Sermons 2004-05

Starve the Emptiness and Feed the Hunger

Starve the Emptiness and Feed the Hunger
Douglas Taylor

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

This is a little snippet of a song by Emmy Lou Harris I heard on public radio once.

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

And I wish I could remember the rest of it, but it had a sort of an Ecclesiastes message to it:  Been there, done that, didn’t help.

              “Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Ecclesiastes says, “I applied my mind to seek and to search by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14.)

              “Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Why?  What’s going on that we need to look for a deeper well?  This is not a new song; it’s been around for over a decade.  It picks up on the growing desire for depth and meaning in life.  Spirituality is bursting out all over the place.  Something has been building over the past several years, but it is hard to really pin down what.  Along with an increase in conservatism in politics and public morality, there has been more reaching out to other cultures and between different faith traditions.  Many walls have been built up, but many more have been torn down.   Interesting isn’t it, the parallel explosions of very shallow, surface level exclusivity and narrow-mindedness alongside unprecedented cultural exchange and a startling openness and mingling of religious practices and understanding.  I remember reading an article in a conservative Christian magazine that warned its Christian readers against the practice of Yoga because it could lead people to Hindu beliefs and away from pure Christianity.  Like Yoga is some massive secret plot against Christianity!

More and more, people are experiencing other cultures and other religious practices and mixing things together to create a satisfying spiritual life independent of the exclusive rules of most religions.  Religious conservatives and fundamentalist see this as a big problem.  I see it as people yearning and searching for something meaningful, for something deeper.  So many people come through our doors searching for connection and meaning.  They are lonely and empty.  So many people, to one degree or another, feel empty and they hunger for something more.

            “Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Why the increased interest in looking for a deeper well?   What’s wrong with what we’ve already got?  The problem is: it’s empty.  What do you do when you’ve spent your life trying to gain financial security, only to lose the reason why you wanted to be secure?  What do you say when you spend your life making a name for yourself, only to forget what your name means. What do you do when your well is empty?

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

Our society actually encourages this emptiness.  Your emptiness is not a problem, only an as-yet unmet market niche!  So many people buy into this success-oriented, achievement-driven, market-manipulated, soul-draining way of life.  When we find that we are empty, we reach for anything that we think can fill the void… romance, a job, a fast car, a big TV, status, power; anything, even religion.

Everybody gets lonely.  Everyone gets that gnawing emptiness every now and then.  When nothing works and no one seems to understand or care.  When the students don’t respond to your carefully prepared lectures, when your parishioners doze through your thought provoking sermons, when that attractive person you’ve tried to impress doesn’t pick up on your obvious hints, when your boss dismisses your suggestions, when the committee you’ve been steering still can’t get anything done.  We all know that sense of futility, where you burn with such a passion for something, only to get burned out.  And we find ourselves alone and empty.  What was it all for, anyway?  And it doesn’t matter if it is burn out, depression, or just general aridity, it is borne out of desperate encounters with loneliness and emptiness.

So what do we do?  Where are we to turn?  Where do you go when you are empty?

Well, there was one time when my life seemed particularly empty and dry, and I jumped into Lake Michigan in the middle of December.  I was in the midst of a very difficult time with depression.  Different people experience depression different ways.  For me, there is a Psalm I have found which really hits the nail right on the head and describes what it feels like.

I am poured out like water, and my bones are all out of joint.  My heart is like wax; it has melted away within me.  My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; I am laid in the dust of death (Psalm 22:14-15.)

This is the same Psalm that begins: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Number twenty-two.  The next one is number 23, famous number 23, “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, …”  great psalm, beautiful psalm.  But this one, oh!  So, after a week of my life tasting like ashes in my mouth, a friend suggested that, as a winter solstice ritual, we jump into Lake Michigan.  I have pictures.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Chicago, but my friend Daniel and I went out to the beach next to Lakeshore Dr., just off of 57th street.  We had striped down to our swim trunks and Daniel looks at me solemnly and says, “This is my way of letting winter know I’m not going to hibernate.”  I looked out at that cold, churning lake and tried not to think about what I was about to do.  “Ready?” “Yeah,” I said and I took off running down the beach to the water with Daniel right next to me.  I bounded in, ten feet, twenty feet, I got in up to my waist, (it was shallow) about forty feet out I’d guess, when suddenly I stopped.  I looked down at my legs and said “What?!?”  My legs looked up at me and said “Hey, we’re cold.  Besides, he said we could stop.”  I looked behind me and sure enough; there was Daniel about ten feet back shouting: “Uh, I think this is far enough.  Let’s get this over with.”  So we dunked under and ran back to shore as fast as we could.

As I dried myself off and wrapped up in a towel, I yelled something like, “So there, Winter!”  (Not the most eloquent of prose or protest, but I was quite numb at the time.)  I had exposed myself to the bitter winter wind and waves, and was still able to cry out in response.  From the depth of my wintering soul, I was able to respond.

So, you’re lonely, you’re empty.  Find a way to respond.  Find a way to get meaning into the equation.  Reach out.  The answer almost seems too simple.  We need to get out and do more together.  We should be community-oriented.  To starve the emptiness, we must engage with other people; respond to the loneliness by reaching out. Unfortunately that is only half of the possible answer.  The other half centers around the idea that to really starve the emptiness we must first be truly empty.  To relieve the loneliness we must learn to be alone.

We seem to have this notion that we are called to relieve one another’s loneliness, to eradicate all the emptiness.  Not so.  We need lonely times.  Loneliness is powerful.  It keeps us grounded in who we are.  Henri Nouwen, the author of our reading this morning, writes: “When all our attention is drawn away from ourselves and absorbed by what happens around us, we become strangers to ourselves, people without a story to tell or to follow up (p. 96 Reaching Out.)”  The empty times in our lives are often openings into greater depths, or at least clues that such openings are available.

If you are following me, you’ll see I said at the beginning that in our loneliness we lose sight of who we really are.  Now I say that only in our loneliness can we see our true selves.  This is not a paradox or a religious puzzle sort of thing.  It is simply this: to counter this epidemic of emptiness, to stop it from enveloping you, you need to embrace it.  It is within moments of withdrawal and lonely silence that you find both the emptiness and the hunger; the emptiness that will pull you down and the hunger that free you if you will but follow it out.

Henri Nouwen says in another book, “Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger.  Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.  Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures.  The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the [religious] life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention.” (pp 14-5 Out of Solitude)  We talk a lot about community and service and justice.  But I say that all of that action needs a source, a source from within you; a source that will not simply drain you and burn you out.

I am reminded of the parallel which I love in the early part of the Moses story where God appears as a burning bush.  I think that is a really fantastic image: what is God like?  God is like a bush on fire, but the fire doesn’t consume the bush, it’s just on fire.  You’ve got to watch out; I’m teaching a course on the Bible right now.  I should have warned you earlier to watch for the Biblical references, see how many you find in sermon.  Anyway, one parallel of the story of the burning bush is found in the chapter immediately preceding.  Moses, witnesses an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrew slaves.  Moses gets angry at the injustice; he gets hot, and he rises up against the Egyptian and kills him.  Then he gets scared thinking that he’ll be found out, so he runs off to the desert for a few years, working as a simple shepherd, which is where he bumps into the burning bush.  And it’s like God is saying, I burn and do not consume.  Moses, you burn with your passion and it burns you up.  You burn and all you do is consume.  Your fire burns out of that empty desperation.  You need to be tapped into the source of life, that source from within you that is a hunger.

You’ve got to watch out, though.  I don’t want to make this seem to easy.  You need to watch out because the emptiness and the hunger can look a lot alike.  If the fire that burns within you burns from an empty desperation, then it is a fire that will consume you.  And that is not why this community is here.  We are not here to fill up people’s empty places; we are not here to serve your burning need to consume.  Ours is not a consumer religion.  This is not a consumer church.  Ours is a community of faith and justice where people come with longing, thirsty souls to get away from the emptiness, to get away from your market niche, to tap into your source and to find your hunger.

As Ecclesiastes says, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind” (1:13-14).  Anything you set yourself to do, any task or dream you pursue, any injustice you seek to make right, anything can be motivated by vanity and the need to fill that emptiness.  Likewise anything can be motivated by a hunger from your soul.  One of my favorite quotes, and I can’t recall who said it now, is:  “Do not ask what the world needs, instead, ask what makes you come alive; then go do it.  Because what the world most needs is people who have come alive.”

To fight against this invasive loneliness, this epidemic of emptiness, you need to find a lonely place, a place of solitude: a source.  Before you can love your neighbor as yourself, you must love yourself.  For this, you will need to learn how to sit with your solitude comfortably.  Embrace the yawning cavern of emptiness with you; do not seek to fill it.  Move through it unto your very source and find there your hunger.

This is my source.  That lonely place in my life is where I find the strength to go out to the world and serve others.  When I can remember to lay down my burdens at the riverside, I know I’ll be able to see and recognize my emptiness and my hunger.  When I can stand even in the bitter winter of my soul and remember that I am not alone, I can be about the business of healing the brokenness in the world.  I put it to you then, find your source and your hunger, and take it to the world.

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

“Well, … Looking for the water from a deeper well.”

In a world without end, may it be so.

Entertaining Strangers

Entertaining Strangers
Douglas Taylor

This week I spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday up in Niagara Falls.  I was attending the Annual Spring retreat for the ministers and religious educators from all over the Saint Lawrence District (which includes all the Unitarian Universalist churches in New York State except for New York City and long island.)  It was good to be in the company of colleagues, I always find that refreshing.  The topic for the workshop portion of the retreat was continuing education along the lines of diversity training and anti-oppression work.  Now, workshops on this sort of thing can be transformative and life-changing … the first or second time to do it.  Unfortunately, it can also be tedious and annoying after you’ve been at what seems to be the same stuff a dozen times or more.  It was so nice to find a new approach offered; a new path into understanding the complexity of engaging with people and communities of people who have a fundamentally different identity from your own.  Really, what multiculturalism and anti-oppression efforts are based on is the ability for me to meet and engage with people who are in some way different from me.  It is about recognizing and honoring each other’s differences!  We should be great at this, don’t you think?  We Unitarian Universalists are all about honoring individual differences. Unfortunately the work of really honoring and welcoming those who are different is not easy to ‘just do.’  It takes an almost radical component that seems to be in short supply these days.

I want to share with you the opening exercise we did during the workshop.  The leader called it the “Culture Toss” game.  She handed out papers that had twelve empty blocks, each labeled with a different identity category.  For example, ‘gender’ was one of the identity categories:  That I am male is a defining feature of my identity.  Race/ethnicity, culture, language, sexual orientation, denominational affiliation, highest values, and roles were all on this list.  What roles do you fill that give definition to your identity.  I fill the roles of father and husband, minister, and friend.  These roles help define who I am, help determine my identity.  We were filling in on this paper the specifics of our different identity characteristics.  We had, if you could imagine, twelve categories, and we were given about ten minutes to fill it all out.  Some of that was easy: gender: male, sexual orientation: straight, race/ethnicity: Irish and mixed northern European, language: American English.  Some of it was harder to for my culture I wrote down: New York/New England almost middle class liberal.  For vocation I put down both parenthood and ministry.  There was a category for possessions.  What possessions give some definition to my identity?  I finally wrote in: my guitar, my books, and my socks.

So, with our charts filled out, we were then asked to cross out four of the twelve.  Find four identity categories you could live without, or rather, that you would be least troubled to lose.  Well, it took some of us a while to wrap our brains around that.  I can imagine what it might be like if suddenly it became illegal to be Unitarian Universalist or to speak English.  But take something like ‘gender,’ how could I lose being male?  Would that mean there would be no more men?  The leader helped clarify by saying, “Maybe it means that it is no longer acceptable to be male or to be white.”  OK, so I started crossing out my four categories.  She didn’t give us enough time.  After ditching my possessions and my defining habits (no more singing loud in public or drinking coffee), I decided I could stand to learn a new language anyway.  Well I had three and time was up, so I quickly scanned my paper and decided (I’m a little ashamed to say) to cross out Unitarian Universalism.  Now, let me explain.  I figured Unitarian Universalism is already an unacceptable religion in many people’s eyes, and if it became illegal to be Unitarian Universalist, I figured we could continue to meet in private or we could slowly take over a nice Methodist church.

Well, it turns out that was the easy part.  Imagining four identity categories of my own choosing removed from my life was the easy part.  Now we turn our papers over to the person we’ve been paired up with and they get to remove four more identity categories.  The only consolation is that while my colleague is taking away my culture and my sexual orientation I get to do the same to him, (except after I’m done, he is not allowed to be a “him” anymore!)  Now I was asked to sit back and imagine my life without these foundational identity markers.  It’s illegal to speak English, Unitarian Universalism has gone underground, the New England liberal middle-class is dead, people avoid me if I start to sing loud in public and they whisper if I’m seen drinking coffee.  My books are gone and stores just don’t sell crazy socks anymore.  I can still be a white male, but I have to be in the closet about my heterosexuality.  The one loss that hit me the hardest was not being allowed to have my vocations: ministry and parenthood.

You know, I think I am beginning to be able to imagine what it might have been like to be a slave.  My language and my culture are gone, my religion is crushed, my family is broken up and sold off to different places maybe, I have no possessions, and I certainly can not sing loud in public!  And all of that has not even touched on ethnicity and skin color.  Anyone who thinks racism is all about skin color just doesn’t get it.

The point of this exercise was to begin to understand what the experience of being oppressed might be like.  The point was to stretch my understanding and open my mind up to what it might be like to be someone of an oppressed culture.  The point was opening people to differences.  The basic critical component to honoring and welcoming those who are in some fundamental way different from you is in your ability to understand their experiences.  It is to be able to put yourself inside their shoes and walk around in them for a while.

The story of Passover for the Jewish people is the story of freedom and liberation.  Passover is celebrated every year and during the Seder meal the story is told again.  And the piece of it that touches the experiences I had this week with the Anti-oppression work is the way the story of Passover serves as a reminder of Jewish identity, a reminder of the ways in which that identity can be lost, and the powerful call to therefore be hospitable.  “Do not ill-treat the stranger in your midst,” God says.  “Remember, you once were strangers in Egypt.”  Michelle Medwin, the Rabbi at Temple Concord, was the columnist for this week’s religion article in the Press & Sun Bulletin.  She wrote about the meaning of Passover.  She writes, “We are told to see this story as if we, ourselves, were slaves.  This teaches us to reach out to the stranger, rather than be fearful of him.  It also reminds us that we must reach out to those who are oppressed.”  (Saturday, April 23, 2005, 5B)

There is one word that is particularly vital to understanding people who are in some way different; one word that allows for the hospitality toward strangers to be real and authentic.  It is more that just remembering.  The word I’m moving toward now came up in the children’s story and in the reading and a few times while I was describing my anti-oppression workshop experience.  The word is imagination.  As Einstein said “Imagination is more important than intelligence.”  Imagination is the critical piece of recognizing and honoring differences.

There is no way to fully understand another person’s experiences.  You know your own experiences.  Someone may be able to tell you about their experiences but you can’t fully understand them the way we like to think we can.  In a very real way we are each isolated within our own experiences.  I can only know what is going on from my perspective.  You can tell me what you see and experience, but I have to filter what you tell me through the only connection I have with the world, and that is my own experiences.

And that would be a dire scenario if that really were the end of the story; but all is not lost.  There is hope through imagination.  Imagination builds a bridge between what I know of my experiences and what you share with me of yours.  There has been some very scholarly philosophy grown up around ideas like this.  I recall one author whom I was assigned to read in seminary, David Tracy.  Tracy wrote about Analogical Imagination as the critical component to understanding one another, the base work of communication with any depth.  This is why so much of religious language is built upon metaphors.  I have an experience and then use analogy to help you imagine what my experience was like.

Imagination is the critical piece for all this.  Now, here is what I don’t mean by ‘imagination.’  I don’t use the word in the sense of ‘imaginary.’  I don’t use the word to mean making things up or making conclusions based on little or no facts, as in “You’re letting your imagination run away, you’ve an over-active imagination.”  Instead I mean imagination as the ability to deal creatively with reality.  It is the ability to imagine new possibilities based on, though beyond, what we already know.

We are each different.  Modern American Unitarian Universalism is certainly structured around the recognition of that truth.  Each one of us is a unique individual.  We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.  We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful.  However, from the reading this morning, Sacks reminds us that: “the challenge of the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” (p 60)  The challenge is for us to have imagination enough to get outside ourselves enough to see another person’s perspective.

The analogy of eyesight applies well.  Depth perception is gained by having two eyes focused on the same object.  If you close one eye, it is very difficult to judge depth and distance.  A depth of understanding is gained by having more than one perspective focused on the same issue.  Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world.

Imagination is the ability to envision new possibilities based on, though beyond, what we already know.  This is what is happening in the Seder meal when people retell the Passover story to remind themselves of what they already know and to imagine new possibilities.  Listening to another person’s perspective, entertaining another person’s ideas, helps you appreciate your own understanding at a deeper level.  By imagining it from another person’s point of view, you become open to new ways of seeing and understanding.

The presenter of the anti-oppression workshop shared a story.  She talked about a time during her chaplaincy as a student minister in a hospital.  She and the other student chaplains were debriefing experiences of their work.  The one person of color in the group began talking about who difficult it sometimes was to be a black chaplain in an otherwise surprisingly segregated hospital.  Other student chaplains, trying to be helpful, expressed their understanding of his situation.  “I understand what you’re going through. It is terrible.”  The woman telling us this story a few days ago, who had at that point had no training yet of the sort she was offering us, continued the story by telling us that she had looked at the man and said, “I have no idea what it must be like for you.  I have never had black skin.”  The man responded to her as if she were his best friend.

I don’t know what it is like to have a parent die.  I don’t know what it is like to get divorced.  I don’t know what it must feel like to walk into this church for the first time looking for a religious home.  I don’t know what it is like to be openly gay and learn that someone chiseled a message into the walk leading to the front door of my church saying that I should die for being gay.  I don’t know what it is like to be put in prison.  I don’t know.  I have never experienced any of those things.  I can, however, gain enough of an understanding of each of those, because I have experienced many other painful things and I know how to listen and I have a good imagination.

This is what it takes to dismantle oppression, but that is not all that this can do.  Using your imagination is what it takes to overcome otherwise insurmountable differences between people, but that is not all it can do.  Your imagination is critical to engage in religious dialogue of any consequence with other people of good will, but that is not all it is for.  I believe the imagination must be at the root of any relationship in your life.  Imagination is the ability to deal creatively with reality.  Reality always has troubles, and the quickest and easiest way to deal with trouble is usually unimaginative and unhelpful.

Stretch yourself, imagine a new possibility.  Listen to other people, entertain strangers in your midst, and stay open to the hope of new being bursting into your life in ways you’ve never imagined.

In a world without end,

May it be so


Reading:                        by Jonathan Sacks

The Dignity of Difference            (pp58-60)

Nowhere is the singularity of biblical ethics more evident than in its treatment of the issue that has proved to be the most difficult in the history of human interactions, namely the problem of the stranger, the one who is not like us.  Most societies at most times have been suspicious of, and aggressive toward, strangers.  That is understandable, even natural.  Strangers are non-kin.  They come from beyond the tribe.  They stand outside the network of reciprocity that creates and sustains communities.  That is what makes the Mosaic books unusual in the history of moral thought.  As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger”.

            Time and again it returns to this theme:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him.  The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-4)

It does not assume that this is easy or instinctive.  It does not derive it from reason or emotion alone, knowing that under stress, these have rarely been sufficient to counter the human tendency to dislike the unlike and exclude people not like us from our radius of moral concern.  Instead it speaks of history:  “You know what it is like to be different, because there was a time when you, too, were persecuted for being different.”

            Indeed, that is what the Israelites are commanded never to forget about their shared experience of exile and slavery.  They have to learn from the inside and always remember what it feels like to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger.  It is their formative experience, re-enacted every year in the drama of Passover – as if to say that only those who know what it is to be slaves, understand at the core of their being why it is wrong to enslave others.  Only those who have felt the loneliness of being a stranger find it natural to identify with strangers.

            (Sacks goes on to say) The human other is a trace of the divine.  As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it: “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.”  The Challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.

Sparrow’s Fall

Sparrow’s Fall
By Douglas A. Taylor
April 3, 2005

I’ve been thinking about hippos lately.  Hippopotami.  They had always struck me as such funny creatures when I was younger.  Its name means “river horse,” which is not really funny in and of itself.  But when I found out that its closest relative is not the horse, but the pig, I thought this beast was the silliest thing going.  I later discovered, through nature programs on public television, that the Hippopotamus is a fiercely territorial creature; and although it is not a carnivore, stories of people losing life and limb in Hippo inhabited waters are not uncommon.

Albert Schweitzer did not see them as only fearful or funny.  He saw them as sacred.  It is perhaps one of the better known stories about Dr. Schweitzer when he discovered the best articulation of his beliefs.  He was gazing at the Hippos near the boat he was on when it struck him.  “Reverence for Life.”

Albert Schweitzer is one among a long list of people in our current history who have helped us to find a new language to talk about this world and what it means to be a part of it.  New language is desperately needed to describe our connection to the Earth because the old words have lost there power for most of us.

I have been reading a book by Thomas Berry, a cultural historian, priest, and author.  The book is called The Dream of the Earth.  In it he shows how the enlightened era we are now in has done away with what he calls the old story, meaning the Christian myth of creation and a personal God who still mucks around in everything and is even with the little sparrow when it falls.  While it has been good to move beyond this old story, science has taken away the sense of “Enchantment” with which the world used to be viewed.  He suggests that since the loss of that world view which the old story gave us, we have been grappling with a now seemingly insurmountable environmental crisis.  And the key to it all, according to Berry, is to rediscover that sense of enchantment.

Now, by “enchantment,” Berry does not mean fairies and spirits that magically “enchant” people into frogs and pigs.  He did not use the term it this medieval fashion.  Instead he spoke of enchantment as synonymous with awe, reverence, and wonder.  And, when he said science had done away with this sense of awe and wonder for the natural world, he was not science bashing. He was not complaining that scientific progress has ruined us; implying that we were better off in some Garden of Eden pre-industrial state.  What he meant was that the process of scientific inquiry involves a mind set whereby every assumption is question, every fact is tested, every mystery is tackled, has lead us to new levels of knowledge.  We have dug beyond the surface, and we dig deeper still to the bedrock of life itself.  We have gone deep and we have questioned everything.  No corner of life is spared the reasoned exploration of the enlightened mind, so that there is little room for awe, enchantment, and reverence.

All of this, Berry presents as ground work.  All this is history.  The crux of his argument, and of what I wish to wrestle with this morning, is that we are in the midst of confused and conflicting stories.  The old story no longer holds up to the tests of the scientific mind.  Jesus said that God will be with even the sparrow when it falls.  Yet the old story no longer works.  Holmes Rolston, an environmental ethicist, once quipped, “If God watches the sparrow fall, God must do so from a very great distance.” (Science and Religion, p. 140)

And so… who does watch the sparrow’s fall?  Does the death of a small bird matter in the grand scheme of life?  Does the death of a whole species matter?  Is there a grand scheme of life?  What is our story?

Berry insists: “It is all a question of story.  We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story.”  He writes, “We are in between stories.  The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.  Yet we have not learned the new story.” He goes on to say, “our old story … sustained us … We awoke in the morning and knew where we were.  We could answer the questions of our children.  We could identify crime and punish transgressors.  Everything was taken care of because there was a story.  “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.”  It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association.  It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.” (p.123)

It seems clear to me that we can’t go back.  The Religious Fundamentalists have tried that.  But even they can’t provide the basic values of human association we need to sustain us.  Other ideas have come, other stories of how we fit in the world.  Chief Seattle articulated a story of interconnectedness that resonates strongly with many people I know, but too often it is just a nice idea rather than a guiding belief structure.  People like the idea that the river and the otter and the eagle are one with them in nature as they drive their SUV’s across town while the kids zone out in the back seat watching Pocahontas on the in-car DVD system.

Many people are looking to science for the new story, in something called “the Epic of Evolution.”  Several years back The UU World magazine ran a series of articles about differing theological perspectives.  One of the features was on a perspective which embraced science is the search for religious understanding.  An article by Connie Barlow captured my attention with talk about an “Epic of Evolution.”  She drew from authors Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in her exploration of this new story.  A story that encompasses narratively the questions of where we are and how we fit in to this evolving wonder we find around us.  And she quoted Thomas Berry saying, “The human [is] seen as that being in whom the universe in its evolutionary dimension became conscious of itself.”  And Brian Swimme, who wrote: “If you do not experience the universe directly, it doesn’t matter at all what you believe about it.”

For myself, when I read these articles, I felt things click.  We need to push ourselves to encounter the Universe.  I don’t want to lose that sense of wonder and awe.  Using theistic language, I would say I strive to have the spark of God within me resonate with the spark of God within the beauty of a crisp, clear Adirondack lake in the early morning.  We need to find the patches of beauty that move us to compassion for the earth.

Sometimes, however, reality makes it difficult to find these remote patches of beauty in our over-populated environment.  For what beauty is there in the intentional fires of deforestation?  What wonder is there in the bioregions destroyed by ‘industrial accidents?’  What awe can there be there in the Adirondack lake whose acidity level is “above the tolerance thresholds for many species”? (For the Common Good, p. 1)  How can we experience beauty in the sight of so much suffering and harm?

I cannot simply escape into the idyllic paradise of nature when so much is going wrong.  As one environmental ethicist puts it, anyone “who becomes environmentally aware, must realize that we live in a world of wounds.” (Caring for Creation, p. 3)  Creation itself is suffering.  Its beauty is marred, and its delicate balance appears to be teetering on the edge of our ignorance.  And yet we continue to ignore.

Do you remember Al Gore?  Al Gore wrote a book about the environmental crisis. (I can’t help for reflect on what a radically different place we would be in if the Supreme Court had pick Gore over Bush back then.)  Anyway, in his book Earth in the Balance, Gore writes: “The most dangerous threat to our global environment may not be the strategic threats themselves [meaning: water, soil, and air poisoning; overpopulation; and the systematic destruction of natural habitats (including our own),] but rather our perception of them, for most people do not yet accept the fact that this crisis is extremely grave.” (p.36)  Rather strong language, that.  Gore highlights a number of environmental concerns and how they are inflamed by political choices.  He called for a radical rethinking of how we do things.  He says, “A choice to do nothing in response to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand.” (p 37)

Maybe we don’t feel the urgency because we are far enough away to be able to allow it to be covered up.  I know, for example, that I can go out and buy a watermelon in the middle of winter.  It doesn’t taste as good, seeing as it is out of season; but that is as it should be.  With our mega-malls and twenty-four hour supermarkets we can get just about anything.  It seems as if there is an endless supply of clothes, meats, and fresh fruits.  It is easy to not see what we do to the world to maintain this illusion of endless plenty.

The illusion is very strong.  It can be stated very scientifically, that on the grand level our impact is not that significant.  The water we drink is made up of the molecules that have been here all along.  The air we breathe is the same air that Buddha breathed.  The air that fills our lungs is the same air that filled the lungs of Muhammad and Jesus.  A closer look reveals, however, some difference because of increased levels of Carbon Monoxide and Chlorine.  We have, in fact, changed the very chemistry of the planet.  Our impact is significant.

We have a recklessly high rate of population expansion.  We have untold tons of toxic waste to contend with.  We have species that are beyond rescue from extinction.  We live with toxicity levels in our waters, soil and air, that will be with us for countless generations.  There is, from all that I can figure, nothing we can do about this.  It is here.  These are the facts.  And it is difficult to see how anyone can conceivably make any difference in this.

I lived in Chicago for a few years while I was in seminary, and I learned a bit of its history.  We took thriving marsh lands unusable to us, and transformed them into one of the renowned mega-cities of the world.  And we took land that was once beautiful to behold and transformed in into land that is literally poisonous to live in.  And let’s not even get started here talking about which people in our overpopulated culture who are forced to live in the most damaged areas.  Did you know that things got so bad with the river, the city of Chicago needed a place to send its sewage, but couldn’t in good conscience just send in down the river into Lake Michigan, to we managed to reverse the direction the river flow.  As Thomas Berry says we have changed “…structures and functions that have taken hundreds of millions and even billions of years to bring into existence.” -Berry p.xiii

So who then will cry out?  In the old story, the ground itself cried out when the blood of Abel spilled.  That is in there!  When God came and asked Cain where Abel was, the ground itself cried out for the blood of Abel that had poured out upon it.  The earth wept at this first grave injustice of one man to another.  Why then do we not weep for the injustices brought upon the earth?  What are we to do with this information?  What are we to do with the recognition that something needs to be done?

Albert Schweitzer’s final word on this issue was not a hopeful one.  He was of the opinion that our destructive relationship with the Earth would be our undoing.  He said this not because we had past the point of no return.  We were not at that point then and we are not there now.  He said our destructive relationship with the Earth would be our undoing not because there was nothing we could do to stop it, but because there was nothing we would do to stop it.  We will not care enough about the environmental atrocities we commit to notice that the path we walk is the path of death.

It is not all bad news.  There are agencies that are doing good work.  There are laws in place to protect endangered species and habitats.  There are success stories to look to.  But it is not enough.  In the old story God said, “I call the heavens and earth to witness that today I put before you Life and Death.  Choose life, that you and yours may live.”  And yet here we are, choosing death and yet we find so many ways to not notice.

So, who will cry out?  When will things change?  Dr. King once wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  To project that sentiment onto the environmental situation, I wonder what it would look like for that demand to come from the land.  Maybe things will need to get worse before they get better.  But we have no Dr. King to stir our blood and lead us out on this issue.  We don’t even have a commonly recognized story to look to and say, “What is going may be legal but it is also immoral, and it must change!”

It’s like we are in between stories.  The old story that says God is in charge and manages every little detail is not connecting to the amazing level of destruction we have grown capable of as a species.  God’s creation cannot keep pace with Man’s destruction.  But a new story that accounts for where we have come from and where we are now headed cannot be a dry list of scientific facts and formulas.  We need a story with feeling and connection that can inspire us to heed the call to be better stewards of our home.

We Unitarian Universalists, I must say, are well positioned to help this story emerge into the greater consciousness of the average person.  The interconnectedness of life and a respect for the interdependent web of existence makes sense to us, especially in light of scientific knowledge.  Hippos and sparrows and the silent sunrises are all a part of our story.   Our responsibility to the earth is not found in the old message that God made it all and us too; but that we are all a part of this and no one will clean up after us except for us.  The least we can do is to do less harm.  And perhaps the best we can hope for is that we care.

In a world without end, may it be so.

The Hearth Fire and Beacon Lamp

The Hearth Fire and Beacon Lamp
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Every two weeks my copy of the Christian Century arrives.  It is one of the best and widest read liberal religious periodicals around today.  One of the small religion-related tidbits of news it offered last week which caught my eye was a report on the eclectic travels of a gentleman named Edward Hoagland.

In the past year Edward Hoagland has received the Eucharist from the cardinal of Milan, witnessed Mother Teresa’s beatification by the pope in Rome, held hands with a circle of Quakers in Vermont, and attended Methodist, Episcopal and Pentecostal churches.  “I liked the architecture of the pope’s basilicas, the rationality of the Quakers, and getting hugged by the Pentecostals, with whom you could at least share a good, unshamedfaced cry.”  However, he admits that “with our twelve-step programs and church hopping, we’re like characters in search of an Author … People shop around for a credo to believe in: not just Adam Smith’s Atavism or New Age narcissism, but an idealism marked with faith and logic, and a limber minister to explain the details.  (American Scholar, Winter)

I can’t help but wonder if Edward Hoagland had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation in his travels, and if so, what he thought of us.  This idea of being characters in search of an Author would not, I suspect, fit how most of us see ourselves, but the rest where he talks about “idealism marked with faith and logic” strikes me as a rather apt description of our religious tradition.  “Idealism marked by faith and logic.” A balance of faith and reason, Yep, that’s us.

Why are you here?  What are you looking for? Are you searching for something like Edward Hoagland?  Why are you here?  I can imagine many possibilities.  Some of us come for inspiration and insight; some, for ethical encouragement.  Some show up because they want to stay connected to friends.  Some come to grow and become better persons; some, for spiritual or personal healing.  And some are here to take part in the justice-making work of this community.  Perhaps you stumbled into us and found a home.  And maybe, although it is complicated to think of it like this, just maybe this community saved your life.  Likely you come for a mixture of these and other reasons.  I have owned each of these reasons at several points along the way in my own journey.  A religious community meets different needs for different people.  I have said before that we are a little bit of a social club and a civil activism group, and a support group and an institute of higher learning all rolled into one.  And yet, in a radical way we are nothing like any of those groups because while we are all that variety rolled into one, we are also something more.  It is that ‘something more’ I wish to address this morning.

In his recent book, The Almost Church, Michael Durall asks the question, “Does your congregation have a soul?”  It is a bit of an odd question I think.  Yet it begins to get at this ‘something more’ I am after.   In his capacity as a church consultant, Durall has had the opportunity to ask this and other probing questions to many Unitarian Universalist congregations.  “Does your congregation have a soul?”  The answers he has received over the years are illuminating.

“Yes, but it is buried neck deep.”  “Yes, but it is inward looking.”  Yes, but it is a candidate for life-support.”  “Yes, but it is hidden under the mask of protecting the status quo.”  “Yes, but the issue is how to release it.”  “The soul of this place is like the talent of a young artist, in need of both training and public expression.”  “[Ours is] a wandering soul, looking for meaning.  Well intentioned but not committed.”  “I think so, but can’t say exactly what it is.”  “This church has a little, wrinkled, raisin-like kernel of a soul, but with the potential to do much more to save others.”  “Yes, it is in the loving acceptance of one another.”  “Yes, every member of my family is better for our involvement.”  “Yes, because there is a greater presence than self.”  “Yes, soul is substance and core, constant as a beacon.”  “No, and I don’t think a church can have one unless people do intense work together.”

While I think this is a bit of a trick question because we are not in the habit of speaking about our communities and institutions as having “soul.”  Remarkably, however, many of the attempts hold a rather pessimistic view; “Yes, [our church has a soul,] but it is a candidate for life-support.”  “The soul of this church is that we value variety, and we eat well.”  So, do you think the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton has a soul?  My own answer is: of course it does.  And my impression of our “soul” or whatever we call that binding element at the center of our community is not the least bit pessimistic.  Our soul is like the flame in the center of the chalice

The image of the Flaming Chalice dates back to World War Two, (not that long ago by religious iconographic standards;) and lighting a chalice has been a common element in Unitarian Universalist worship for only a generation.  It is, however, an amazing choice because the flaming chalice carries so many echoes of symbolic meaning, it is an image rich with possibility.  My favorite interpretation picks up on the chalice as a container, a vessel, as that which holds us and represents our community.  The flame, then, would represent the spirit of our community, the soul of our congregation.  I believe that at our heart we find both the warm and welcoming hearth fire of compassion and the blazing beacon lamp of commitment.

Witness the level of care found within Caring Committee which organizes visits to members living in nursing homes and the receptions for memorial service held in the church for our members.  Witness the care found within our Small Group Ministries program reaching out through a network of regular meetings focused on deepening and connecting.  Witness the commitment found within the Social Responsibilities Committee which is co-hosting (with the community group, Peace Action,) a thoughtful and provocative series on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  Witness the commitment found in the generosity we all participate in with our monthly special collections for local charities and organizations.  And these are but a few examples of the many ways we touch people’s lives and make our world more whole.

There was a run back in the Nineties of celebrities dismissing religion.  Bill Gates said church is an inefficient use of a Sunday morning.  Jesse Venture said religion is a sham and a crutch for weak people.  Witness, however, the powerful impact this community has on the lives of its members.  Witness the soul of this congregation.  Witness the life-giving message we offer of the inherent dignity of every individual, of compassion and radical acceptance, and of justice.   Witness the hearth fire and beacon lamp at the center of our community.

As a child growing up in the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY I was nourished by that community of hope and promise.   I took for granted the freedom and encouragement I received from the people of that church.  But don’t you think that children should take for granted that they are loved?  Certainly a share of what I felt was because my mother was the Director of Religious Education and when I was a young teen she was ordained as the Minister of Religious Education at First Church.  Certainly the congregation extended its care to me in part because of they cared for my mother.  But I saw that the care of that congregation included to all my friends.  At the time, as amazing as it seems to think back on it now, I took it for granted.

As a child I had very few friends, mostly people I knew from church.  I hated school and was the popular target of bullies and pranksters.  I was sullen and withdrawn.  I wasn’t interested in sports and I didn’t involve myself with the activities of the other kids at school.  Church was a haven for me.  At church I learned how to have friends and how to be a friend.  At church I was nourished and encouraged and most of all noticed.  At church I was lifted above the chicken coop that filled my days, I was shown the horizons available to me and I was given wings to fly.  And in a very real and significant way, although it is complicated to think of it this way, the church saved my life.

In the reading this morning, M.J. Ryan wrote about how “We give best from overflow.”

She wrote that the root of generosity is gratitude.  Growing up a part of the Unitarian Universalist church gave me an overflowing feeling of acceptance for which I am very grateful.  Ryan wrote, “Gratitude creates a sense of fullness … And from this fullness, we feel moved to give.”  As a teenager, I tapped into the heritage of our faith tradition and found ways to give back.  I helped out when ever I could with work around the church, I took part in marches and demonstrations and public events where we worked to make the world a better place and to offer those in hardship cause for hope.

The Unitarian Church in Rochester where I grew up, May Memorial UU society in Syracuse where I first became an official member, the little UU fellowship in Delaware, OH where I began my seminary career, the community of seminarians at Meadville Lombard in Chicago where I finished my seminary degree, Countryside church in the suburbs of Chicago where I was nurtured through my internship, Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, MD where I first called to served, and now the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton.  Each of these communities from the first through to you here around me today have nourished me and encouraged me and challenged me to grow and learn and serve at my best.

What are you searching for in a religious community, inspiration, entertainment, encouragement toward ethical living?  Do you come because you have dear friends to keep in touch with, or because you want spirituality?  Are you here because this community saved your life, or because you are welcomed and accepted?  Perhaps you are here simply because when you come you are noticed.  Whoever you are, whatever your reasons, may you be filled.

Do you think Edward Hoagland would notice?  Do you think that fellow who church-hopped the world over would recognize the value of what this “liberal religious alternative in the Southern Tier” has to offer?  He “liked the architecture of the pope’s basilicas, the rationality of the Quakers, and getting hugged by the Pentecostals.”  I suspect he would see in us the radical openness and warmth.  And quite likely he would find the soul of our congregation in the balance of faith and reason that he claims to seek.

The soul of this congregation is found within each of you, the hearth fire to welcome you in and keep you warm, and the beacon lamp to call you out to encourage your journey and strengthen your voice to speak peace to the nations.  At our best this congregation becomes a radical agent of change and transformation in the lives or our members and in the community around us.  At your best, you are generous contributors of your time and passion and money to the powerful life-saving work of this congregation.  May the light of our chalice shine through your life and in all that we do together.

In a world without end

May it be so.

Profiles in Courage

Profiles in Courage
Douglas Taylor

I went on line this weekend to look up the seven cardinal virtues, which, of course are only talked about after one has already discussed the seven deadly sins.  I bet most of you didn’t even know there were seven virtues tagging along opposite those famous deadly sins.  Sins, after all are so much more fun to talk about and I think the composition of the seven deadly sins was firmly set centuries before people decided to compose a positive list of seven virtues for balance.  I looked up the sins and wrote them down, but then lost the paper, but I think I remember them.  There was lust, greed, anger, uh, lust, sloth, uhmm, lust and one other.  Anyway, what I was really after was the list of virtues because I wanted to see how they characterized ‘courage’ in that list.

Can you imagine my surprise to find courage not on the list of the seven cardinal virtues?  They’ve got patience and love and hope and all that, but no courage!  Courage is not one of the seven cardinal virtues!  What an oversight!  I have to tell you, I agree with John F. Kennedy when he wrote that courage was “the most admirable of human virtues.”  And Winston Churchill said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

In the mid-1950s, when John F. Kennedy was a freshman Senator, he wrote a book entitled “Profiles in Courage” in which he told the stories of eight Senatorial colleagues from the past.  But rather than presenting chronological overview of their careers, he focused on their acts of integrity, he wrote about the events leading up to and resulting from critical moments when these men “stood alone against tremendous political and social pressure for what they felt was right.”  JFK wrote about their courage.  He begins his book by noting that Ernest Hemmingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.”

The first luminary JFK covers is Unitarian John Quincy Adams; distinguished Senator during the presidency of Jefferson, Secretary of State under Monroe, 6th president of the United States of America, and then served the last 17 years of his life in the U.S. House of Representatives.  In his book, Kennedy focused on Adams’ early tumultuous senatorial career when Adams stood up for his conscience and the good of the country over the good of his political party and the state he represented.  Don’t you wish we saw more of that today?

As you might assume with only a cursory remembrance of the times, the still young United States of America was experiencing growing pains and the difficulty of maintaining both its independent identity and its tenuous relationship with England.  The British refused to recognize U.S. ships at sea and considered them little better than pirate ships.  The British regularly seized our ships and “impressed” our seamen into the service of the British Navy.  President Jefferson introduced an embargo bill that would punish the British for their corrupt and unjust dealings with American ships at sea.  Now, it might seem a simple choice to support this Embargo, but the problem was that Massachusetts, the state Adams represented, stood to loose a great deal with such an embargo.  Massachusetts was a wealth state in no small part because of their shipping and trade.  When the embargo was eventually enacted, the Massachusetts shipbuilding, fishing, and trade industries suffered severely, which in turn affected their banks due to the lack of income, and their farms due to the lack of exports.  The state Adams represented was near unanimous against such an embargo and much more in favor of appeasing the British.  They saw the Embargo as Jefferson’s attempt to bankrupt the prosperous New England area.  Jefferson was, after all, a Virginian.  With Adam’s help however, the bill past, but his reputation was shot and Adams was cast as a radical.  He was voted out of office nine months early, in fact.

At the time, Adams had said, “Private interest must not be put in opposition to public good.”  Adams’ decision to stand courageously by his conscience rather than the opinion of the people who had elected into office carried swift and severe consequences for him.  As it happens, he did go on to hold other political offices and was known in later years as a man of integrity.

Kennedy’s book focused on the moments of courage of eight Senators from U.S. history.  Seeing as the first of his figures was a prominent Unitarian, I saw that we could easily illustrate the nature of courage and integrity through the lives of remarkable Unitarians and Universalists from our history.  These stories touch on politics, religion, and naturally also on social reform.  Dorothea Dix, for example, was a Unitarian from the 1800’s who is remembered for her tireless advocacy for the civil and humane treatment of the mentally ill.  When she started her work, chronicling the disturbing conditions in Massachusetts, the mentally ill were customarily kept in farm basements, poor houses, correctional facilities and jails.  Dorothea investigated every place where mentally ill persons were kept in Massachusetts, every place!  Taking careful notes, she was able, at the end of her 18 months of research, to convince the state legislature to respond with a bill to relieve the present situation and provide for future accommodations.  Her efforts ushered in sweeping reforms.

She went on to investigate other states, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island.  One of the stories told of Dorothea Dix, involves her work to establish the New Jersey State Hospital.  She met with phenomenal opposition.  The New Jersey legislature even passed a resolution providing $100 for a one-way train ticket to “get Miss Dix across the Delaware River and out of the state.”  Dorothea however, did not give up, and within three years, New Jersey appropriated funds to build a hospital.  Indeed after visiting Europe where she instigated reforms in Scotland and Italy; and returning to the states to organize the Army Nurses during the Civil War, she retired to live out her last six years in a small apartment behind that New Jersey State Hospital.

At her funeral they read the passage from scripture: “I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.”

Fear, of course, is the thing that stops so many of us from living the lives we wish we could live.  Fear is what freezes our will to act in line with our consciences.  Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is not the lack of fear.  It is acting in spite of it.”  Certainly a great many people have said very similar things.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We must constantly build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”  The events surrounding the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as a moment of courage felt by the entire nation as much as by innumerable individuals.  Many Unitarian Universalist played a part of his courageous story.  The basic outline of the critical turning point in that story I offer to you in the words of Bill Sinkford, our current UUA president.

On March 7, 1965, [Martin Luther King, Jr. and] six hundred civil rights marchers left Selma, headed east on Route 80.  The march ended after only six blocks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state and local law enforcement officials attacked the marchers with billy clubs, hoses, and tear gas, driving the marchers back.  The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

The following day, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on clergy of all faiths to join him in Selma.

On March 9, King led a symbolic march to the bridge, joined by 450 clergy.  … On March 21, 1965, more that three thousand marchers left Selma for Montgomery.  Of the estimated five hundred white clergy now in Selma, over two hundred were Unitarian Universalist.

Within that broad story of courage there are countless individual examples.  Here, then is one.  Among those who responded with courage to King’s call was our own Rev. Harry Thor.  Harry did not stay to take part in the powerful march from Selma to Montgomery on the 21st, but he had answered the call and was present at the critical early and dangerous stages as energy built.  Harry wrote about how he and five other clergy from the Binghamton area went down together.

My arrival in Selma was probably the most anxiety producing of the trip.  The other clergy with whom I had traveled from Binghamton had denominational colleagues who were waiting their arrival at the Montgomery airport.  I caught a Greyhound bus which dropped me off in Selma at about 10 pm.  No taxis or busses were available to take me to the church were Dr. King was scheduled to speak.  The bus station was six or seven blocks away from the church.  Walking to the church alone did not seem like a good idea, but I had no other choice.  Amid glares from white male citizens standing around in groups, I made it unharmed to the church.

Harry was too late to hear King speak that night and was only able to stay for three or four days, but his time in Selma included an attempt to meet with the mayor, time in the County Jail, and an inspiring sermon by Dr. King.  The courage of Harry Thor and all those who went to Selma is seen not only in the risk they took with their reputations and the impact such a controversial stance might have on their communities back home; there was also the very real risk of physical harm.  Witnessed by the beating death of white Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, the cost of living with integrity can be very high.

Of course, not all acts of courage lead to a positive outcome.  Let me tell you about Adin Ballou.  Adin Ballou was a Universalist and a distant relative to the more famous Hosea Ballou, the Universalist Theologian and Author.  Adin is best known for founding the Hopedale Community, an attempt at utopian living founded on the Universalist principles of peace and harmony through alternative modes of social and economic organization.  He had long been frustrated by the chasm between the beliefs many Christians professed and the lives they actually lived.  Shouldn’t our faith be taken seriously and put into practice?  Should not the words we say about peace and equality be reflected in the way we live together?  The Hopedale Community, like all other Utopian endeavors to date, eventually failed.  Ballou’s community lasted nearly 15 years in its original form.  It ended when two of its biggest financial backers pulled out because Hopedale was not drawing a profit.  Ballou was a radical reformer and an unyielding pacifist, controversial in his beliefs and his endeavors; he worked to realize the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

It takes courage to persevere with a dream of the Beloved Community.  Courage is not always measured in success.  The most courageous people aren’t always those who succeed, but those who refuse to give up when they fail.  Ballou’s commitment to radical pacifism and his goal of the Kingdom of heaven on earth were not quenched by the financial failure of the Hopedale Community.  Ballou’s courage and was echoed and amplified through the generations.

And let me briefly tell you of two others shining examples.  Francis David became the court preacher in the mid-1500s to the only ever Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania, (which is now known as Hungary.)  David was educated as a Catholic priest, but converted to Lutheranism, then Calvinism, and finally to a form of anti-Trinitarian belief later known as Unitarianism.  His rigorous commitment to truth and reason compelled him through this succession.  Through a series of open religious debates, David so ably defended the Unitarian position that it persuaded the then-Catholic King Sigismund to become Unitarian.  When Sigismund died, and a new king (not in sympathy with Unitarian beliefs) took the throne, the old court preacher was tolerated only so long as he advocated no innovations in doctrine or thought or practice.  Francis David’s conscience, of course, could not be contained and he eventually died in the dungeon of Deva for the crime of heretical innovation.

Let me wrap up with one more story: Universalist Clara Barton: known during the civil war as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” and in years after as the founder and first president of the American Red Cross.  In her later years she wrote, “To compliment me, writers dwell on my courage.  In the earlier years of my life I remember nothing but fear.”  Clara Barton was plagued throughout her life by sadness, melancholy and a lack of confidence.  Her courage, I think, lies not in her acts of bravery during the war or her fortitude in guiding the Red Cross afterward.  For Barton, I suspect her courage is most evident in the mere fact that she persisted in life each day.  Perhaps the needs of battlefields and the sick soldiers gave her the courage to face her days.  Her courage was the common person’s courage of simply facing each day as it came, almost the reverse of how it was expressed in Adams whose courage was to act in the interest of the public good.  But courage nonetheless!

Courage is not found on the list of cardinal virtues according to whatever Christian body is responsible for that list.  Courage, however, is the most basic of all virtues in that it frees us to make use of all the other noble virtues available to us.  The lives of these men and women from our religious history offer to us a heritage deep and rich with faith, power, and courage.  Indeed their stories echo down through the generations and fire our imaginations with conviction and nerve.  My friends, we are an audacious people and you stand arm in arm with Adams, Dix, Thor, Ballou, David, Barton and countless other prophets, visionaries, rebels, and martyrs.   “Stand we now upon the threshold, facing futures yet unknown.  … Look inside your soul’s the kindling of the hearth fire pilgrims knew.  … Guard we ever their sacred embers carried in our minds and hearts.”  Courage, my friends, for our list of courageous people shall always have room for your name too.

In a world without end, may it be so.



Bumbaugh, David. A Brief History of Unitarian Universalism (~1988)

Gursky, Carol Stewart, ed.  Profiles of Historical Unitarian Universalists (1983)

Kennedy, John F.  Profiles in Courage (1955)

Leonard, Richard D.  Call to Selma (2002)

McEvoy, Donald W.  Credo: Unitarians and Universalists of Yesteryear (2001)

Robinson, David.  The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985)

Scott, Clinton Lee.  These Live Tomorrow: Twenty UU Biographies (1964)

Thor, Harry A.  Selma personal papers (1999)