Terrorism Has No Religion

terrorism has no religion

Listen to these sobering and soaring words from Dr. King:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Right here we experience some of the best stuff religion has to offer, religion that rallies us around peace and hope, religion that takes our separate spiritualities and shapes them, holds them to a higher standard, says “don’t succumb to fear, don’t be a slave to fear,” seeks out the ways of love. In all of history, religious ideals and commitments have inspired some of the very best examples of human behavior, and it is happening right now among us, in our very midst.

So it is undeniably jarring, whenever we see the reverse—in the name of religion, people committing acts of terror. Religion as a source of the very worst examples of human behavior too. It’s jarring—deeply disappointing and disillusioning. Practically every week, we hear about some kind of violence connected to religion, happening somewhere on our globe.

And now this week. The horrific rampage of bullets and explosions that left 129 dead in Paris on Friday, carried out by suicide bombers connected to the Islamic State. Add that to equally egregious travesties in Beirut and Baghdad.

It brings to mind 9/11. All these years later, there’s still lots of unresolved issues, lots of open questions, and one of them, undeniably, has to do with violence. Ever since 9/11, there’s been literally thousands of articles and books published about this very issue, and here’s just a sampling:

In the Name of God: Are Violence and Religion Natural Bedfellows?
The Age of Sacred Terror
Religion’s Misguided Missiles
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion
The Disarmament of God
Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After Sept. 11

And on and on and on….

Thus our focus today: Why do people do bad things in the name of religion? How to understand this? And how to respond, as a religious people?

I want to start out with an observation that I’ve already alluded to: Religion has inspired some of the very best examples of human behavior, as well as some of the very worst. Let’s call this the “best/worst effect.” And so, for example, you have the best from Christianity, Jesus, who was clearly a peacemaker and made that plain: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9). “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:43). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). This is an example of the best, but now, consider an example of the worst: How, on March 10, 1993, Michael Griffin shot and killed Dr. David Gunn outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, because he saw himself as a soldier in the Army of God and believed that murder, to stop abortions, is what God wants.

The best/worst effect. We see it in Buddhism as well. The best of them all once said, “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.” He also said, “Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.” The best of them all, the Buddha, said this. But consider an example of the worst: How Nichiren in the 13th century found himself deeply distressed by the diversity he found in the Buddhism of his time—all the different kinds of texts, teachings, and practices available to seekers—because he was absolutely certain that there was only one way to enlightenment, and it was HIS way. So he openly taught his followers to kill all those whose teachings differed, and he promised that their actions would not come back to haunt them in the form of negative karma.

Best and worst. Here’s a final example: Muhammad, saying that the greatest form of Jihad or “spiritual struggle” is that of inward purification of heart and mind and doing works of justice and compassion for the betterment of humankind. How he did affirm a lesser form of Jihad, which involved taking up arms in defense of Islam, but he set forth clear guidelines regarding what was OK and not OK in this, and it was NEVER OK to commit suicide, NEVER OK to target and kill women, children, and noncombatants. This is best, but we also know about the worst. 9/11. We can’t possibly forget about it, even ten years after the storm. Suicide bombers, harming people their own prophet tells them they are not to harm….

How do we understand this? How to wrap our minds around this?

One approach comes from a book I mentioned a moment ago: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion. In it, author Sam Harris argues that religion is inherently divisive and destructive; in its essence it is zealously absolutist; in its essence it creates people who are blindly obedient, who declare holy war, who believe that the end justifies the means… Religion, says Sam Harris, is the direct cause of violence in the world, and so it’s no wonder that religious people do bad things. In this view, the only real question is how people like Jesus and the Buddha and Muhammad (and you and I!) have done and do GOOD things in the name of religion—how they and we have somehow risen above its bad influence to espouse wisdom and peace and love!

Unitarian Universalists, what do you think?

But there’s another perspective to consider, and it comes from Michael Nagler, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of California-Berkeley. Here’s what he says: “There seems to be this feature of human nature that the best can become the worst when it’s not lived up to, and I think religion is our biggest example of that.” This is what Michael Nagler says, and while reflecting upon it, I had this kind of weird but interesting thought (which is par for the course—weird and hopefully interesting is what I do). I was reminded of that old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You know that story? An old sorcerer asks his apprentice to clean up his workshop while he’s gone. After a while, the apprentice gets tired of fetching water for the clean-up and so enchants a broomstick to do the work for him, using magic he’s not yet fully trained in. Soon the floor is awash with water, drowning in water, and it’s too much, he tries to stop the broom but he can’t because he doesn’t know the right magic words. Despairing, he takes an axe and splits the broom, but each of the pieces takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now faster than ever. All seems lost—and that’s when the old sorcerer returns, who quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. That’s the story, and it’s really another way of expressing Michael Nagler’s idea about religion. Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad are each sorcerers, and the rest of us are sorcerer’s apprectices. When we misunderstand or misuse the magic that Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad are masters at, that we are being trained in, bad things happen. Best becomes worst.

Now, I need to come clean with you—it’s probably obvious by now anyway. I REALLY struggle with the Sam Harris perspective on religion, and I think that the Michael Nagler perspective is far more accurate, and, frankly, far more useful. I have about six books on my shelf at home telling me that religion and spirituality and God are literally encoded in our bodies–neurophysiologists talking about God genes and God spots and on and on. Religion and spirituality and God aren’t going anywhere, so long as we have bodies. So if Sam Harris is right, and religion is in essence evil, then what we have here is a contemporary version of the doctrine of Original Sin. People born inherently evil. And I’m just not going to go there. No way. Give me instead what my Unitarian Universalist RELIGION says: that all people have inherent worth and dignity. Amen!

But there’s other reasons I struggle with the Sam Harris perspective that “religion is inherently destructive.” One is that his underlying argument is flat illogical. He’s essentially saying that religion is bad because it can have bad effects. That’s like saying marriage is bad because it can lead to hard times, or life is bad because it can lead to suffering. Chris Lehman, writing in the magazine called Reason, echoes my own thinking when he says this: “Reasoning backward under the impression that the destructive results of this or that piece of [religious] writing invalidates its purchase on our serious attention could make ‘E=mc squared’ the most taboo phrase in the language.” This is what Chris Lehman says, and he’s right. “E=mc squared” is what made nuclear bombs possible, and Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and on and on, but this can’t automatically mean that “E=mc squared” is inherently bad. Lots of other things, good things, have sprung from that equation. Same thing goes for religious texts, or religion in general.

Yet another problem with the “religion is inherently flawed” perspective is that it ignores the degree to which religion is interwoven with factors that are non-religious. How easily religion can be taken over by them. David Niose, writing in a magazine called The Humanist, describes this very well. He says that Sam Harris “almost completely ignores other forces–imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, militarism, economics, politics, as well as social and psychological factors–in bringing about the ills of the world. As such, many of his arguments smack of oversimplification and imbalance.” In short, Sam Harris’ “single-bullet theory” simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Religion is not so much inherently destructive as eminently manipulable. Religion is like that powerful magic of the Sorcerer in the story—it’s E=mc squared power—so why would manipulative leaders NOT want to steal it and use as they see fit?

I mean, here’s the ground-floor reality of many would-be terrorists: They feel betrayed by their government’s inability to provide basic services and protect human rights; they are shaken by the collision of modernization and globalization with traditional values and commitments; they endure some historical injustice that seems like it will never be righted; they suffer the failed promises of military intervention in their country to bring security, rebuild the economy, and ameliorate poverty. All this amounts to a felt sense of humiliation and weakness and pent-up rage. And into this picture comes the terrorist leader and the terrorist group. Leader and group bring these people in, who are feeling humiliated and weak and angry, and they give them friendship, they give them them a sense of adventure and purpose, they give them the glamour of belonging to a militant group, they give their families cash payments and all sorts of goods, and above all, they mix social and political disaffection with religious longing. They take a social and political conflict and elevate it into a cosmic war of good vs. evil. They preach that true faith is in jeopardy and emergency conditions prevail. They preach that what is morally wrong is now proper religious duty. They preach the creation of heaven on earth “by any means necessary.”

This portrait I’ve just painted comes from a book entitled Terror in the Name of God, by Harvard professor Jessica Stern. In it, she shares her interviews with all sorts of terrorists. “All religions [says one of her interviewees] allow people the right to kill in self-defense, or to defend their land.” That’s what this terrorist says, and it is simply not true! Yet at this point, what you have is a person who is under the full weight of colonial, national, historical, economic, political, social, and psychological forces bearing down upon him. But his terrorist organization has come to the rescue, giving him a way out, a way to cope. Of course, the language of religion has been instrumental in recruiting him and giving him a sense of the goodness of what he’s doing; but the true spirit of religion is long gone. It’s disappeared. The Sorcerer’s magic has been stolen, distorted and perverted, used to achieve what it was never meant to achieve.

Religion is simply not so much inherently destructive as eminently manipulable. It’s why journalist Fareed Zakaria says, “The trouble with thundering declarations about Islam’s “nature” is that Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it, but what people make it.” People, who by their very nature are so easily tempted into groupthink and scapegoating; people who, as leaders, can get sucked into the temptations of power and so cynically use whatever tools are at their disposal to get what they want. All of this making it so easy to lose sight of the basic nonnegotiable principles of religion, which include taming our egos, emptying the self so that peace can grow. Violence and destructiveness are evidence of corruption in religion and NEVER the real deal.

So we are back to the viewpoint that, for me, does true justice to the “best/worst effect” of religion: That religion is positive at the core, but the best can become the worst when not lived up to. The Sorcerer’s magic is real—it’s E=mc squared power—but when apprentices are motivated by despair and anger and greed, they steal the magic, chaos ensues, and all seems lost. The magic broom of the story takes on a life of its own, we don’t know how to stop it, what happens next are 9/11s of one form or fashion, and even ten years after the storm, we are still afraid, fearful of what’s coming next….

These are dangerous times we live in. So what can we as a religious people do?

One is to address the concrete political and social and economic conditions that cause people to steal the magic. To wake people up. “I think back to my childhood,” says writer Bill Ayers, “to the houses in trim rows and the identical lawns and the neat fences; I remember everyone sleeping the deep American sleep, the sleep that still engulfs us and from which I worry we may not awake in time.” “Violence,” he says, “is one of the most terrible things in all the world…. But violence exists in all kinds of official and invisible ways that we’re not always aware of…. In our names the US project shatters communities everywhere—in the Middle East, in Columbia, in the Philippines. The world roils in agony and despair, the catastrophe deepens, and our ears are covered, our eyes are closed.” That’s what Bill Ayers says. For our religion to be meaningful and relevant, it must open our eyes and uncover our ears. We have to wake up! Imagine the global difference it would make to finally resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine—the domino effect of this! Imagine the difference, if America decided to realize the dream of one of our Universalist forebears and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush—his dream of a Department of Peace, rather than of war! Imagine the difference! We have to wake up to the official and invisible forms of violence that cause or are related to tragedies like 9/11.

That’s the first thing. The second thing we can do as a religious people relates specifically to Islam, which, as we all know, has been on precarious terms in America ever since 9/11. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do, Muslims here are going end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle. We end up creating a self-fulfilling prophesy dynamic, and that’s tragic.

We have to allow Islam to be different from the version the extremists give us. We have to befriend Islam!

And it can happen in large ways and small. One large way is illustrated by the great work of one of our UUCA congregants, Robin Stinson. Robin was at a Lilburn Town Council meeting several years back, where the issue of building a mosque was center stage. Lilburn has been struggling with this for years … the mosque’s zoning application rejected again and again, out of concerns about traffic and noise, even though Lilburn allowed Baptist and Hindu worship centers to be built that dwarf any of the plans of the Mosque. What’s really happening in Lilburn is prejudice, bias, fear. But there’s Robin at the town council meeting, openly speaking out of her Unitarian Universalist values in favor of allowing an Islamic Mosque to be built, and as she does this, people around her are hurling insults. The mood is ugly. But Robin stood up for what is right. We need to stand up for what is right!

It’s about befriending Islam. All these years after the 9/11 storm, it can be so hard. “I was fearful of Muslims and Arab people after 9/11, and frankly angry,” says another UUCA congregant. But now listen to what she says—her way of stepping outside this fear and anger: “around 2003 I went to a belly dance class in Little Five Points taught and run by Muslim women. There I was able to break down some of my mistrust and anger. They were and are wonderful women. I became a belly dancer for 7 years.” Befriending Islam can happen in large ways and small, and all are important. It’s happening. We’re doing it!

As a religious people, we’ve got to wake up, we’ve got to befriend Islam, and, finally, we’ve got to bolster religion’s internal immune system. Strengthen its capacity to defend itself against hostile takeovers. We do this in the only way we can, by starting where we are, with our Unitarian Universalism. We model religious health, and we let our light shine. If there are unsavory characters who, for example, unleash religious terror because they know how to manipulate the Bible, we learn how to read the Bible for ourselves, we learn how to do it responsibly and faithfully and we learn how to talk about it with others. If there are those who, out of despair, argue that the end justifies the means, that 9/11s of one form or fashion will ultimately bring about heaven on earth, so it’s OK, we say NO, we say NEVER, we remember the words of Dr. King and we have them inscribed upon our very hearts:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

It was Pride Sunday several weeks ago, and the parade was done. I was headed home. I caught MARTA and took it to Lindbergh Station, where I’d parked my car hours earlier. The parking ticket was carefully tucked away in my wallet, for I knew that the parking was free but only if the ticket was validated. Lose it, and there’s a stiff penalty. The sign on the pay station says something like, “Lost ticket pays maximum.” “Maximum” as in $75!

So, your fearless Senior Minister gets to his car, deep in the dark bowels of the Lindbergh parking garage. He is exhausted, but in a wonderful sort of way. What a sweet day. Before he gets rolling, he fishes into his pocket for his wallet. Opens it up and … no ticket. But that’s ok—it’s in his coat pocket, left inside.

No, it’s not.

Suddenly he has a bad feeling about this.

He digs into his right inside coat pocket.

He says a bad word.

How about the other pockets, on the outside of the coat?


Well, then it must have fallen under the passenger side seat.

Not there either.

He says that bad word again, but three times in a row, like a charm.

Then he re-checks his right and left inside coat pockets again, his outside pockets, the passenger seat, underneath the passenger seat—nothing different from before, only more frantically—and the lesson is: charms don’t work.

It’s not to be found.

He drives up to the pay station. There’s that sign about having to pay the max. The lady there grates open her window, reaches her hand out. He tells her he doesn’t have the ticket. He tells her that he’s been at the Pride Parade. He’s hoping she’ll take mercy on this minister that had been sweating for justice all day. He Iooks at her with minister eyes. She asks him when he got the ticket. She calls her supervisor, and the cars behind him are lining up one after the other because this is taking forever. Finally, the verdict: just pay eight bucks. Thank you Jesus.

He’s out of there. I’m out of there. Home.

But that’s not the end of the story. Next day I’m off to work and I open the driver’s side door and there it is. The ticket. It had fallen into the space between the door and the driver’s seat. It was so easy to find. I had just not imagined, somehow, that my frantic search for the ticket should have extended to my left-hand side. I had focused exclusively to my right, and to my pockets. Don’t ask me to explain.

All I know is that failures of imagination make us pay. When we don’t look at all there is too look at, when we don’t look broadly enough or deeply enough, when we rely on charms to solve the problem for us—we pay.

And here is where where we pick up with today’s topic: the humanistic vision of early 20th century French writer Marcel Proust. Ultimately, it’s a vision of living more gratefully, more richly, more deliberately, by paying attention more fully. Says the great Unitarian forbearer Hendry David Thoreau, “I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Then there’s this from writer Susan Sontag: “Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” That’s the vision of Marcel Proust, too.


Back in 1895, he submitted an essay to an arts magazine in which he sought to illustrate the vitality-giving power of attentiveness. The wonderful Alain de Botton, in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, tells the story. It begins with “a gloomy, envious, dissatisfied young man.” This man is “sitting at table after lunch one day in his parents’ flat, gazing dejectedly at his surroundings: at a knife left lying on the tablecloth, at the remains of an underdone, rather tasteless cutlet, and at a half-turned-back tablecloth. He could see his mother at the far end of the dining room doing her knitting, and the family cat curled up on top of a cupboard next to a bottle of brandy being reserved for a special occasion. The mundanity of the scene,” Alain de Botton tells us, “would contrast with the young man’s taste for beautiful and costly things, which he lacked the money to acquire.” “To escape his domestic gloom, [he] might leave his flat and go to the Louvre, where at least he could feast his eyes on splendid things, grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyke.” But that was just an escape. His eyes wanted to feast but there was nothing in his own life, it seemed, that they could really feast upon. So the young aesthete felt, essentially, that he was starving to death.

But was he? Proust felt that things could very much be otherwise. His healing prescription was that the young man should adjust his museum-going habits. Let the galleries hung with paintings of great palaces and gorgeous harbor scenes and princely lives go for a time, and instead, go to a different part of the museum. Go see the works of a certain Jean-Baptiste Chardin, whose main focus (as Alain de Botton says) was “bowls of fruit, jugs, coffeepots, loaves of bread, knives, glasses of wine, and slabs of meat. He liked painting kitchen utensils, not just pretty chocolate jars but salt cellars and strainers. When it came to people, Chardin’s figures were rarely doing anything heroic: one was reading a book, another was building a house of cards, a woman had just come home from the market with a couple of loaves of bread, and a mother was showing her daughter some mistakes she had made in her needlework. Yet,” continues de Botton, “in spite of the ordinary nature of their subjects, Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality. […] These paintings were windows onto a world at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting.”


Proust’s vision was that the young man, absorbing the message of these paintings, could return to his own flat, sit down at his table, look around and say to himself, “this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.” “I once felt myself starving, but Chardin has shown me that even in my ordinary life, the things my senses can feast on are endless. The heroic is not the only source of value. Value is everywhere.”

This is the essay he submitted in 1895, and since he was still a nobody—he wasn’t Proust yet—the editors at the art magazine rejected it. But the vision he put out there gives life. People can find themselves starving, but it’s not because they need more stuff or better stuff or they need to hang out with different people or they need some other change to the circumstances of their lives. It can simply be that they’re trapped in unhealthy habits of perception. Maybe the enthusiasm they have for some things is way too much; and for other things, the enthusiasm should be way more. The world loves ostentatious scenes, grand scenes; but look at what this does to our appreciation of what is closer to home, more modest, and yet beautiful in its own way. As de Botton says, “The happiness that can emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”

Proust is a doctor of the spirit. His father might have been world-famous for his thirty-four books, all addressing practical, physical health issues. But Proust the son became world-famous for his focus on the spirit.

That fame came with his masterpiece novel, In Search of Lost Time, and the title telegraphs his intent. Failure to attend to the world in fresh ways—in ways that escape habit and cliché—cause us to pay. We pay with our lives, with our time. So redeem time. Go in search of it. And that’s what we see the Narrator—who is really Proust himself—doing, throughout all seven volumes of the work. Like a twentieth century version of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Perhaps the signature moment comes in the first volume. The Narrator, feeling sick, feeling dispirited, sits down to a cup of herbal tea and madeleine cookies. He breaks off a morsel, drops it into the tea, takes a sip, and that’s when it happens: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?”


It’s a real question, and Proust’s answer, being the humanist that he was, was not God. God is not the source of this all-powerful joy. Proust had been baptized and later confirmed as a Catholic, but it was a religion he never practiced. As an adult, he saw himself as a mystical atheist—infused with a spirituality that had nothing to do with God and everything to do with life lived richly. He once said that “the highest praise of God consists in the denial of him by the atheist who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator.”

Listen to that. “Creation as perfect.” One side of this is suggested by how an artist like Chardin can teach us that even the most mundane external scenes of our world can be bliss to the senses. And then the other side comes with In Search of Lost Time and the famous madeleine scene. “Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?” Not God, but the world within us, of memories fully released. “When,” he says, “from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment…. And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in [tea] …, and immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.”

This is just not regular remembering. With regular remembering, we merely recollect names and images in the abstract. The feeling is flat. But the kind of remembering that Proust is talking about is when the past rises up like scenery in a theater—it is triggered suddenly, by some unplanned and illogical detail—and we are immersed in the details and we appreciate smells and sounds and tastes. “So we don’t believe that life is beautiful,” Proust says, “because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.”

“Creation is perfect.” Not that there is no evil or suffering—that’s not what Proust is trying to say. Get to know Proust better and you’ll see how much evil and suffering he endured. But it’s that the world is full of the glory of beauty and meaning and delight. The challenge is to develop oneself spiritually so that one knows how to escape perceptual habits and cliché so that one is free to really look, and sense, and know. To seek out artists like Chardin when you are stuck in the rut of scenes of great palaces and gorgeous harbor scenes and princely lives. To learn how to be open to the unplanned and illogical details of life so that you, too, can experience Proustian moments when the past in all its rich detail rises up like the scenery of a theater and you feel renewed and restored, you feel solid with history, you feel the joyful depths of your life.

That work’s on us. To develop spiritually. Why call on God, then, Proust seems to be saying…. When we are miserable and we call on God, is this nothing more than a way of postponing the real work of uncovering unhelpful habits of perception and of learning better ones? It’s like you’re in the checkout line at Publix, and the person in front of you has what seems like a thousand items, and it’s been a long day, and you have a headache, and what do you do? You pick up People magazine and flip through all the pictures and articles about celebrities because there’s instant ecstasy to be had from invoking celebrities. There just is. And it’s only more so when you invoke the Celebrity of celebrities. God. Call on God as a shortcut way to ecstasy—when, in fact, there can be no shortcuts to getting to the point where you can sit down at your table and look around you and say to yourself, “this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.”

Now in saying this, I’m going out on a limb. I’m extrapolating. I don’t think Proust ever addressed the issue explicitly. Nevertheless, it’s something to think about. If you are a God-believer, why do you reach out to God? How does this relate to your doing the ongoing work of living more gratefully and more richly by paying better attention to the world without you and within? How?

As for the humanists and atheists among us, does it come as a surprise that the word “spirituality” is still relevant to you? At least as Proust defines it?

I want to close with an acknowledgement of what seems like the fly in the Proustian ointment. The man could not write concisely to save his life. Proust’s brother Robert once said, “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have a broken leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” It’s the longest novel in the world. Two million words. Editors, being invited to publish his novels, would say such things as: “I may be dense, but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” “It explains,” says Alain de Botton, “the inspiration behind the ‘All-England Summarize Proust Competition,’ once hosted by Monty Python in a south coast seaside resort, a competition that required contestants to précis the seven volumes of Proust’s work in fifteen seconds or less, and to deliver the results first in a swimsuit and then in evening dress.”

It’s hilarious. But we don’t want to miss the deeper point. To save time, we must look and look again at our lives, we must not go faster but slow down. Thirty pages to describe the nuances of tossing and turning? Why not—if you are trying to extend beyond dull clichés and get to the joy of what’s really going on?

It’s 1919. The young diplomat Harold Nicholson meets Proust at a party. Nicholson had just been at a Peace Conference following World War I. About their conversation, Nicholson wrote this in his diary:

A swell affair. Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the Committees work. I say, “Well, we generally meet at 10:00, there are secretaries behind….” “No, no, you are going too fast. Start over again. You take the car to the delegation. You get off at the Quai d’Orsay. You climb the stairs. You enter the room. And so? Be precise, my friend, be precise.” So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time—“Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”

Do not go too fast.

That day I had lost my MARTA ticket–I had been too fast. And so I had to pay.

Don’t be too fast.
Look and look again at your life.
That’s humanist spirituality.
Attention is gratitude.
Attention is vitality.

N’allez pas trop vite.

Slow down and look.

Random Acts of Unitarian Universalism

Friday through Sunday of last week I was with some of the men of our congregation at their annual retreat at The Mountain and Learning Center in Highlands, North Carolina. I’m in my ninth year at UUCA and I had never joined them before. It was way past time.

The Mountain 1

And I’m so glad I went.

The retreat theme was “core values,” or the drivers of how we think and behave. What determines our priorities. The yardstick for success in life. Frank Casper and Bailey Pope were our discussion leaders, and they used video clips to immerse us in the richness of the topic. For example: Han Solo in Star Wars near the movie’s end. Luke invites him to join the rebels in their assault on the Death Star, but Han says no. He wants to skedaddle out of there with all the loot he’s earned. Feels bad to watch this. So no wonder, when we see that he’s turned back to help his friends and that his deeper “good guy” impulse has prevailed, we cheer.

But then there’s the question: Why did Han say no to begin with? How is it that good people can act so out of sync with the values that are dear to them?

Another clip was from It’s a Wonderful Life, and just as with Star Wars, we men are in a circle discussing questions, linking what we see to our own personal experiences and knowings, coming back again and again to the retreat topic of core values. In this clip, we see George Bailey who, all his life, wanted to build big things but ended up having to take over his father’s leadership of the Building and Loan, and he never stopped lamenting this—even as he was so good at fending off local Scrooge Henry Potter and preventing Bedford Falls from falling prey to destructive values of envy and resentment and greed and bitterness. George Bailey is one complicated guy—and the scene we men are discussing in our circle takes place right after he’s discovered the loss of the $8000 of building and loan money and disaster and ruin are coming for him. He goes home to his sweet wife and children and a good man starts to act very badly to the people he loves. He loses it. Despair has him in its teeth. We men in a circle, watching this, are asking:

Can one be living out of a core value and not recognize it? How do you expand your limited sense of who you really are?

With each subsequent film clip, we explored yet another angle on core values. More questions. So many layers to the topic. I loved being with those thoughtful men.

The Mountain 2

Best of all, there was no time when Frank and Bailey called a halt to all the talk, distributed a handout, and said, “Good try, guys—and now here are all the correct answers to our questions, handed down from On High. Good effort. But we can stop thinking now. Just read what’s on the handout.”

That didn’t happen. No one got a “you can stop thinking now” message. The message instead was about how the issue of core values is fundamentally spiritual in nature and, now that we’ve started reflecting and discerning, don’t stop. To all that is spiritually-related, there is no end to reflection and discernment. The journey is lifelong and it is never-ending and no one can ever say, “I’ve arrived, I know all there is to know.”

Lots of messages I got from that circle of thoughtful men at The Mountain this past weekend: Living out of core values brings a person to aliveness and authenticity. We Unitarian Universalists are a people of the journey and don’t do spirituality by handout.

Now, speaking personally, when I am brought into my aliveness, often what that looks like is me writing poetry. The world and I are dancing and words tell the story. Something about the time with the men moved me so deeply that I found myself writing this poem:

Fall on the Mountain—
Standing still I hear the shiver of leaves on branches.
I’m amazed to realize I’ve heard this before.
Sound of gentle waves upon a shore.
Ceaseless sibilance.
Eternity close at hand.

Then this: how they crunch as you walk upon the path
and scatter them with your feet.
Riot of color: crimson and lemon and honey…

Walking, I see a maple leaf in glorious fall color, a burst of beauty,
and I want to pick it up, hold it, as though it were a kind of gem.
I do this again and again until I’m not walking anymore
but going zig zag at a snail’s pace, going ga ga, going all woo woo with nature—
and why not?
The Unitarian Universalist in me believes
that a secret of the Universe resides in each leaf,
and if only I had the key to crack the code….
If only.

The beauty will have to be enough.
The beauty of the turning seasons.
The beauty of letting go.
Beauty reflecting my own, where I am in my life cycle,
how I am myself a kind of leaf
and the Tree is the Tree of Mystery.

As for the leaf I do pick up—
The only thing I have at hand to press it
is my book of Mary Oliver poems.
“Who made the world,” she writes.
“Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?”
“Tell me,” she says, “what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Right upon this, I place my prism of Fall color,
my fantastic leaf,

and I close the book.

The Mountain 3

Now here I am, a week later, and I am seeing very clearly that that Unitarian Universalist space of men reflecting about core values put me into alignment with my own personal core values around the spiritual journey—and I felt the quickening. And thus the poem.

That’s why I’m filled with gratitude. Gratitude for that time and for all the times that Unitarian Universalist spaces have helped people connect with what’s core for them and the result is more aliveness, more authenticity.

There are so many spaces in our world that do just the opposite. They sweep you up into something that might keep you busy for a time but, in the end, you feel degraded or depleted, transformed into something lesser….

It’s like this. Imagine that the sound of your soul is “Spirit of Life”: “Spirit of Life, come unto me…” But then you enter into a space where the competing sound is “Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey [clap clap clap] hey Mickey [clap clap clap]”—and you can’t get it out of your brain, it’s stuck in there, it’s a drunken monkey, and there’s no way “Spirit of Life” (the sound of your soul) is going to escape being garbled and muffled by it.

That’s actually why Han Solo in Star Wars momentarily considers skedaddling with his loot rather than fighting side-by-side with his friends. The “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song of his greed overwhelmed (for a time) his “Spirit of Life” deeper self. Somehow, “Spirit of Life” bounced back, and that’s when he returned to join his friends.

I want you to think of a time when an “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song of greed or prejudice or apathy or entitlement threatened to drown out the sweet, pure music of your soul—and Unitarian Universalism reversed that course, brought you back to your core.

One of these times for me has been situations when the “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song is that of fear. Religion as a fear-based thing. Messages that basically say, If you don’t get with what’s on the theological handout, you’re going to Hell. Conversations around the kitchen table with relatives who love you and are concerned for the state of your soul. Conversations in the playground between your kid and other kids. “Are you saved? No? Uh oh….”

It’s almost as if the God here behind the scenes is an abusive parent just waiting for an excuse to pounce. One wrong move, and WHAM! What a universe to live in! What misery!

Compared to this, Unitarian Universalists live in a completely different universe and our song is a totally different song. The journey is safe. In this complicated, big, hurtful, beautiful world, there is time enough for a person’s soul to unfold at its own pace. There is room enough to explore ways of life and points of view that, in the end, may turn out to be unhelpful or false, but we know that from even such things a person can learn so much that is good. God did not put people on this earth to be afraid. God put people on this earth to be truly and fully alive.

Unitarian Universalism brings us back to our core. This is but one of many, many ways. Run down the Seven Principles, and each one suggests all sorts of ways.

And what I want is more of this. More people whose “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” broken record spiritual soundtrack is disrupted, and the sweet music of what’s truly core in us comes through, and the world is made more beautiful….

That’s really what this sermon is about. Growing our faith. There was a moment when I was with the men at the Mountain, and I said to myself, We need to have hundreds of people in this room, this is so good. And what about a women’s group and an annual women’s retreat, too? Or even an annual all-congregational retreat. What about that? I was just getting delirious with visions of grandeur. A vision of more and more people living in our Unitarian Universalist universe. More and more people brought into their aliveness and maybe the result is a poem. Maybe it is a kind word when a harsh one would have been easier. Maybe it is an act of justice when it would have been far simpler to turn away. Results like this.

How do we get there? More and more people brought into their core….

One solution is certainly an institutional one. Build the infrastructure so the ways and means are clear and effective. This is the path of more money, improved programs, renovated buildings, more volunteers like Kay or Bailey and Frank or our RE guides or our musicians, and on and on.

Of course. Yes. And in this vein I will tell you quite plainly that plans are underway for creating that Family Room I referred to several weeks ago and which you might have read about on The City. The Family Room idea originally came from UUCA member David Soleil, who wrote, “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!” And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to multiply the kinds of worship spaces in the building. Stay tuned. Hopefully we’ll have it complete by the end of the year.

This path is an exciting one. But, you know, it’s not enough. For what we also need to bring to UUCA and Unitarian Universalism for them to be truly vital is our gratitude. Gratitude, as writer Melodie Beattie says, “unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. […] It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Isn’t that a great quote? We want the fullness of Unitarian Universalism and UUCA unlocked. We want it to be a feast, a home, a friend.

Gratitude is the way there.

I ask this with the film clip from It’s a Wonderful Life in mind. We touched on it a moment ago. The complete irony of the movie is that George Bailey, on the one hand, wants to build big things like bridges and skyscrapers but he doesn’t get to, so that makes him snarky and sad. On the other hand, George Bailey IS building big things: not bridges and skyscrapers but a town with a big heart and a family with big love at the center and hundreds of people who are treated justly with dignity and strength and compassion. He does this work every day—he is eyeballs deep in it—and yet there is this huge perception gap. He does not perceive the reality of how he’s already doing the thing he’s always wanted to do. It takes the supernatural intervention of a certain Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, for the perception gap to be crossed and for George Bailey to really see what’s right before his eyes. That’s when he realizes, with gratitude, that he’s already been living from his core. All along, his life has been wonderful. This is how the fullness of his life gets unlocked, and to him it becomes a feast, a home, a friend….

Gratitude takes him there.

So look around you. Look at your friends. Look at the people you don’t know but could become friends. Look at Don. Look at me. Look with your eyes, and look with your heart. We are building big things. We have, in our past, and we’re doing it now. You bet there are limitations. You bet there are imperfections. Always. But the things we are building… justice…. kindness… a sense of wonder … a sense of awe…

I think of that leaf I picked up at The Mountain, how in my poem I say,

The only thing I have at hand to press it
is my book of Mary Oliver poems.
“Who made the world,” she writes.
“Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?”
“Tell me,” she says, “what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

There are simply no bigger questions than the ones Mary Oliver asks. And what my time with the men at The Mountain gave me—what Unitarian Universalism gives me every day—is not just words but an experience, and I lay that experience itself down as an answer. And I am so grateful.

Right upon this, I place my prism of Fall color,
my fantastic leaf,

and I close the book.

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.