To Quit Playing God

From New Yorker writer Paul Simms comes a piece entitled “God’s Blog.” Here is the Creator of the Universe, the Holy of Holies, blogging about the grand and glorious Creation that’s just unfolded at the very beginning of time.

This, together with what’s inevitable whenever you blog anything: comments.


Pretty pleased with what I’ve come up with in just six days. Going to take tomorrow off. Feel free to check out what I’ve done so far. Suggestions and criticism (constructive, please!) more than welcome. God out.


Not sure who this is for. Seems like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist. Liked it better when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.

Going carbon-based for the life-forms seems a tad obvious, no?

The creeping things that creepeth over the earth are gross.

Not enough action. Needs more conflict. Maybe put in a whole bunch more people, limit the resources, and see if we can get some fights going. Give them different skin colors so they can tell each other apart.

Amoebas are too small to see. They should be at least the size of a plum.

Why do they have to poop? Seems like there could have been a more elegant/family-friendly solution to the food-waste-disposal problem.

Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.

“God’s Blog” is even more suggestive once you consider what Rabbi Will Berkovitz likes to say: how, “on the seventh day, our Creator did not just rest, the Holy One let go.” “It was,” he says, “God’s final and perhaps most important lesson to us. There is a time to let go. With the Sabbath this idea was embedded into the very fabric of Jewish existence. Stop trying to control everything and make it perfect. Even God never said things were perfect. All God said was, it is very good — there is a difference. We are obsessive perfectionists, maybe God isn’t. Consider the platypus.”

Even God lets go.

But we don’t. We try to create the universe in the image of our egos. We want to make things happen according to our ego’s sense of timing. We trumpet our opinions about the big picture even though all we can see is a tiny part of what’s going on. Big picture about the world, big picture about ourselves.

It’s bad enough to do this if we actually believe in God. But we can do this even if such belief makes absolutely no sense, even if we think God-belief betrays a lack of intellectual sophistication and/or honesty. With our lips we can say that, but look at what we do in our living: we act like the very God we don’t believe in.

And when we do that—when we are acting like the God we do or do not believe in—we are impossible to live with.

From Dr. Judith Orloff PhD comes this quiz—one of many like it, I have discovered—entitled AM I IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH A CONTROLLER?

Does this person keep claiming to know what’s best for you?
Do you typically have to do things his or her way?
Is he or she so domineering you feel suffocated?
Do you feel like you’re held prisoner to this person’s rigid sense of order?
Is this relationship no fun because it lacks spontaneity?

Even God lets go. But we do not.


So many forms of this—of being the proverbial monkey with a fist full of tasty nuts but, exactly because it’s a fist, things are stuck in the narrow neck of the bottle and going nowhere.

There is a reason why every major world religion addresses this control freakishness in some form or fashion, like we are doing today. There is a reason why.

Some less intense forms of control include:

Finding it difficult to admit making mistakes, being wrong or misinformed about something, or to acknowledge that you’ve changed your mind….

Changing who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, attempting to influence others by managing their impression of you…

“Helping” other people drive – telling them what route to take, when to turn, where to park, reminding them that the traffic light has changed…

But, now, what about these more intense forms of control?

You’re the partner of someone with some kind of addiction (to alcohol, to gambling, to work, to a million other things) and you spend every last drop of energy trying to contain the craziness, trying to maintain the façade, trying to convince yourself that if you just do that 10th impossible thing then he or she’s going to be healed and everything’s going to be all better.


You’ve got obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s like this. It’s just like “you’re in a busy airport with a 2 or 3 year old son, you turn around and then you turn back and your son is gone. That feeling of panic and anxiety is what people with OCD feel everyday due to intrusive thoughts. It gets to a point where it’s so horrible you carry out compulsions to prevent those thoughts from coming true, even though you know they are not real or even realistic sometimes.”


You’re anorexic (like my mother was—I have seen this first hand). Thoughts about dieting, food, and your body take up most of your day—leaving little time for friends, family, and anything. Life becomes a relentless pursuit of thinness and going to extremes to lose weight. But no matter how skinny you become, it’s never enough.

It’s all playing God, in ways more or less intense.

Note that in none of this am I dismissing the idea of appropriate control, appropriate exertions of power. Mental health demands a certain level of control. The possibility of justice requires a certain level of control. We need to get up and get working around the issue of gun regulation, because it’s completely unacceptable to be the only advanced country on Earth that suffers mass shootings, every few months. We need to get up and get working around the issue of capital punishment, because it’s completely unacceptable for the state to murder a human being and call it true justice. There are things we can change, things we can control, and God grant us courage for it.

But there is so much we cannot change, and that’s when we need serenity, and letting go. That’s when our approach needs to be altogether different.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Very often—if not always—what puts us on the path of this wisdom is our lives becoming completely unmanageable. As the writer of The Spiritual Awakening Blog says, “Most of us don’t want to let go until we’re smashed to pieces. Something traumatic or tragic is often the only thing powerful enough to get our attention and to show us that for however hard we’ve been trying, we’re really not in control. […] We’ll do ten to fifteen things before we surrender to the reality of it, which is: we’re in a world of hurt. Only when we fully accept something and submit to this smoking, steaming, burning rubble that is our life can we make changes to effectively put out the fire and fix things.”

Have you ever been smashed to pieces like this?

Are you coming smashed to pieces this morning?

Writer Jonathan Franzen says, “It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone is about to break.”

That’s what we’re saying this morning: UNCLE.

A powerful guide in all of this is Twelve Step spirituality, which wants to lift us out of our smashed-to-bitness and carry us towards sobriety and sanity. The very first step of the Twelve Steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” We just start there. We are not God. We are human. This is one of the core realizations of the spiritual life. I don’t care what your religion is. You would think the truth of this is obvious, that we are human, but the power-crazy monkey with his fist full of nuts is deeply part of us, and we must learn again and again to let go. Again and again, we fail in our attempt to be like God, and that’s how we learn we are human.

But powerlessness over alcohol—or powerlessness over the alcoholic in your life, or the intrusive thoughts you manage through obsessive-compulsiveness, or the unbearable imaginary fatness you manage through anorexia, or merely the way other people drive—powerlessness over all these things does NOT mean NO POWER AT ALL. It means that you must use the power you do have differently. Not hard power, but soft power. Hard power wants to master the world and create it in one’s own image, but soft power is the power to let go and relax, soft power allows the sea hold you and carry you along in its currents (instead of thrashing about and thus drowning). Says writer Sylvia Boorstein, “I’ve discovered there are only two modes of the heart. We can struggle, or we can surrender. Surrender is a frightening word for some people,” she says, “because it might be interpreted as passivity, or timidity. Surrender means wisely accommodating ourselves to what is beyond our control.”

We must use the power we do have differently. Soft power. Surrender power.

hard soft power

Sometimes it amounts to acknowledging that our body chemistry (or that of a loved one) needs tweaking. Obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia are not moral failings. Some of us are just born like that, with genetic dispositions that cause us trouble. Surrender to that. Alongside cognitive therapy you have to take your fluoxetine, your sertraline, your paroxetine, and you learn to tolerate the side effects. You just do. You are not the God of your body. The way your body is is reality, and with your soft power, accept it. Accommodate yourself to it. Be sane. Be sober.

Because our God images are so impactful—God concepts have a way of creating people in their own image–this is yet something else we need to look into with our soft power. I once heard someone say, “I don’t believe in God because I can never forgive Him.” Do you see how complicated this sort of disbelief is, how it presupposes belief in the sort of God who doesn’t let go, who doesn’t take the Sabbath seventh day off, who micromanages everything, who is the control freak’s control freak, who is worse than any controller you’ve ever had to live with in the flesh? Believe in this kind of God, and when evil visits you or the ones you love, oh yes, you will never forgive… But—is this God concept true? Is this the only way of making sense of a Higher Power? Is it?

Use your soft power. Really reflect.

It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone is about to break.

Yesterday I officiated at the memorial service of a lovely person, Louis McGukin. She had been a librarian. She had opened up nothing less than universes to children, through books. So many wonderful stories were told about her.

The story I told had to do with the Christian prayers she began to write when a certain kind of reality intruded on her and no exertion of hard power could control it or stop it. Dementia. What turned out to be a 13 year journey of it. With her soft power, she began to write prayers and pray them, ceaselessly. She would pray:

Father, help me be kind and gentle, starting with myself…

She knew very well what was happening with her. It bothered her. She was trying to make peace with it, cope, self-soothe.

God give me sympathy and sense
and help me keep my courage high.
God give me calm and confidence
and please … a twinkle in my eye.


Fear knocked on the door.
Faith answered.
No one was there….

In this practice of prayer, Lois drew from the spirituality of her father, the Reverend David Weems, a staunch missionary. Dementia can blend past and present together seamlessly. She had never prayed before, but now it was right. It felt like home. It was sweet comfort.

I am not all I should be (she says) or could be, Father.
But I’m working on it.
You will help me, won’t you? Thanks!

Dear Lord, help me live in trust that no matter how confusing the challenges I face today are, you will give me whatever wisdom I need to confront them.

Right there is her faith, her trust: Not so much that God would prevent challenges from happening but that resources for facing those challenges would come her way, would be made available–and whatever our differing theologies happen to be, in this space, right now, we can’t do any better to affirm such hope. Hope that, no matter what, we will be helped to show up to our lives.

“Don’t despair,” says the atheist Alain de Botton: “despair suggests you are in total control and know what is coming. You don’t – surrender to events with hope.”

Death comes to us all. Things we hate happen. Mass shootings. Executions. There were so many tears yesterday, and the tears keep flowing.

But with all the soft power we possess let us pray:

I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.
I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life.
I am grateful for what I have.

Let us pray:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Let us pray.



Words of Comfort


Love gathers us here today
and this is so important, our togetherness….
Just to be together, to look into one another’s faces,
takes away some of the loneliness
and draws our hearts together
in the healing which we can offer one another.
At such times, the various faiths that sustain us separately
come together in a harmony that cuts across all creeds
and assures us of the permanence of human goodness and hope.

We know the pain of too much tenderness, for sure,
but we also know the desire to celebrate a wonderful life…
We heard this note of celebration in the tributes from moments ago,
people who knew Lois and appreciated her and loved her so much.
Lois was a woman beloved, who lived a long and fulfilling life.

There’s so many stories still to tell about Lois,
about who she was, how she will be missed.
Please join us for the reception after this service
where you can share ones that you might have.

Here, I just want to lift up something that I find remarkable in Lois’ life.
The Christian prayers she began to write when dementia came upon her
and which, ceaselessly, during that 13 year journey, she would pray…

Father, help me be kind and gentle, starting with myself…

She knew very well what was happening with her.
It bothered her.
She was trying to make peace with it, cope, self-soothe.

God give me sympathy and sense
and help me keep my courage high.
God give me calm and confidence
and please … a twinkle in my eye.


Fear knocked on the door.
Faith answered.
No one was there….

In this practice of prayer, Lois drew from the spirituality of her father,
the Reverend David Weems, a staunch missionary….
Dementia can blend past and present together seamlessly….
She had never prayed before, but now it was right.
It felt like home.
It was sweet comfort.

I am not all I should be (she says) or could be, Father.
But I’m working on it.
You will help me, won’t you? Thanks!

Dear Lord, help me live in trust that no matter how confusing the challenges I face today are, you will give me whatever wisdom I need to confront them.

Right there is her faith, her trust:
Not so much that God would prevent challenges from happening
but that resources for facing those challenges would come her way,
would be made available–
and whatever our differing theologies happen to be,
we can’t do any better to affirm such hope…
That no matter what, we will be helped to show up to our lives.

Heavenly comforter, help me make the most of every opportunity that comes my way.
Thank you Lord for reminding me that letting people know they are loved is much more important that knowing I am right.

She so loved you, Les.
You are all over these prayers.
She knew she was struggling in her relationships with others, and with you,
and so she is constantly lifting that up.

Dear Lord, I have faith that Les and I will express our patience and peace forever. I have faith that I will always feel the same excitement at just seeing his face and body coming into a room—any room.

She is praying that.
She is feeling the gradual loss of her capacities—she is feeling pulled away from herself—and she is fighting for something essential to remain.
Her feeling for you.
Excitement at seeing your face and form.
Patience and peace forever.

And now she is at peace,
And may the God of her understanding wrap her in love and comfort.


Be well and be at peace.
We love you.

Better Than Oprah?


Circle round for freedom
Circle round for peace
For all of us imprisoned
Circle for release…

This circle is something I missed terribly two years ago when I was on sabbatical. But being elsewhere, having different kinds of experiences to strengthen my spiritual leadership, was exactly the reason why you put me on that journey. There are realizations and deepenings that simply cannot happen when you’re plugged 24/7 into the day-to-day. You put me on that sabbatical journey so I could find those realizations and deepenings, and I hope you’ve seen the difference it’s made, since my return.

One of those realizations had to do with Oprah, and TED talks, and all the inspiring personalities in our world who say such illuminating things. One of them is most certainly Brene Brown, emotional intelligence researcher, someone who brings us back to our best selves by inviting us to lean into our vulnerability. Listen to some of her thoughts:

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.”

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

I’m encountering insights like this during my sabbatical journey several years ago and it’s all so good. Now usually I’m too busy researching sources already close at hand for sermons that are coming up way too fast, so who has time for trial-and-error discovery of sources NOT close at hand? But the sabbatical has given me time. So there I am, trial-and-error, exploring this and that, following my nose, no deadlines, just eating the new stuff up. Oprah and her SuperSoul Sunday and her LifeClass show and a million TED talks and all these amazing other things.

The expertise in this world just overflows. Wisdom overflows and all you have to do is read a book or find the right channel on TV or surf the web.

Which triggered the question in me: when the expertise DOES overflow, why not just stay home and tune in?

I mean, in just three minutes of watching today’s video, we learned about some of the ways we can armor ourselves against the vulnerability that is supposed to be the birthplace of innovation and creativity and change. The armor of perfectionism. The armor of numbing ourselves with food or social media. The armor of dress-rehearsing tragedy, as when we behold a joy in our lives and wonder, “What if it gets taken away from me?” We learned about these forms of armor, and then there was that wonderful insight about joy. Joy is the most precious yet vulnerable emotion. It’s as fragile as bubble. So can we just let the round iridescence perch on a finger and be? Or will our fear of losing it cause us to grab at it and thus pop it?

The wisdom just overflows. And, furthermore, it’s so easy. You just watch. That’s all you have to do. Be the audience. Someone else is taking care of the production. Oprah and her staff are taking care of all of that. You don’t have to volunteer to help make the experience happen. You don’t have to pledge your time or energy or money to help make the experience happen.

But “circle round for freedom, circle round for peace” is a different kind of thing. It means “circle round for coordinating all the events this year related to taking a congregational stand on anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism; circle round for teaching in our RE program; circle round for singing in the choir; circle round for making our Fun-for-Funds Auction happen.” Passivity is not really compatible with “circle round.” “Circle round” means “all hands on deck.”

Oprah is easy. Just stay home and watch in your jammies. You don’t have to clean up, dress up, brave traffic and weather. You don’t have to go through all that rigmarole, fuss, hassle, folderol. Very active UUCA member Mria Dangerfield says, “Here’s a general rule of thumb for parents: add 15 minutes per person for kids, and teens, to get out the door. The more people you have moving towards the door, the slower it goes and the longer it takes. I’ve been a mother for 20 years and I have this epiphany at least once a month.”

But that’s just going anywhere. What if we’re talking church? Sunday morning the mood in the house is lazy and carefree until the announcement comes: time to get dressed so we can leave for church. “Ugh! I don’t wanna go to church!” the six-year-old wails. “Why do we have to go to church?” he squeals in a sing-song whine that makes skin crawl.

“Dear Parents With Young Children in Church,” writes Jaime Bruesehoff, “I watch you bounce and sway trying to keep the baby quiet, juggling the infant car seat and the diaper bag as you find a seat. I see you wince as your child cries. I see you anxiously pull things out of your bag of tricks to try to quiet them. And I see you with your toddler and your preschooler. I watch you cringe when your little girl asks an innocent question in a voice that might not be an inside voice let alone a church whisper. I hear the exasperation in your voice as you beg your child to just sit, to be quiet as you feel everyone’s eyes on you.”

Why not just stay home?

Our Music Director Don Milton III told me recently that it’s so cool, how we get to worship in the round. “I’ve never heard a congregation that sounds better and that’s because we’re singing right to each other. Not up to the altar. Even when we’re looking at the screen to read lyrics we’re all in this circle together and the singing feels rich.” Yes. But he also says this about our worship in the round: “There’s nowhere to hide.” It means that you’re busy typing away on your laptop during the service and we’re all wondering what you’re doing. You’re leaning in for a chat with your neighbor, or falling asleep, and we all see you. There’s nowhere to hide. This circle is a space of Brene Brown vulnerability. Imperfections are magnified. Noise is magnified.

Let’s talk about noise. I asked a question about that on The City a couple weeks ago–if you’re not signed up, you’re missing out!–and it opened a floodgate of responses.

• As a much older member, I actually like hearing babies.

• I think it all boils down to courtesy toward our neighbors. If you are coughing continuously or your baby is crying or talking or your cellphone is ringing, I think the courteous thing to do is leave the sanctuary, at least temporarily.

• As a stay-at-home mom, who’s with kids all the time, I don’t want to have to deal with kids in worship. I need a break.

• As a parent, I have no interest whatsoever in spending an hour trying to control my child while trying to have a spiritual experience. Not possible and not enjoyable.

• I can tolerate occasional noises from children. However, I expect to easily hear the service, including the sermon and music.

• As I have no young children in my immediate family, UUCA is one of the few places where I get to be around kids and so I try to enjoy it all.

• As a working mom who doesn’t get as much time with my kid as I’d like, I want to be in worship with him.

• As a young mom, I feel isolated from adults. I long to be among grownups!

Listen to all these voices…. This is what I mean when I say that this circle is a space of Brene Brown vulnerability. We come here hungry, we can be emphasizing different kinds of hungers, and the hunger makes us vulnerable because we might not get what we came for–and so what do we do with that feeling of “I might not get what I need”?

The feeling is itself a heavy burden. Not easy. Not Oprah.

Circle round for freedom
Circle round for peace
For all the noisy noisyness
Maybe we shouldn’t circle round after all….

But I think we should circle round. I didn’t return from my sabbatical journey all soggy and disillusioned about religious community but on fire about it, even more convinced than before about its value.

Yes, the expertise in the world overflows. Yes, there’s an amazing TED Talk for practically anything. But what’s rare in this world is relationship. What’s rare is personal presence. I might not be Oprah, but I’m here with you, we are in this thing together, we have history together, you see me living into the complex messy truth and maybe that helps you do the same, I long for aliveness just like you, I am perfectly imperfect just like you, my job is to help you live into the truth and connect with your longing for aliveness, my job is to help lead this Beloved Community in service to changing lives.

I’m going to get right down into the trenches with you. I can do that because I’m here. Oprah is not here. We’ve got to

Circle round for freedom
Circle round for peace

And it’s not easy. We have to build the boat even as we sail it. We have to build the car even as we’re driving it. We have to build wings on our way down, so there can be an up.

But there is nothing better than this sort of personal engagement. Says Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first woman to become president of the UN General Assembly, “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war.” The more we sweat to build a Beloved Community like this one in all its aspects, the more that Beloved Community radiates as a presence of peace in the world, and therefore the less we bleed in war.

Personal engagement is good for the world and it’s good for us. You don’t have to be perfect to get involved. You learn as you go. You learn a lot. That was my story when I first started to go to church. I got involved. I saw talents unfold. I realized limitations first hand. I realized possibilities. It was all so good because I was in a real rut in my life, and I swear to God, volunteerism at church busted me out.

Circle round for freedom
Circle round for peace

I know it’s tempting just to stay home. Especially for families. So much rigmarole, fuss, hassle, folderol to get here.

But get here. “Church cannot wait,” writes Eleanor Michael, “because learning to be part of a community cannot wait, and so we force our kids into anything-but-sweatpants week after week, and faithfully occupy our spot in the (easy-escape-route) back of the church, and feel thankful for our blessings, our church community, and our understanding pew neighbors.”

Don’t stay home. From a recent book entitled The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, by Columbia University psychology professor Lisa Miller, we learn that children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not. Teenagers, in particular, are exponentially better off if they’re in touch with their spiritual sides — less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, to engage in risky sex, to cope with depression. “In the entire realm of human experience,” Miller writes, “there is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality.”

Circle round for freedom
Circle round for peace
The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war

Which takes us back to the issue of noise, and that horrible burdensome feeling of “I might not get what I need.” EITHER I’m noise sensitive and I need quiet so I can feel connected. OR I’m a parent trying to have a spiritual experience and I want my kid to have exactly the kind of robust and well-developed spiritual life that psychologist Lisa Miller talks about and so I need space, I need understanding.

Do you know what we can do with that very vulnerable feeling of “I might not get what I need”? We armor up. We can demand perfectionism—EITHER nothing but absolute silence is good enough OR nothing but a free for all and kids screaming as loudly and as continuously as they like is good enough. We demand perfectionism–or we can armor up in a way that Brene Brown doesn’t get into in the video but she does elsewhere: we get cynical. We get bitter. We get too cool for school. We disengage, step back from the messy, sweaty work of peace—especially if it’s not of the grand glorious type that gets in the newspapers.

Let’s not armor up. Let’s take that armor off. Wherever the vulnerability is felt, even if it doesn’t feel glamorous or big, let’s go there, the only way out is through. Right now, the sweaty work of peace is bringing compassion to the whole noise issue. As one congregant says, “ to remember to be sympathetic with all parties—parents trying to do their best, children being children, and congregants trying to have the spiritual experience that they want and need so badly.”

Right now, the sweaty work of peace is:

To clearly state that there can be an unacceptable level of noise in the sanctuary, and this is just children being children, there is no condemnation, and so the courteous thing to do, the kind thing to do for the noise sensitive among us, is to step out of the sanctuary, at least for a moment.

The sweaty work of peace:

To develop a reasonable level of noise tolerance, one that acknowledges that the sound of a growing congregation is not absolute silence but one that will always be noisy to some extent.

The sweaty work of peace:

To be proactive in kindness. I say it’s not enough to approach someone and kindly ask them to go to the quiet room or to the social hall (although that’s a lot better than demanding it). How about going to that mother or father or family and asking if you can help? Standing up for them. Bringing them a soft fidget toy? Offering to hold the baby and give that beleaguered parent a break? Stop seeing the situation as “us vs. them” but rather “we’re all in this together”?

The sweaty work of peace:

To improve the Quiet Room. Solve the problem of the endless traffic in and out of it, the quality of the sound, the lack of video. And I also want us to seriously consider an idea that came from David Soleil. He says, “How about piping nice loud sound and video into a runaround/social room where no one cares if my child screams with joy or fights with her sister or cries because she bumped her knee or needs a snack or has to go potty or gets bored? As parents, ALL of these things happen with our children EVERY service. This could actually be fun for the community. For those whose spiritual journey is loud and full of interruptions, for those whose journey is as much social as spiritual, for those who want spirituality, lattes and donuts at the same time, for those who enjoy the blissful cacophony of the human experience, etc. Let’s make a joyful noise together!”

I love it. Who will increase their pledge to make it happen, or make a special financial gift to support this? Who will offer up time and energy to make it happen?

I’m asking you to take up the sweaty work of peace.
I’m asking you not to step back from the circle but step in.

In the circle we find our greatest vulnerability, but guess what? “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Circle round for freedom.
Circle round for peace.

It’s not easy like Oprah.
But it’s way more fulfilling, way more fun.

What’s better than Oprah? This circle.


Drawing from the Well I: Judaism and Christianity on Peace

In the Hebrew Bible we read, “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of saving health” (Isaiah 12:3). We Unitarian Universalists do this whenever we draw from our Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith, which are

1. Judaism and Christianity
2. Humanism
3. Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder
4. Prophetic Women and Men
5. The World’s Religions
6. Earth-Based Spiritual Traditions

Six wells of Saving Health. And it’s our JOY to draw water out of them. Our JOY as Unitarian Universalists to be thirsty for Truth. We go wherever we sense Saving Health and we drink. We are spiritual camels. Spiritual camels are we.


And here is our oasis.

So belly up and drink deep. Today begins a new sermon series that will unfold in six installments over the course of the program year. Each installment focuses on one of our six wells of Saving Health, and we explore that well from the particular angle of whatever the worship theme of the month happens to be. September’s theme is “peace,” so that’s today’s angle. November’s theme is “gratitude” so that’s the angle for that installment. And so on.

This morning: Judaism and Christianity on “peace.” Right at the top I want to define “peace” not just as an absence of war but even more importantly as an absence of the conditions that make for war, like poverty and human rights violations and absence of rule of law. Former President Jimmy Carter—one of the best Christians of the past several thousand years—affirmed this basic idea when he declared, in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, that the greatest challenge to peace that the world faces today “is the growing chasm between the richest and poorest people on earth. Citizens of the ten wealthiest countries,” Carter says, “are now seventy-five times richer than those who live in the ten poorest ones, and the separation is increasing every year, not only between nations but also within them. The results of this disparity are root causes of most of the world’s unresolved problems, including starvation, illiteracy, environmental degradation, violent conflict, and unnecessary illnesses that range from Guinea worm to HIV/AIDS.”

We must wage peace against all such things. That’s how Jimmy Carter describes the mission of the Carter Center: to wage peace.

In his Nobel lecture Jimmy Carter also affirms the possibility of the world’s faith’s coming together in positive purpose: “I am convinced,” he says, “that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and others can embrace each other in a common effort to alleviate human suffering and to espouse peace.” But he clearly and unequivocally identifies as Christian. “I worship Jesus Christ,” he says, “whom we Christians consider to be the Prince of Peace. As a Jew, he taught us to cross religious boundaries, in service and in love.”

Because he so epitomizes the best of what we find in the Jewish and Christian traditions, today’s sermon will concentrate on some of the ways Jimmy Carter has followed the Prince of Peace in waging peace. We love this man, whose Secret Service code name at the White House was “The Deacon.” Now he’s America’s most famous Sunday school teacher, at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Still teaching, despite the cancer. A couple years ago, one of our UUCA covenant groups went on a field trip there and came away “dumbstruck” by Carter’s “humility and humanity.” His lesson for the day included mention of the great prophet Elijah, and covenant group member Rich Cogburn said, “I especially liked thinking of the Old Testament Elijah of the Passover Table, the prophet who is always expected and welcome yet never physically present. A fine metaphor for a life’s work that has touched so many from afar.” Hildegarde Gray, another covenant group member, had this to say: “Hearing him opened my eyes to our oft repeated words of UU Francis David ‘we need not think alike to love alike’: President Carter spoke that Sunday about the absolute necessity of accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and how that was ultimately more important than all the good things one did during one’s lifetime. I personally can’t share that, but I can see how that core belief leads him to speak and act out his faith in ways I so admire.”

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga, Sunday, June 8, 2014. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga, Sunday, June 8, 2014. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

He’s just one of the best Christians of the past several thousand years, and we will not have him on this earth for much longer. So let this be a love letter to him as well as a learning opportunity for us.

Back in 2009, Jimmy Carter showed the world just how much he was willing to sacrifice, personally, in pursuit of waging peace. For sixty years, the Southern Baptist Convention had been home to him. But when it crafted an explicit faith statement to the effect that women must be subservient to their husbands and that they are prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors, or chaplains in the military service, he said ENOUGH. He severed ties with the only church home he’d ever known. The word “reform” was hot on his lips, just like it had been on the lips of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestor Christians.

Part of it had to do with his sense that the faith statement contradicted Christian scripture and history. He says, “The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths.” “I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures,” he goes on, “in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.”

That’s part of it. Another part of his decision to sever ties is his commitment to women’s rights. Listen to this dimension of his decision: “This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries. At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities. The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us.”

Yes it does. Thank you President Carter. He’s waging peace by fighting for women’s rights which is nothing but a way of fighting for human rights.

Waging peace also means fighting for economic justice. In a Christianity Today interview from 2012, Carter said, “The overwhelming commitment of a government is to provide justice and equality of opportunity for people. This meant to me that we should favor poor people, those who are deprived, instead of the richest and most powerful people. Governance should be designed as an equalizer.”

Listen to how this resonates with something the Prince of Peace once said: “Blessed are you for I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; I was naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’” Jesus’ disciples, hearing this, were confused and said, “When did we do any of those things for you?” And Jesus said, “If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.”

That is what the Prince of Peace says. Care for the least of these.

Carter follows the Prince of Peace.

But here again, there’s tension with his evangelical, born-again Christian brethren. One piece of the complicated background story to this is told by Princeton Professor Kevin Kruse in his book entitled One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Essentially, back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves under siege. There was the Great Crash on Wall Street; there was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s big government New Deal programs; there was pushback from Labor Unions. Business leaders tried all sorts of things to regain the upper hand and return to a “rich getting richer” pattern—and nothing worked well until they got the bright idea to link laissez-faire capitalism with Christianity. These executives recruited big-time clergy to be their spokesmen.

One was the Rev. James W. Fifield who was called “the 13th Apostle of Big Business.” He once said that reading the Bible “was like eating fish—we take the bones out to enjoy the meat. All parts are not of equal value.” Just guess what this 13th Apostle of Big Business had to say about Bible passages like this one, Isaiah 10:1-2: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” Meat or bones?


Then there was the Rev. Billy Graham, called “the Big Business evangelist.” He once said that the Garden of Eden was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” He denounced all government restrictions in economic affairs, which he attacked as “socialism.”

This is just the beginning of Big Business’ efforts to subvert Christianity and make it serve the interests of the wealthy. Make it support the writers who write oppression. From this history we can trace the origin of such things as the Moral Majority and the Religious Right and what one writer (Allen Clifton) calls “Republicanity”: “Republicanism” merged with “Christianity.” Among other things, Republicanity wants to argue that the church ought to be solely responsible for caring for the poor, and government should have nothing to do with it. Which is a recipe for disaster, since the real world needs of the poor far outweigh the actual (and I would say even possible) charitable giving levels of churches. Government must get behind the healing of poverty because only government has enough power and scope and resources.

Which brings us back to Jimmy Carter. When he’s eating the fish of Holy Scripture, he’s not mistaking the words of Isaiah 10 for bones. “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right.” That’s all meat. So are the words of the Prince of Peace.

Care for the least of these.

This is essentially what Bernie Sander said recently in his amazing speech at Liberty University, attended by the leaders of the evangelical movement. Those leaders felt called out and they should feel called out. But my main point is that Jimmy Carter was there way before Bernie; Bernie is carrying a Jimmy Carter legacy forward.

It’s all about waging peace. Fighting for it.

And in doing so, we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” This is my last point today. Jesus the Prince of Peace said those words to his disciples, as he sent them out in the world to spread his gospel of peace. He knew he was sending them out “like sheep among wolves,” and unless they were careful, they’d be eaten alive.

Same thing for us, as we wage peace. We’ll be eaten alive unless we can draw on serpent and dove strategies. So we’ll finish up with a brief look at how Carter achieved the near-impossible back in 1978: the very first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors at Camp David, surely the high point of his Presidency.

Here’s how it began. Says Carter: “The first three days of the talks were very unpleasant; primarily, I and [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat] were in a very small room. Sometimes the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, was there. I would try to get the two men to agree on something, and they couldn’t agree on anything; they were very antagonistic. No matter what my efforts were, they always wanted to revert back to what had happened in the last 25 years, with four wars and boys killed and bombs dropped.”

The work of waging peace can look like refereeing a shouting match. It often starts there—and it takes a “wise as serpents” strategy to get beyond that to something more constructive. Here’s Carter’s “wise as serpents” strategy, in his own words: “For the last 10 days in Camp David, [Begin and Sadat] never saw each other. I kept them totally apart, and I went back and forth between the Egyptians and the Israelis to try to conclude an agreement. I used then, and still use, a technique that I call ‘the single document technique’, in that I have exactly the same text that I present to the Israelis and the Egyptians, and every time one of them insists on a change, I make that change and present it to the other, so there’s no reason for them to believe that I’m misleading them. And so it was that long, tedious, back-and-forth negotiation that finally brought the two men to an agreement.”

That’s what I call a “wise as serpents” strategy. Waging peace requires such wisdom, or we are eaten alive. We cannot be naïve about the complexity of the work.

We also cannot be daunted. Like Jimmy Carter, we must be stubborn beyond belief. That’s the “innocent as a dove” part of the equation. Carter’s advisor’s suggested that he set his sights lower and pursue only the general outlines of an agreement, but he was stubborn. He chastised them in fact, said, “You are not aiming high enough!” Carter believed in what he was doing.

Again and again, the talks threatened to break down. After eleven days of negotiations, President Sadat wanted out. Carter went to Sadat’s cabin and told him, “Our friendship is over. You promised me that you would stay at Camp David as long as I was willing to negotiate… I consider this a serious blow… to the relationship between Egypt and the United States.” Sadat agreed to stay. Then, after everything seemed settled, Prime Minister Begin threatened to walk out, and once again, it was Carter’s stubbornness that kept the talks viable and alive…

Waging peace, whether it’s over the issue of human rights, economic justice, or a treaty between warring countries, requires a heart that is calm and steady in its purpose. Stubbornness is just another word for purity of heart.

It’s the exact same stubbornness we saw in his news conference a couple weeks ago, where he revealed he had four spots of cancer on his brain, and said, “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”

The Prince of Peace is beckoning, and Carter persists in following no matter what, stubborn in his innocence, and all is well.

He’s just one of the best Christians of the past several thousand years.


On Befriending One’s Inner Sheep: A Rosh Hashanah Reflection

Rosh Hashanah, we know, is the beginning of a ten-day period of soul searching that concludes with Yom Kippur. It is a time for Teshuvah, for turning, and therefore it’s hard, the questions we ask ourselves are hard. As the reading goes,

For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come easily.
It takes an act of will for us to make a turn.
It means the breaking of old habits.
It means admitting that we were wrong and this is never easy.
It means losing face,
it means starting all over again and this is always painful.

Substitute “fear-provoking” for “painful” and we are well on our way towards my topic tonight. Soul-searching triggers all sorts of difficult emotions in us, and one of them is most certainly fear.

Happily, the tradition of Judaism does not just trigger fear in us and that’s that. It also offers precious resources that help us know fear and soften it.

One of these is the immortal psalm that goes, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The 23rd Psalm. Feel free to say it with me:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’ sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil:
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

From these immortal words, we can learn so much about fear…

Now, part of the challenge of understanding the 23rd Psalm (or any other piece of scripture) is achieving a historical grasp of what’s really going on. The past is truly a foreign country—they do things differently there—but too often we forget this; too often we can find ourselves rejecting something because it does not make instant sense to our modern American sensibilities. Bring an intolerant, snap-judgmental attitude like this to the Hebrew scriptures, and we’re always going to miss the good stuff.

So: the 23rd Psalm: its largest meanings about fear are ultimately informed by the practice of shepherding in the ancient Middle East. Take, for example, that evocative line, “You anoint my head with oil.” Writer W. Phillip Keller, who is familiar with sheep herding in the Middle East and who was himself a sheep herder and sheep rancher, says that in the summer time, hordes of insects will emerge with the warm weather. “Sheep,” he says, “are especially troubled by the nose fly…. For relief from this agonizing annoyance, sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush…. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself…. And so, at the very first sign of flies among the flock, [the shepherd] will apply an antidote to their heads…. Once the oil is applied, there is an immediate change in behavior. The sheep will start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”


Or again, consider another line of the psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” W. Philip Keller explains by saying that “Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves, they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. And so, the greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move.”


Now press pause for a moment. We have before us the image of flies crawling on sheep and driving them into destructive behaviors; and we also have the image of sheep stuck in a rut, following the same trails and grazing the same hills until the land is ruined. Both are powerful images of what happens when people are challenged to come clean about their role in causing a problem or are threatened with losing face, breaking old habits, starting over again. Often what happens is an explosive reaction going in the opposite direction. Fear thoughts swarm like a horde of insects, and the unfortunate manner of coping is to hold on to what one stands for with triple the passion. Don’t break the pattern but reinforce it. Scapegoat the poor, scapegoat the gays, scapegoat “Black Lives Matter.” Punish the victim, even as you pretend that the victim is you. Destructive behaviors all—equivalent to beating one’s head against a tree or a rock or a post—because the fear has been mishandled.

This is also true when we talk about people getting stuck in a rut. The spreading contagion of fear locks communities and cities and nations into rigid habits and patterns. The relationship between the political states of Israel and Palestine is one tragic example of this. Another is the lock-step of a consumer-oriented society afraid to give up on its unsustainable ways, afraid to change. Sheep, stuck in a rut, following the same trails and grazing the same hills … until the land is ruined.

For myself, all I can say is, I relate. I have an inner sheep. Some people have an inner child; I have an inner sheep. And I admit this sheepishly, since fear doesn’t seem to have the same dignity that grief has, or anger. Fear is just for scaredy-cats.

All I can say in response is … BAA.

I’ve got an inner sheep and that’s that.

And listen to something else W. Philip Keller has to say: “The strange thing about sheep is that it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless [they are free from fear]. As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger from dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears or other enemies, the sheep stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no means of self-defense. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures whose only recourse is to run.” That’s my inner sheep! It’s hard to admit, because ours is a culture that shames people for feeling fear. But there it is.

How many of you have an inner sheep too? Fact is, it’s painfully aware of its vulnerability. Life puts a big target on our foreheads. Bad things could happen any time to us, to our families, to anyone and anything we love. And in case we happen to forget, the media dutifully reminds us about all the dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears, and other things that are out there, out to get us. So our poor inner sheep: constantly on guard, constantly ready to run, constantly ragged and worn down, not fresh like they need to be if in fact they do encounter adversity and hope to have a truly creative, effective response.

The 23rd Psalm is powerful because, in part, it helps us own up to the fact that we have an inner sheep that needs intentional tending. Without that, it can act destructively, towards others and towards itself. It needs oil rubbed on its head; it needs to be led to new pastures; it needs soothing to release it from constant free-floating anxiety. That’s what it needs.

And so we turn to the figure of the shepherd. The shepherd who does all this for our inner sheep, and more. Who is this shepherd?


“Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” says the psalm, “I fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd is whatever goes with us into even the scariest places—and note especially the image of the rod and staff. W. Philip Keller says that for practicing shepherds, “The rod is a symbol of [the shepherd’s] strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation…. If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away from its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch…. [In addition to this, the] good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see if all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.”

Who or what plays this role in your life? Helps hold you together as you face your mistakes? Helps you bear your shame and your sorrow even as it encourages you and never lets you forget that you are created in the image of God and you have worth and dignity that is inherent and permanent and un-eraseable? And when you DO start to forget this—the one who throws the club and you hear the whistle and it reigns you in?

One form the shepherd can take is activity that calms—activity that makes it more likely for us to face our fears without blindly reacting to them, or banishing them, or numbing them. A moment of deep breathing. An hour of watching Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show because the laughter gets us unstuck. A workout at the gym. Whatever calm us down, relax us, helps us regain perspective….

Another form the shepherd can take is a certain quality of relationships—the quality of vulnerability. Without it, we know what can happen. Our fears turn into anger, and all of a sudden people who care for each other are playing a version of Mortal Kombat. Know what I’m talking about? “Why can’t you listen to me?” one partner cries. “Why can’t you respond to my feelings?” The other counters, “Why can’t you accept me as I am? Why can’t you see all the things I do to please you?” Portrait of a couple at an impasse: portrait of a couple arguing the same argument for what seems like forever. Inner sheep, stuck in a rut, the earth ruined….


But the angry words are just a symptom of something deeper, of fears unfelt and lying beneath the surface. Only through vulnerability are we open to acknowledging them, and through acknowledgement comes healing. To that couple playing Mortal Kombat, we might say, “If you could just pause when you are about to say something angry, and search deeper to see the fear beneath. And then—give voice to that fear instead. Share your fears. Say, “When you don’t respond to me emotionally, I feel afraid that you aren’t there for me, and I’m just free floating.” And to this, reply, “When you criticize me, I’m afraid that you’ve lost all respect for me.” Share your fears with each other, rather than going for the throat.

When people learn to do this, hearts that are hard begin to soften. Speaking our fears directly to each other can lead us beside the still waters, restore our souls, help us find the right paths.

We want the shepherd to come into our lives. Our inner sheep need it. And yet another way is through spiritual community like this one.

This morning, one piece of the service was “the ritual of atonement,” and every voice in this space said and sang these words:

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference
We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others
We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

It felt like the shepherd’s rod opening my inner sheep’s fleece, examining me for signs of parasites or disease. And not just me but everyone because everyone needs forgiveness. We are all in the same boat. We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. Because what else can we do?

Tonight we invoke the shepherd, through our words and our song. The shepherd is among us right now…

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me.”

May all of us experience shepherding through our personal relationships and through this congregation. But there can be yet another dimension to shepherding, and this particular dimension won’t appeal to all of us in this wonderfully diverse community, but to some of us it’s crucial. I’m talking about a transpersonal dimension to shepherding. Experiencing it as a force or presence that transcends the human. The shepherd as God. The shepherd as the Divine, the Goddess, a Spirit Guide, the Tao. I want to speak for a moment to those of us for whom this dimension is meaningful. What’s all-important is trusting in your relationship with the Divine. Trusting the larger unfolding pattern. Knowing that you can have God’s peace right now, this instant, even if things feel way out of control and things are not yet clear to your mind and the problem is not yet solved. Trusting that nothing is going to come your way that you cannot truly bear. Trusting that somehow you are being reshaped to fit a larger order, you are being ushered forward, you are being nudged towards a greater fulfillment of your destiny. And you CAN trust it. So stop pushing the river. Let go and let God.

The shepherd comes to us in so many ways. And the shepherd is good, for this is what he does: he “prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.”

Now just listen to that. Isn’t this an amazing image? An extremely odd one for sure, for in the face of the enemy, who might jump up and grab us anytime, how can we eat? How can we actually put food into our mouths, and swallow?

Yet the good shepherd knows something—the good shepherd that is a calming activity, a close relationship, a religious community, or a God. This: That life is abundant when one learns how to dwell richly in the midst of one’s worst fears. You can’t get to joy in life if you insist on perfection. The truly good shepherd teaches us that. Not escape from problems. Not smoothing away all the wrinkles. The Good Shepherd doesn’t solve it for us, doesn’t dumb down the complexity. It can’t do that anyway.

But what it can do is invite us into a deeper relationship with our world and ourselves, and it does this with a sense of wonderful flair. Lays out the finest tablecloth and china. Polished silverware, napkins folded into swans. Pours the drinks, serves the food. Says, “I know you might feel totally out of control right now. I know all about your sins. I also know all about the sins of the world, the hate, the politicians who can’t seem to get their act together, the threat of terrorism, the environmental threat. All sorts of dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears in here and out there, just licking their chops. I know that. The world is scary all over.

“But it’s not going to help things to just thrash about and hurt yourself and others. It’s not going to help things to get into a rut, or hide out. So sit down. Relax. Continue the small sustaining rhythms of your life. Rediscover a sane routine. Find your center, be at peace, and then: accept your fears. Let them come. Let them wander over. Let them find their own seat at the table. Let them become known, and look them square in the eye. Be curious. Talk to them, and let them talk to you. Share in the hospitality of the table, your fears and you, and that’s how you will find your cup overflowing. That’s how. That’s how goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. That’s how.”

L’shana tova.


Sarah Gives Birth To Isaac: A Rosh Hashanah Reflection

The person who walks amidst the songs of birds
and thinks only of what he will have for dinner
hears–but does not really hear.

People who hear the sound of the Shofar
and do not feel the need to change their ways
hear–but do not really hear.

As the new year begins,
strengthen our ability to hear.

That’s the prime purpose of holy days. People will do with them what they will. But if we engage holy days as they want to be engaged, our ability to hear what needs to be heard is strengthened. That’s what the piercing sound of the shofar is about. And the sweetness of apples dipped in honey. And also the annual re-telling of the Torah story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac.

Now, you would think that the Torah story to be retold on Rosh Hashanah would be the one from Genesis, the creation story, majestic with lines like, “And God said, let there be light…” Brilliant with refrain after refrain of, “And God saw that it was good.” Yet Rosh Hashanah, even as it commemorates the birthday of the world, puts particular and special emphasis on the birthday of the HUMAN world, the birthday of HISTORY, which is what Sarah’s giving birth to Isaac is about. So that’s the Bible story that gets the annual re-telling this time of year…

The context is this: Long after the Flood and Noah, God spoke to a faithful man named Abram and said, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

Abram was supposed to have been 75 years old when God said all this to him, and God kept on saying it, in one place and then in another, throughout his and Sarai’s long journey. But despite all the assurances, Sarai—equally aged—remained infertile. The infertility wouldn’t budge.

It goes on like this for around 25 years! And then look who steps into their lives again: God. Like a broken record, God repeats the promise—and to make the deal even more earnest he renames Sarai Sarah and Abram Abraham, names we know them better by today. “This is my covenant to you,“ God intones… “This is my covenant to you…”

Abraham counters with silent laughter. After all the long years and all the promises, what else could he do? As the Bible puts it: “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’” How possibly can the birth of anything new come from parents so completely worn out?

This story of promise and perplexity continues with the appearance, one day, of three visitors near Abraham’s tent. It’s hot outside, and Abraham is moved by the sacred law of hospitality to refresh the visitors with food and drink and rest. The dialogue between them, as the Bible captures it, appears a bit confused, since sometimes it seems to be conversation between Abraham and human beings and other times it seems to be Abraham and the Lord talking together. Here’s what we read in the Torah:

“Where is your wife Sarah?” the visitors asked Abraham.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed out loud as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But the LORD said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

And that’s the story from the Torah.

At this point you may be asking why the LORD is giving Sarah such a hard time about laughing when Abraham laughed too. Feels just a little patriarchal … but, on the other hand, Abraham’s laughter was way more modest than Sarah’s. Nothing modest about Sarah’s laughter at all. It was loud enough to be heard outside of the tent and, as I hear it in my imagination, it’s buzz-saw loud, it’s snorted-out loud, it’s uppity loud, it’s no-holds-barred loud, it’s loud in a way that basically thumbs the nose at the God of all creation….


And why not? It’s Sarah’s body that’s at issue here, and she gets to have a clear opinion about that. It’s her body! She lives with it every day and knows it intimately. So she is downright skeptical. The whole idea of her worn out, infertile flesh giving birth is a cruel joke. She’s just in despair and bone-tired of all the promises she’d heard, yada yada yada, over all the long years….

And here’s where the story might touch our own. Ask yourself: Is there something happening in your life right now that feels just like Sarah’s body, and you’re seeing things just as Sarah saw them? Overlay the story on your life: is there resonance? Can you relate?

Promises are set before us. Promises that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Promises of happiness and wellbeing in our families. Promises that we can be happy and healthy in our own lives. Rosh Hashanah itself is one of these promises, that hope can be reborn to us in the new year! But we have heard all the promises before, and we well know all the times the promises didn’t come true. We also well know how we can be our own worst enemies. The renewal doesn’t come because we don’t do the soul searching necessary to make way for it. We are not honest with ourselves. In a time for truth, we do not ask ourselves hard questions.

This is why, at the thought of new birth–at the thought of renewal in a new year—all we might want to do is laugh. Just like Sarah. Be buzz-saw loud, snort-it-out loud, uppity loud, no-holds-barred loud, just like her. And say, in a way that fits our own unique situation, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Give me a great big Sarah laugh, right now!


Yet we look ahead with hope,
giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal,
for the promise of good to come.

Rosh Hashanah wants to strengthen our capacity to hear our inner Sarah—and then to hear beyond that, to the renewal that did and does happen against all odds. Don’t get me wrong. I love Sarah. I am Sarah, and so are we all. All that grit, all that spunk. Keeps us grounded. Keeps us real. But don’t stop there. We must never forget how the story ends for Sarah, and how it can end for us…

Years of infertility—year after grinding, hopeless year—can’t stop the miracle. God makes the seemingly infertile fertile. Isaac is born. And through him comes an entire nation, a great nation. And even if the story never really happened as told, but is a sheer mythology of the race, still, the greatness of Israel is real. The greatness of the Jewish spirit. Here and now, we celebrate it. The birthday of a people and a history, against all odds.

If Isaac’s birth means anything, that’s it.

Sarah with Isaac

Clearly, we don’t have the benefit or the challenge of Abraham’s God stepping directly into our stories, visiting our tents for food and drink and rest. But for those of us who are God-believers of some sort, we know that God is an ever-present source of renewal that is always available to tap into if only we stop long enough to focus and to listen. And for all of us, God-believer or not, we are healed and made whole by the power of friendship, the energy of compassion and kindness, the grace of the world’s beauty, the wisdom of teachers around us and those who have gone before us, the gifts of traditions like Judaism which our precious Unitarian Universalist religion opens us up to.

Rosh Hashanah says, new birth can happen. What that’s going to look like, exactly, may very well end up very different from what’s expected. This is something important to acknowledge. A dear friend puts it like this: the universe is a fantastic gift giver but a terrible, terrible gift wrapper….

Right now, life might feel as dry and infertile as Sarah’s body; and your mind might be just as jaded and cynical and despairing as hers. But that’s how renewal begins, in the places which feel the most impossibly stuck. So stay in the game. Stay curious about what happens next. Stay patient for the time when the birth will happen, and the child’s cry will pierce the deadening silence, and you will have just come through the valley of the shadow of death, and you will enter into sweetness, the very life of life, the life that is more than you could have ever imagined.

That’s where you will be! Be patient for it. Believe.

The name “Isaac”: do you know what it literally means? It literally means “Laughter.” Laughter that begins in surprise, laughter that turns cynical and buzz-saw loud, laughter that ends up sweet and joy-filled and deep.

May the laughter of Isaac be yours and mine and everyone’s.

L’shana tovah!

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.