Good music liberates.
You feel small, but the music makes you feel big.
You feel all crumpled up, but the music un-crushes you,
it smoothes out all the wrinkles,
it makes you feel fresh and presentable again….

In this reflection I offer a brief personal story
about how music does this for me.
Originally I toyed with the idea of just playing you a song on the guitar,
since the guitar is something I go to
when my heart is tired of being cooped up
and wants to get out there, wants sunlight…

But while playing guitar and the music is doing its liberation thing
and my heart is happy and smiling
and I’m really getting into it
sometimes my fingers forget what they are supposed to be doing.
As in, “Huh, that’s not the right chord…”
I just get carried away….
Which is ok in a much smaller venue than this one….

So rather than play you a song, I’m going to show you
another one of my favorite ways in which music liberates me.
How it takes this body
(which can spend so much time
sitting behind a steering wheel,
sitting at various desks and tables,
standing and doing basically nothing while my mouth gabs away,
walking but it is pure vanilla walking)
and move it towards something completely different….

That was me back in 2012, at the Adult National Figure Skating Championships in Chicago.
It was an interpretive program
to Rufus Wainwright’s version of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah,”
which refers to King David in the Bible,
who would dance before God,
he would dance and rejoice,
and there is one story told where someone sees him
and despises him
because the music moved him so…

But David would dance and keep on dancing—
the music moved him to express the hallelujah feeling in his heart
which is a feeling of praise to that which is larger than oneself.
That’s what the word “hallelujah” means….
It’s why we can see music as a First Source of spirituality,
among all the Six we talk about as Unitarian Universalists.
It’s a way in which we can directly encounter God.

And I know in the video I might be looking a bit fatigued
and maybe a tad scared—
you would be too,
skating in front of judges
and it’s just you out there
and you’re in your later 40s
and falling really hurts
and you know
that there’s no box of Wheaties featuring your smiling face
at the end of all this,
you are not Olympics bound,
you are just an adult skater
and the best you can ever do
is just keep on showing up to skating
and keep on doing the best you can do in your fast-aging body….
So yes, I’m tired and it’s scary,
but despite that,
in my heart of hearts is the hallelujah feeling
and it is huge,
it is a positively spiritual feeling that’s flowing,
and the music—the MUSIC—is moving me
beyond merely sitting behind a steering wheel
and beyond sitting at various desks and tables
and beyond standing and doing basically nothing while my mouth gabs away
to something completely different…
It carries me into jumps,
it sends me spinning,
it puts fire in my feet as I do the footwork sequences
and I love it totally,
I feel like I’m truly myself,
I feel free.

From Selma to Now

50 years ago yesterday, a march on behalf of voting rights made national news. ABC interrupted its Sunday night movie, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” to air 15 minutes of uninterrupted footage of a sort of brutality truly worthy of Nazi Germany. But happening on American soil.

Selma, Alabama.

Nonviolent protestors were attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery, to protest all the ways in which Alabama law and practice prevented blacks from voting. They were assaulted with tear gas, billy club beatings, vicious dogs, and attacks from police on horseback.

History knows it as Bloody Sunday.


The namesake of the bridge is entirely appropriate. Edmund Pettus had been a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Naming the bridge after him was Alabama’s way of affirming their dogged commitment to white supremacy.

How dare the marchers attempt to cross!

But they dared. They dared a second time, and then, with a third march, and surrounded by national guardsmen, military police, and army troops, 8000 people left from Brown Chapel, crossed that bridge, and kept on, and the marchers would eventually swell to 30,000 strong. When finally they reached the state capitol in Montgomery, here’s what those marchers heard Dr. King say:

“The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”

We need to hear these words today, too. On our side of history—from the side of 50 years later, and beyond—we need encouragement to keep going, because he was right, the battle has been in our hands, there has been a call to higher ground, but there were no broad highways leading us easily and inevitably to quick solutions.

From Selma to now, we haven’t seen them…

New York Times writer Charles Blow reminds us that a majority in this country believe that race relations are getting worse and that more than a third think police-minority relations are getting worse. “Obviously,” he says, “in the long sweep of history, no one could make such a claim. Race relations are certainly not worse than they were 50 or 100 or 400 years ago, but there is a nagging frustration that things haven’t progressed as fast as many had hoped.”

Charles Blow adds that, “for young people in their late teens or early 20s … whose first real memory of presidential politics was the election of the first African-American president, any seeming racial retrenchment is jarring, and for them, over the course of their lifetimes, things can feel like they are getting worse. This is their experiential moment,” he says, “that moment when the weight becomes too much, when the abstract becomes real, when expectations of continual, inexorable progress slam into the back of a slow-moving reality, plagued by fits and starts and sometimes prone to occasional regressions.”

That’s Charles Blow. When the abstract becomes real. Slow-moving reality, fits and starts, occasional regressions…

One of these regressions is how access to the vote is currently under the most sustained attack since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was the direct win of the Selma campaign. In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the 1965 Act, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. States are now requiring stricter voter IDs, cutting early voting, ending same-day registration, and curtailing virtually every reform that made it easier to vote. Minorities are the ones disproportionately impacted.

On the other hand, to what degree are people taking advantage of the vote that Selma won for them? “There was nothing magic about Selma,” says Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest aides. “Selma just gave us the right to vote. But if you don’t vote, and don’t take advantage of that right, you’re still living in a pre-Selma age.”

The road ahead is not altogether smooth.

It’s also a road that takes us from Governor of Alabama George C. Wallace, on Face the Nation,

pulling out one rhetorical trick after another and talking faster than an auctioneer trying to shore up the image of Alabama to a nation and a world that has seen the horror of Bloody Sunday—a road that takes us from this straight to Ferguson and the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, who, when it was his turn to be on TV, did everything but jumping jacks and jitterbugging to undermine his own side in the trial. “I’m not going to be stampeded and blackjacked in making any accusations against police!” said George C. Wallace, and it was essentially the same thing we got from the establishment in Ferguson, 50 years later.

And then the Federal Government stepped in. Have you read the report?

Here’s a summary from the New York Times:

“The Justice Department on Wednesday called on Ferguson, Mo., to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in so many constitutional violations that they could be corrected only by abandoning its entire approach to policing, retraining its employees and establishing new oversight.”

“In one example after another, the report described a city that used its police and courts as moneymaking ventures, a place where officers stopped and handcuffed people without probable cause, hurled racial slurs, used stun guns without provocation, and treated anyone as suspicious merely for questioning police tactics.”

The report gave credence to many of the grievances aired last year by African-Americans in angry, sometimes violent protests after the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. Though the Justice Department separately concluded that the officer, Darren Wilson, who is white, violated no federal laws in that shooting, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said investigations revealed the root of the rage that brought people into the streets.”

“‘Seen in this context — amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices — it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,’ Mr. Holder said.”

Now, you might have heard President Obama speaking yesterday from Selma, and he directly addressed this report and what it implies about the state of things today.

“Just this week,” he said, “I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America.”

That’s President Obama. And of course, we don’t want to do a disservice to the cause of justice. To say that bias and discrimination are immutable is to be tone deaf to the music of Selma and all the accomplishments of the past 50 years. But this doesn’t stop how the feeling of being black in America is still a feeling of being unsafe, unprotected, and vulnerable to random violence and hate. Cornel West says it’s equivalent to what Sept. 11th felt like to all of us. That’s Cornel West, not white me. Who knows how many individual criminal justice systems there are in America that are as compromised as Ferguson’s, but they’ve not been exposed yet. Exposed, the Feds would swoop down on them like they did Ferguson, but until that time, what’s going to protect the American citizen?

You never know when the other shoe’s going to drop.

Back on February 16, UUCA and the Georgia Psychological Association co-sponsored a panel discussion on the issue of police-minority relations in this space, and one of the questions was about “what citizens can do to decrease the chances of escalating situations that involve interactions with law enforcement.” As a member of the panel, I got impatient really fast with all the pussyfooting around. Blacks and whites on the panel—police officers, psychologists, civil rights lawyers—but I was just not hearing anyone addressing the reality of being black in our times. So I asked the white folks in the audience of about 100 people if they ever had to coach their kids—especially their white sons—to prepare to be humiliated if police stop them. To lie down, if police tell them to sit down. To walk in the street with only one other boy at a time because, if it’s three or more, police will think you’re a gang. None of the whites in the crowd raised their hands. But most of the blacks did. They bear the burden of decreasing the chances of escalation. They are the ones, always bearing the burden!

The road ahead: not altogether smooth.

Dr. King knew this above all. Days before his assassination, he said to Harry Belafonte, “Are we integrating into a burning house?” Now this is a remarkable question. This is an arresting question. It is but another way of saying that, as central as racism was to Dr. King’s concern, he concern was larger than that. What bothered him was larger than that. You can talk about racism all day but that doesn’t mean you’ve covered all there is to talk about. You can completely solve racism but it doesn’t mean complete success. The house can still be burning—burning in flames of poverty and militarism and materialism.

Who wants to integrate into that?

People got Dr. King’s focus on racial justice, but they didn’t like it when he strayed from that single issue. 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to Vietnam and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. People just didn’t get it. Wanted him to stay single-issue. Didn’t understand his holism, how he saw systems of oppression intersecting and reinforcing each other.

This is exactly why he says, in his eulogy for the martyred Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. James Reeb, “So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.”

That’s it: the system, the way of life, the philosophy.

Oppressions working together, in concert.

Call the focus on this “intersectionality.”

Dr. King’s intersectionality is something that most people never really got.

The road from Selma to now has not been altogether smooth….

Which is why we do not dare forget what else was said in the shadow of the Montgomery state capitol, 50 years ago: We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.” “They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, “We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.”

Don’t get turned around. Keep fighting for voting rights. Keep reforming the criminal justice system. Eradicate racism in all its new 21st century obnoxious forms. March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and march on!

Selma" Cast And Director Commemorate The Life Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr - January 18th, 2015 - Selma, AL

But in all of it, keep the provocative question from Dr. King in mind: “Are we integrating into a burning house?”

We need to stand before the forces of power, with intersectional focus. We need to expand our imagination about what the Edmund Pettus Bridge truly symbolizes—how it represents not just racism but poverty and militarism and materialism and other oppressions as well. UUCA’s Amelia Shenstone, in a recent blog, quotes writer Naomi Klein where she says, “…if wealthy white Americans had been the ones left without food and water for days in a giant sports stadium after Hurricane Katrina, even George W. Bush would have gotten serious about climate change.” Do you see that? Race intersecting with class intersecting with the environment?

We have to cross that bridge. The road from Selma takes us right there.

Here’s yet another instance of oppressions intersecting. I’m going to read a series of true quotes from various American court cases, laws, and politicians. Some of them are referring to marriage between races, and others are referring to same-sex marriage. See if you can tell which is which. (This, by the way, comes from writer Andrew Kirell):

“They cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies” not allowing their marriage.


This relationship “is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results … [Their children turn out] generally effeminate … [their relationship is] productive of evil.”


State legislators spoke out against such an “abominable” type of relationship, warning that it will eventually “pollute” America.


“It not only is a complete undermining of … the hope of future generations, but it completely begins to see our society break down … It literally is a threat to the nation’s survival in the long run.”


This type of marriage is “regarded as unnatural and immoral.”

Can you tell which is which? The only one that is actually referring to same-sex marriage is the second from the last. The rest are anti-interracial. But all of them sound alike. All of them come from the same spoiled well of hatred.

How can you fight racism and not fight homophobia?

Even as the country marches towards nationwide marriage equality and polls show record levels of support for same-sex marriage, it’s just like 50 years ago, and George C. Wallace and his thugs want to stop that march. Refuse to let them cross the bridge. Just this past Thursday, the Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is legislation that seeks to secure the right of “persons” (a term not defined and so could therefore be interpreted to include businesses, individuals, and even state employees) to refuse service to LGBT Georgians, or anyone else who supposedly offends someone’s “religious beliefs.” Marriage equality comes to Georgia, in other words, but clerks can refuse marriage licenses on the basis of their “religious convictions.”

Don’t let them cross the bridge.

What drives me to despair is the whole appeal to “religious convictions” which, for the conservative politicians involved, is supposed to somehow relate to Jesus of Nazareth. I just say, read your Bible. Jesus was someone who regularly shared a table with exactly the sort of people that the religious leaders of his day thought were inappropriate and out of bounds and evil—but Jesus thought they were not evil but children of God like everybody else. I want to tell those conservative politicians that they are no followers of Jesus at all. At least not the real Jesus.

But “We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around,” right?

The so-called Religious Freedom Act heads to the Georgia House, so what can we do? I spoke with Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, and here’s what he said. “First: no one should consider this inevitable. The political dynamics of the house are very different than those of the Senate, so people should continue to voice their opposition.” More concretely, he said, “Folks can contact business interests such as AT&T, or the Metro Atlanta and Georgia Chambers of Commerce, and ask them why they are not vocally opposing this bill like they did last year.” You can participate in Georgia Equality’s phone bank and call people to to educate and mobilize people against the proposed legislation. You can stay informed by following Georgia Unites Against Discrimination via twitter, Facebook or email. Finally, Jeff Graham said that if the bill is passed by the House and it goes to the Governor’s desk, that’s when the protests will start. So stay tuned.

The road from Selma to now. There is a sense, 50 years later, that we are still trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. So much has been accomplished, but there is more yet to do. And our imagination about what is ours to do needs to be intersectional like Dr. King’s. No one wants to integrate into a burning house.

I’ll close with a story from just this past Wednesday and our amazing “Remembering Selma” event. It’s the benediction part of the service, and I’m saying those immortal words from Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Standing beside me is the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian, who I’ve asked to stand with me, together with others, because he was there in Selma 50 years ago, he saw it all, experienced it all, was beaten bloody but refused to stay down, was faithful to the cause of justice. He was there with Dr. King, was instrumental with Dr. King in leading the cause. This great man is standing right beside me, and as I am saying the immortal words, he is whispering them too, but he’s not reading them, his eyes are closed, he’s remembering them and the man who originally said them, perhaps he’s remembering the exact moment when Dr. King first said them, and the words are seared upon his heart, the words are sealed upon his very soul. In that moment I felt as though the love message came straight to me from Dr. King himself, and Dr. Vivian was the link.

From Selma to now, the challenge is, and will always be, bridges of darkness and hate to cross.

From Selma to now, the message is, and will always be, the power of love to overcome.

Lift Every Voice

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered….

It’s February 15, 1965, and the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian and 40 marchers arrive at the Selma courthouse. Sheriff Jim Clark is there, a bulldog, wearing his George Patton-inspired World War II helmet, and he’s not happy. Dr. Vivian walks up the steps, says they’ve come to register to vote, but Clark refuses to let them pass, says the courthouse is closed, forces them to stand in the rain.

CT Vivian

Then Dr. Vivian sings a song, a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. He says, “Whenever anyone does not have the right to vote, then every man is hurt.” Clark doesn’t want to listen. He turns his back. Dr. Vivian can only sing more of his song full of faith, says, “You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.”

That’s when a crowd of whites start to heckle Vivian and his song. They call him a screwball. That’s what they call this great man.

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.

It’s March 7, 1965, and it’s the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. 600 people are met with beatings and tear gas. Bloody Sunday. It’s captured on film and national networks and now the nation has seen with its own eyes how America is just as bad as a place like Nazi Germany. One of the leaders of the march, John Lewis, says, ‘‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma.’’

Dr. King puts out his call. He wants troops of a different sort to stand up for justice. Clergy of all faiths. Among them, the Unitarian Universalists, who come streaming in by the hundreds. Among them, the Rev. James Reeb.

James Reeb

“Since my days as a Hospital Chaplain” he says, “some of my deepest concerns have related to the problems of Negro people in our society. I would like to have a further opportunity to contribute to the changes that will bring them full equality in American society. But I believe that dream of justice is one of man’s noblest aspiration and one which continues to grow in importance to me.”

But he never made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Yet his sacrifice would be enough, and more than enough. “History,” says Dr. King at the memorial service a few days later, “has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of this fine servant of God may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark state.”

And it absolutely did.

But how much consolation is there in this, for Mrs. Reeb and her children?

So many people hurt in all this. All the martyrs. All the violence.

God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Stony the road we trod

We know that here, too, in Atlanta. For this story, go back even farther in time, to 1948. A black Unitarian from Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, comes to Atlanta University to become chairman of the Department of Social Work, and he applies for membership in the United Liberal Church, which was the ancestor congregation to UUCA and all our metro Atlanta UU congregations. Dr. Jones applies for membership and is refused. The Board of Trustees turns its back on justice, like Sheriff Jim Clark does to Dr. Vivian in 1965. That Board heckles the idea of integration. Or maybe they are just anxious. They don’t want to rock the boat. Nice people, for reasons of niceness, or simple insecurity, can do awful things…

United Liberal Church

What follows is a death that is nothing at all like the noble death of the Rev. James Reeb. The sequence of events is like dominoes falling. When the minister at the time hears the news, he resigns. The national bodies with which the church is affiliated—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America—blacklist the congregation and urge that no minister step in to serve while it is segregationist. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owns the building and practically everything else because the congregation is a cheap bunch, sells the building out from under them—to the Bible Research Foundation, headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher. Add insult to injury.

The United Liberal Church is dead. And it had to happen, because the church turned its back on justice.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
Out from the gloomy past
’Til now we stand at last…
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“Every crisis,” says Dr. King, “has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”

He says, “When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way…”

We feel that power stirring in the story of Dr. Vivian and the Rev. Reeb and Lula Joe Williams and so many others. Power to make a way out of no way. The Kingdom of God may yet reign….

So, one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissions the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and resurrect the United Liberal Church. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, is to human and civil rights. “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” That is what you read in the congregation’s order of service.

And this makes history. The United Liberal Church, reborn, is Atlanta’s very first integrated congregation. Says Jesus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again.” We know the truth of that directly.

Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies

All of a sudden, a congregation that never goes above 50 in membership shoots up to more than 100, and beyond. Whitney Young, then Dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work (and later national head of the Urban League), is a member of the Board of Trustees. Dr. King, at this time assistant to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, is a pulpit guest, as well as the Rev. Sam Williams. All these amazing things are happening because now the congregation is turning towards justice.

Nothing screwball in that at all…

So it’s the early 1960s, and Coretta Scott King is the leader of the youth group at Ebenezer. Our congregation and theirs have a joint Sunday evening program, alternating back and forth between them, so young people, black and white, can get to know one another and learn with each other. But one day the Klan calls. It threatens violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consult with Mrs. King regarding the options and she says to go ahead with the meeting. All the parents are called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent holds back. And then, that evening, while inside the church the youth are building up the Kingdom of God, outside are the fathers, who ring the building, they are forming a visible wall of protection, they are part of the power to make a way out of no way, they are a part of that.

There is nothing screwball about turning towards justice.

There is nothing screwball about facing down all the Sheriff Jim Clarks who, across the years, reappear with grim regularity, most recently in the guise of the Staten Island police who had Eric Garner in a choke hold and Eric Garner croaked out “I can’t breathe” eleven times but no one was listening and then he died, another martyr in a long line of martyrs, another family bereft, another sign of the stony road we tread, another sign of the bitter chastening rod.

We are not done yet. And yet,

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.

Our weary feet have come to the place for which our fathers and mothers sighed, and struggled, and died. Our feet have come to this place. Because of people like Dr. C. T. Vivian and the Rev. James Reeb and Lula Joe Williams and the people of the reborn United Liberal Church who made history here in Atlanta, whose fathers put their bodies on the line to protect the miracle that was happening inside the church—the Kingdom of God being being built through the delight of young people coming to know each other and crossing boundaries of race.

We must keep crossing boundaries.
We must keep on building the Kingdom.
We must ring it with our lives, to protect what’s being built.

Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.

Never stop turning towards justice.
Don’t let the hecklers stop you.
Don’t let the sheriffs stop you.
Don’t let niceness stop you.
Don’t let the fact that sometimes, like James Reeb, we won’t ourselves cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We have to leave that to others.
We must never prejudge what our influence can be.
How dare we stop ourselves before we even begin?
How dare we give up because we can’t jump immediately to full victory?
Bring your gift to the altar anyhow, whatever it is.
Don’t stop.
There is a power to make a way out of no way.
That power is real.
That power stirs in this place right now.
Be a part of it.
Turn towards justice.
Don’t stop.
Never stop.

Liberation from Body Shame

In her poem “homage to my hips,” Lucille Clifton says:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,   
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

That’s the poem. No apologies. No shame. No sense that her hips (or any other body part for that matter) are making her unworthy.

The message rises to theological height. These hips are big hips, these hips need space to move around in, these hips don’t like to be held back: the suggestion is that it does not matter so much what bodies look like or whether they conform to some externally or internally imposed standard but, rather, where does your body take you, what is it showing you in your life, what is it enabling you to put a spell on and spin like a top?

The body is not an end-in-itself but a way to live out a larger purpose.

In this sense, everybody’s hips are big and want to be proudly claimed as big.

I call this “body electric theology” after the famous Walt Whitman line, “I sing the body electric.” Lucille Clifton sings and sings, and maybe we sing too.

Or maybe we don’t.

Listen to Alexandra Marshall, writing for W Magazine in 2012: “When injectables took over the world in the early aughts, having facial wrinkles became more of a choice than an inevitability. But at the same time, armies of women of a certain age started to look like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and I began to believe that there was something honest and rock ’n’ roll about being able to move my face. I actually like my crow’s-feet, and I can live with the lines between my eyebrows.”

“But—and there is always a but—no one warned me about my neck. As noble as a few frown lines may look in post-Botox America, there is no air of refusenik coolness to a wattle. Every woman I know who has reached her early 40s and woken up with a falling chin or a wavering jawline agrees. (No wonder the late Nora Ephron’s 2006 book I Feel Bad About My Neck was a best-seller.) ‘This neck thing just makes me feel old,’ my friend Gillian, a 43-year-old interior designer in Los Angeles, told me while wrapping her ever present cotton scarf tightly around her throat. I know exactly what she means. I’m 42 and have become conscious of an area that I’ve named ‘the drop zone’: the increasingly declining curve between my neck and jaw, which used to be a taut right angle.”

That’s Alexandra Marshall, and from here the article goes on to consider “what can be done about it,” and of course it does.

Lucille Clifton might be singing the body electric but how do you do that with wattles or turkey neck or whatever the heck it’s called?

Really? A turkey neck is going to enable you to put a spell on someone and spin them like a top? Really?

From here it’s open season on our bodies. Those of you with actual big hips might never have bought into what Lucille Clifton said to begin with. And don’t get me started on what it’s like to be a short guy, or have a big nose. If I get started and if you get started about all the things that bug us about our bodies, well, this is going to be one LONG LOUD communal sermon and everyone’s talking nonstop and it’s just miserable.

Body electric theology can simply fall apart in the fingers of our body anxieties and body shame….

That’s what I want to talk about today—the shame and what anchors it, and then the things we can think and the things we can do to help us rise to Lucille Clifton’s theological delight in her big hips. We want to rise to that height, too.

Because “Your body is a flower that life let bloom.” (Ilchi Lee)

Because “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” (Anthony Bourdain)

Care for the flower life has let bloom. Enjoy the ride.

But easier said than done, because shame poisons the flower and poisons the fun.

Says writer Toni Morrison, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!”

But there’s always the THEY that works against this love—that’s the poignancy of this passage from Toni Morrison. Always the THEY.

Today it’s no longer slaveowners and a society that affirms the brutal institution of slavery, but what about the idea within communities of color (especially among Black women) that the closer one’s hair is to European texture (straight and smooth) the “better” it is? THEY is racism, internalized and externalized.

THEY do not love your flesh.

THEY is also sexism. The way women’s bodies in particular are monitored and policed for propriety. Two examples come to mind: One is professional model Tess Munster who is 5 feet 5 inches and a size 22. Now the average model is 5 feet 10 inches and a size 4—which is why Tess Munster holds the distinction of being the very first “model of her size” to be signed to an agency. She’s got big hips and she wants everyone to know it and the camera loves her—and for this, she gets hate mail like you can’t believe. Death threats. As body advocate Gabi Gregg says, ”If there is a fat person on television trying super hard to lose weight, crying about how hard life is, and talking about how they eat to cope etc, then everyone is at home crying and cheering them on. Put that same person in a crop top while they smile, and the pitchforks come out.”


An equally fascinating portrait of sexism comes from Aidan McCormack, a transgender man who has always been very hairy. Mustache hairs sprouting out of his face when he was a 10-year-old girl. Talk about enduring a barrage of constant public comment and ridicule. “Why people find hairy women to be threatening,” he says, “continues to bewilder me, and why people believe they have some ownership or right to comment on the state of a female body bewilders and infuriates me even more.” But all of this became crystal clear for Aidan McCormack when he transitioned from female to male. “Suddenly,” he says, “my body and facial hair was a prized possession. […] I also began noticing that people didn’t comment on my body anymore. I mean, every so often somebody on the street will point out how short I am, but by and large the constant companion of unwanted attention and commentary ceased to exist.”

Body shaming messages

Aiden McCormack goes on to say something that is just as much body electric theology as Lucille Clifton’s poem. He says, “The thing that I’ve come to is that all bodies are strange bodies, all bodies are queer. To be embodied is to be queerly embodied because there’s all sorts of hairs growing, and teeth showing up in brains, and trick knees, and runny noses. There’s asthma and allergies, dwarfism and diabetes. We are all kinds of shapes and sizes and we have all kinds of desires and worries. No one’s bodies fit our expectations. There is something ‘wrong’ with all of our bodies. In fact there’s so much wrong with human bodies that you could say that abnormality is what’s normal, what’s human and, ultimately, what’s powerful and beautiful.”

Yes! All bodies are queer. Your minister is saying that today. We are all queer and we all have big hips,

they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

That sounds like Unitarian Universalism to me, people!

But. THEY won’t have any of that. THEY do not love your flesh.

THEY is business. As Jennifer Weiner, New York Times writer, says in a recent article about a particular body part that is the “new” focus of anxiety but which I cannot, in all good taste, describe to you in church, “Show me a body part, I’ll show you someone who’s making money by telling women that theirs looks wrong and they need to fix it. Tone it, work it out, tan it, bleach it, tattoo it, lipo it, remove all the hair, lose every bit of jiggle.”

But business is also becoming wise to the increasing awareness in men that women like to look just as much as men. Women ogle too—at Ryan Gosling’s abs, for example—and men, well, we’re getting the message that we’re not measuring up. Liposuction is one the fastest-growing plastic surgery procedures being performed on men; eating disorders and body dysmorphia are on the rise in guys. So business comes swooping right in…

THEY is racism, THEY is sexism, THEY is business, so many forces of THEY beyond these three. We feel shamed by them, we internalize that shame, and we ourselves become agents of that shame. THEY don’t even have to lift a finger. We can’t help but find something wrong with ourselves. We criticize another’s appearance in front of them. We criticize them behind their backs.

A special case of this is fat shaming, which, really, is one of the few forms of discrimination that people still think is ok. Says my colleague the Rev. Cyndi Landrum, “People shame fat people all the time, and they seem to feel good and virtuous about it. The argument is that ‘Fat is unhealthy. My shaming them will help them to stop this unhealthy behavior.’” And then she says, “Without even addressing the ‘fat is unhealthy’ statement, this is wrong on two other levels: shaming does not help people. And even if shaming someone did change that person’s behavior, that does not justify the shaming. The shaming is still wrong. Your fat jokes are not justified by your ‘concern’ for my health. Period.”

Can I hear an amen?

Literally, shaming does not help. A recent long-term study out of UCLA found that young girls who were called fat by someone close to them were more likely to be obese in later life.

I don’t have time now to address the ‘“fat is unhealthy” issue in any depth, so all I will say is this. If you see a fat person and you think any of the following: “Huh, he must eat fast food all day and never exercise,” OR, “Huh, she must be so unhealthy,” OR, “Huh, that’s a person with absolutely no willpower,” OR, “Huh, no one must bug them about being fat so I need to be the one to fill that void,” OR, “Huh, they must feel bad about themselves and want to be skinny”—if you catch yourself thinking any of these things, stop the thought, don’t indulge it, don’t allow yourself to go down that little rabbit hole. Question it. Challenge it. Go online and google “fat stereotypes” and see how fat is actually a complex issue, there’s way more here than meets the eye.…


And already we are on the path towards liberation from body shame. Just breaking the silence is big. Silence solidifies shame, but opening up heals…

I asked a member of this Beloved Community, Melissa Mack, to share her personal thoughts about liberation from body shame, and here is what she said: “Here’s what I most want people to know. For me, liberation from body shame hinges on 2 key points: the airplane metaphor and the idea that it’s a journey, not a destination.”

“So when you get onto an airplane and they’re doing the safety demonstration, they mention the bit about if the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, you have to put yours on first and then assist others. You can’t assist others if you can’t breathe, obviously. I have found that learning to love my body and myself have tremendously increased my capability to love others and to love this world. For me, it’s a way to live our UU principles. Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person includes myself! And if we’re all part of an interconnected web, knowing that I’m a fabulous piece of that web makes the whole web a little bit better and a little bit stronger.”

“That said, it ain’t easy. I still have days where I feel like my body is betraying me. Everyone does, even folks who are 100% liberated from body shame. And when that happens, when we have bad days, that doesn’t mean that we’re slipping or that we have succumbed to the shame. It means we’re human. It happens to everyone, and it’s okay. But it means that loving our bodies is a process that we have to keep working at constantly. And it is work! It is hard, intense, tedious work. But I have found that putting in the work is totally worth the effort. So I keep plugging on, even on days when I wish I didn’t have such a big belly or that my thighs were smaller. Because loving my body makes me a hell of a lot happier than hating my body. I choose to be happy.”

My body—short as it is, with the big nose that comes from my father—is, all things considered, the only true home on this earth I will know. It’s the only place I have to live. Same thing is true about your body, for you.

Whatever it is that might be causing you shame—your queerness, and you feel the constant disapproval of the THEY—it’s your truly big hips, or your too-small hips, or your saggy neck wattles, or you don’t have abs like Ryan Gosling—well, love your home anyway. Love it despite what THEY say. Love it hard. Sing the body electric!

Because our amusement park bodies are just waiting to be enjoyed.

Because life has let the flower of our body bloom.

Choose to be happy.


Wisdom of Play

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Play like THAT is full of all good things…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play sounds pretty sweet, right?

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

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

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

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

There’s a reason why we play….

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

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

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

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

There is nothing of moral turpitude in this.

There is only nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we could just channel Nasruddin even a little bit.

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

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

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

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

All cats bark
Muffins is a cat
Does Muffins bark?

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

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

Yes, BUT, we say…

The joylessness script runs so deep….

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

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

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

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

A little bit of Nasruddin can go a long way.


The video before this sermon:

Sacred Laughter of the Sufis

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

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


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

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

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

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

No punches are pulled with this guy.


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

Listen again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is said that laughter is the best medicine.

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

Mulla Nasruddin, come give us a blessing today!

Care of the Soul

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

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

Wounds become wisdom.

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

The wound is where the light comes in.


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

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

Here are some disturbances:

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


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


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


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


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

Compulsions and symptoms of all kinds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wounds can be turned to wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

And so:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t do. Just look. Just see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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