James Baldwin could write, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all of the time.” It’s also about understanding why what James Baldwin wrote might thoroughly shake up nice, non-aggressive whites—catch them completely off guard; or why we’ve seen “Black Lives Matter” banners around the country defaced—the word “Black” cut out and replaced by the word “All.”

White privilege talk is simply about UNDERSTANDING. There is a systemic imbalance. To have to proclaim that Black Lives Matter says something very bad about the state of our world.

And it’s just unacceptable.

And we’ve got to keep talking.

Scientist and author Margaret Wheatley says, “I’ve seen that there’s no more powerful way to initiate significant change than to convene a conversation. When a community of people discovers that they share a concern, change begins. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.”

Change happens through conversation. People share stories and memories and hopes. Ideas mean-der and circle and explore. Some folks are way ahead of the curve; they’re ready to rush ahead yes-terday. But if the engine unhooks from the train cars, guess where the train is going? Nowhere.

An African proverb says it like this: you want to go fast, go alone. You want to go go far, go deep, go broad, go total—go together.


That’s what I want to talk about today. Share some thoughts about our “go far, go together” strategy this program year regarding our Great Journey into antiracism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism.

And I’ll begin with why this is a congregational priority—why your Board voted to give it top priority, and why I’m right there with them.

Part of it is our Unitarian Universalist theology. Who we are, what we stand for.

Take our historic affirmation that everyone belongs to Love and no one should be left out, neither in the now or for eternity. It means that we have to talk about race. Kids are not colorblind. Adults not talking about something that is so obvious means it’s bad. That’s how kids interpret the silence. When they don’t see different races interacting and getting along—when they are familiar with only one race (theirs)—the default conclusion is, I can’t trust people who have a different skin color. Not good. Stay away.

This is not where we want things to be—as New York Magazine writer Lisa Miller says, “a nation of fellow citizens who are foreigners to each other, mute xenophobes whose hearts rush to their throats when a racially charged comment or conflict, or even curiosity, arises.” But this is where things go un-less we take a stand. Unless we become the change we wish to see in the world.

Unless we are rigorously honest with ourselves about how Unitarian Universalist congregations have been, historically, white spaces. Again, I say this not to condemn but simply to say that the automo-bile is privileged here, and if you ride a bike, it’s harder going for you.

It’s in the fabric of our community. Communication style, sense of time, approach to knowing. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, public communication generally needs to be toned down and not emotional if it’s to be taken seriously; physical gestures need to be in medium range and not large or frequent; money talk needs to be toned down or else it’s considered completely gauche; time needs to be saved and conserved, everything needs to be on time and God forbid you go over; the way to truth needs to emphasize the rational and the cerebral or it’s a suspicious way.

Our congregations are endlessly fascinating by how they invariably reproduce the New England culture of the ancestors—the William Ellery Channings, the Ralph Waldo Emersons—even though New England might be far removed geographically and historically…

But again and again, I’m saying all this not to shame or blame. Just to make it very clear that, however lovely New England congregationalism might be, it leaves a lot of people out. People who love the Seven Principles, but you have to check your race and ethnicity at the door in order to come in.

It’s a betrayal of our history as a freedom people. We have always sought out the ways of freedom. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God; they believed in a direct free connection without any intermediary. 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that church traditions were equivalent with God; they believed that the freedom way to the Source was the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world. And now, right now, we need to take a stand and say that European American culture—specifically the Yankee variety—is not the only form of freedom through which to reach out and touch God; there are lots of other ways to reach out and touch God, too.

We want this new reach of freedom. We want it for ourselves and we want it for all the people who love Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles and who love what we stand for but they come into our midst and realize, to their sadness and dismay, that they have to give up who they are in order to fit in.

That is not right.

The betrayal is especially deep when we think about the history of this specific Unitarian Universalist congregation. How, in the early 1950s, it died and was born again in the cleansing fires of racial inte-gration. How we protested lunch counter segregationism at Rich’s Department Store. Clashes with the Ku Klux Klan. People losing friends and jobs because they were Unitarian Universalists and af-firmed that EVERYONE has inherent worth and dignity. Dr. King in our pulpit, preaching his Remain-ing Awake Through a Great Revolution message. The intentionally African American Unitarian Uni-versalist church we helped plant—Thurman Hamer Ellington Church. Our many years of the Hope-Hill School Project. How, since I begin my ministry here, our way of worship has diversified beyond the standard Unitarian Universalist New England style and has explored other styles and ways … and it feels good.

Can I hear an AMEN?

Our UUCA history positively cries out that this is a priority for us. Asking ourselves who we really are, what our hearts break for here and now, so that, as a community, we can understand how to be the best Beloved Community we can be.

So what will this look like?

Our “go far, go together” strategy will be based on the “Taking A Public Stand Policy” that our Board approved back in January, with ultimate authorization coming from the congregation. In accordance with that process, UUCA’s Inclusivity Team, EnterCulture, will draft a resolution that voices commit-ment to antiracism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism and will submit it to the congregation in the form of a petition. If at least 15% of the congregation signs, then EnterCulture will share the results with the Board, and, once the Board validates the results, the whole process moves into a second phase, which is to last no longer than 90 days. It will be 90 days of events and activities of all sorts that will turn UUCA into the intentional learning space that the General Assembly Black Lives Matter Resolution calls for. After the 90 days, the entire congregation at an official meeting will vote to ap-prove taking a collective stand, or not. I’m recommending that things be timed so that the vote takes place at our regular May meeting time. May 2016.

So this is the year. I hope your ears are perked up. Last year it was plenty of sermons and the Enter-Culture workshops and our Remembering Selma event, but this year we are asking for dedicated par-ticipation from everyone—a Great Journey.

And I have some hopes for this I want to share.

One is suggested by a remarkable finding reported in National Geographic late last year. “A study of brain activity at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that subjects register race in about one-tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.” I mention this simply to underscore the primal quality of what we’re dealing with. Any work we do with it gets to the bottom of things, goes deep. We already know that race intersects with class and gender and all sorts of other social identities, and this is certainly one way talking about race gets to the bottom of things. But it’s also an existential botom we dive into. The muck and mud of our humanity….

So I hope we enter into our congregational conversations knowing this, how deep the work is.

Which immediately suggests my second hope: that the character of our conversations is different from what we’d experience in an ethics class or a social policy class. My hope is that we resist this intellectualization of the topic, because it skates above the real issues which are more about the lived experience of race, the reflexive reactions to difference that we all experience: fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety but also curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration. If our conversations can get to this level, that’s when they truly become life-changing.

If we can do this, then something else I hope is that we can live up to our covenantal promises to eachother, to love and respect each other even though we are going to hear things coming out of our mouths that might be Donald Trump worthy. Which is inevitable when the material at hand is the irrational goopy stuff of our reflexive reactions to difference.

And not just that, but also because of all the pain that surrounds the topic. To people who are privileged, equity can feel like oppression and so they say things…. They want to insist that All Lives Mat-ter is the better mantra. They wonder why we have such a thing as Gay Pride Month but what about Straight Pride Month? What about that? And to this, the folks who experience real systemic oppres-sion say things….

Like New York Times writer Charles Blow says, “some immunity must be granted. Assuming that the conversational engagement is honest and earnest, we must be able to hear and say things that some might find offensive as we stumble toward interpersonal empathy and understanding.”

I hope, I hope, I hope.

Above all, I hope that we achieve much more than a majority of yes votes or even a supermajority on our collective resolution to go deeper into the work of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism. Because all that a majority or supermajority vote does for us as a democratic people is open the door. But we could step through gingerly, cautiously, with only a “lowest common denominator” mentality that, in the end, changes nothing. That’s not the Great Journey I hope for us. Of course, we’re wanting a majority of yes votes in May 2016 to open the door, but then let’s combine that with a con-gregation-wide clarity of purpose that compels us to jump through. A sense of purpose that is so clear that we know who we are, we jump through that door singing and laughing and alive and willing to take risks.

That’s what I hope we accomplish through our Great Journey.

Go far, go together.

Face down the steel and concrete infrastructure of the automobile complex and refuse despair, refuse defeat, and get to work.

Never stop affirming that everyone belongs to love, and no one is left out.

Did you know that, at the heart of Selma, Alabama is a big monument to Dr. King? It memorializes the historic March to Birmingham. But on it we read, “I HAD a Dream.”


He HAD a Dream—as if it’s all but past tense? Something lost?

I say nothing about the Dream is past tense or lost, if we’re living into it now and resolve never to stop living into it.

He HAS a Dream, and so do we.

What’s In Your Backpack?

The Power of Myth features some of Joseph Campbell’s most profound sayings about the hero’s journey. One of them is this: “A hero is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself. That’s the central message of the myth. You as you know yourself are not the final term of your being.”

That is so good. Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi agrees and says it this way: “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.”

What’s exciting for me this morning is to see this idea about the hero literally encoded in our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles, especially in the way they are numbered and laid out. Listen:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
• Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
• The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
• The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Every Principle beyond the First represents a bigger thing and a something greater that the hero gives himself or herself to. If “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” is ME, then “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations” is YOU, and “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is US, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” is the NATION, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” is the WORLD, and, finally, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the ALL.

From ME to YOU to US to NATION to WORLD to ALL.

That is our Unitarian Universalist hero journey.

And that’s what I want to talk about today—what needs to be in our backpacks to help us stay on track with the task of giving ourselves to increasingly bigger and greater things. What needs to be in there to help us stay focused and fight forgetfulness, fight complacency.

As a side note: if you are listening carefully and you know your Seven Principles, you are wondering where the Fourth Principle of the “Free and responsible search for truth and meaning” fits in. I’ll explain in a bit. You’ll see.

So: what’s in our Unitarian Universalist backpack?


The first thing is a map of the hero’s journey, its basic phases. Call to adventure, threshold, challenges and temptations, transformation, return. Think Odysseus, think Bilbo Baggins, think Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen. The map is there in our Unitarian Universalist backpack to remind us that inherent worth and dignity is fundamentally dynamic in nature. It’s not just some kind of lumpish thing. It’s energy, it wants to move from potential to actual, it ‘s got places to go and things to do!

It means that when the Principles tell us to “affirm and promote,” what we’re really being asked to do is take the map out of the backpack and, for each individual, including ourselves, find out where they are in their hero’s journey. Every individual is on that map, somewhere. Odysseus in process, Harry Potter in process. That’s the reality of every individual. That’s the reality of ME.

But now, what happens when the focus shifts to that of the other, to YOU? Here is where we move to a slightly “bigger” thing, and what helps us do that is the next item in our backpack:


It’s a travel-sized version of Monopoly. Pull that out of your backpack and start playing, and all sorts of learnings related to justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships start to unfold. For one thing, games in general are great teachers of the arts of civilization. Play can provide a safe outlet for releasing aggressive impulses. Play teaches people how to follow rules. Play teaches people how to take turns. You want kids to learn justice, equity, and compassion? Have them play games.

I remember playing games with my older brother Rob. Not Monopoly, but chess. Once, he got so frustrated, he swept the entire board with his arm and sent all our pieces flying. I was outraged! Mostly because I was finally going to beat him. Victory was taken from me—a thing I deserved! And when you don’t get what you deserve—that’s injustice.

But I’m recommending not a chess set but Monopoly for our Unitarian Universalist backpack precisely because so much of justice, equity, and compassion relate to privilege and oppression. The haves and the have nots. You can learn a lot about justice if you play the game like it gets played in real life. Different rules for different players. Player #1 receives $350 for passing Go (well above the standard $200) and is permitted to buy houses and hotels two for one. Player #2 has rules like “You can only move half the amount you roll” and “You can only buy property priced less than $150.” Player #3 has rules such as “You will go directly to jail for rolling a number higher than 7—meaning that he’s in jail most of the time, or police tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Player #4 is the only one who gets to play by the actual rules in the rulebook and his privilege—the privilege of not being interfered with—is invisible to him….

If the ME—the individual—is on a hero’s journey, then surely the heroic thing to do when ME meets YOU is to play a fair game. Repair the one that’s rigged and wrong.

But this is a daunting task, so, happily, ME meets YOU is not all there is to it.


The next thing we pull out of the backpack is this picture. It reminds us that there’s no way to get to the beauty of a rainbow if you are but one color standing alone. A rainbow is way more than just the sum of parts. If the separate colors can learn how to stand together, what an amazing thing comes to life!

It’s the power of community, the power of WE which is larger than just ME and YOU. “We build on foundations we did not lay,” says the Rev. Peter Raible:

We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know

This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.

ME and YOU are just not enough. Each of us needs to plug into the power of US in order to keep the hero journey going. One hero journey killer for sure is shame, which absolutely depends on people thinking they are alone. But, says shame researcher Brene Brown, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Love destroys shame. Together we ARE more than any one person can be. Together we CAN renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold…

But now I’d ask you to shift gears and listen very carefully to these quotes from a famous piece of hero literature:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

“I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning! But please come to tea -any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!”

That’s the voice of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. And right here is demonstrated the shadow side of US. Communities can hunker down in their hobbit holes and get complacent. Groupthink can take over. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.” Why search for truth and meaning when it’s already in our possession? We don’t know that we don’t know.

Which is exactly when we want to pull this out of our Unitarian Universalist backpack:


It’s a Gandalf action figure. Everyone needs one in their backpack. Henry David Thoreau, our great spiritual ancestor, knew this. He once said, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake” and he sounded the alarm again and again because he knew that sleepwalking through life is a constant temptation—especially when we are sleepwalking in unison, sleepwalking in community. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.”

But along comes Gandalf. Gandalf won’t allow for complacency. Gandalf plucks us from our cozy home and plunges us into adventures. We learn that true JUSTICE is way more than JUST US. We learn that “the road runs ever on,” towards higher levels of knowing and being…

And so we pull this next item out of our Unitarian Universalist backpacks:


It’s another action figure: a John Stewart action figure.

The fact is, ME and YOU and US don’t live hermetically sealed off from our NATION. Where the NATION goes, we go. And so we have to pay attention to what’s happening in our democracy. We have to learn citizenship that makes a difference. And we have to do it in this day and age, in which we see an ascendency of truthiness and one schlocky pundit after another whose mantra is, basically, “Truth is that which can be boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.” “There is,” said Isaac Asimov, “a cult of ignorance in the United States… The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Therefore, What Would John Stewart do? He is no patron saint of liberal smugness. Again and again he called out liberals as well as conservatives. When his mind reached out to another point of view and discovered it devoid of anything to satisfy a reasonable person—anything at all—well, out came his hilarious and delicious irony. Made us laugh for five seconds and then think for fifteen minutes.

If truthiness is Voldemort, then John Stewart is Harry Potter, and he shows us a way to re-engage the political process and stay engaged….

But there are two more items in our Unitarian Universalist backpack. The next is …


… a vial of water. Water reminds us of a level of being that is far greater than ME or YOU or US or the NATION. We all come from water: not just as mammals who float in amniotic fluid as we are readied for birth; not just as species on a planet where all life began in the ocean; but also as beings who (in the here and now) simply cannot survive unless there is drinkable water to drink. Water is a symbol that reminds us of a reality that transcends all divisions and unites us all in one human family.

And yet, almost three-quarters of a billion people around the world lack clean drinking water. The United Nations has reported that more people now die from contaminated water than from all forms of violence. The human right to water—access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water for everyone—is more important than ever.

And as I say this, it feels like we are David facing down Goliath, or Odysseus in battle with the Cyclops….

How can communities of US change a complex system like the WORLD?

But it’s said that “The most common way people give up their power is thinking they don’t have any” (Alice Walker). It’s said that “Nothing great was ever achieved by being realistic” (Tom Venuto).

Death Stars HAVE been known to blow up…

And now, the last item in our Unitarian Universalist backpack:


It’s a prism. A prism demonstrates that appearances are deceptive where light is concerned, and reveals an underlying harmony and beauty. So, too, can we heroes accomplish our largest task of all and give ourselves to the ALL. Bring to the ALL a mind that operates like a prism. Look beneath and beyond surface appearances, to the reality. Align ourselves with that reality, despite appearances.

Years ago, I sat in a darkened theater and it was the start of the movie and these are the words that scrolled down the screen:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … and also right here and now. No evil Galactic Empire per se, or Death Star, but agents of evil every bit as bad. And ME and YOU and US and the NATION and the WORLD are racing and rushing around, just like Princess Leia. But I am struck by the movie’s ultimate message that what really brings healing to the universe at all levels is the hero’s discovery of the ALL. First Obi Wan Kenobi and then Yoda teach Luke Skywalker to bring the prism of his mind to reality and what is revealed is The Force. Says Yoda, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”

“Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part” is not just a nice sentiment. It wants to make us nothing less than Jedi Knights who serve a vision of the Force and out of this heal the WORLD, the NATION, the community of US, YOU and ME. Doesn’t matter what your size is!

That’s what’s in our Unitarian Universalist backpack. Seven items representing Seven Principles all adding up to a hero’s journey through life. “Follow your bliss,” says Joseph Campbell, and here are the people of your bliss. Here is the track you have been waiting for. “Follow your bliss,” he says, “and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Right here and right now.

Wedding Day

Wedding Day UUCA

Wedding Day at UUCA was a holy time. Together with other Atlanta-area Unitarian Universalist ministers, I officiated the marriage ceremony of six same-sex couples. What follows is the script that I wrote for the beautiful occasion.


It is written that the greatest of all things—the most wonderful experience in the world—is love. Into your lives has entered a deep and nurturing love, and you have asked us as Unitarian Universalist ministers to help you celebrate and affirm that love by joining you together in marriage.

The ceremony in which we are all now participating is a bold, even revolutionary act. Even as the Supreme Court has recognized the validity and worth of the marriages that we are today celebrating and affirming, many are still openly or covertly hostile to LGBTQ couples who decide to commit their lives to one another. We pray for their hearts. We pray that the same kind of love that brings us here today breaks open their hearts, and brings them to a greater sense of the possibilities of life.

The journey of true equality and justice is ongoing. More work is to be done. But we will not let the continuing need to save the world interfere with our purpose here and now of savoring this amazing, sweet moment.

With Melissa Etheridge, we say today:

Mother, tell your children
Be quick, you must be strong
Life is full of wonder
Love is never wrong
Remember how they taught you
How much of it was fear
Refuse to hand it down
The legacy stops here

Let us prepare our spirits for rejoicing! Let us do that with bubbles, and I’m going to ask the LGBTQ folks among us to blow some bubbles…. Just a little bit—-just a preview of the BIG bubble blast waiting for us at the end of the service, when we’ll all get to it…


We give thanks for all those who have shared love and wisdom with us, and have renewed our faith in the power of love, which holds us and nurtures us and makes us one in spite of time, death, and the space between the stars.

We light this chalice with reverence for that spirit of love and wholeness.


Chalice to be lit by Joetta Prost and Kathy Shell

PRAYER Rev. Taddeo

Let us pray.

Spirit of Life, God of Love….

We pray for the couples in this room,
those whose marriage vows made elsewhere now have national recognition
and those who will be entering into sacred matrimony, in our midst.
May they live according to their promises, each to the other.
May they create a marriage that is filled with joy and tenderness.

Inspire them to enter into the deepest mysteries and wonders of love
and therein create a safe haven in their hearts for each other.
Strengthen them to know the peace
that comes from truly being received
and known and accepted by another.

May their love for each other
enrich them as individuals
and provide a safe and loving environment
for the family they are creating through this union.
We pray that they find the balance and harmony
of their individuality and their shared life.
Guide them and bless them, Beloved,
that they may know that there is nothing more priceless
than the gift of loving one another
as they journey through life side by side.

We also know that they do not love in a vacuum.
Let their love be strong in a world that can at times feel unsafe.
Soften the hearts of those who misunderstand, or lack compassion, or hate.
Be with this nation as it journeys towards greater equality and justice.
Let each of hearing these words find ways to be the change we wish to see….

Spirit of Life, God of Love, we feel your presence in this room, in our hearts.
Bless these couples to be married today.
We also ask for a blessing of renewal and devotion
for those already married or in committed relationships.
May we comfort each other with our love today and every day.

God bless us all.



At this time, we honor the memory of all those leaders and heroes
who have made moments like this possible.
Heros like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
Harvey Milk
Sylvia Rivera
Bayard Rustin
Harry Hay—
Heros of the larger movement in quest of equality and justice
like the 200 courageous same-sex couples and their families – the plaintiffs in cases all over the country – who stood up for marriage equality and played a defining role in the historic Supreme Court decision on the freedom to marry.

We take a moment of silence now in honor of them….


We also take this moment to remember and honor
The heros we have known close at hand,
Family and friends who have nurtured us
And helped bring us to this moment in time…
We take another moment of silence to honor them…


These are the ones who have taught us how to love.
These are the ones who have planted a seed of courage, and hope, and faith.
We go forward in our lives with gratitude.


Minister: And now, please join me for the responsive reading in your order of service.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

Congregation: And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

Minister: If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Congregation: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth.

Minister: It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Prophecies will come to an end. Tongues will cease. Knowledge will come to an end. We know in part, we prophesy in part. But when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

Congregation: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;

Minister: When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Now, we see in a mirror, in a riddle.

Congregation: Then we will see face to face. Now I know in part. Then I will know fully.

Minister: Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.


“Standing on the Side of Love”

READING Rev. Davis

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has written:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

It is so ordered, and therefore–we are here celebrating!


HOMILY Rev. Makar

Love is not some accident we fall into.
If we learn to grow in love, then there is the possibility
that our tomorrows will be even more joyous and more life-nourishing and inspiring.
Love has the capacity for that magic.
Perhaps only love has such capacity.

We are saying YES to love today, and as we do so,
we listen carefully to the wisdom of the Bible writer
who spoke about gifts of the spirit
in our responsive reading from a moment ago.
Faith, hope, and love.

Marriage is indeed an act of FAITH.
To enter into union with another requires trust and confidence,
in yourself, and in your beloved.
The risk is that of vulnerability.
The risk is letting the other glimpse you in your humanity.
There is no guarantee that being married will make your lives easier;
marriage is often very complicated,
and being married requires that you accept significant responsibilities.
There is no guarantee that marriage will make your lives happier;
when you open your heart to trust and love,
worries and sorrows may come in through the same door.

This is why the commitment to marriage must also be made in HOPE.
Hope is a great gift, if you don’t get it mixed up with romantic wishful thinking.
Hope has nothing to do with the romantic assumption
that once you are married, the two of you will live happily ever after.
A wise married couple once said:
“Marriage does not work automatically at all, it has to be learned.
Just as it is difficult to be civilized,
so it is difficult to be married.” (Muriel and A. Powell Davies)
And the poet Ranier Maria Rilke once wrote to a friend:
“To love is good too–love being difficult.
For one human being to love another,
that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,
the ultimate, the last test and proof,
the work for which all other is but preparation.“

Hope is what encourages us to cheerfully take up this most difficult path,
because we believe in where it’s going,
and perhaps, because we value the challenge and the joy of the journey as well.
IF all the couples here today believe that life is inherently good,
that we experience life more deeply and fully
when we can share our experience and understanding of life
with a loved and trusted partner,
THEN it makes sense to open your heart and soul to another in love and trust.
You are carrying the kind of hope that can sustain a marriage.

LOVE is the third, and the greatest gift, that the Bible writer recommends to us.
The kind of love which sustains a marriage
is a way of purposefully responding to, and believing in,
the inherent and sacred goodness that is woven through all of life,
that is kindled in each human spirit,
and which you make accessible to your partner in marriage.
Such love is rooted in mutual respect,
for each of you is created in the image of God.

As spouses, you will each have, and will continue to have, different ideas,
different hopes, and interests, different strengths, different needs.
You are each enriched, not diminished, by the different insights and perspectives
you bring to one another.
The blessing and strength of your marriage will unfold
as you grow in understanding of yourselves and of each other,
so that you can nourish each other’s true growing.
Allow your love to stimulate and challenge each other
and enlarge each other’s world.
Attend to those things that nourish and sustain your love for one another
and for life.

So may your lives, ever nourished by the gifts of faith, hope, and love,
be a blessing to all others whose lives touch yours.


I ask those of you who have gathered here today this: do you who know and care for these couples give them your blessings now as they enter into marriage, and do you promise (in the days and years ahead) to give them your deepest love, understanding, and support during both good times and bad?

If so, say “We do.”

(Congregation responds in unison)

READING Rev. Rogers

A reading from Rabindranath Tagore:

It is for the union of you and me
that there is light in the sky.
It is for the union of you and me
that the earth is decked in dusky green.

It is for the union of you and me
that night sits motionless with the world in her
dawn appears opening the eastern door
with sweet murmurs in her voice.

The boat of hope sails along on the currents of
eternity towards that union,
flowers of the ages are being gathered together
for its welcoming ritual.

It is for the union of you and me
that this heart of mine, in the garb of a bride,
has proceeded from birth to birth
upon the surface of this ever-turning world
to choose the Beloved.


And now it is time to say the vows that will affirm your love. Please take each other’s hands and face each other. Listen carefully, listen soulfully, and in the end, I will ask each of you separately to affirm your vows with a single YES.

Will you have each other as equal partners?
Will you share with each other your love, honesty, caring and trust?
Will you keep each other warm and close with affection and kindness?
Will you seek to make your marriage a committed relationship in which you can each grow independently at the same time you grow together as a couple and share the many adventures of life?
Will you promise each other your heart, your mind, and your body to honor and cherish each other from this day forward?

If so, then will one partner in the couple say clearly and proudly YES

And now, will the other partner in the couple say clearly and proudly YES


At this time, all our couples are invited to come down to the floor. A minister will join you as you exchange rings or tokens of love and affection with each other. the minister will also offer up a private blessing on your union.


And now, will the congregation stand:

By the authority of Life Itself
and the state of Georgia
and the Constitution of the United States of America

By the authority of the day given to us to live
and the cycle of seasons through which our lives must pass

By the authority of the love of friends that honors and supports this loving relationship and the hurts and pain through which your lives have passed alone,

By the authority of the long and sometimes lonely struggle of our people for the freedom to love,
and by the delight and hope you have found in each other

We declare you to be married and proclaim it holy and good.
In the eyes of God and of humanity.
let all respect the threshold of your home.

Let the congregation say, AMEN.

Please be seated…


“Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter to the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other. Now there is no loneliness for you, now there is no more loneliness. Now you are two persons but there is only one life before you. Go now to your dwelling place, to enter into the days of your togetherness, and may your days be good and long upon the earth.” (Apache prayer)


May the couples now seal their unions with a kiss.

Let me read aloud the names of the couple, say final words, and then I will ask you to raise the roof with shouts of joy and cheer—and also EVERYONE blow your bubbles….


Family and friends, we present to you the Spirit of Love and Wholeness. It shines in the faces and forms of these children of God you see before you.

[Blow bubbles and invite the congregation to join along!]


Lessons from The Little Prince


Once upon a time there was a famous writer named Antoine de Saint-Exupery whose country was being devoured by war and he fled to America, and there he felt helpless and lonely. Besides this, he was struggling with his marriage and also with the memory of the near-fatal crash of his airplane years earlier in the Sahara desert. A friend of his noticed his unhappiness and the agitation that seemed to possess him entirely, and she suggested that perhaps he consider writing a children’s story. Maybe that would help.

And so:


Once upon a time there was a sweet little person—a little prince—who lived far away from our planet, on an asteroid. There, in the depths of space, he was very clear about several things. One of them was the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset, which, given the size of his asteroid, he could enjoy as many times as he liked.

He was clear on that, and he was also very clear on the need for what might be called planetary hygiene. “They sleep deep in the heart of the earth’s darkness,” the little prince says of seeds, “and some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. Then this little seed will stretch itself and begin—timidly at first—to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognizes it.” Note the tone of urgency here. It’s because the bad plant he’s talking about is the baobab, which “is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces…” It is “a question of discipline,” he says. “When you’ve finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care.”

No wonder the issue of the sheep was so pressing to him. Sheep eat the shoots, sheep are part of the discipline….

baobab tree

The little prince was very clear on some things. But on other things: not so much. One day a seed sprouted and it was unlike any other small sprouts on his planet. At first he worried that perhaps it was a new kind of baobab, but it wasn’t. She was a rose. She was stunning in her loveliness. “Oh, how beautiful you are,” breathed the little prince when she bloomed. Her fragrance perfumed his entire planet. But she did not feel solid in herself. She did not feel her beauty as an intrinsic part of her. That insecurity led her to play games with the little prince, and it frustrated him. It disturbed him. He did not know how to love her, even though he wanted to, and he was so unhappy….


That is why he left his asteroid. That is what spurred him on to take a journey into the unknown…

And the first leg of it involved encounter after encounter with people he ended up not liking. At all.

One was a narcissist. Everybody else became an extension of his own self-centered personal drama. It was outrageous to him if people did things that he didn’t like, because how dare they spoil his plans? That other people have an actual independent existence—he just couldn’t imagine that.

Then there was the businessman, and the little prince disturbed his furious counting because naturally the little prince wanted to know exactly what it was he was counting so furiously but the businessman didn’t care, all that mattered was owning it, whatever it was, and knowing how many.

Then there was the lamplighter, whose life was reduced to utter absurdity because the orders he was given years before no longer made any sense to his radically changed world but he refused to deviate from them because “orders are orders.” It did not matter how miserable the orders made things. “Orders are orders.”

The little prince met these people and others as well, and every time, he went away saying something along the lines of “The grown-ups are very strange,” or “They always need to have things explained,” or “They are like that. One must not hold it against them.”

What this leg of the little prince’s journey did for him is add greater clarity to his life. He was already very clear about the value of sunsets and planetary hygiene, and now he was clear on the kind of person he couldn’t admire, which is the person whose life has been utterly taken over by some kind of narrow purpose. Something has taken firm root inside them, and what was once a whole round personality has been split into pieces and now compulsively mistakes what is inessential for what is essential.

They have become less-than-human, inhumane.

All of this is trying to shine a light into the shadow places of our lives. We know people who act exactly like narcissists and businessmen and lamplighters. We have been to their asteroids too.

There is a reason why The Little Prince story is the 3rd most-translated book in the world and one of the best-selling books ever published….


When The Little Prince was published in 1943, people didn’t get it. They were flummoxed. It was a children’s story they were expecting, which for them meant something sweet and simple addressed to a certain chronological age. Yet here was a story that spoke to the youth in adults, even as it spoke to children. It was multilayered and nuanced and disturbing at times and full of the struggle and pain Saint-Exupery was feeling….

Perhaps this is exactly parallel to the opening discussion of the book, where the narrator speaks of his Drawing Number One, which was that of a boa constrictor which had swallowed an elephant whole, and he’d show the picture to grown-ups, and all they’d see is what they were prepared to see, which was a picture of a big hat that tended to flop to one side.

The Little Prince is like Drawing Number One. The essential stuff is invisible to the naked eye. You have to read it with your imagination and your heart.

For example, the baobab seeds. “Children,” says the book, “Watch out for the baobabs!” “It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots.”

Concern about this is what motivates the little prince’s very first words: “If you please—draw me a sheep…” Sheep eat the baobab shoots.

But why this intense and unrelenting insistence on planetary hygiene?

It’s Saint-Exupery’s way of touching on the great tragedy of his era. Nazism sweeping over Europe, and his beloved country of France falling so quickly in the form of the Vichy state and the Occupation. This sort of this happens because people are of a certain type. They are strange grown-ups. They are narcissists, or businessmen, or lamplighters. They have lost something essential that would cause them to resist evil. Instead, they don’t blink an eye at it. Something tragic has happened to their minds and hearts. A baobab seed has sprouted there. Not so much a physical seed as a spiritual one.

Consider Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who was responsible for transporting millions of Jews to the death camps. He was a major organizer of the Holocaust and yet he was not fanatical, he was not bloodthirsty, his was not mentally ill, anti-Semitism was not a choice but just something that he grew up with and carried forward as a part of his heritage. He had little more on his mind than following orders. Orders are orders. Making the trains run on time was his priority and it didn’t matter whose lives he made miserable.

What a strange grown-up. Remarkably similar to the lamplighter character…

He didn’t pluck out the baobab seed sprouting in his heart. There was no sheep to chew it up. The sweet child he had once been: gone.

I think it can be safely said: every character that the little prince encounters on an asteroid can be seen as someone whose heart has been ripped apart.

Now, a quick side note: the final version of The Little Prince is miniscule compared to the initial draft which was hundreds of pages. If you go to the Morgan Library in Manhattan, you can see how the draft pages are covered with fine lines of handwriting, and much has been crossed out. There are pages where only a single sentence stands out because every other word has been scribbled through. Most of what he wrote never made the final cut.

When I came to learn this—and specifically, when I came to learn that Saint-Exupery had put many more asteroids and many more strange characters into the draft version of the story than we meet up with in the final, it got me thinking…. There’s a lot of people today that would make perfect asteroid inhabitants whose hearts are ripped up. And we are not so different from the little prince, in the way we might encounter them and then walk away, remarking on how strange the grown-ups are….

For example, the TV news anchor. On his asteroid, we encounter him wearing a shiny suit, sporting a $200 haircut, and he’s lily white. He’s reflecting on the shooting last week at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. “It’s more likely,” he says, “a matter of rising hostility against Christians in this country because of our biblical views. A sick act by someone who was mentally ill. That’s what we really have here. Why are people talking about a hate crime, or even terrorism? That’s crazy liberal talk. Besides,” the TV news anchor says, “no less than the entire Wall Street Journal editorial board agrees. Here’s what they had to say (and the news anchor pulls out the paper and reads): ‘Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists. What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity. It is no small solace that in committing such an act today, he stands alone.’ That’s what the editorial says. It’s the act of a lone shooter, in other words. Not racism. Racism no longer exists.”

That’s the TV news anchor on his asteroid. How strange the grown-ups are.

Or consider yet another asteroid inhabitant. He is a Supreme Court Justice. We encounter him shrouded in his black justice robes, and he’s frowning. His colleagues—the majority of them—just did something that has changed the course of American history. A watershed moment in all our lives. Marriage equality. Love wins. But this is his rebuttal. He says, “[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. […] The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” This is what the Supreme Court Justice says.

And it is astonishing logic. Of course human dignity is innate, but it can most certainly be prevented from flourishing by inequitable policies. People are vulnerable; brutality gets underneath the skin. How possibly can the Supreme Court Justice, whose own personal heritage bears the scars of slavery, demonstrate such thorough tone-deafness towards another people who cry out against oppression?

So many baobab seeds sprouting, even in this time of triumph. So many strange, strange grown-ups.

Even as we celebrate, we must continue the work. Planetary hygiene. Spiritual hygiene.

Where is a sheep when you need one?


We are now at a critical point in The Little Prince story. He has encountered plenty of strange asteroid characters through his journey, and now he has come to our earth. There, he happens upon a garden full of roses. Listen:

“Who are you?” he demanded, thunderstruck.

“We are roses,” the roses said.

And he was overcome with sadness. His flower had told him that she was the only one of her kind in all the universe. And here were five thousand of them, all alike, in one single garden!

[To himself he said,]”I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose… that doesn’t make me a very great prince…”

And he lay down in the grass and cried.

This is when the story goes to an even deeper level. Because this is where it’s fully revealed: evidence of a baobab seed growing in the little prince’s own heart, growing towards the point where it would rip apart his capacity to love. Now, we have seen how great a critic he is towards the grown-ups, and why not? It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. So, how completely ironic that Saint-Exupery would reveal the little prince to be a kind of grown-up in his own right. The kind of grown-up who is overwhelmed by all the beautiful people in the world and can’t seem to rest in the love of one beautiful person. Or, to shift metaphors, the kind of grown-up who is homeless because gorgeous house after gorgeous house entrances them and they can’t commit to living in any one in particular.

Do you know grown-ups like this?

Saint-Exupery was certainly one of these, thus his struggles in his marriage. “I was too young to know how to love her,” the little prince says, and Saint-Exupery says it with him, and maybe we do as well. He had not yet learned the lesson that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

This is the insight that no baobab seed can survive.

And this is the insight that the fox gives him. Sheep merely eat, but foxes are wise. Listen:

“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”

“I am a fox,” said the fox.

“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”

“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”

“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.

But, after some thought, he added:

“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”

Some time after this, the little prince returns to the garden of roses, and listen to what he has to say:

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he [says to the roses]. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you– the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”

The spiritual baobab seed wants to rip apart our capacity for love, but the medicine that the fox gives the little prince is the insight that establishing ties with another being—the taming process—changes everything. A concrete example: the proportion of Americans who reported knowing someone gay increased from 25 percent in 1985 to 74 percent in 2000, and the percentage is even higher today, and you have to know, this has been a major factor in our achievement of marriage equality in this nation. Knowing gay people strongly predicts support for gay rights. Knowing people of a different color and culture predicts support for antiracism and multiculturalism. Friendship makes for justice.

The result of taming and being tamed, at whatever level of life, cannot be overestimated. You know whose you are. There are people you really would die for. “My life is very monotonous,” says the fox:

“I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

Listen to that: “I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…” Everything serves to remind you of the one who’s tamed you. Whenever I eat pretzel M&M’s or make grilled cheese sandwiches, the presence of a loved one is summoned up for me, and it is wonderful, the sun has indeed come to shine in my life. The whole world carries signs of the ones you love. Monotony is replaced by richness. The whole world becomes personalized with the ones you love. It does not matter that passersby can’t see what you see. The richness of your life is still valid and real. You are seeing with the eyes of the heart. What is essential is invisible to the physical eye.

“Grown-ups are mushrooms,” says the little prince. Thanks to the fox, he will escape this fate. Now he knows what love means. Now he can return to his rose and he can do so with clarity. Now he is completely clear. Now he can go home.

And this is the children’s story that the famous writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, once upon a time, when his country was being devoured by war, and he was an expat in America, feeling helpless and lonely. This is the story he wrote, once upon a time, to process his near-disastrous airplane crash in the Sahara and the way his marriage was also crashing. He took his friend’s advice. Write a children’s story.

Did it help? Does it help?

I think it did. I think it does.

This Historic Day…

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has written:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

It is so ordered, and therefore–let the “pop-up” weddings commence!

Here are some pictures of me on the Fulton County Courthouse Steps today, June 26, officiating at the wedding of people who love each other and want that love to be consecrated through marriage.

Pop up marriage 6

Pop up marriage 5

Pop Up Marriage 1

pop up marriage 10

Beauty of the Butterfly: Letter to Maya Angelou

Dear Maya,

How strange it will seem to my hearers and readers that I am writing a letter to one who can never literally receive it. You died just a little over a year ago.

And yet, you seem very much alive to me. Once you said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” But you have always been frank about your changes, across a span of almost 90 years, and I have loved reading about them. So powerful and poignant. How deeply and frequently you’ve moved me to laughter and tears.


I do believe your spirit lives on—I do believe that the death of anyone’s body is best compared to a fatally damaged TV set which can no longer transmit the vital signal anymore, even though the vital signal is still around and in the air. Others in my Beloved Community will see things differently. But one thing we can all agree on is how the influence of your seven autobiographies and books of essays and poetry and plays and movies and TV shows (in addition to everything else!) has been nothing less than part of the world’s endless creation. You’ve set your mark upon us. Your immortality is your influence, and it goes on and on, like starshine.

It has reached straight into my heart, in ways small and large.

Here’s one of the small ways.

In your amazing book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you remember the Rev. Howard Thomas who was the presiding church elder over an area of Arkansas which included the town you grew up in, Stamps. He’d come to Stamps every three months to stay in your home, and when your paternal grandmother (whom you called Momma because you grew up with her) opened the door to him, first thing he’d do was spread his arms and call out for you and your brother Bailey, saying “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” He wanted a hug.

Suffer the little children indeed. You thought he was ugly and fat, and that he “laughed like a hog with the colic.” You thought his arms were awful. You didn’t want a hug. But your Momma made you.

Just like my Baba made me. HIS name was Ivan, and I had no clue what he did or what his purpose was, just that he was a dear friend of the family from way back. He’d always come over when he’d heard that my family had made the long trek from Northern Alberta to spend time in Edmonton to visit. His face was shiny and flabby and his breath smelled like onions and he spoke very haltingly and, strangest of all, his forehead (near the scalp) featured a quarter-sized caved-in part that no one ever mentioned, ever, but it was so obvious something was wrong that I wanted to shout. He’d look at me with his bug eyes and hold out his octopus arms for a hug and I just wanted to run, but Baba made me go to him, sit on his lap, and he would squeeze me and go heh heh heh and I would laugh out of embarrassment and then finally it was over and he’d release me from his tentacles and I booked it out of there, to everyone’s vast amusement.

Adults think children are simpletons, tabula rasa, but Maya, you remind us that it’s completely otherwise. Children have their own thoughts to think, they are already complicated little worlds. And to them, the motives and behaviors of adults can be incomprehensible at times….

But the main point is that you have brought me back to the memory. It feels like something long lost in me has been found, and that feels so good, even if it but a small memory about a particularly weird moment.

On the other hand, you tell stories that find no echo in my own world, and they break my heart wide open….

Many of the stories are about the harshness of Southern life and the experience of blackness as told from the inside, and you were one of the first to ever share like this…

“Another day was over,” you say. “In the soft dark the cotton truck slipped the pickers out and roared out of the yard with a sound like a giant’s fart. The workers stepped around in circles for a few seconds as if they had found themselves unexpectedly in an unfamiliar place. Their minds sagged. In [my Momma’s merchandise store] the men’s faces were the most painful to watch, but I seemed to have no choice. When they tried to smile to carry off their tiredness as if it was nothing, the body [told a different story.] Their shoulders drooped even as they laughed, and when they put their hands on their hips in a show of jauntiness, the palms slipped the thighs as if the pants were waxed. […] The women’s feet had swollen the discarded men’s shoes they wore, and they washed their arms at the well to dislodge dirt and splinters that had accrued to them as part of the day’s pickings. I thought them all hateful to have allowed themselves to be worked like oxen, and even more shameful to try to pretend that things were not as bad as they were.”

You tell this story, and then you tell another. How your Momma, on pain of punishment, had taught you and your brother Bailey to be impeccable in the way you addressed your elders and your betters. Show respect. Don’t bring shame on your parents and your family. But as for what you have called “powhitetrash”: they’d call your Momma by her first name, despite the fact that she owned the very land they lived on! “If there was any justice in the world,” you say in Caged Bird, “God should strike them dumb at once!” But God never did. God just watched, when one time a group of these powhitetrash girls came to your front door and your strong proud Momma was there and they surrounded her with mocking laughter and tongues stuck out and crossed eyes and all your Momma did was hum church hymns, never looked at those girls, just kept humming tunes to Jesus. You were watching it all from inside the house, and you say, “I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles.”

You tell these stories, Maya, that break my heart wide open.

And this one too, which is not so much about Black Southern life as it is about the kind of personal tragedy that could happen to anyone, Black or white, poor or rich.

It happened when you were eight years old. Your biological mother, who had sent you to live with your grandmother, wanted you back. So you went to live with her in St. Louis, but it lasted only a short time because you were raped by your mom’s boyfriend and, when word got out, he was killed. “I thought I had caused his death,” you say, “because I told his name to the family. Out of guilt, I stopped talking to everyone except Bailey. I decided that my voice was so powerful that it could kill people, but it could not harm my brother because we loved each other so much.”

You stayed mute for almost five years.

Maya, Maya.


Several years ago, one of my colleagues (Rev. Wayne Robinson) was lucky enough to have met you at a writer’s conference in Santa Barbara. He says you were a powerful presence. Six feet tall, strong deep voice, a force to be reckoned with. There at the conference, you were sharing some of the same stories I’m bringing up here, stories of abuse, poverty, racism and sexism. When you finished, you opened the floor for questions and my colleague asked, “Ms. Angelou, how did you go through all of that without becoming bitter and angry?” And you answered, “Oh young man, you’ve confused two very different things. I’m still angry—very angry—at the kind of things that happened to me and are still happening to too many others. But my anger is part of the drive I have to change things. But I’m not bitter, for bitterness is corrosive. Bitterness doesn’t motivate you to try to do something to change the wrong. It causes you to sit and stew, and let the bitterness eat away at your soul. I’m not bitter,” you said. “But I’m angry, yes.”

“My mission in life,” you have said, “is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

And then in a poem, you sing,

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya, how did you learn to be phenomenal like this? When the harshness of your life constantly threatened to crush you, what gave you the reach in your arms, the span of your step, the curl of your lips?

Tell me about the changes that made you into a butterfly….

Perhaps we are back to the ancient nature vs. nurture question. How much of your resilience is something you were simply born with, and how much of it came from aspects of your environment… Definitely in Caged Bird you make the Ubuntu principle plain, that “I am because we are.”

Oh, you could have grown so bitter, but here’s something your grandmother would do for you, at least twice a year. She would see a whiner, a complainer come down the hill. And she would call you in to the store. She’d say, “Sister, Sister, come out here.” The man or woman would come into the store, and my grandmother would ask, “How you feel today?” “Ah, Sister Henderson, I tell you I just hate the winter. It makes my face crack and my shins burn.” And Momma’d just say, “Uh-huh,” and then look at you. And as soon as the person would leave, your grandmother would say, “Sister, come here.” You’d stand right in front of her. She’d say, “There are people all over the world who went to sleep last night who did not wake again. Their beds have become their cooling boards, their blankets have become their winding sheets. They would give anything for just five minutes of what she was complaining about.”

Maya, you could have grown so bitter. But people like your Momma didn’t want your soul to get lost. You were a phenomenal woman because they were phenomenal for you.

Same goes for your biological mom. Now, you would agree heartily she was a terrible mother for young children. She had abandoned you and your brother—simple as that. But you distinguish between two kinds of parents. “There is the person who can be a great parent of small children,” you say. “They dress the children in these sweet little things with bows in their hair and beads on their shoestrings and nice, lovely little socks. But when those same children get to be 14 or 15, the parents don’t know what to say to them as they grow breasts and testosterone hits the boy.”

That’s exactly when your mother stepped up. When you became a young adult. And she was phenomenal for you then. You tell the story of the time she found out you were pregnant. You were just 17. I can’t imagine a more vulnerable moment, where everything depends on what is said next. And what she said next was, “All right. Run me a bath, please.” In your family, that was really a very nice thing for somebody to ask you to do. And in all your life, she had asked this of you only two or three times. So you ran her a bath and then she invited you in the bathroom. She sat down in the bathtub. She asked you, “Do you love the boy?” You said no. “Does he love you?” You said no. “Well, there’s no point in ruining three lives. We’re going to have us a baby.”

Your mother—who was so bad in your early years—came through with flying colors in your later ones. You have said that throughout her life she liberated you. Liberated you constantly. Respected you, respected what you tried to do, believed in you.

Phenomenal woman.

And so you became phenomenal yourself. Beautiful butterfly. In a life of many high points, perhaps the highest was in 1993 when you recited your poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. And this is part of what you said:

History despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Maya, we need these words now. So much going on to make us bitter. The harshness of life. The racism, the sexism, the poverty, the abuse which still goes on today. But help us face it all with courage. Help us be angry in a way that burns for a better world for all. Clean anger, not dirty with resentment.

Help us to be angry like that.

Lift up our eyes upon
The day breaking for us.
Give birth again
To the dream.

History despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Let our mission in life be yours: not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

For myself, I know I can’t be a phenomenal woman, but let me be a phenomenal man.

“Here on the pulse of this new day,” you write,

You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Good morning to you Maya. Good morning, beautiful butterfly. Good morning, always, always…

Sincerely, and with much love,


Building the World We Dream About

Last week I’m driving on 285 towards my home in Dunwoody and I see a police car on the far right flash on its strobe lights, launch itself into the stream of traffic, hone in on a car, lock on. The unhappy car slows to a stop, and just as I’m passing by (thanking my lucky stars I’m not him), I see that the driver is a young black man, maybe 25 years old. Instantly: surge of anger. Anger towards a country in which I really can’t be sure why that man was stopped—whether it was for a truly legitimate reason or just because he was driving while black. Anger, too, because the rest of us just kept to our lanes, eyes forward, minds focused on our private destinations and oblivious to the common good and how injustice to one never fails to be injustice to all…

It’s the poem by William Butler Yeats coming alive:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Obviously on 285 all of us in our cars were going too fast to stop; to stop on a dime would be disastrous. But it struck me as a symbol of general disengagement while things are falling part and the center’s not holding. People keeping to their lanes and nothing else matters. People keeping to their narrow lives and no one else matters.

We need passionate intensity not from the worst but from the best.

We need that passionate intensity right now, in the face of injustices of all kinds.

The ceremony of innocence is being drowned.


There is a word that comes from the Akan people of Ghana: SANKOFA. Often it is symbolized by a bird that turns around and reaches for the egg on its back, so as to bring it forward. Sankofa means we take what’s good from the past and bring it into our present, because it will heal us. It will show us the way.


And so today we reach back to the Transcendentalists. In our spiritual tradition, passionate intensity comes from them, who were instigators of what historians call the American Renaissance. People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and, of course, Henry David Thoreau. It was the 1830s and 1840s, and they too felt that the ceremony of innocence was being drowned. In their day it was the full-blown institution of slavery, despite the unequivocal human rights affirmation of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” America declared this against England, saw itself as taking the moral high ground, but guess which one of them would abolish slavery first? England, in 1834. As for America? In the 1840s, it would find itself fighting an illegal war—the Mexican-American War—in order to EXPAND slavery.


To our Transcendentalist ancestors, it really did feel like the center wasn’t holding and things were falling apart. Economic meltdown that rivals our more recent Great Recession frayed the fabric of society, and so did the radical changes spurred on by technological and economic innovation. Before 1830, everything had been primarily local, from one’s sense of identity to working conditions and the manufacture of goods. It took time for messages to go from point A to point B. It took time to get anywhere. But all this came to an end. The invention of the telegraph allowed for news to cross far distances instantly. Then there was the railroad, newly built tracks crisscrossing the land, bringing with it a new sense of national identity. Also new economic opportunity, allowing sons and daughters to leave home to find wage-earning jobs in the cities or in the also new textile mills of New England. Leading to the transient population in cities rising at an alarming rate. Unregulated working conditions becoming worse and worse, even as more and more money was being made. Old ways lost, one by one. Old traditions and comforts and securities lost, and new ways needed to be found…

Transcendentalism comes out chaos like this. THIS is the reason for their passionate intensity. Everything was at stake.

And so: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Thoreau said that. Unless the sleeper wakes up, there can be no morning, just a perpetual midnight of ethical schizophrenia and materialism and social confusion. The sleeper must awaken to the abundant truths and powers of the soul. This is how we become free in our minds and hearts even if we find ourselves surrounded with unfreedom on all sides. This is what powers us to do the right thing in an unethical age of slavery and warmongering; this is what keeps us poised and flowing when everything around us feels disorienting and strange. There is a dawning day that we can experience here and now—we can join the sun in its new morning—but only if the sleeper wakes up.


Another way of saying this is, Only if a person learns how to live deliberately. “I wished to live deliberately,” says Thoreau, in language that sings, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear….” In an immoral, confusing age, he had to get clear on who he was, and whose he was. Identity was the solution. And to achieve that, on July 4, 1845, he went to Walden Pond to more fully immerse himself in the cycles and rhythms of the natural world. “I feel,” he says, “that I draw nearest to understanding the great secret of my life in my closest intercourse with nature.” But Walden was just on the edge of the town of Concord, meaning that Thoreau wasn’t completely isolated and immersed in wilderness. So an equally important part of his Walden experience was conversation with folks back in Concord like Emerson, which would allow him to share and integrate his discoveries in nature—put the pieces together, see what is implied about his sense of self and identity, his relationships, and larger social conditions. The Transcendentalism of our spiritual ancestors was never isolationism. Retreats to nature were always preludes to rich conversations with soul friends, and always, the aim was getting clear on WHO we are and WHOSE we are.


One thing Thoreau learned from his Walden experience was to simplify. “Simplify, simplify,” he says. Part of this means refusing to fill yourself up with things that feel urgent but are in fact draining and demoralizing, so that you end up having no room for that which truly vitalizes. Refuse to endlessly ruminate on experiences of futility and cruelty and loneliness and disappointment so that there’s no room for anything else. Refuse to be like the shortsighted man in a museum who studies Van Gogh’s Starry Night or some other take-your-breath-away painting from two inches away, and intellectually he has clearly and accurately identified 12 different kinds of blobs of color and 7 different shapes, but he can’t see the whole thing, he misses out on the big picture, he is starving for meaning and purpose. Our lives, says Thoreau, are “frittered away by detail.” We live too up-close to things, shortsighted, and this is a form of spiritual sleepwalking. But to simplify is to make room for abundance. It is to empty ourselves of the nonessential, so that we can be filled with the essential.

Walden taught him this, and it also taught him to aspire. “We must,” Thoreau says, “learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” “That man,” he says, “who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.” As I think on what this means, a story comes to mind from the work of Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology and one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. I’ve shared this story before but it’s provocative enough to share again and again and again. Maslow’s focus was on self-actualization or, as we Unitarian Universalists might say, people giving full expression to the worth and dignity that is inherently theirs. In the course of his studies, he determined that self-actualizing people very naturally have spiritual experiences—profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world; more aware of truth, justice, harmony, and goodness. But now here is the story. When Maslow’s students began to talk to each other about their peak experiences, they began having them all the time. It was as if the simple act of being reminded of their existence was enough to make them happen. Talking and thinking about moments of people being saved every day makes it more likely that we will have such moments ourselves. Conversely, if we do not talk and think about such things, we may block their happening.

Thus we are to aspire, says Thoreau. Talking about God evokes God energy. Talking about heaven brings heaven closer. Hold fast to an infinite expectation of the dawn, hold it close, since (as he says), it “does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” It goes with us, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. When facing some kind of scarcity in life, you say to yourself like a mantra, over and over, “I trust that everything I need is inside me and near me, and it will become available to me as I need it.” If our lives are frittered away by detail, this will seem like a load of baloney, and nonsense. But in reality it is the largest thing imaginable, a hope, a peace, a vision of Life Abundant, and it requires us to prepare tremendous room in our hearts. We must prepare the way to receive it.

Simplify, so we can aspire.


I want to go back to 285, my experience on that road last week. Back to my anger as I passed that young man and wondered if this was yet another instance of driving while black. Back to my anger as I saw all the other cars speeding forward in their narrow lanes towards self-centered ends, uncaring towards what was happening in plain sight. Back to my horrible vision which is so well captured by the words of the poet:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I am grateful to say that this was not the whole story. Because I was in one of those other cars speeding forward, and I saw what was happening, and I cared. I proved the poet wrong. I had conviction. I was full of passionate intensity.

And this was so because I belonged to a Beloved Community that would allow nothing less from me.

It wasn’t always so. Unitarian Universalism used to be something that I left behind when my car exited the church parking lot. I had grown up isolationist and it was a hard habit to break. A sad habit, because it’s what made me and makes so many of us lonely. The words of Carl Jung come to mind: “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself….” I was unable to communicate what was important to me, and therefore I was unknown to others and unknown to myself. I was lonely.

But Unitarian Universalism has always been persistent. It wanted only one thing from me, and it wants only one thing from all of us: to live into the truth of who we are. To be ourselves, to live deliberately.

All the sermons, all the music, all the service groups and projects, all the fun and fellowship, all the special events: all of it is like Walden to our souls. A 21st century version.

Especially when it asks us to give.

I realized this the other day when I was preparing a talk for the volunteers who are part of our Year-Round Stewardship process. By now you have all received a snail mail letter describing the details. The congregation divided up into twelve “Generosity Circles,” one for each month of the year. Folks in each generosity circle being informed about what’s going on at UUCA and what our aspirations are, and also being thanked for greening this place with their dollars. But what I said to the volunteers was not so much about technical details but about the why, the meaning behind it all. I talked about how problems in the larger world are problems here in our midst. Our UUCA community is not hermetically sealed off. So what makes this place so valuable is that here in Beloved Community we seek to be the change we wish to see in the world. If we can’t find solutions in Beloved Community, then where?

That’s why we aspire to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural institution. If Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, well, we need to turn that right around and it starts here. Healing starts here, and we can take that healing everywhere else we go.

Another problem in the larger world is that of too many alternatives, too many choices, too many ways to spend our money, too many things to give to. It’s confusing, it’s disorienting, and in fact way too often we are dupes of the merely good enough. We choose or we buy the merely mediocre and that’s what takes up room in our lives. That’s what it looks like for a life to be frittered away…

But Beloved Community, I said to those stewardship volunteers, is part of the solution. Don’t feel bad about calling people and reminding them that it’s their month to review their pledge. Don’t feel bad about sharing the awesome things going on at UUCA and asking people to consider upping their pledge. Don’t feel bad! Because what you’re doing is helping people solve the problem of too many choices. The only way to solve that is people getting clear on who they are. That’s what stewardship conversations are fundamentally about. Who am I? Whose am I? Do we see ourselves as the inheritors of what others, like Thoreau, have built up? Are we committed to passing this on to our friends and family and children and grandchildren? Are we committed to building the world be dream about?

What we have right here are some of the basics of Transcendentalism. Conversation helping us to simplify, to get down to the essentials. Simplifying so that there’s room to aspire. So don’t feel bad about making the call. And I’m saying this to all of us: don’t be taken aback when you receive such a call. Of course talking about money is uncomfortable, but that’s because we’re not necessarily clear on our values, and the effort to get clear feels like struggling through muck, mud threatening to suck our boots off. That doesn’t feel good. But understand what’s trying to happen. Beloved Community is doing a good thing. Beloved Community is trying to help you get clear on who you are and what really counts for you, and this clarity will help you everywhere you go, way beyond the walls of this place.

We are being the change we wish to see in the world.

We need the best people to have convictions.

We need the best people passionately intense.

It happens here, in this 21st century version of Walden, which will never settle for less. Through the power of our combined efforts, we need to make sure we live in a country where, if someone is pulled over by the police, we can know with confidence it’s for reasonable cause, and reasonable cause only.

Future generations rely on the good we accomplish now, even as, like the Sakofa bird, we reach back to our spiritual ancestors and receive from them a blessing for the present.

Let’s build the world we dream about, starting right here!

You are the best, so be passionately intense!

Be passionately intense!